Projector Technique

Alan P. Scott - Fictions - Dream Logs

mindstorm brainkilla

We were going to have a family movie night, so my wife dragged the boxy 16mm projector out of the closet and put it in the living room on the end table, pointing at a pillowcase propped up against one wall, just a few feet away. I came in and turned it to the nearly-blank wall farther away on the right. The couch was against that wall so we'd have to sit on the floor to watch the film, but the image would be larger. She sat on the couch anyway; she wasn't that interested in the film.

I went through the meticulous ritual of threading the film through the sprockets, making sure the tension loops above and below the gate were just right so the film would lie flat against the bar of light that flickered through the shutter and the audio track would be synchronized. Starting the projector, I began watching the film just to make sure that everything worked, but became absorbed in the action and let it run. My son came in about fifteen minutes later and joined us.

The movie was a science-fiction thriller about telepathic government agents, secret agents using some sort of experimental technique or technology that didn't have all the bugs worked out yet. It was made in the early days of CGI—I remember telling my son that the graphics were "kind of harsh," all neon purples and greens with blocky pixels and lots of analog fuzz.

In the scene I remember, an agent is rummaging crudely through the mind of a witness, whose memories showed up as successively stacked frames like decks of cards—a common metaphor, then and now, but smoothly executed here, though framed in those lurid purples and greens against an otherwise black field. The agent did not seem to know or care about the obvious damage that he was doing as he called up and discarded the witness' unrelated memories, each frame of which went dark as the agent's attention left it. There was the possibility of finesse, I could tell, but the agent was too inexperienced or his experimental government technology too crude to allow for it. He just kept bludgeoning his way through the witness' mind, vast swathes of it going dark... the film vividly depicting advancing brain damage as the remaining frames of memory got smaller, dimmer and fewer on the screen.

Eventually (though it took only a few moments of screen time) the agent got to the memory he wanted, which expanded again to fill the screen as his attention focused on it. A high, boxy red and white fire department ambulance came barrelling down a narrow residential street in the heavy snow. The two- and three-story town houses, obviously expensive, on either side sat high up on snow-covered banks that sloped down to the street. There were cars parked on either side. As the ambulance drew up near the witness it slewed to a stop in the snow, skidding to its right—the witness' left—to come near a particular town house; paramedics got out and rushed up the slope into the townhouse where someone important was obviously in need of care.

The agent now attempted to forcibly alter the memory he was watching, to overlay a new memory (jerky and cartoonishly colored) of the ambulance skidding uncontrollably and crashing into one of the parked cars, but his technique was too crude, too unfocused—the rest of the witness' brain grew dark as he (the witness) tried and failed to reconcile the unanswerable contradiction introduced by the agent. Again, I could see the possibility of finesse, if not its actuality—altering memories was not inherently impossible even within the context of the film, it was just that the agent didn't have the control (self-control?) he would have needed to have to do it successfully. The lesions spread throughout the victims' brain.

The screen went dark at the end of that scene, which was also the end of the reel, which was also the end of the dream.



The thing I most like about this dream and the title I've given it is that there were actually four distinct "projector techniques" involved...

First, the complicated and nearly-lost art of threading film through a projector, which is something I did in grade school and, later, when working for a small theater company in my home town (those were the larger 35mm projectors but the essential finicky nature of getting that delicate unconstrained loop of film just right is exactly the same). I haven't threaded a projector large or small myself in decades, and haven't seen it done in years... and as digital content delivery spreads, these spidery, complex mechanisms become fewer and harder to find, the arcane priestly rituals more difficult to perform. These temples to the holy mystery of persistence of vision are shuttered themselves, or replaced by the fast flicker of electrons and LEDs...

The second projector technique was the use of computer graphics in the film that were of a particular level of crudity, that tied the film precisely to a specific time when such techniques were at or just behind the current state of the art. The 1980s were visually defined, in part, by the widespread appearance in film of certain lurid video-manipulation tricks that were rapidly becoming cheaper and easier, eventually to become so cheap and easy that they denoted cheapness... this film used those techniques in a way that was, however crude it appeared now, deft and subtle at the time, and was still emotionally effective. This part of the dream was certainly influenced by a recent rewatching of the film Brainstorm, which originally came out in 1983.

The third technique was the conceit of displaying memories as stacks of frames, like a HyperCard stack or the way Windows Solitaire cards bounce off-screen at the end of a completed game, which also seems obvious and maybe even a little tired now but at the time the film was supposed to have been made would have been cutting-edge and visionary. This part did NOT come directly from Brainstorm, which treated memories as a field of three-dimensional bubbles which remained discrete and less chaotic—a similar but still distinct technique and metaphor. I was impressed with the dream film's director, cinematographer, whoever would have come up with this technique at the time... and it might even have been beyond the abilities of video editing then to cut in live, moving two-dimensional frames at skewed angles and perspectives that themselves moved around on-screen so smoothly, making sure that the memories didn't overlap, stray out of their frames or appear at incongruous angles (even if glitches like that might more realistically portray how memories appear to us). The progressive darkening of the screen, the dimming and receding of the witness' memories, the violent clash between what the witness remembered and the agents' preferred version, being imposed—projected—from without... all of that was apparent just from the visual special effects. The film never explicitly said anything about what happened to the witness. I just knew.

The fourth projector technique was, of course, the science-fictional one within the film—the agents' telepathic ability, whether mechanically enhanced or a matter of specific training, to invade another person's mind and paw through its contents. This part was undoubtedly influenced by Spider Robinson's novel Mindkiller, which again originally came out in 1982. It was obvious that this technique had enormous potential—the agents' skills and equipment just weren't up to the task of viewing, much less editing, those memories without causing actual brain damage. In the end, the witness died, and the agents ended up causing the very exposure they'd been attempting to prevent.

August 23, 2011

©2011 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Last updated August 24, 2011.

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