I just finished watching The Projectionist for the first time, and I am dumbfounded. I'm left wondering if I've just seen something truly brilliant and remarkable, or if the 1970 production is the result of whatever remaining hallucinogens the cast and crew had amassed over the course of the prior decade.
The term 'cult classic' is bandied about so frequently that I can't help but wonder what determines whether or not a film deserves that distinction. These sorts of movies invariably are blessed with gushing fan sites, dissertation-length examinations on Usenet, and innumerable quotes in e-mail and message board signatures. The Projectionist would seem to meet all the usual requirements, but, for whatever reason, has languished in obscurity. The premise is, though I'm loathe to resort to using this term, sufficiently quirky. It also marks the feature film debut of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who, at this point in his career, was a relative unknown to the public at large. Though there doesn't appear to be much of a fanbase carrying a torch for The Projectionist, the Museum of Modern Art had the foresight to preserve the film. It is from their work that this newly-restored version has been struck, and perhaps some thirty years after its initial release, The Projectionist will receive the attention it deserves.
If I were asked to summarize The Projectionist in three words, and I'm well aware that I haven't been asked to do so, my response would be "what", "the", and "hell", in that order and perhaps punctuated by a question mark. A plot summary, given the nature of the material, almost seems superfluous, but I'll give it a shot anyway. Chuck McCann stars as Chuck, a projectionist at an upscale movie-house managed by the hard-nosed Renaldi (Rodney Dangerfield). The job, though unsufferably dull, is precisely the sort of work Chuck is best suited for, and he escapes the drudgery through his fantasies. Chuck often imagines himself as Captain Flash, whose cartoonish 1940s serial heroics combat him against the villainous Bat (played by his fictional-real-life nemesis, Renaldi). Think Walter Mitty by way of Crash Corrigan.
The Projectionist is not the sort of film that can be easily divided up into three distinct acts. There is no clear beginning or end. Chuck does not have some clear obstacle to overcome or any marked destination to reach. He is, I'd imagine, like many of us; bored with the monotony of life and passionate about film. At one point, before leaving for the night, Chuck passes by a long array of headshots, impersonating each actor and quoting liberally from their best-known works. Nearly every free inch of his tiny, dingy apartment is covered by one-sheets, and Chuck has the most priceless look of bliss on his face as he watches a film on television. When he fantasizes about attending a star-studded Hollywood premiere with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Chuck doesn't envision himself as an actor or prominent director. He remains a projectionist, though his imaginary adoring public has a much greater appreciation for his lot in life.
The film is driven by imagery, with only sixteen minutes of the film containing any dialogue whatsoever. A quarter of The Projectionist's runtime is devoted to clips generously donated by a number of studios in exchange for a percentage of the box office. The way in which this footage is used is inventive, intriguing, and often puzzling. Sometimes they'll play the part of faux-trailers offering greatly differing views of the future, and on occasion the footage will be integrated into Chuck's fantasies of visiting Rick's Cafe Americain or duking it out with the monstrous love child of a lobster and mantis. There seems to be some sort of social commentary underneath it all, but damned if I can make heads or tails of it. Quite a significant portion of these clips are centered around race, World War II, and global suffering. At one point, Chuck strolls into an adult shop, and his sexual fantasies are intercut with images of Hitler, misshapen dwarven creatures drumming, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and Orson Welles delivering one of his most famous lines from Citizen Kane. A short on evolution begins and ends with images of Charlie Chaplin. No, James Thurber has nothing on Chuck.
The cast is small but effective. Rodney Dangerfield steers clear of the one-note lech that would litter every movie he'd make from 1980 on, putting in a performance that reminded me more of Don Rickles' unlikeable, exploitive Crane in X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes than, say, the title character of Meet Wally Sparks. Chuck McCain, who is perhaps best known for his voice-over work, is believable as well, alternating between the subdued but personable projectionist to the often over-the-top characters in his fantasies. The Projectionist is a comedy, but the humor doesn't stem from one-liners or weak sexual innuendo, and it doesn't attempt to keep the audience in stitches for the duration. Most of the laughs come from the bizarre fantasies and, on occasion, discomfort with some of the imagery. At 81 minutes, the film moves along at a brisk pace and doesn't overstay its welcome. If I'd known beforehand that there would be so little dialogue and such a significant portion of its runtime dedicated to second-run material, I would imagine that I'd be skeptical that a film could successfully pull that off. Somehow, The Projectionist manages.
I've invested quite a bit more time writing this review than I did watching the movie, and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of The Projectionist. In many ways, I think that's wonderful. The Projectionist is a movie that, as curious as this may sound, I'm excited about revisiting, and one I'm looking forward to watching with friends to hear their thoughts and opinions. I can't recall the last time a film seized my attention and interest in this way, and that, for my money, is the greatest possible praise I can give.
Video: The Projectionist was shot for $160,000 over the course of two years, which was not a significant budget for a motion picture even three decades ago. The negative, after filming wrapped, spent some time in a recently converted wine cellar, which I'd imagine does not represent the most ideal of conditions. A title card indicates that the film had been preserved by the New York Musuem of Modern Art. My reaction, by and large, is that I'm looking forward to whatever other treasures the museum is preserving and plans to unearth. The Projectionist is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Not surprisingly, the footage incorporated from other sources isn't quite up to the quality of the remainder of the film, with quality varying wildly from clip to clip. The color footage with Chuck looks fine. Grain isn't intrusive in all but a couple of shots, such as the final glimpse of Chuck in his apartment, and some portions seemed the slightest bit softer than others. Speckling didn't present much of a problem, though when it was present, it appeared as an explosion of snow. Two of the most noticeable instances are at the pool hall around the 42:17 mark and for a few moments starting around 57:29, in the final seconds in Chuck's apartment and continuing to his exit. The black-and-white fantasy footage, perhaps by design, is considerably crisper and rarely exhibits flaws of any sort. For a few brief moments while Captain Flash is in a cavern, once around 35:48 and again at 35:56, the image appears to be pinched, for lack of a better description. The overall presentation is respectable, especially after factoring in the age and obscurity of the film, as well as the likely condition of the available source materials.
Audio: The fidelity of the monaural audio is understandably limited, and there is a pervasive hiss for the length of the film. What dialogue is present remains discernable, and assorted snippets of music and sound effects are accompanied by enough bass to leak through to my subwoofer. The soundtrack doesn't rate much higher than 'utilitarian', but there aren't any issues severe enough to warrant a warning to prospective buyers.
There are no subtitles or alternate language tracks, and closed captioning does not appear to be supported.
Supplements: Absolutely nothing, without so much as a trailer. Given the limited amount of information on this film from seemingly any source, this is one case where production notes of any sort would've been greatly appreciated. This review is based on a plain check disc in a jewel case, and perhaps the release version includes liner notes that may shed more light on the history of The Projectionist and its creators' intentions.
The film, for those keeping track, has been divided into ten chapters.
Conclusion: That The Projectionist managed to sneak under my radar for so much of my life is a disappointment. This is the sort of film that I feel compelled to watch again to fully digest the material, and it took a fair amount of effort to resist the urge to sit down for a second viewing instead of penning this review. (Apologies, but it's Spring Cleaning here at DVD Talk, and I have a significant backlog of titles to clear out.) The Projectionist is an interesting, decidedly different film that warrants at least a rental, if not a purchase, for enthusiasts of offbeat cinema.
Other Notes: My research for this review did not turn up much of anything. The vast majority of the references I stumbled upon for The Projectionist were brief and offhand, and I was unable to uncover a single proper review. I did discover an interesting interview with Roy Frumkes, an assistant director on the film. Some of the notes in this review were lifted from that chat with Trash Video, which is well worth reading. If Frumkes' name doesn't ring a bell offhand, a quick glance at that interview ought to refresh your memory.