Movies spiced with the thrill of uncertainty

I suspect that he may not have looked forward to it as much as we eagerly anticipated it. But then, after all, he was a teacher and we were boys. It was one of the major excitements marking the end of the school term at our boarding school in England. Strangely, I don't recall the name of a single one of the films shown. But I do distinctly remember the sense of excitement. It's true the thrill was partly linked to the fact that we were about to head home for the holidays - the great escape! But the escapism of the end-of-term film had its own potent appeal. It was as much a different world as home was from boarding school, as fantasy from reality. There were added ingredients to spice it up. One was the question of whether we would actually get to the end of the film or not.

The school projector was a highly complicated contraption. It looked as if it might have been the work of some crackpot inventor, with a consequent degree of unreliability built in. It needed to be operated by an expert, and one master in the school was regularly entrusted with the tricky job of projectionist. He understood the esoteric art of threading the strip of celluloid through the machine's endless intricacies - over and under and round and about. It was like trying to control an adventurous worm of spaghetti. It took time and concentration. But finally it was ready. We trooped into the library. The shutters were already closed. Then the lights were switched off. Would the film roll?

My doubts were allayed when the projector awoke into a whirring, clackety life, and threw its dazzling searchlight at the screen. A countdown of numbers appeared jerkily. We were off! Then the sound track engaged and a weird music started up, like bagpipes with not quite enough wind to keep them in tune. An image followed of a lion roaring or a cockerel crowing or a muscular bloke smiting a vast gong, and up came the title.

I was already in love - smitten - with films. I was, in fact, growing up in a period where not only Hollywood but also the British Pinewood Studios and Ealing Comedies were at their peak. At home during the holidays, we went to the pictures about once a week. Our visits were a family outing. I never grew tired of them.

I suppose Disney came first: Snow White in her glass coffin and that improbable prince arriving on his horse to wake her up. "Bambi," "Pinocchio" - films as terrifying as they were entrancing. Then came flicks, now classics, like "Kind Hearts and Coronets," with Alec Guinness playing almost all the roles, and "The Ladykillers." Somewhat later came war movies with boy appeal like "The Dam Busters" - oh, and "Reach for the Sky."

But these films were just the main feature. There was always, for your money's worth, a B-movie extra in black and white. We had to sit through these in much the same way that we were never allowed to get to the cakes at tea time until we had finished our bread and butter. At the close of each program, the national anthem was played. Except for a few renegades who earned our disapproval by heading for exits just as the film finished, we all stood up and paid our respects to royalty before going home.

At home in the attic, there was a very small room that served as a darkroom for printing black-and-white snapshots. There was a magic lantern in there, and, among other items, something that fascinated me even more. It was a short strip of celluloid from a real film. Not just a home movie, but three or four frames from a proper cinema film. I think someone in the family must have known someone who knew a projectionist. Occasionally, even in big cinemas, a film would snap and small sections would be cut out before the film was spliced together again.

I treasured our fragment as a collector's item. It was wide and had a strip of holes down the edges. It was richly dark - unless you shined a very powerful light through it. It was not coal black, but, since it was color film, it was an impenetrable hue. Purple? Green? It was hard to tell. The idea that light could pass through such opacity and project its image onto a vast screen beguiled me, as did the magical thought of such frames slipping rapidly through the projector to end up as convincing movement and a continuous track of sound. It seems childish now, technologically speaking, but I was a child.

Back at the end of school term, the film would have progressed, and we'd be in the thick of it, away in dream land. Then one or two possibilities would occur: Either the first reel would come to an abrupt end, or it would snap. Either way, the lights would go on and we would, after a general sigh, have to sit and wait for what seemed like interminable ages while the expert set to work.

It was a bit nerve-racking. But I have to observe now, that while there's a lot to be said for DVDs, their predictability does lack something of the romantic and tentative zest of those old reel films.

I suppose that it must have been good for us schoolboy audiences - an exercise in patience. But patience wasn't quite my scene. And when at last the film was ready to resume, the teacher-projectionist was probably more than grateful for the small, polite cheer that went up. He deserved no less. After all, he had heroically taken another small step in man's mastery of the machine.

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