Preshow Entertainment: THERE'S A MESSAGE IN EVERY BOTTLE
FEELS LIKE A SURREAL VERSION
OF A HIGH CONCEPT ADAM SANDLER MOVIE
At an hour and twenty-five minutes, THE PROJECTIONIST (1971) is an hour too long. Perhaps if this were a five minute short, or even ten. Because this is a one trick pony that can wear out its welcome. However - never in my life have I been so fascinated by a movie that bored me this much. So why is it so captivating? So interesting? It's not the story, or the acting, or the cinematogra...errr, I mean, the less-than-student-film way it's shot. Nope. It's just that...that...that it's such an oddity. No - a curiosity. And lead Chuck McCann gives a beautiful and honest performance playing an existential version of his real self.
THE PROJECTIONIST opens with a mislead - a GERALD MCBOING BOING cartoon. PULL BACK TO REVEAL: The cartoon's being run in a movie theater, and when the film breaks, the audience gets angry, and it's up to the projectionist (Chuck McCann) to be the hero and come to the rescue, which is also the theme of this movie. Sure, I wish they explained why the people in the theater look less like ones you'd find watching a cartoon and more like porn theater clientele (lots of single men), but I'll chalk that up to this movie being so very low budget that they just grabbed strangers and tossed them in some seats. But out of the projector's gate, THE PROJECTIONIST, a film that is preserved by The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film and Video, is telling us we're going to see snippets from other sources. And that it's going to get nutty.
The projectionist is an avuncular nerd with a paunch. His whole life is the movies, relating to stars' pictures on the projection booth's wall more than relating to real people. He doesn't even have a name in the movie. That is until later, when he's called "Chuck" by the candy counter guy. Moments later, Chuck exits the theater, where the marquee displays "Now Playing Chuck McCann as The Projectionist." Surreal. Toldya.
When Chuck hears a news story of an elderly man getting mugged, he plays the scenario out in his head. It's a B & W silent movie version (smart move, considering the budget), where he becomes Captain Flash (more like Flash Gordon than The Flash), a disheveled superhero, but a superhero nonetheless. With no real powers, even changing his clothes in a phone booth becomes a formidable task due to the confines and his girth. You'd think if you were fantasizing about yourself being a hero, you'd give yourself some powers. That's telling right there.
Captain Flash meets a girl (filmed all over NYC, using seemingly stolen shots, this segment was shot at Audubon Terrace), but it's all in Chuck's head. For this is just the projectionist's projection. With a love song featuring sweeping strings and a melody close to the original STAR TREK theme (already canceled by this time), our hero is swept away. But first, he must save her father, a scientist (he's the candy counter guy in the movie's real life segments) from those muggers, who suddenly turn out to be henchmen of a megalomaniacal villain called The Bat, played by Rodney Dangerfield (his first movie). In the non-fantasy parts, Dangerfield plays Chuck's dictator theater owner Renaldi. (Are you getting all this?) Renaldi treats his ushers with an iron hand. They're his troops (employees at this theater are older, unlike the teen ushers of today) lined up for inspection. This fascism parallels nicely with the candy counter guy (Jara Kohout), who was forced out of films in his native Czechoslovakia in this story as well as in real life. To hear him tell his backstory, well, that may be my favorite part of THE PROJECTIONIST. A quick internet check (Czech check?) proves that Kohout did make movies in Czechoslovakia, and that his story is true.
Chuck's Captain Flash finds himself in many situations, some using footage not only from actual movies, but huge movies, like CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. Sometimes Chuck interacts with Bogie and others, like Steve Martin did in DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID. The difference is, I don't see how THE PROJECTIONIST did it legally. I'm pretty sure they didn't have any money to pay for the rights to those clips. And it's certainly not Fair Use. Maybe they had a billion dollar budget and used it all to acquire rights, which left them with fourteen cents for the film's actual production. I did read somewhere that the studios gave permission for the usage of these clips in exchange for some of the movie's revenue, but even that seems like a stretch to me. Some of these scenes integrate Chuck into things like an actual Flash Gordon movie, with mole men and monsters and people writhing in torment on a gigantic idol, while others are more passive; while strolling by the premiere for the movie STAR! starring Julie Andrews, Chuck imagines himself interviewed for, get this, the movie he just made called THE PROJECTIONIST (Chuck to reporter: "We had a lot of fun making it."). This is followed by him telling the reporter, "I've got to get up to the booth, get this one started."
And it's not just the usage of films. Posters and glossies line both the projection booth and his sad apartment, giving THE PROJECTIONIST license to talk to dead movie stars' images, (McCann's a pretty good impressionist, so this conceit was also to the film's advantage) like Bogart, Stewart, the Duke, Gable, Laurel and Hardy and Taylor Lautner....okay not Taylor Lautner. In his apartment, saturated with memorabilia, he reaches for his ashtray without looking, unable to unglue his eyes from his TV set. He goes from the isolation of his projection booth to the isolation of his apartment (which in a way is is a bit of a projection booth itself). He stays till the end of the TV day, past the minister's sermon and station sign-off of THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER over images of lynchings, protests, and assassinations.
Often, there's little rhyme or reason why Chuck goes into fantasy moments, and why they are triggered. They just happen. He can look at a highway and bam! He's in a fantasy. And they don't always have to do with him being a hero. In a porn store, sad sack Chuck thumbs through some girlie magazines which intercuts with a naked girl on a bear skin rug talking to him. I'm pretty sure this was a parody of a commercial or print ad from the time.
Chuck's great at being Chuck. Like Gleason, he's hammy when need be or can exude a pathos that can break you in pieces. He had already appeared in 1968's THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, but this was his first lead role, and possibly his only. (He's also an Aristocrat!) But I, like boatloads of others, knew Chuck from his kids shows. Many have a soft spot for Chuck, and they should. He was our babysitter on Sunday mornings. I spotted him once on the set of SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH, walking around between takes with his tail between his legs. I mean it. He had a tail. I guess the story line had him turn into a raccoon or something. Or maybe he's a furry who's now been outed. I'm not sure. But I thought, how sad that this great man, so much of so many kids' lives, is now sporting a humiliating tail. And within a nanosecond, I corrected myself. No! This is exactly what he should be doing. Entertaining the next generation of kids. What was I thinking? Shame on me. Chuck, you rock. And you just keep on rocking. Even though THE PROJECTIONIST baffles me. SIDENOTE: Two years after this movie, Chuck would appear in a great episode of COLUMBO playing...a projectionist. I suspect that was on purpose.
Having grown up in the New York area, I sure did love the city's grittiness coming through here. Nothing like 1970's Times Square. Certainly nothing like it is today. And the movie palace they shot in? Just beautiful. It was called the Midtown Theater, and it's on Broadway between 99th and 100th. Coincidentally, sometime next year (2014), it's opening as part of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater chain. When I was in NYC a few weeks ago, I coincidentally walked by there on my way to meet a friend and snapped this picture (left).
You should know that projectionist Chuck has a second fantasy life. It turns out the girl from his Captain Flash fantasy is a girl he spotted in real life. And when co-worker/usher Harry (director Harry Hurwitz) asks him about her, Chuck tells his tale. Again, we see it in B & W, so that's what it is - a tale. Or is it? As the final reel winds down, Chuck's real life and fantasy life collide. And though he is having the time of his life, we're a bit confused, yet happy for him. After all, he is a hero, and heroes, by definition, need to win.
Another cautionary ephemeral film about underage drinking. You gotta love these things, with their grandiloquent narration - "Some doctors believe alcohol beverages are the safest tranquilizers readily available to man" and "Most adults respect alcohol the same way they do a sharp knife or a loaded rifle" and "One out of five adults don't touch it at all. And they're happy and successful."
Here's the story of four teens who do a lot of waterskiing (this could have been a ten minute short instead of 20). They also snap their fingers as they dance on the beach to a record on the record player that's not plugged in. I guess the adults making this movie were also not plugged in to youth culture. They did manage to put some gray tape over the record's title, so they knew about copyright laws. Anyway, they go out for cocktails...and when I say cocktails, I mean they order a Tom Collins and an Old Fashioned. And if this isn't wacky enough, suddenly this little tale takes a turn, as the four tipsy teens are transported into fantasies (seems to be a theme of this evening's fare); one's an astronaut, another a movie star, another a lion tamer, and the fourth runs a corporate board meeting. Why? Because the teens think that the positives of alcohol (in order of these aforementioned fantasies) are the experience of visiting an unreality, or being the life of the party, or being courageous, and the fourth, well I wasn't clear on that board room one. Something about how teens should be able to make their own decisions.
Then, it veers into that ephemeral fave - winning through intimidation. "When you drink illegally, you are merely showing your instability, your immaturity. That your character is weak. You lack self control. You are showing the world you can't shoulder the responsibilities of youth. Making it obvious that you'll certainly not be able to bear the much heavier responsibilities of adulthood."
Yeah, that must have worked.