IUPUI alumnus and Chinese film actor James Lee Guy makes a hobby of tracking down old film-related artifacts.
One of his recent acquisitions is an aging film projector, a coal-colored, six-foot-tall 1937 Peerless/Simplex model E-7 with a history as long as the film reels it once projected.
Guy bought the projector in Bedford from a man named Jim Jenkins, whose father, Bill, had once used it to screen films for large groups of friends. Jenkins used the third floor of an old building to run a private movie theater.
“I was awe-struck,” he said. “It was in a dilapidated cinema up on the third floor, just stuck in time.”
Guy said Jenkins had been operating it as part of his theater until 2001, when he died. But the projector’s history goes back even further than that.
The projector, he said, was originally in the Bedford drive-in theater until the late 80s.
“So many Hoosiers actually watched a film on that projector. They just don’t realize it,” he said.
Now, students can get an up-close look at the projector, which Guy donated to The Media School. It now resides in the Franklin Hall stacks, where it will stay, so that students, visitors and faculty can view it and learn about its history.
Guy said he wanted to donate the projector because it’s a historic artifact that will outlive him and his ownership.
“I hope it’ll inspire young students to look at what it was like years ago, decades ago, and understand that it’ll always be changing,” he said.
IU Cinema Director Jon Vickers said the projector is a vital reminder of the past.
“Machines like this are not only nostalgic, but they also had a prominent place in what we know of as the movies,” Vickers said.
He said in recent years, the film industry has switched from celluloid projection to predominantly digital projection. But before that, machines like the one Guy donated dominated the industry for nearly 100 years.
“There’s something magical about the mechanics, and the celluloid going through the gate, and the light shining through the celluloid,” he said.
He added that major filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino still work with film, as do a number of Media School courses.
Both Guy and Vickers recalled the allure of watching movies the old-fashioned way.
The difference between modern digital moviemaking and shooting on film is in the texture, Guy said. He compared the look of film grain to the sound of music played on vinyl.
Vickers said the difference is in the mode of consumption. Popping a disc into a Blu-ray player just isn’t the same as watching an old film reel projected on the silver screen, he added.
“The projectionist really was the last step of the filmmaking process for audiences,” he said.
Guy said he was always interested in film and filmmaking, but IU didn’t offer a film studies program when he was in college. Instead, he studied psychology.
He moved with his wife to China, her home country, in 1997, and landed his first film role in 1999 when he was approached by a filmmaker at a restaurant. Since then, he’s starred in numerous Chinese films and episodic television series.
Guy said he invests his love of cinema in the collection of old artifacts like the projector he donated. His home is a museum of similar objects, like old film cameras and other varieties of projectors, he added.
“I want to share the culture with anyone who’s interested in film,” he said.