The case of the missing missing reel

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Cecilia Roth and Antonia San Juan in All About My Mother
  • Cecilia Roth and Antonia San Juan in All About My Mother
Something unexpected happened during the revival of All About My Mother that I attended at the Siskel Center a couple weeks ago. About one-third of the way into the screening, the film skipped a reel, transporting the audience several weeks into the characters' future and eliding a few key plot developments. I thought again of the French surrealists' moviegoing game as I tried to imagine what I'd just missed—searching for clues in the dialogue and onscreen behavior—and, before that, as I briefly fell out of sync with the plot and had to enjoy the acting, sets, and costumes for their own sake. Seeing as Pedro Almodovar described Mother as a tribute to actresses who have played actresses (and as his sets and costumes are never less than interesting), I didn't feel that inconvenienced. And for the record, the projectionist showed the omitted reel at the end of the show.

As celluloid projection becomes (almost, but not yet everywhere) a thing of the past, it's increasingly rare to see a movie out of order in a theater. That's no great loss, I suppose. Digital projection has its bugs, and with familiarity it's likely moviegoers will come to find these special too. (The nascent glitch-art movement suggests one route their appreciation might take.) Still, there's a particular type of experience afforded by skipped or missing reels. I remember Josephine Ferorelli, one of my colleagues at CINE-FILE, telling me about a Bollywood series she once programmed at Doc Films. Several of the titles arrived as collections of stray reels in burlap bags, and many of the labels were difficult to read. On one of the nights when a film played out of order, a few audience members who were fans of the particular film not only requested the projector to be stopped—they went in front of the screen and provided a play-by-play description of everything the spectators had missed.

Grindhouse
  • Grindhouse
In the theatrical version of their exploitation-movie pastiche Grindhouse (2007), Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez replaced a couple of striptease sequences with title cards reading "Missing Reel." These moments were at once benign jokes on the audience ("Made ya look!") and emblems of moviegoing nostalgia. They ask us to consider a different kind of cinematic pleasure, wherein one appreciates a film for its overall vibe rather than its intricacies. In the case of many 70s grindhouse movies, there aren't many intricacies to begin with, but I still identify with Rodriguez and Tarantino's sentiment.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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