The Power of Cinema

I used to have the most intense passion for cinema and thought my life would take me to some kind of business working in that industry. I grew up on an old family cattle ranch in western Montana. We lived in the mountains where we didn’t get television. We moved into town my freshman year in high school because my mother didn’t drive and was tired of being stuck out on the ranch. My first job, when we moved to Superior was as a projectionist at an old family run movie theater called The Strand. The Strand showed two movies per week, one Thursday & Friday and another Saturday & Sunday. I was only fourteen at the time and my mother had a rule that I could not run any movies that were R-rated until I turned sixteen. The Strand was an old small town movie theater run by the Jenson family that had been in operation since the 30’s. During the days of highly combustible silver nitrate film The Strand burned, a common occurrence in those days. So a temporary screen and projection system was set up out in one of the Jenson’s pony barns while the old one was being reconstructed. The automated process of projecting film today is much different from the human run days when I started. Film used to come in big metal cans that weighed about 50 lbs each. Each can contained 3 twenty-minute metal reels and most movies were in two cans. As the projectionist I would load the reels into the top of the projector, loop it thought the mechanical housing, and feed it to a reel below. The light for the projector came from a carbon arch. A stream of high voltage electricity flowed between two pieces of carbon that ignited when they touched and maintain an intense glow of pure white light as the two pencil size rods of carbon burned toward each other. Part of my job as a projectionist was to maintain that distance and keep the brilliance of the light consistent. Then I would stand on a box, because I was to little to be able to see out the portal, push the button to open the curtain. My heart raced as I got the projector up to speed and opened the shutter to allow the brilliant light to fill the screen with magical images. A reel of film lasted about twenty minutes and had to be change back and forth between the two projects though the course of six to seven reels per movie. The process as archaic as it sounds was quite precise. I would load the film, wind it up to a specific number on the leader strip, ignite the carbons, and wait for the first signal to start the next machine, then watch for the second signal to change the picture and sound over in perfect synchronization without missing a frame. People always asked me how I knew when to change the reel. In the old days every reel was marked with a series of dots up in the top right corner of the screen that would only appear for five frames. On the first dot I would get the next projector up to speed and 5 seconds later, when I saw the second dot appear on the screen, I would open the shutter on one and close it on the other and switch the sound in one single motions using both hands to run all the manual rigging. I ran films for the Strand theater all during my four years of high school and saw a lot of films. It stired a deep passion in me for film and it has always inspired me with awe. When I was growing up I always wanted to go to film school and become a filmmaker. I loved the idea of telling stories though the process of moving light: frame by frame, crafted, beautiful, brilliant; full of life, passion, and emotion. A solitary moment of human existence captured in a single frame. Unfortunately I came from a poor family who lived in Montana and could not afford to go to film school. I did eventually work in theater. I have made several films that I drag out every once in a while and take a look at and remember a time long gone when my dreams were so different.

Today is Oscar Day in the US. It used to be the biggest event of the season. My friend Gilbert used to gather a house full of gay men and it become the “Superbowl.” of the film industry. The one day of the year when glitz and glitter ruled supreme. With our ballots cast, we competed for bragging rights of who was movie savvy for the year. Some how that magic has been lost over the years, the tradition died with the passing of Gilbert, and somehow the industry has also changed. Gilbert and I used to watch every single movie released throughout the year and were equipped with knowledge of their magic for comparison. These days the Oscars have lost their significance because many of the movies nominated have not even made it to our theaters here in Missoula. I have only seen two films nominated this year. My vision has changed as films no longer captivate and hold my appeal. Have movies changed that much? Have I changed that much? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. People always remark on the cinematic quality of my images. I guess I still feel the power of it’s influenced, after all, I always dreamed of becoming a cinematographer.