workzine

Jennifer Barton, 6/19/2011

Current Occupation: English teacher
Former Occupation: Film projectionist
Contact Information: Jennifer Barton grew up in southwestern Virginia and currently teaches writing in Knoxville, Tennessee. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School in New York City in 2007. Her stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Lost, Hawk and Handsaw, Kudzu, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, Motif 2, and is forthcoming in Motif 3. She recently completed her first novel.

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Paradiso Lost

When you tell people you run film projectors for a living, there are typically three questions they will ask you about it. The first is if you watch all of the movies that you show. When I was a projectionist, my answer to that was always that I am like the baker who doesn’t eat the bread she sells. When I get off from work, the last thing I want to do is stay longer and watch a movie. The second question is if you have ever spliced a frame of pornography into a kids’ film, like Brad Pitt did in Fight Club. People don’t seem to realize that home video has made actual film prints of pornographic movies almost non-existent. If I had a 35-millimeter print of a porno, I’d tell them, I definitely wouldn’t be chopping it up into frames. I would be selling it on eBay. The last question is whether you have seen Cinema Paradiso.
For years, my answer to that was no. I knew the gist of the movie – an old man works as a film projectionist in a small Italian town and takes a young boy under his wing, whom he inspires to become a filmmaker. I avoided seeing it for so long because I had no desire to romanticize a profession that I considered to be a mindless day (well, usually night) job. Running projectors was what I was doing until someone decided to give me a real film industry job, not an end in itself.
I did finally see the movie, however, after I had soured enough on the film industry to give up wanting to be a part of it and started writing fiction instead. Much to my surprise, I came away from Cinema Paradiso thinking I should have watched it years before. Alfredo, the projectionist character, doesn’t romanticize the job at all; he sees it for what it is: a dead end. He wouldn’t have made me complacent; on the contrary, he would’ve kicked even the tiniest amount of complacency out of me, just as he does Toto, the boy who ensnares him in a trade-off to make him his projectionist protégé. Alfredo resists teaching him for as long as he can, pretending to dislike the boy to scare him off. Before Toto suckers him into their deal, the boy asks Alfredo why he won’t teach him how to run the projector and Alfredo becomes adamant, saying:

Because I don’t want to, Toto! This is not a job for you. It’s like being a slave. You’re always alone. You see the same film over and over again, because you have nothing else to do[…] You work on holidays, on Christmas, on Easter. Only on Good Friday are you free. But if they hadn’t put Jesus Christ on a cross… you’d work Good Fridays too!

Amen, I thought as I read those subtitles. I had spent many Christmases, Thanksgivings, and even Good Fridays in the booth watching families come in after big dinners and see movies about other families enjoying their holidays together. A couple of times when my parents visited me on a holiday I had to work, I sneaked them into the booth and we ate Chinese takeout or deli sandwiches on a grimy desk surrounded by the mechanical whir of several projectors. It’s the being together that counts, I told myself, even as I envied each audience member who got up and left the theater after their movie was over.
Later in Cinema Paradiso, when Toto is grown, Alfredo insists that he leave the booth and their little town in Sicily to make his own way in the world. “I don’t want to hear you talk anymore,” Alfredo tells him, shooing him unmercifully out of a nest that is no longer serving any purpose except to hamper his growth. “I want to hear talk about you.” He tells Toto that if he comes back to the little town, he won’t even let him in his house. By this time Alfredo is not only a grizzled old pro, but blind from a nitrate film explosion that happened when Toto was still a boy. Through his physical blindness, Alfredo can see that this fresh-faced young man who took the old man’s place in the booth after his accident is already becoming a carbon copy of himself. If Toto doesn’t make a break now, he will never get out.

When I first started out as a projectionist in Blacksburg, Virginia, I worked at a downtown theater built in the 1920s that had fallen into disrepair. I began as a volunteer just when the community was getting behind it and making plans to renovate it. By the time I graduated college three years later, I had become a paid employee and the theater had received a major facelift. What was once a big dank room with broken seats and dirty wall tapestries was now a showplace where little kids sat in a balcony for the first time in their lives, where college kids (including myself) went on dates, and where people from all around the region saw artsy movies that were previously only available to them on video months after their theatrical runs.
The movie theater is the place where, like Toto in Cinema Paradiso, I learned what sacred felt like. Although I didn’t cross myself when I entered the Lyric like he did at his theater (maybe I would have if I had been raised Catholic), I treated the place like a church, polishing everything from the popcorn popper to the films themselves if they arrived dirty or in disrepair. Working there made me feel like a bright, shining cell in a great, luminous body. Not only did I care deeply about the films and the place itself, but also about the people who came there, who were just as excited about it all as me. And everyone came to the Lyric, just like everyone came to the Paradiso. We were all caught up in this vibrant endeavor together, laughing and crying and talking endlessly about the movies we saw, while breathing life back into our shared downtown at the same time.
As my college days drew to a close, however, I knew that my time in that snug, hallowed nest would have to end as well. That day came a couple months after I graduated, when I left Blacksburg for New York City to begin an unpaid internship at a film production company. As I toiled away painting blood on severed limbs for The Toxic Avenger IV in a stuffy Brooklyn warehouse, telling myself I was turning my filmmaking dreams into a reality, the Lyric itself began to feel like a dream. Although I was finally not just watching films but helping make them, I missed the community of the Lyric and the feeling that I was a unique part of it. On the film set, I was no different from any other free pair of hands, but at the Lyric I was known and loved. There was no going back, though, because as Alfredo tells Toto in Cinema Paradiso, “When you’re here every day you feel like you’re at the center of the universe, it seems like nothing ever changes. Then you go away, one year, two… and when you come back, everything’s different. The thread has broken.”

No, I couldn’t go back, but being a projectionist at the Lyric remains the most fun job I have ever had. While it didn’t pay the most, it made me happy and also gave me the skills I needed to join the film projectionists’ union in New York City. Several theater companies were opening multiplexes in Manhattan when I moved there, so for the first time in many years, the union was looking for new members. I needed something to pay the bills and since I already had three years’ experience in the booth, I got the fast track and ended up working at Sony’s Lincoln Square, and later AMC’s Empire Theater in Times Square, both of which are still two of the top-grossing multiplexes in the country. Going from making eight dollars an hour in small-town Virginia to twenty-seven dollars an hour in New York City in a matter of months made me think I had hit some kind of big-time. At first.
While the machinery was pretty much the same, being a projectionist at a multiplex for a major theater chain was a completely different world from working at a single-screen non-profit. Since my crew members and I didn’t split our days into shifts and Manhattan theaters open early and close late, my workdays were usually no less than thirteen hours on a weekday and seventeen on a weekend. A few times when we had special events, like a midnight opening of the last Star Wars movie or the world premier of King Kong, I worked a full twenty-four. I spent most of my workdays alone and was contractually obligated not to leave the booth while on duty, which meant a lot of packed lunches, take-out dinners, and quick wash-ups in the employee bathroom.
Every hour or two, I would get up from one of the ratty chairs that had been cast off from the manager’s office and thread a round of projectors, eventually getting my time down to two minutes or less per film. Speed was much more important at the multiplex than at the Lyric because I was now responsible for not just one projector, but twelve. If I lost track of time while reading or writing, as I often did, I would have to run to get a movie on screen on time.
Like the Lyric, multiplexes at that time were on a platter system, which means each film is not broken into reels, but rests as a whole on a timed platter and feeds from its middle into the projector, then back onto another spinning platter. Unlike the Lyric, however, multiplexes used this system to shoehorn as many screens as possible into one location. Since films can start on timers and one projectionist can potentially run a large number of machines, overhead is kept low while the number and variety of films is kept high.
Platters were the big new things a few decades ago and displaced many projectionists like Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso, who learned to run one film at a time, one reel at a time. Even though the Lyric used platters as well, it had only one screen and we didn’t use a timer, so when I started a movie there it was a holy ritual, just like at a reel-to-reel theater. I would wait in the lobby until about a minute before time for the show and if people were still coming in, I’d wait a little longer, letting them get in and find seats. Then I would start my climb up the carpeted stairs, make my way past a row of teenagers or college kids who liked the seclusion of the balcony, up another set of steps and into the booth. I always got things ready early, so the projector fans would be droning when I got there and a ribbon of film would be hanging from the top roller of the platter to the top roller of the projector. I would look out the port window as my finger hovered over the start button and take in the people, the blank screen, the anticipation. Then, click. My finger would press down, the lamp would pop on, the gears would chatter, and the film would start to move. I’d wait for the shutter to clang open and take a look at the screen before leaving, making sure the image was in focus and properly framed before starting my slow descent through the now-darkened theater.
Starting a movie at the multiplex was a non-event because I was almost never standing at the machine when it happened. Films would start and end all day around the desk where I sat, but the sound would inspire nothing more in me than a casual awareness that things were running as they should. It was this kind of sense-deadening routine that soon made me realize that the job I had originally thought was a sign of great fortune was actually drudgery. Alfredo would have lambasted me for taking a safe route like this, which was never even really safe, just familiar.
Ever since my first day on the job in April of 2000, I knew digital projection was a looming threat to every projectionist in New York. Digital was the next big thing and once theaters began converting to it, the effects on the industry would be much more devastating than what had happened when platters were put into use. Projectionist job loss would be almost total because digital projectors are completely automated and require no film handling at all. One minimally trained person can program an entire multiplex in the morning and barring any problems, the movies will start and run on their own for the rest of the day, in the same pristine condition as they did the first time. No scratches, no dirt, no misframes.
“Don’t plan on having this job more than five years, maybe ten at the most,” the booth chief at Lincoln Square told me when I first started there. I knew he meant this to scare me, but I was relieved to hear it. I didn’t want to get comfortable in the job and knowing it had an expiration date wouldn’t let me.
“That’s fine with me,” I told him. “I hope to be doing something else by then, anyway.”
He looked hurt when I said this and I worried that I had offended him. He had a mortgage and three kids, one with severe diabetes, and very much wanted to hold onto this job that paid well and provided health insurance, no matter how boring the work was or how long the hours. I had only myself to take care of and although I also appreciated the money and the insurance, I couldn’t let myself be satisfied with those things. I wanted to make my own art, not just show other peoples’.
So I continued to work low and unpaid jobs in the film industry and dream about one day leaving this unstable security that felt like a trap. Eventually, however, those unrewarding jobs and the long, lonely booth hours killed any desire I had to see most movies, let alone make them. I began writing fiction instead, which was much more gratifying to me than planning films that never got made. When I was done writing, I had a finished product, not something that still needed to go through several more people and processes before it was complete. In the three years following the switch, I started working toward a Master’s degree in creative writing, got a story published, and finally let myself see Cinema Paradiso.
Now that I wasn’t interested in making movies anymore, though, I resented the long booth hours even more. Each year that passed brought more talk of the digital takeover and more bad morale amongst my crewmembers. We would bicker between ourselves constantly about things like who didn’t clean the desk the night before, or who started a show late. But the only real question in any of our minds was whether to hold out for unemployment or find something new before the bottom fell out.

I found something new. It was the summer of 2008 and my year-old Master’s degree was gathering dust. Rather than wait for an uncertain severance package, I found a low-paying adjunct teaching job at a community college. That job is insecure, too, because whether or not I have a class to teach depends upon enrollment, but so far, that hasn’t been a problem. With the economy sinking lower and lower, many people who are out of work are returning to school to start new careers or just bide time until perhaps their previous employer calls them back.
In the two years since I left the booth, almost all professional projectionists in New York City have joined this group of job seekers. This is because every major New York multiplex, including the two I worked at, has now completely converted to digital projection. This saddens me in a way I never thought it would. It’s not that I want to go back – I am very thankful to be able to teach writing for a living – but I do have a hard time getting used to the idea that projectionists are no longer the bakers who don’t eat their own bread. Now we are the blacksmiths who had to scramble to learn a new trade after the Model T was invented. Of course, there is no stopping progress no matter what the industry, but since we can’t all be film directors like Toto, or make do on minimum wage, what is it exactly we’re supposed to do?
Recently, while visiting my parents in Virginia, I returned to the Lyric Theater and found the experience just as Alfredo said it would be. Most of the people I knew were gone and even though the place looked the same, the atmosphere had changed. It was no longer a new, exciting venture, but an entrenched institution. People who were kids when I first started working there thirteen years ago have now grown up with the place and will probably bring their kids there one day. It hasn’t converted to digital yet, but undoubtedly it eventually will to stay competitive with the nearby multiplex. I don’t think it’s likely to meet the same fate as the theater at the end of Cinema Paradiso – it’s demolished due to declining audiences, which the owner says is a result of TV and home video – but the day the 35-millimeter projector is dragged out, a little piece of me will go with it.

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back to WORK

  1. i’m looking for dante. nice story.

  2. I was a projectionist for two years, 1956–1959, in the reel to reel days. It, too, was my lifetime favorite job. Although I watched Cinema Paradisio, The Last Picture Show rang all my bells. Hank Williams songs were the musical background. My old theater is now a suite of professional offices.

    The history of the movie theater is a history of our culture: more and more depersonalization, jobs becoming increasingly like those in Chaplin’s Modern Times.

  3. Losing a piece of dexterity (such as running a projector well) is always cause for a small grief…. Film projectionists in Australia also used to be the theatre safety offficer/person. I wonder who is responsible for building safety now, with digital projection.

    Nice piece of history!

  4. nothing gold can stay.

  5. Wonderful wonderful story.
    I find this very emotional ..
    My path was a bit different but SWVA
    was the genesis for me as well.
    Beautiful Jennifer.
    Joe

  6. Thanks for all the nice comments, especially from fellow projectionists!

  7. Beautifully written story. Good luck with your novel.

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