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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder