As I make my way to my seat, the room darkens amid the murmur of a packed theater at Ragtag Cinema. It’s a Sunday evening, but the atmosphere and the rowdy energy from the crowd make it feel like a midnight movie. The projector flickers to life and reminds the audience, and myself, why we came: to see a 35-millimeter print of Anna Biller’s 2016 love letter to 1960s Technicolor melodramas, The Love Witch. The audience seems immediately taken by the crackles and pops from the audio, which translate to the texture and grain of the image on-screen. There are imperfections: vertical lines and specks that appear for fleeting instances while the first reel and the audience get situated. This is the experience we all came for, and it’s one that is slowly making waves in cinephile communities throughout the nation.
Ragtag is one of the many independent theaters going back to its roots with 35mm screenings. With the rise of digital cinema package, or DCP, many independent theaters were forced to get rid of their 35mm projection systems in favor of digital. Others folded because they couldn’t afford the upgrade. But in 2016, a theater called Metrograph opened in New York. This was the first new independent theater in 10 years to open in the city, and it primarily screens films, old and new, on 35mm. Its success brings to mind other theaters that deal specifically in 35mm, such as the Secret Celluloid Society with O Cinema in Miami and the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. There are entire states, such as Arkansas and Iowa, that do not currently have any theaters screening films on 35mm, but a city of around 117,000 people in the heart of Missouri does.
Before the feature presentation starts, a young woman in cat-eye glasses stands at the front of the theater to introduce the film. She is Ashley Nagel, one of the two Ragtag projectionists trained to screen 35mm films. In the case of The Love Witch, Nagel excitedly explains that the film was shipped in “full-frame,” meaning that a special adaptor needed to be inserted for the projector to screen the film correctly. After her introduction, she disappears into the projection room at the back of the theater.
Nagel says she was trained so that someone other than Steve Ruffin, the technical director and head projectionist at Ragtag, could do 35mm screenings. Ruffin started Nagel out on segments of trailer reels to teach her how to feed the projector correctly. She learned to thread the projector with a 15-second clip of Mark Wahlberg blowing something up and someone’s butt. “I don’t think I even turned on the machine for the first two or three weeks of training,” Nagel says.
She soon graduated to full trailers, running a reel on each of the projectors. Then, after observing Ruffin project a film and a few more weeks of training, Nagel screened one of Ragtag’s spare films for an audience of her friends.
About 10 minutes into the The Love Witch, I notice the cue marks, which look like two little burn holes, flash at the top corner of the screen. Also known as cigarette marks, they serve as a reminder to Nagel that it is time to change reels, it also lets savvy filmgoers know there is someone in control of the film. There can be a slight margin of error in these reel changes, Nagel says. During a screening of Poltergeist that she was running, she had to unspool and respool an entire reel after it got caught in a crack in the projector’s platter. She just barely missed her cue to changeover the reels, and for an instant, the screen turned white. “I was freaking out up in the booth,” Nagel says. “It was a race against the clock, and I didn’t beat the clock.” Thankfully moments later, the film started playing again to light cheers from the audience.
The situation could have blown up in Nagel’s face a lot more literally, though. The lamp inside the projector runs so hot that it could severely damage the film. Modern film is not nearly as volatile as silver nitrate film, which ceased production in the early ’50s and was known for starting fires like in the explosive ending of Inglourious Basterds. She and Ruffin have a table in their small projection room specifically for repairing, reattaching and splicing film reels. Inside it is a drawer brimming with pairs of white gloves, which Nagel says are important for rewinding the film. Because many of these reels are lent from archives or distributors, fear of damaging the film is very real. Ruffin and Nagel take all of the necessary precautions.
As The Love Witch continues, I am struck by the way its aesthetic recalls a heyday for 35mm film. The grain and texture of the stock highlights Biller’s use of bright colors and dreamlike lighting. Dating back to the beginnings of film, 35mm was the standard for shooting and the theatrical aspect ratio at which it screened. For the better part of film’s history, it was one of the few ways people could watch movies.
Screenings were the sort of thing that brought people together. On nice nights, my grandfather, who was a projectionist for Swank Motion Pictures in St. Louis in the ’60s and ’70s, would bring home films from work, gather the neighbors and show 35mm films on a big sheet in his backyard. Until the mid-2000s, 35mm was also the lifeblood of independent theaters such as Ragtag.
When Ragtag Film Society began in 1997, the group first screened the movie Princess Mononoke on a cobbled-together 35mm projector. After moving into a single-theater space on Tenth Street, programmer Chris Boeckmann says they had a “platter system.” This required reels to be spliced together before they were run through a single projector, which had the potential of causing long-term damage to the film. This reliance on film also meant screenings were more limited.
With the encroaching ubiquity of DCP, Ragtag ditched its platter system and went digital on both of its screens in late 2012. Angela Catalano, the executive director of Shotgun Cinema in New Orleans and Synapses producer at the True/False Film Fest, says this was part of an industry-wide push to go digital by 2014. “That was when major studios were no longer going to cut prints for theatrical release,” Catalano says.
This drove a number of independent theaters out of business, as they couldn’t afford the costly transition. But, in an effort to keep in touch with its roots, Ragtag purchased an expensive reel-to-reel setup in 2015. It consists of two projectors that show alternating reels. Catalano says that because Ragtag has this changeover system, it can show prints with less risk of damaging them. It also gives Ragtag access to archives of films that are otherwise hard to find due to a lack of digital copies. Although costly film prints have been made of films shot in digital, the same is not true of digital transfers from 35mm, which limits their ability to be screened. “From just a programming standpoint, having access to 35mm films, you’re opening up a larger cinematic world to your audience,” Catalano says. “It’s really fantastic that Ragtag has made that a priority.”
Financially, 35mm showings can still be unpredictable. Boeckmann says Ragtag has to be confident the films will draw crowds to offset the high shipping costs. Because they are infrequent, Ragtag treats its 35mm screenings as special events. They are usually part of a series, such as their Robert Altman retrospective last summer. These screenings are especially attractive for Boeckmann to program if there isn’t a digital copy.
This screening of The Love Witch is a different story, though. Director Anna Biller shot her film on 35mm, and wants it projected that way in as many theaters as possible. It offers a way to make her film stand out, which Boeckmann says is a trend among certain filmmakers like Biller or Joe Swanberg, whose previous film Digging for Fire was shot on 35mm. “As a booker, I feel more pressure to book something like (The Love Witch) because I know they went through the trouble to make it that way,” Boeckmann says.
The Ragtag screening is my second encounter with The Love Witch. I initially watched it on my laptop to write an advanced review of the film. But I knew after my first viewing that this was a movie best experienced with an audience and a cold beer, not hunched over my computer in my apartment. It is that communal experience that I can’t get at home, to laugh in the dark with strangers, that makes the trek to Ragtag worth it.
Boeckmann and Nagel believe it is an experience too, which is why they continue programming repertory, or revival, films. “I think a lot of our older clientele like it because it reminds them of how they used to watch film,” Nagel says. “Many people my age like it because it seems so true to what film should be.” The repertory films often have character that translates to the theatergoing experience. For example, the version of McCabe & Mrs. Miller that screened as part of Ragtag’s Robert Altman series was scratched and dirty in its first reel. This imperfection suited the film’s Pacific Northwest mining town setting in a similar way to listening to dusty old records. “A lot of people really hold onto the quality of film projection,” Catalano says. “There is a look and feel to it.”
Once the screening of The Love Witch ends and I file out with the crowd into Uprise Bakery, I am reminded that film is an inextricable part of what Ragtag is at its core. A curtain made of old filmstrips hangs above the bar and strips of films wrap around lava lamps at the box office. They even made shirts with an illustration of a 35mm projector from their training handbook. While Boeckmann cites this as lack of imagination on their end, I think it gets at something greater. A record shop and the remnants of a video store are in the same building. They stand with Ragtag as shrines to analog media and to experiencing art the way it was meant to be experienced.