The Projectionist's Cut

Several years ago I attended a bachelor party for a good friend in New Orleans, Louisiana. I knew a few of the attendees, though I was meeting most of them for the first time. The weekend went off without a hitch and we’ve kept in touch ever since. As I type this, the text message chain with all of us on it is rattling the phone around in my pocket with a flurry of texts, each of which would likely ruin any participant's political aspirations. 

In an attempt to relive the shenanigans, a bunch of us rented a house in Hilton Head, South Carolina. On the first night, as one person after another faded off to bed, it was left for my friend, Brett, and me to put a dent in the case of beer. Brett was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, though apart from our accents, we are much alike. After moving between various topics of conversation, we started to talk about movies. Brett informed me that from 1995 to 1996 he worked as a projectionist at the now defunct Essen Mall Cinema 6, in Baton Rouge. "I loved putting movies together," he told me. "By far the most fun I have ever had at a job."

The theater, which was owned by the movie studio United Artists, was a poorly attended discount theater focusing mainly on independent, foreign, and art house films. "I love movies. But, independent movies weren't my thing," he continued. "Sometimes we would get popular movies that had been running in other theaters for a while but weren't well attended here." For those movies—"the classics like Pulp FictionEraser, and Phenomenon"—he would invite his friends by for late night screenings where they would drink beer and smoke (both cigarettes and weed) in the theater. It also allowed him to be able to make sure the reels were being run properly for future showings to the general public. 

After the announcement of the nominees for the 68th Academy Awards on February 13, 1996, the theater started to run Il Postino: The Postman, an Italian-language production that was nominated for five awards, including "Best Picture." The movie, directed by Michael Radford and starring Massimo Troisi and Philippe Noiret, was released by Miramax in 1995. It tells the story of exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Noiret) and his admiring postman, Mario (Troisi). The two forge a friendship as Mario tries to learn how to impress women through poetry. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert describes it as "a quiet meditation on fate, tact, and poetry."

It was not a film that any of Brett’s friends lined up to see. "No one wanted to come pound beers and smoke in the theater to watch Il Postino, unfortunately," he said. "I have to admit, art house foreign films were not part of my repertoire, so I just ran it to make sure it ran smoothly and didn't wrap itself. Technically, someone (working in the theater) was supposed to watch it before it ran, but we only ran it to make sure it didn't malfunction. No one actually watched it."

The film screened without incident for the first full week, a time there is usually heavier attendance. Brett would hang out in the lobby with some of the other employees and wait until the crowd filed out from each showing and ask them how they liked the film. He genuinely was interested to know. "Most people would say it was good, or so-so, and keep walking," he said.

One man, however, surprised him with his candid opinion. "He stopped with this confused look on his face," Brett said. "He told me about the film and mentions there is a point in the story where a couple meet, are married, and then start dating. I thought that sounded pretty strange."

Brett decided to check things out. Since this was not the first run of the film, which had been released a year before, the reels had been through hell. It arrived to the theatre in six separate reels, which were labeled sequentially. At some point, however, reels four and five had been mislabeled. "I had shown it out of order for an entire week before anyone said anything," he said, laughing.

If you happened to have seen Il Postino: The Postman in the winter of 1996 at the Essen Mall Cinema 6 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you might want to give it another viewing.