The Wages of Reel

Anything on screen (or stage. or the page. or a canvas. or [insert object upon which art resides here]) is fair game to interpret. 

Intentionality humpers may disagree, but they can go hump themselves.  

I jest!

But from where I’m sitting, on the forever lookout for noggin stimulation, moviegoing (artgoing?) proves infinitely more engaging when inundating my being with stimuli to wrestle with. Everything on screen has at least a subconscious effect on the viewer; remove one ingredient, and perhaps the audience’s whole experience upends.

Which is why I obsessively track the exact narrative placement of reel changes when a movie’s projected on film. For the celluloid ignorant, reel changes occur every 20ish minutes; you’ll spot them by the dots — one and then another a few seconds later — in the top right corner of the screen. A changeover can happen seamlessly, or not: the image quality/positioning changes, the sound drops/pops, the print becomes scratchier, etc.

Sometimes, the more noticeable, the better; in Brechtian fashion, a rough changeover calls attention to the artifice, momentarily depleting the audience’s immersion. And from this cognitive remove, we can contemplate factors beyond the immersion-friendly plot.

Such was the case for me with a recent 35mm screening of 1955’s The Wages of Fear. When the main character reaches his far-flung destination, after one of the most grueling drives ever committed to film, he can barely muster the physical energy to turn off the car’s engine. When he finally does, is it peace at last for him?

Nope! The movie instantly cuts to oil burning in the fields behind him, with the cataclysmic sounds of hell accompanying the fiery visuals. Besides the money pocketed, this is the primary result of his tumultuous quest: still ruining the lands of others. His trip through the underworld has concluded, but the world that created the conditions of his cursed voyage still exists. Shutting down the car’s engine does not stop the engine that keeps fueling all the misery we’ve just witnessed.

It would be a different movie if it cut to black as soon as he powers down the car. The cut to the enflamed din foreshadows the denouement, which hammers home the above ideas.

The predominant reason all these thoughts occurred to me? Because the reel changes right when he turns off the car. After 2+ hours, it’s fair to expect the movie to be over. But there’s another reel, setting us up to consider the meaning of the coda to come, of what it adds to and changes about our comprehension and perception of the movie; the reel change enhances the impact of the moment.

The moral of this story, and all stories:

As always, watch movies in theaters.

Preferably on film.

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