Opinion: A film projectionist once more, now in L.A. — resurrecting a dying craft

All the crafts that I’ve practiced in my life I’ve done knowing they are either dead or dying.

I have a master’s degree in poetry. I was an investigative journalist at a nonprofit that closed due to lack of funding. I was a 35 mm projectionist. A craft that began at the turn of the last century and all but vanished around 2013 when most movie theaters had transitioned to digital projectors — simply because digital prints are cheaper to make and ship than film.

When I threaded my last projector that year, I was working on an island off the East Coast, living inside the back of a movie theater that had been a live theater — my bed, dresser and desk were where the dressing rooms had once been. The film was “Blue Jasmine.” I went in front of the summer island crowd and said that after 13 years of this work, this would be the last movie I would ever project. They clapped — maybe some of them knew what I was talking about — and I returned to the booth and ran the film. I had spent that summer biking around the island, having trysts, eating ice cream and waking up to a wall still fashioned with film posters from the 1940s. It was romantic as hell, as some dying things can be.

I knew when I ferried off the island the next day that the job security I had for more than a decade — because I knew a trade — was a thing of the past. When digital moved in, film moved out and the need for projectionists died. Theater audiences were then subjected to less bright films. Films that didn’t have as crisp a focus. In other words, the poetry had been edited out.

I soon moved to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter, having lived enough of an experiential life to be able to write from a place of authority. I’ve had some success and I’m going to direct a film I wrote based on my experience as a projectionist and my love of Marcello Mastroianni. It takes place in Italy, so I location-scouted, touring the country with the sole purpose of finding three things: a fitting seashore, a movie theater and a working 35mm projector. The paucity of the latter was heartbreaking.

In Italy, movie theaters are either owned locally or by the church. So, to see them I had to find the local church, hunt down the priest, wait for him to get in touch with the local projectionist — usually an elderly man still holding a torch for Sophia Loren. When they unlocked the theater and I saw the state of the booths and the projectors, the problems were all the same. Either the projectors were completely missing because they were sold for parts, not working at all, or the projector worked but the bulb was gone. Dilapidated. Neglected. The heart of the cinema … broken.

When we film, we’ll have to ship in a projector, most likely from Milan or Rome. I want an Italy that maybe doesn’t exist anymore. Or does, but only in parts. In the meantime, I’m spending my days learning Italian so I may communicate with the local crew when I direct the film, and I’m writing my next project. However, after the writer’s strike, I found myself desperately needing a job. Any job. My repertoire of choices was slim with my background in dying trades.

Enter the Vista. The locally owned theater in Los Feliz that Quentin Tarantino recently acquired, renovated and reopened in November. I went to see Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” and on a whim, I asked the manager if they were hiring a projectionist. She said I could drop my resumé off to her personally. One week later I was hired. The first female projectionist on a team of four.

I’m practiced at the art of dying things, but I’m a resurrectionist too, being a projectionist and writing poetry. And everyone who attends a film at the Vista, or at the other few theaters around the world still using film, is a resurrectionist as well. We tacitly agree that this is the way to see movies, with all their heart and poetry.

I like to think of the Vista as a museum and it’s that light in the booth shining through a 35mm or 70 mm print that brings the awareness of the brevity of life to an audience. Walter Murch, the film editor, director, writer and sound designer who worked on the “Godfather” films, among others, said that with film you always feel as if someone is about to enter the room. With digital, you feel like someone’s about to leave it. So, whether at the Vista or elsewhere, come to the museum. Be a resurrectionist. Bear witness. Come, see the art of a dying thing.

Leah Saint Marie is a projectionist at the Vista, the screenwriter of “Spoonful of Sugar” and the host of the podcast “Pitch!” @leahwelch19

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