Gilbey on Film: The projectionist's power

The relationship between directors and cinema technicians.

The projectionist has final cut, or so the saying goes, so it's surprising that more reverence isn't afforded this lowly god, this puppeteer of light, this minimum-wage illuminator. Just as with any higher power, the only time some of us even think about the presence of the projectionist is when things start to go wrong -- when the actors have their heads relegated abruptly to the bottom of the cinema screen like casualties of the woman-sawn-in-half trick, or when the image acquires a blurriness that can't be blamed on a vaselined lens. Some doubting Thomases even cast aspersions on the extent of the projectionist's skill, and ask whether he or she is really that indispensable after all -- a shocking example of impertinence and disrespect (although a former projectionist I met recently admitted he used to set up the reel before nipping outside for a pint).

Digital projection has arguably diminished the projectionist's standing even further. But June was altogether a good month for reminding ourselves that the unseen figure in the room above our heads is vital to our viewing experience. Correspondence came to light from four leading filmmakers who took it upon themselves to address in comradely tones the man or woman in whose hands their work rests ultimately. You can, after all, be one of cinema's leading visionary auteurs (and three of the four letter-writers are just that), but if the projectionist isn't on-side, you may as well have left the lens cap on.

It was always well known that Stanley Kubrick would visit cinemas where his films were playing, in order to check that the equipment was up to scratch, or that the auditorium's glossy walls were not throwing distracting reflections into the viewer's field of vision. Here is a letter from him to projectionists sent out to accompany prints of Barry Lyndon in 1975. David Lynch had some unique advice to offer any cinemas screening Mulholland Drive -- his homely tone (beginning the letter "I understand this is an unusual request yet I do need your help" and signing off "Your friend, David Lynch") is characteristic; you can read his letter here along with similar letters from Terrence Malick concerning his forthcoming film The Tree of Life, and, slipping to the bottom of the prestige scale in one almighty leap, Michael Bay on his third Transformers movie (though the wonder will be if anyone notices anything to do with the quality of projection amidst that picture's visual and aural cacophony).

There's also a rather good post over at CineRobot on the subject of projectionist in movies -- Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Philippe Noiret in Cinema Paradiso, that sort of thing. It's a good list, to which I would add Robert Joy, getting busy in the projection booth with Madonna at the end of Desperately Seeking Susan, and the poor unnamed soul in the grim Chilean comedy Tony Manero who is beaten to death by an audience member aggrieved to find that Saturday Night Fever has been replaced by Grease. A gross overreaction, yes, but you take his point.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.