The Projectionist – Book review
Kendall Messick’s The Projectionist is a beautiful collection of images that explores the inner life of Gordon Brinckle, his childhood neighbour. The quiet and unassuming Brinckle was a retired cinema projectionist who built a lavish theatre in the basement of his home, calling it the Shalimar – “Delaware’s Theatre of Renown,” as his own rubber stamp puts it. Through photographs, text, interview excerpts and archival material, this fascinating and haunting book both preserves memory and becomes memory. Messick achieves this dual result by documenting – with affection and respect – the story of one man’s commitment to a dream.
The introverted Gordon Brinckle was attracted to the dark, solitary aspects of movie theatres at an early age, but he had other interests as well: at vocational school he displayed exceptional artistic abilities by creating original design motifs and imaginative drawings. He went on to become an apprentice to a well-known local theatre decorator, from whom he learnt drapery, upholstery, drafting and how to make block prints. He was able to combine these skills with his nascent interest in cinemas when he started making his own art-deco style stationery, cinema tickets and programs. He also began a life-long habit of drafting elaborate plans for theatres that existed only in his mind by producing blueprints that included lobbies, concession areas, washrooms, as well as detailed cross-sections and many renderings of ornate, multi-layered screen curtains. Messick includes much of this conceptual work in The Projectionist, and not only does it add context to Brinckle’s story, but the graphics are compelling in their own right: the richly textured patterns, elegant exteriors complete with marquees and even princely usher uniform designs create a montage of opulence to complement and complete these theatres of the imagination.
Brinckle began to turn his drawings into scale models, and eventually the models grew in size and scope. By fourteen, he had constructed a miniature theatre, The Alvin Casino (named after his father), in his parents’ basement in Philadelphia. In 1941 local reporters visited the Alvin and photographed its creator, dressed as an usher, welcoming the visitors. Keen to work in movie exhibition in any capacity, he went on to hold various positions at the local movie house, from ticket-taker to usher. However, his dream was to ultimately end up in the projection booth. He wanted to be the wizard behind the curtain, pulling the levers that allowed the on-screen illusions to happen. While the projectionist was directly responsible for the entertainment of dozens, even hundreds of people at a time, the projection room itself remained discreet, hidden – a place where where one could perform meaningful, important work more or less anonymously. Such a place suited Gordon Brinckle perfectly.
After returning home from the second World War (where he was in charge of screening films for American troops stationed in China), Brinckle became the chief projectionist at the Everett Theatre, and he soon became known locally as “The Movie Man.” While he projected movies in the evenings for the public, during the day he was building a theatre in the basement for himself. The Shalimar would easily exceed his first effort, the Alvin, in scale and detail. Brinckle was responsible for all of the electrical wiring, the installation of just under a dozen authentic cinema chairs and the construction of a regal proscenium, behind which he hung layers of moveable drapery (which could be pulled up by hidden ropes and pulleys to reveal a bright white screen). The Shalimar also featured a functioning organ – a nod to the silent movie era in which the films’ scores were performed live. And while he often had to compromise and make do with whatever materials were at hand, he also partially based the look of the Shalimar on the “atmospheric” theatres of the 20s and 30s (which often featured fake trees and plants and plastic animals in their efforts to bring indoors the ‘atmosphere’ of the natural world). Furthermore, he took inspiration from the grand urban cinemas of movie exhibition’s heyday in the 1940s-50s. This was the period in which theatres were huge, glittering palaces that were almost as much of an attraction to patrons as the films themselves; a period in which screenings were routinely sold out, queues around the block the norm and teams of ushers armed with flashlights were required to escort people to their coveted seats. More affordable and accessible than professional sporting events, more other-worldly than the live theatre stage, the cinema was – before the rise of television – the foremost entertainment option for millions of North Americans. And while Brinckle enjoyed his job and was happy to be part of this booming industry as a projectionist, his true passion lay in the realizing of the Shalimar. One suspects he would have taken just about any day job as long as it provided enough money to support himself, his wife Dorothy and daughter Sandy, while also giving him enough time to tinker with his secret project in the basement. And if the films themselves attracted audiences to the Everett, the Shalimar’s raison d’etre was far more personal and mysterious.
Gordon Brinckle was well aware that Messick was preserving as much of the Shalimar as possible through photography, in text and on video (there is an accompanying 30-minute movie documentary). Messick was to go even further. In one of the last photographs presented in the book, we see Gordon looking frail, sitting in a wheelchair that’s been parked in front of the screen, surrounded by the comfortingly familiar scarlet of the Shalimar’s interior. He is watching a clip of himself from the movie documentary. However, the scene doesn’t take place in the insular world of his basement at home, but rather inside a cavernous warehouse: he’s sitting in front of a reconstructed Shalimar. Much of the actual theatre had been removed from the basement in order for Messick to build a portable, travelling version, designed for exhibition across the United States. “I kept saying, ‘it’s a shame when I die, people will come in and break up [the theatre] and throw it in the trash,’” Brinckle tells us in the book, “’but to know it is going to live on is just wonderful.’”
Ultimately, Messick’s project, in all its forms – book, documentary movie, website, travelling exhibition – is less about movie theatres or movie projection than it is the story of one man’s attempt to give his interior life physical shape. The project is about the transformation of one’s home from a series of practical and possibly even drab rooms into an expression of pure self. The words “obsession” and “obsessive” creep into the text at least once each, but the negative connotation of these terms begs a question: is it obsessive to make a personal vision reality in one’s home? Many people spend vast amounts of time and money redecorating and renovating their homes and gardens, endlessly re-arranging and re-shaping their living spaces, but we don’t tend to label such people as obsessive – quite the contrary. Such activities are encouraged and praised. Somehow the idea that we should be constantly fiddling with and/or “upgrading” our living room furniture or kitchen cabinets every so often is not only socially acceptable but laudable, while labouring away on seemingly less functional projects like Brinckle’s is not normally appreciated in the same way. In fact, such secret projects in the basement usually draw suspicion or even derision, and the creators can be labelled as loners or cranks. And yet what Brinckle constructed in his home is a far more accurate reflection of his life and his heart than any renovated living room could be. “I come down here, and it is quiet,” he says. “I don’t even think. I just sit…[b]ecause it’s something beautiful, something I was able to create.”
Kendall Messick recognized this commitment when he re-established contact with the Brinckles in late 2001. While Messick had grown up directly opposite the Brinckle’s home in Delaware, the author has few memories of the family other than a general sense that Dot was more sociable and outgoing than her husband. It was their daughter Sandy who first told Messick about the Shalimar. She even took him down the stairs to have a look when he was a child, but his impressions of that initial visit are vague. He was not prepared for the full force of the Shalimar’s lavishness when he revisited the theatre as an adult.
Tragedy reunited the neighbours when, in late 2001, Sandy Brinckle died of cancer. Messick, who happened to be visiting his childhood home at the time, joined his mother in offering condolences to the parents in mourning across the street. Perhaps seeking to make polite, unobtrusive conversation, Kendall asked about the Shalimar. Gordon replied that he had just decorated the theatre for Christmas (a tradition that reaches back to the era of the cheerfully-decorated movie palaces of Christmases past), and would he – Kendall – “like to see her?” The two men made their way down the stairs together for the first time. Instantly transfixed by what he was shown that day, Kendall Messick knew this unique basement space and its creator deserved – and even demanded – to be documented. Thus began a collaboration between the two men that ended with Gordon Brinckle’s death in 2007.
The reader is inevitably lead to questions about the rest of Brinckle’s home life – that is, his life at home outside the Shalimar. In a series of monochrome images, Messick offers glimpses of a less colourful, far more ordinary existence: Dot watches TV while he naps in one photograph, and in another they share a lunch of what looks like peanut butter at the kitchen table, surrounded by the detritus of medication that the elderly can often accumulate. Their surroundings are not quite tacky by virtue of their cozy ordinariness. The contrast to the magical world of the basement, however, is clear. While the upstairs areas are shot in straight forward black and white, the Shalimar is mostly presented in its garish, colour-saturated glory. This contrast could have been overplayed, but Messick avoids this risk by not making the division a strict one: the book features, for example, a lovely double-page black and white spread of the Shalimar, lit by flash. The curtains are open, inviting our eyes to rest on the glowing, empty screen. And yet we still find ourselves curious about the colours upstairs, and whether or not Gordon had any interest whatsoever in the style and decoration of that part of his home. Did Dot “own” the upstairs in the same way the basement was his? We may also be curious what the basement looked like once the Shalimar had been removed from the house: was it a heartbreakingly empty space, with just a few tattered reminders of the once magnificent theatre left hanging on the walls or lying on the floor? Was there any attempt to restore the area to ‘normal’ suburban basement setting? Was Gordon at all disturbed by the yawning absence downstairs, or was it condolence enough to know that the theatre would survive both him and the home in which it was originally built?
We are drawn in by images depicting Gordon shaving, his shirtless body crooked and old. We worry about him, we may even feel a stab of anxiety about our own eventual age-weakened selves pottering about our own homes – but at the same time Gordon is never presented in an undignified manner. The very act of shaving is a life-affirming one, after all: when we shave, we know we’re not letting ourselves go – we’re still making the effort to look our best, even if – especially if – we’re not going anywhere or meeting anyone that day. We don’t feel Messick is exploiting Brinckle or his story, even in the photographs showing his body being wheeled from the house on a stretcher. We’re told Dorothy died within a month of her husband, but while they were both still there, Messick was always welcome in their home – and, by extension, so are we.
The book’s title is something of a misnomer. While Brinckle had worked for years as a projectionist and set up a working 16 mm projector in the Shalimar’s tiny booth, he doesn’t seem to have screened too many films at home for either himself, his wife or for any friends or visitors. In fact, it’s unclear whether or not he actually owned any prints – it’s doubtful that he did, because he doesn’t seem to have had much interest in movies themselves. What could be projected on the screen matters less than the bare fact of the screen as an object, a blank canvas full of potential; always anticipating the magical play of light and shadow on itself, without ever delivering – without needing to deliver. The excitement lies in this permanent state of anticipation. This sustained potential of the blank screen in a mostly-empty cinema creates the kind of magic that any Hollywood story would have trouble living up to. The visitor to the Shalimar projects his or her own impressions on the screen – it is not done for them through the efforts and decisions of others. Brinckle’s interest in theatres had little to do with them as venues in which to screen Hollywood product. Instead, he was interested in theatres as pure physical space, rather than as a means to an an end. In each of the theatres of his unbuilt blueprints and in the Shalimar’s lobby and its tiny box office, we’re guided through elegant space to an ornate auditorium, chairs all looking towards a screen. The screen is forever blank, but never empty. It is full of private dreams.
by Kendall Messick
Princeton Architectural Press
Photography, 159 pages