Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pure Magic

Perhaps it is because I am leaving a job I love.

Perhpas it is because I have no 'job' to go to.

Or perhaps, it is simply because Maureen Doallas at Writing without Paper inspired me this morning with her post on Tacita Dean's work in 35mm film that I have remembered a moment in my past that defined me in ways I had long forgotten.

It could also be that simply hearing the name, Tacita Dean, stirs my creative processes, freeing my mind to wander. Because seriously, isn't that a fabulous name? Tacita Dean. A heroine for sure.

And maybe, spliced together, like the 35mm film of Tacita's art, Maureen and she have connected me to a place in my memory vault where I too was once fascinated with the medium of film. In that connection I am reminded of what happens when two strips of film are seamlessly sealed together and passed before a light.

Film is a black on white negative of our world. It is the reverse image of what the naked eye cannot see.

The time was the early 1970s. I was a high school student at the Canadian Armed Forces School in Lahr, Germany, though as it was called back then in the time of the Berlin Wall still standing between east and west, it was West Germany.

Back then I had a secret dream of becoming a movie star. And believe me, I kept that dream so secret I didn't even dare to act on stage lest someone think I actually did, seriously consider, acting a career.

I was Editor of our school newspaper, Vice Principle of student council, Editor of the Yearbook, captain of the cheerleading team and a gogo dancer at our local teen club, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of said teen club.

I know. A gogo dancer. Can you believe it? White gogo boots. Hip-hugger bell-bottoms hemmed with sequins. Matching turquoise cutaway top. Hair in a pony-tail, white ribbon around my head. I was happening.

And I loved film.

The base had a movie theatre and most weekends would find me in the darkened space of the theatre watching the latest offerings from Hollywood and the UK, but seldom Canada. We didn't watch Canadian film. I mean seriously, what was there creative or of quality in our homegrown film repertoire?

Did I mention I was also a tad arrogant and, like many Canadians, self-deprecating. It was our cultural rites of passage to mock anything Canadian as it pertained to the arts: film, music, visual arts, literature. We were a country of under-achievers in the arts. Living under the shadow of the powerhouse to the south, in the 70s our arts culture needed a defibrillator to give it a jump start, or at least a shot of adrenalin.

But in the theatre, it didn't matter to me that I wasn't watching a Canadian film. What mattered was, I was watching film.

Maybe it was because I was there so often, or maybe it was because I asked so many questions of the manager who ran the theatre, that one day he asked if I wanted to go up into the film booth and see how the films were run.

I leaped at the chance and thus began my little love affair with the art of film. That first occasion turned into every chance I could get to spend time on the second floor of the theatre, locked inside a room where two giant projectors whirred and film slid clack clack clack through their chambers and we had to talk in hushed voices lest the sound carry down into the theatre to distract the movie goers from their pleasure.

I loved that space. Loved the sounds and the smell. The cleaning of the lens of the projector. The dusting of the many parts of the projector itself. The lifting up of the heavy film canisters to place them on the sprockets. The sudden clanking and flap flap flapping of the film strip when it broke and the need to stop the machine, quickly splice it together and continue on.

I loved the getting the next canister ready on the second projector, the ensuring No 3 roll followed No 2. The watching for the red line on the edge of the film noting when to flip the switch on the second projector so that each roll seamlessly flowed into the other, flawlessly sliding from one projector to the next so that no one saw or felt the change as the story flowed effortlessly on.

I never got a job in the film booth. I just volunteered. Hung out. Maybe even made a nuisance of myself. The projectionist never minded. He could go and have a smoke break. Maybe even take a walk knowing that I was there, eagerly splicing film and switching reels and flipping switches.

I loved the rhythm of the film booth.

Later, in the early 90s, before digital media usurped film in the projection booth, I met a man whose job it was to run the booth at a local theatre here in Calgary. Eagerly I asked him about his work and he invited me to visit him in the booth the next time I was at the theatre.

I'm taking my daughters to see... and I named some Disney film just released that I was taking the girls to that weekend.

Bring them too, he said.

And so it was that my daughters and I found ourselves in the projection booth, listening and learning and watching him switch reels and splice film. I remember watching their young faces, eyes wide, mouths open as he explained the intricacies of his work. I remember feeling that tug of, 'I remember,' pulling me into a time when I too stood wide eyed and open mouthed as tiny images on a strip of film flickered in the light to become a giant projection of the story held captive on a whirling strip of celluloid coming alive upon a screen a hundred feet away.

It was magical.

On this day, the projectionist told us the story of his life. How he'd spent years working on cruise ships splicing film and changing reels. Meeting people from all over the world. Visiting lands far away. Shaking hands with celebrities. Shaking off the dust of distant cultures. Capturing stories from around the world with the camera he always carried, where ever he went.

He took our picture that day. The three of us in the booth standing beside a giant projector that whirred in the background.

I don't know what happened to him. Or to that picture.

The theatre where he worked was converted to a meeting space. The projectors long since relegated to the dump heap of technology that has lost its purpose in our digital age.

And still, the Tacita Dean's of the world continue to splice film strips together to create stories of wonder and magic. To keep alive the art of bringing to life the story of our world on a tiny strip of celluloid passing before a light.

Thank you Tacita Dean and those like you. Thank you for knowing true art isn't just about using the latest and the greatest in technology. It's all of that and so much more.

It is, Pure Magic.

And we should never let the magic die.


Anonymous said...


Maybe I've seen you in the movies??? Where do you sit?

.. . . reminds me of that great movie Cinema Paradiso



p.s. you are entering the most creative and productive phase of your life?

p.p.s. go-go dancer eh?

Louise Gallagher said...

One of my favourite movies Mark! I so related to his story.

and yup -- a gogo dancer :)

Maureen said...

I was going to ask if you have any pictures.

The equivalent of this experience for me was my first trip to the printer's, learning how to set type. That memory has always stayed with me.

One of the important things Dean says is that there is room in this world for both analogue and digital. She's not a technology naysayer, and that is what underscores how wonderful her work in film is, that she knows how to manipulate it to create the magic she feels it conveys.

Good post!

Joyce Wycoff said...

Has anyone ever told you that you have lived a very interesting life? I love reading your stories and whatever medium you choose to tell them in, they are going to be a gift to the world.

You are indeed embarking on an e-ticket ride (that's definitely dating myself) through the wonderous world of creativity. I love being along for the watching of it.

Anonymous said...

such transitions
very interesting j

Ruth said...

You are the third person in a couple of weeks to a) be out of a job who then b) remembers suddenly something that moved you very deeply and magically in the past. Those first two (one being my son, the other a student advisee) have realized they want to pursue that forgotten field in their next career step.

What about you?