Projections from the mind's eye

Keith Gallasch

The Projectionist, Michael Bates

The Projectionist, Michael Bates

An aged projectionist leaves an empty cinema for a long walk home, perhaps his last, late at night. The streets are empty, but they are also full—of memories, many of them painful, cumulatively suggesting the life and losses of a refugee. These are realised as silhouetted, moving figures at windows or richly textured images of people, including younger versions of the projectionist himself, flickering on the walls of buildings and tunnels. He never stops to look at them. Some appear though to see him: they are puzzled, or reach out, or slam a door. But we sense he is aware of them: they are, literally, projections of his past, and the sounds that accompany them come from that same distant but still urgently alive space. As he makes his way through the old part of his city the images grow in frequency and sometimes monstrously in scale. The narrative of his past is not told or explained, it is suggested rather by our interpreting of the images—family and school scenes, labour, militarisation, flight. But if these images can only be read impressionistically, the film is much more precisely and sublimely about the act of remembrance as a kind of haunting, in which one place and time is projected onto another.

Michael Bates’ 20 minute film is made with an animator’s precision, drawing on skills honed in earlier works. This is not hand-drawn animation and it is certainly not digital. The performers and the locations are real and the projections are on-site. However, Bates pixilates the movement of his characters (see interview p13), so that they have the presence of animated figures. In Etcetera in Paper Jam the outcome is comic, reminiscent of the movies of Chaplin or Keaton. In The Projectionist however pixilation is used to more serious effect, amplifying the age of the protagonist and the doggedness and sometime hesitancy of his passage through the city in contrast with the more fluid images of persons remembered, and also with the speed of clouds or a passing train, reinforcing the sense of the projectionist inhabiting another temporal space.

As sombre as all this is, Bates’ night-time world is full of colour and incandescent moments from the very beginning when we are caught in the projector’s glare through to an abandoned factory that sparks into life, the glow of the Harbour Bridge, the ghostly fireworks on old buildings, and the rows and rows of lit windows that evaporate leaving a huge, blank, brick wall, emptied of life. As the old man walks, another wall transforms into a plain across which refugees trudge and the woman who recurs in his fantasies stops and turns to us. Strangest of all is an image of the same woman in an arched doorway, as if viewed from above. She is clothed, but lying in water, serene, even sensual. She looks towards us and reaches out—but the projectionist has moved on. As he walks through a tunnel, ghostly doors are opened or slammed shut by briefly glimpsed figures. The decimation of his former life is graphically portrayed when images of his beloved, of the playing of a piano and of the act of writing burst into flame—film on fire. As the projectionist’s grim reverie leaves him he emerges into bright daylight and a broad postmodern boulevard along which he trudges, isolated and out of place.

Rachmaninov’s tone poem, The Isle of the Dead, plays for the course of the film, with Bates’ choreographing his action and emotional peaks and nuances to the music, in itself no mean feat. The film’s production design (sparely and effectively realised by Jennie Tate) suggests the 30s and 40s, a period when Rachmaninov’s brand of late romanticism held sway. It’s a conservative choice but given our subjective position (seeing what the projectionist recalls) and the totality of the composition, it suggests perhaps that this is the kind of music the projectionist knows, has even played as images of piano and violin flicker by. Paul Charlier’s edgy sound design, with its female whispers, distant sounds of homely companionship, escalating rows, the grinding spark of oxy-acetylene torches, the barking of dogs we never see and a vivid storm, is finely orchestrated with the Rachmaninov.

For Sydney-siders increasingly used to seeing their city as backdrop to Hollywood and now Bollywood movies, The Projectionist is a radical alternative, a loving evocation, rather than exploitation, of The Rocks area below Sydney Harbour Bridge. The projectionist’s sadness parallel’s our own as this elderly part of Sydney dissolves into tourist enclave and new residential developments. Bates uses locations in other parts of the city (the State Theatre as the cinema, an abandoned powerhouse), but his tight tonal framing yields a consistent sense of place.

The Projectionist is finely realised at every level, the film a tribute to its maker and his collaborators’ persistence with carefully developed and tested, labour intensive techniques at a time when digital technology offers shortcuts. A digital version of The Projectionist, however, could not achieve the look and intensity of this film’s romantic realism, of real film projected against real walls and buildings in a very real place. Its achievement is to evoke a singular subjectivity, working psychologically and metaphorically, absorbing us into the way memory operates, and with visual and aural acuity. It’s a short but thoroughly memorable experience.

The Projectionist, writer, director, editor Michael Bates, producer Anna Messariti, cinematographer Anthony Jennings, sound design Paul Charlier, production design Jennie Tate; Much Ado Films. Montreal Festival of World Cinema, 2002; Official Selection, 40th New York Film Festival 2002.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 15

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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