First there were the families last week who took their young ones to see the PG-rated sci-fi fantasy The Last Mimzy and, due to an error in the projection booth, were treated to the opening scene of The Hills Have Eyes 2, featuring a woman chained up and screaming for dear life as she gives birth to a mutant baby. And the release of Grindhouse has thrown even more light onto the dice-and-splice world of projectionists in sleazy grindhouse cinemas, whose battered, badly-maintained equipment routinely shredded the few prints of these films that were available and allowed those projectionists to collect frames featuring topless cheerleaders and nasty night-duty nurses from those prints— and sometimes entire sequences, thus the context for Grindhouse’s hilariously timed “REEL MISSING” cards.
I don’t think I’ve ever been witness to as ghastly a juxtaposition as that Mimzy/Eyes 2 disaster, or the kind of subliminal augmentation that so made Tyler Durden’s day in Fight Club. My stories of projector problems, growing up with my local movie house in the ‘60s and ‘70s, make up a pretty familiar laundry list—hallucinatory melting frames; the gradual fade-to-black that signaled a dying carbon-arc stick; reel changeovers accompanied by inexplicable sonic booms on the soundtrack; if it was a ‘Scope film being shown, the anamorphic lens would almost always need to be radically adjusted mid-film after every reel change; or any combination of the above at once, which usually resulted in complete shutdown of the movie, a tidal wave of flop sweat in the projection booth, and a chorus of “Put a quarter in it!” from the razor-sharp wits sitting among us in auditorium peanut gallery. And there was one instance I remember pretty vividly—a quiet pastoral scene which ended one of the reels in Disney’s original version of The Incredible Journey was interrupted rather shockingly when the changeover occurred and it was revealed that the projectionist had, instead of the next reel of the movie, accidentally loaded up the cartoon he’d showed before the feature—dogs and cats at rest together under the night sky suddenly, mercilessly gave way to a giant close-up of a grinning Donald Duck, shafts of light streaming from behind his head, and a fanfare leading into Donald’s theme song. The lights went dark, the quiet mood of the movie ruined, a few of the older patrons picked themselves up off the floor, and the rest of us did our part to uphold a tradition that I’m sure still continues in my hometown, where a hilarious comment only gains in hilarity if it can be passed down to a new generation of impatient morons—of course, we all began chanting “Put a quarter in it! Put a quarter in it!”
J.R. Jones, film critic for the Chicago Reader, has taken some madcap inspiration from the Mimzy incident, as well as his own memories of projecting films in the ‘70s, and come up with a hilarious proposition in his brief piece entitled “We Apologize For The Inconvenience.” And don’t stop at the end of the piece— there are a lot of anecdotal contributions in the comments section from other projectionists and “victimized” moviegoers too. So enjoy J.R. Jones recipe for stirring up audiences in the multiplex and the art house, and then, if you’re an ex- or current projectionist or an audience member who can bear witness and would like to share any good anecdotes of spectacular projection snafus, please do. It’s Open Forum Day at SLIFR, so please feel free to post comments on anything you're interested in talking about. But the question of the day is: What’s your best story of when things went terribly wrong with the projector, or anything else, at the movies?