For better and for whirrs

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From Jim Trainors The Fetishist
  • From Jim Trainor's The Fetishist
I showed up to last night's screening of Jim Trainor's The Fetishist (at the Roots and Culture Gallery near Milwaukee and Augusta) just before Trainor started his introduction, and all of the seats in front had filled up. I had to sit in the back of the room, a few feet away from the 16-millimeter projector that was showing the film. All through the movie I heard its familiar whirr, which sounds like someone operating an eggbeater very loudly or riding an Exercycle in an adjoining room. It fit right in with Trainor's movie, with its sparse sound design and primitive animation. The Fetishist took 11 years to make, we learned (the 38-minute movie comprised roughly 20,000 drawings that Trainor illustrated himself); the sound of a machine chugging away was an apt accompaniment to this product of hard work.

I think it's a pleasant sound. The emptier an auditorium is, the clearer it gets. For how many people has it quietly suggested human companionship in near-empty matinees or late-night shows?

With more and more theaters converting to digital projection, that whirr will soon evoke little more than nostalgia to most moviegoers, assuming it doesn't already. "Men no longer want visible machines," says a melancholic stretch limo in Leos Carax's upcoming Holy Motors, to which I'd add they don't seem to want audible ones either. I think of the smooth-traveling, soundproof elevators I've ridden in various downtown skyscrapers. Within a couple minutes, I'm transported hundreds of feet off the ground, all but oblivious of the work it took to bring me there. I still find this experience a little odd.

Even in the grungiest cinemas—the dearly departed Village, Three Penny, or Pipers Alley theaters—I felt a tinge of privilege whenever I heard a machine at work to deliver my entertainment. Nowadays, DCP grants the illusion that the movies project themselves and nobody owes anybody anything.

As another (human) character says in Motors, in response to a familiar death-of-cinema elegy, "Don't you find this nostalgia a bit sentimental?" Well, sure. I also feel optimistic that as movies continue to evolve, cinephiles will find new qualities to fetishize in the moviegoing experience. (I'm reminded of how Jean-Luc Godard made visual art out of DVD menus in Film Socialisme.) But as this great transition away from celluloid projection continues, it's crucial to keep stock of what tangibilities we're losing, so we remember to replace them with others.

And speaking of fetishizing the sound of a projector:

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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