Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Every Job Its Lurking Bears

Projectionist: The Long Dark

The bulk of my projectionist career was spent at the Moviedome, a small second-run theatre that made a lot of its bank running Bollywood movies for the local Indian population. And yes, those were more work than English movies… they had intermissions, so running one Bollywood flick took twice the effort, space, and resources as any other movie, and if Shah Rukh Khan was in it, there was a definite chance I was running it tandem, meaning one print, two theatres. This wouldn’t have been a real inconvenience if it weren’t for the fact that I have actual scars from the first tandem I ever ran going very, very bad. Scary Movie 2 cut me damn near to the goddamn bone, and that’s still not the thing I hate most about that movie.

Also there was something physically wrong about the film stock Hindi movies used. See, in the old days, before you could just hit some buttons and download a digital copy of Shang-Chi right into the projector and off you go, you had to wind a physical print around a ring at the center of a platter. To run the movie, you’d take out the ring, put it on a different platter, and run the print through all the wheels and pulleys and gears of the projection process, finally winding it back around the ring. The first time I’d run a Hindi movie, any Hindi movie, the first time it was wound around the ring and the ring came out, the print would invariably burst out into the center of the platter. Like a horizontal collapse. Sometimes bad enough I worried it would jam the mechanism at the center of the platter. But only the first time. One trip through the projector and it never did that again. No idea what that was.

But no, none of that is the inconvenience. Running Bollywood movies was just part of the grind, and meant that hey I got to watch Preity Zinta at work now and then.

The inconvenience, looking back, came from this fact: after a little while there, I was key enough to the operation that I could make my own schedule, to a point. And so I did. And looking back at what I chose… I have some notes.

There was one restriction, see. Of the three projectionists working there, one (Marv, older gentleman who was there before I started and after I left) refused to work nights. So any night, either myself or Terry (younger, started after me) needed to be on shift. When I was first allowed to pick my hours, I decided to escape Saturday night shifts by taking Sunday nights and Monday full-days. So I started work Sunday at 6 PM, got off with just enough time to watch a 1 AM rerun of CSI: Miami before bed, then back to work from noon to midnight (or rather, whenever the last movie finished so I could put the projector to bed) Monday*.

I called it the “30 Hour Lockdown.” I was not available for work nor play unrelated to running movies during those 30 hours.

(*I also worked 12 hours either Wednesday or Thursday. Thursdays, when the whole booth needed to be reset for the new releases, and some departing films might need to be broken back down into individual reels for pickup the next morning, was the most work-intensive day of the week, so Terry and I took turns. Unless I had rehearsals Wednesdays in which case Thursdays were all mine, yaaaaaaay)

And then James, the manager who understood projection booths, arranged for me to come in early on Tuesdays to do maintenance on the machines. Greasing gears, filling lubricants, checking oil levels, ensuring nothing broke the way projector #1 did a month after I started because nobody had oiled it in ages. So I now I worked Sunday, 6 PM to midnight(ish), Monday noon to midnight, and Tuesday 9 AM to 6:00 PM.

This I called The Long Dark. A full 48 hours where the projection booth was my whole world, save for the commute and, if she was closing on Monday, the inevitability of Nikki the Usher asking for a ride home. (Nikki was about 15 years away from coming out as a transwoman when I left Moviedome, but time is a construct, and I ain’t here to misgender or deadname.)

There was a logic to it when I set this schedule. It meant 27ish hours of my work week was done in essentially one shot, and if it was Terry’s week to take Thursday, I had a three-day weekend. Also I had Saturdays off for rehearsals and performances, and Fridays off from literally everything. I called it “Fuck Off Friday” and kept it holy; neither Moviedome nor my theatre group got any work out of me on Fuck Off Friday. My friend Gina made similar arrangements with Starbucks, and we’d spend Fridays marathoning Battlestar Galactica or Scrubs or what have you.

(The late, great webcomic Achewood would find a recurring gag in a similar notion, reliably funnier than my take. The modern internet has… well, something different.)

But by the time I’d been working a normal 9-5 desk job for a year, I’d already forgotten how or why I lived like that for so long.

Comparison to bears? Okay, so, there’s a two-minute period twice a day when I have to be very slightly alert for bear presence, but at least they’re routinely a mere eight hours apart. I have pure leisure time every day. Which means time to read at the staff pub, or watch TV over the internet, or, more pressingly, either watch movies or edit audio for one of two podcasts I’ve chosen to do. One of which means watching Eddie Cantor movies, again, why am I like this.

The important thing is, I haven’t had a 12-hour workday in ages and I do not miss them.

Advantage: Bears.

Booth Vs Bears Speed Round

Some other more minor inconveniences, let’s see how they rate:

  • Dropping a print. Prints often had to be physically moved from one projector to another, either because it was Thursday or management had decided that Ang Lee’s Hulk should run in a different theatre during the evening than it had for the matinee and fuck me if that’s inconvenient. Sometimes… very rarely but not never… you might drop one. At which point you’d have to gradually collect it and re-wind it onto a platter. It was like untangling a kilometer-long, razor-thin garden hose or string of Christmas lights. I’ll take the bear, thanks.
  • Focus checks. I had to ensure all the movies running were both in frame and in focus. Which you can only do by, you know, watching them. As such I’ve seen at least part of every North American release from 2001 to mid-2006. So there’s currently a miniscule chance I’ll see a bear. There was an absolute certainly I’d have to see more than one bit of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and it’s better-but-still-bad sequel The Devil’s Rejects. I’ve seen exactly one scene from Son of the Mask, and remain eternally haunted by it. To quote Aristotle, these wounds won’t seem to heal. The pain is just too real. There’s just too much that time cannot erase. Advantage: bear.
  • Drunk toss theatre. Sometimes people would get drunk and pass out in the theatre. But that was never my problem. Much like how I’ll never be the one who has to shoo a bear from the staff entrance but sometimes more fun to watch. Advantage: booth.
  • No prospect for advancement. James used to talk about me maybe one day becoming projection-manager but the path to that or what it would involve was unclear, and when he left to flip houses professionally it stopped being discussed, so… kind of hit the ceiling fast, and it was low. Poverty wages low. Staff housing ain’t free but after it’s deducted I’m still earning more than I did on CERB/EI, rather than wondering how far I could stretch what little remained of a paycheck after I covered rent. The new job has room for promotion, possible transfer to other bear-free locations, near infinite possibilities only one of which is a bear-mauling. Advantage: bear.

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Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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