Reel Talk

Tony Sudol surveys his territory from the projection booth. He makes a brief foray into the theater to check light and sound levels, then returns satisfied. The show tonight, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 French New Wave film Breathless, is one Sudol has projected dozens of times. He knows exactly how it’s supposed to look and sound. While the first reel unspools in one of the reel-to-reel projection towers, Sudol runs his finger over the next, which he’ll load into the second tower in twenty minutes. He starts to thread the polyester film through the projector sprockets, saying he could do this in his sleep.

Inside the booth, the film sounds like a distant jackhammer as it rattles through the gears. We sit in silence and watch the characters’ drowned-out flirtations, waiting for the flashing black dot at the top right of the screen that will cue Sudol to change projectors. Sudol sings along with the movie’s four-note theme, the only sound from the theater that we manage to hear. I ask him if he likes Breathless. He pauses. “I do, but it isn’t successful because Jean-Luc Godard directed it,” he says. “It’s good because Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director, suggested that he cut out all the unnecessary stuff. So he made this jump-cut storyline that was completely new at the time. I don’t like Godard.”

He wanted to see Once Upon a Time in the West since he was a teenager, but he refused to rent a corrupt digital copy. Instead, he waited twenty-five years until the movie was playing at a nearby theater so he could see it on film.

Sudol is Yale’s projectionist extraordinaire. A middle-aged man with a balding ring of brown hair and nearly translucent blue eyes, he wears about twenty keys on his belt for all the rooms he has to access. He has worked at the Film Studies Center since 1997. He organizes speakers, rents prints, and—most importantly—projects movies nearly every day of the school year. He’s master of a profession that has very recently turned obsolete. In 2000, there were thirty commercial digital screens in the world. By 2010, thirty percent of all theaters had gone digital, and by 2015, nearly every theater in the world had. The Whitney Humanities and Loria Centers are now the only venues in New Haven that still project film, and Sudol the shadowy figure in the back of the theaters who keeps the wheel moving.

He is a film buff with a projectionist’s eye; he can not only rank every film Scorsese ever made and rattle off all the relevant Bollywood flicks of the 2000s, but he also knows what kind of film they were shot on, what their appropriate color contrasts are, which high-quality film prints do them justice and which digitized versions render them flat and lifeless. He much prefers film to digital, mostly because it gives him control over the screening—the power, as he puts it, “to see that the director’s vision for the film is rightfully displayed.” While modern projectionists download a movie and press play, Sudol controls everything about a reel-to-reel screening, including the light, sound, projection speed, and aspect ratio (the relationship between the image’s width and height). He knows, for example, that badly digitized versions of silents often use the wrong speed, chopping off the sides of the image or speeding up frames so the characters zip around like wind-up dolls. This drives Sudol mad. He notices everything. Once, watching a 1960s film he’d seen before, certain that the focus on the projector was correct, he noticed that the credits on the print itself were out of focus.

 

Reel - Edward Wang

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Projection itself isn’t an art form; Sudol considers it “protecting someone’s art form.” While he has no control over the quality of a print, he can certainly project it badly. If he screws up, the effect is like a handsome dog in terrible makeup. Charlie Chaplin can run too fast or the mysterious four-note theme in Breathless can shriek over Patricia Franchini’s disaffected musings on love. If you see a film at Yale, Sudol is probably there. If he does his job right, you won’t know it.

Sudol once wanted to be a filmmaker. He tried to make movies out of college in the eighties, went into debt, got a day job at a phone company, and started working as a part-time projectionist in 1988. He was a programming director for nine years at the New Haven International Film Festival, and has worked at Yale since 1997, full-time since 2010. The job is technical, but Sudol obsesses over film from all angles.

As many films as he has seen and projects in a given week, as hyper-aware as he is of their presentation, his reason for watching movies is rather ordinary: to be immersed in a story. He hates films with hackneyed narratives that aim to score style points or box-office success, but he still believes in substance over style. “Story—and the telling of it—is the most important part of a film,” he says.

On this point, Sudol has a long-running disagreement with Ron Gregg, a film professor and programming director of the Whitney Humanities Center. Gregg, who teaches Postwar Queer Avant-Garde Film in the fall and Hollywood in the 21st Century in the spring, doesn’t even pay attention to movie narratives anymore. “Film follows a formula,” Gregg says. “I’m rarely lost in film because I can tell you within the first five minutes what’s going to happen.” Somehow this realization hasn’t made him jaded. “So why do I still go see movies? Why did I see Mad Max: Fury Road? I know that Mad Max is going to win. It doesn’t matter—the experience of the story is the aesthetics of it: the costumes, the acting, the editing. The story was fine but the aesthetics were amazing. Amazing!”

Sudol and Gregg argue all the time. One of Gregg’s favorite movies of this millennium is the Wachowski’s 2008 remake of Speed Racer. “That movie is pure eye candy,” he says. “It’s like watching a moving painting. It’s the most expensive art film I’ve ever seen.”

“I hate that movie,” Sudol told me. “There’s no story there. It’s unbearable.”

While it’s true that digital pixels haven’t yet achieved the chemical precision of film, the gap is closing quickly.

Sudol’s favorite films play with Hollywood formula. His first cinematic love was Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western, The Wild Bunch. “What Peckinpah did in that movie was take the rules of a Western and flip them on their heads—he started where all other Westerns end and made the good guys the bad guys.” Sudol seems to set up rules for what he likes so that they can be inverted. “I like movies to have beautiful sets, but Lars von Trier didn’t do that in Dogville,” he says. “That movie didn’t have a set; it broke all the rules for me. But I was sitting on the edge of my seat by the end of it, thinking, ‘Lars, don’t fail me, don’t fail me.’ And he didn’t! I was so immersed that I wasn’t even paying attention to what I usually look for.”

Sudol gets excited when films manipulate their audiences—not emotionally (“I can’t stand it when movies pull at my heartstrings,” he says), but physically, when they trick viewers into thinking they’re actually in the movie. In one scene in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, for example, the characters are talking in a room and the camera is placed right behind the doorframe. In a theater, Sudol says, you’ll see people craning their necks, trying to see beyond the door. It’s a clever aesthetic trick in a movie with a famous narrative—though whether the shot is engrossing because of the devil baby story or the devil baby story is engrossing because of the shot is up for debate.

Sudol acknowledges that not all viewers notice, or care about, the details he obsesses over. He’s so attuned to editing, acting, lighting, and film quality that when he’s jolted out of a viewing experience, he knows exactly why. He doesn’t like talking about the mechanics of filmmaking because it makes him too self-conscious. “If you’re pulled out of a film and you know that a jump cut irritated you, it ruins the illusion,” he says. But in order for the illusion to be successful, the film has to be screened correctly. He wanted to see Once Upon a Time in the West since he was a teenager, but he refused to rent a corrupt digital copy. Instead, he waited twenty-five years until the movie was playing at a nearby theater so he could see it on film.

Ninety percent of American silent films are lost for good, because American film studios destroyed the prints after sound emerged in the 1930s.

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If the students watching Breathless for class examine the film as an image, Sudol examines it as an object. Debating aesthetics versus narrative means nothing to a projectionist without considering how the film is actually shown—on an original print, on a crappy re-print, on Blu-Ray, streamed online. In Sudol’s opinion, every technological change in the way a movie is shown affects the quality of the illusion. This makes him understandably anxious these days. Film technology has never been so in flux as it is now.

The argument that pits analog purists against digital progressives is often boiled down to sentimentality versus practicality (“Film looks better!” cry the purists; “Digital is the future!” reply the progressives), but neither medium is objectively superior, aesthetically or practically.

Film doesn’t always look better than digital. Appreciators laud film’s chemical advantage, which provides sharper, more vibrant pictures than cookie cutter pixels. While it’s true that digital pixels haven’t yet achieved the chemical precision of film, the gap is closing quickly. “I was watching a Blu-Ray copy of Citizen Kane the other day and it looked pretty damn good,” Gregg tells me. “Certainly the average viewer couldn’t have told the difference from a film print.” Moreover, the actual quality of a film image depends on the quality of the print, which varies wildly. Old prints are often scratched and spotted; most prints from the sixties and seventies were shot on cheap film that has since turned pink.

Humans have always disrespected film, even when it was the dominant movie-making technology. Sudol calls it the “abused art form.” Ninety percent of American silent films are lost for good, because American film studios destroyed the prints after sound emerged in the 1930s. The studios didn’t want to pay to store the unpopular silents. TV stations would simply wipe the film used for newsreels and sitcoms and reuse the base. And there’s the millions of small-scale abuses: cheap theaters that kept their light bulbs until they burned out, ushers who threaded platter reels so that the gears scratched the prints diagonally, student projectionists who fell asleep while the reel jammed and the bulb burned a hole in the frame.

Any archivists can tell that a film has died the second they open its canister and smell vinegar.

Unlike data, film decays. How it decays depends on when it was made: films before 1954 were all shot on a highly flammable nitrate base, which can auto-ignite (as happened in 1978, when the nitrate vaults of both the United States National Archives and Records Administration and the George Eastman House burned to the ground and their rare contents were lost forever) or decay into goo, dust, and a no-less flammable gas. Between 1954 and the early nineties the base switched to acetate, which degrades into acetic acid. Any archivists can tell that a film has died the second they open its canister and smell vinegar. Now film is made of polyester, a strong, pliable, durable plastic ideal for prints. But the material is too strong for cameras, which will break if the film jams.

While film doesn’t last forever, digital isn’t necessarily more stable. “Someone can find a film that’s been in a hut in a jungle for seventy years and it still holds up,” says Brian Meacham, an archivist at the Yale Film Studies Center, “whereas the digital footage you shot yesterday could be inexplicably corrupted.” Film can last for over one hundred years if preserved correctly, at a relatively low cost for the archivist. Digital archives cost twelve times as much per film to maintain, and are under constant threat of data extinction, tech obsolescence, and degradation. If a studio runs out of money, you won’t find the digital data miraculously preserved in a jungle.

Film lovers like Sudol and Meacham like to honor a film by showing it in its original state. But every film is a physical product of its era, altered as technology changes. The nitrate films of the Twenties were projected onto screens made with actual silver, to dazzling three-dimensional effect. Some Blu-Ray recordings remove the hisses and scratches from old prints and enhance their fading colors; others compress the print into a dull plane. Some digital films turn black backgrounds grey and wobbly; others offer special effects so convincing that they swirl out of every shot like a moving painting. Directors like the Wachowskis dive triumphantly into digital cinema, while Quentin Tarantino outfitted theaters worldwide with old projection equipment this past year, so that he could show The Hateful Eight in seventy-millimeter film. Maybe digital archives will fail and prove the purists right. Maybe digital will advance so far that even Sudol can’t tell the difference between a pixel and a molecule. For now every film exists in suspended copies of itself, some in binary and some in celluloid, each distinct difference altering the film’s experience for the sharp-eyed viewer.

So we have people like Sudol, in a relic profession, projecting our film experiences like Oz behind the curtain. You come for a pleasant experience and he generates your illusion, knowing, through obsession, what you don’t—that the illusion may auto-ignite in a warehouse or be deleted when a studio runs out of money, that the jump cut wasn’t Godard’s idea, that the Blu-Ray copy corrupted the colors, that Polanski put the camera by the door so you’d try and see beyond it, that this is a good story because it turns the Western trope inside out, that this is a piece of crap because the story is just a chase scene, that you may never see a movie as dazzling as Citizen Kane on nitrate, that the credits are out of focus on this print.