I’m not much of a social butterfly and I have no innate “sense” of how these things work. I do know one odd thing: if you’re a projectionist, then you’re considered the lowest of low in society. I’m not sure why this is. It may be the plethora of underpaid teenagers who were relegated to projection booths, most of whom screwed up prints and caused the presentations to look bad. I suspect that it’s something deep-seated in the heart of a lot of arts organizations, and I’ll write more about that in a bit.
As most of you know, I make a “living” doing film presentations and preservations, and I prefer the look of projected film. I’ve worked in scores of venues, from Lincoln Center to a dilapidated opera house in Delphi Indiana that rained plaster from a leaky ceiling. Some places have their own projectors and a staff projectionist, but often, if I’m going to run film, then I need to bring my own projectors.
In order to make ends meet, I also act as a projectionist-for-hire, which is one of the jobs I hate most. That’s when I get treated the worst. I’ve had amateur filmmakers yell at me for running their film with not enough “pink” in it, and I had another guy who had me change the volume on his movie 200 times. (That’s neither a typo nor an exaggeration.) Sadly, a lot of people shoot things on their phone and then, when it looks different on a 30-foot screen, they panic.
And then the worst one: I was working at a museum once who had Peter Bogdanovich come in to introduce Touch of Evil. That’s great, because he’s an expert on Orson Welles… in fact Welles lived in his house for a while. But Bogdanovich is also a director who’s made some cool pictures, and I’m a big fan. I spliced together a best-of trailer reel of several of my favorites, and I also got the reissue trailer for Touch of Evil touting all the restoration techniques that went into it. It was all 35mm and all ready to get to the projector.
But they wouldn’t let me run it. And I was never allowed even to speak with Bogdanovich. I could look over and see him, and I wanted to ask him about Noises Off and The Cat’s Meow. He had interviewed heroes of mine like director Allan Dwan. Couldn’t ask him anything about it. Whatever for? Were they afraid I was going to give him projectionist cooties? Sprocketosis? What’s the deal?
My guess is that this is something of an arts caste system. Put simply, I think there’s this idea of there’s them what does the art, and there’s them what supports the artist. These “non-artists” are somehow less valuable people than the “artists.” And they shouldn’t mix company. That would be bad. Apparently, you don’t want to besmirch yourself with contacting someone who is in the support mode. That includes the sound guy, the janitor, the security people, and the projectionist. They’re like the untouchables in the caste system. Neither to be seen nor heard.
Now, the problem is that I’ve got my feet in both worlds. I have to. If I have the only print of a film, then you know who’s going to project it? I AM. I’ll insist. The fact that I’m a historian/collector makes me an artist, but the projectionist is support only, and contaminated.
So the arts communities, particularly my local one, don’t know what to do with me. I’m not the only one who encounters this. Just last night, a friend of mine from Boston, who knows more film history than most professors, was told, “You know, most projectionists don’t get to pick films like you do.”
What? So this guy has been demoted from a valuable commodity to the being the equivalent of a janitor in the projection booth. (Not that I’m trashing janitors, mind you… they provide a tremendously valuable service.)
Oh, and it’s not isolated. There’s been a huge stink in LA about underpaid projectionists, which is odd, given that there are fewer and fewer of them anyway. You’d think that the ones left working are the good ones that are really needed.
I seem to get more film historian jobs outside my local area, and I find that I seem to get more respect (and hence pay) the farther I am from home. This is why I love to hang out at film conventions where they run oddball films (sometimes mine). It’s great to be around folks who understand film and respect it as an art form, but I still struggle with carrying that idea back to my local area, where I’m apparently contaminated with projectionist ptomaine.
And that’s really sad, because it means that, instead of consulting me, programs are created by “arts people” who are completely and utterly ignorant of film. And it means that everyone programs the same five films all the time. I know of three different showings of Wizard of Oz in my area just this year, and it’s only February. OK, it’s a great film, but haven’t they made anything else? Oh, yeah, I guess Casablanca.
Again, I don’t quite understand this, but I’ve responded to it. I have taken to avoiding projection-only jobs. I don’t ever promote myself as a projectionist. I promote myself as a film historian/collector/presenter.
This has even affected my choice in vehicles. A while back, my dad was noticing that I was constantly loading film and equipment in and out of my car. He said that I should buy a van, so I could leave stuff in there all the time. I told him that I couldn’t, and I told him why.
“Dad,” I said. “It’s a perception thing. The projectionist owns a van. The film historian has a car. I have to have a car.”
“Oh,” Dad said, thinking a bit. “I understand.”
I’m still not sure that I do.