Technological Object: Carousel Slide Projector

In the last episode of AMC network Mad Men season 1 (2007) Don Draper (John Hamm) introduces a campaign for the Carousel Slide Projector. His pitch to Kodak clients is predicated on affect: ‘Technology is a glittering lure, but there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product’. He describes that deeper bond: ‘Nostalgia’. ‘It’s delicate,’ he admits, ‘but potent’. The meeting room lights are dipped and a frame catches the glare of the illumined Carousel, rosy light coating the room. To the sound of the slide projector mechanism and its persistent hum, we see snapshots of his family. Against these sentimental pictures Don pursues a line about ‘a place where we ache to go again’, ‘a place where we know we are loved’. The scene shows its affectless protagonist reviewing images from his own home life. Through this mechanism, access is apparently given to some deeper lure of feeling. In the episode’s closing shots Don enters his empty home.

Although slide film, Kodachrome, was introduced by Kodak in 1934, the Kodak Carousel slide projector made its debut in the early 1960s (coinciding closely with the time period of Mad Men Season 1). Its manufacture was discontinued in 2004, making it only recently obsolete at the time of production of the TV series. In its first uses the slide projector inherits a number of properties from the stereopticon [see September], serving a purpose both educational and recreational. In nostalgic outings in television and film, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5, episode 19 (2001), Mona Lisa Smile (2003) and Kinsey (2004), works dating from its last years of manufacture, the slide projector imbricates pedagogy and affect (and I’m grateful to Sophie Mayer for triggering this line of thought). In Art and Illusion (1956), Ernst Gombrich describes a scenario of slide viewing in its heyday:

The photographic enthusiast likes to lure us into a darkened room in order to display his slides on a silver screen. Aided by the adaptability of the eye and by the borrowed light from the intense projector bulb, he can achieve those relationships in brightness that will make us dutifully admire the wonderful autumn tints he photographed on his latest trip. As soon as we look at a print of these photographs by day, the light seems to go out of them.

Such viewing habits are referenced in the scene from Mad Men in a joke about the Eastman men not taking vacations: ‘What do they show? Slides of them working?’ The slide projectors issued in the 1960s were specifically for a domestic market. The sequence in Mad Men borrows something of the enchantment of the viewing scenario described by Gombrich where conditions of projection and illumination, blown-up brilliant images seen in a darkened room, hold an ephemeral allure. This effect, and the link of affect with illumination in darkness, is heightened in the scene Don choreographs in the boardroom where his colleagues are given glimpses of his domestic life.

A precursor for the sequence in Mad Men is found in Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991). In a film shot-through with shadow play and projection, a scene stands out where a slide-show is orchestrated at a private dinner. The noise of the slide projector introduces the scene with Bubba (Maury Chaykin) and Mimi (Gabrielle Rose) and their invited diners. The film cuts here from a previous scene of projection of a porn film to censors. Despite the firelight and darkened setting in the dining room Bubba’s slide-show is anodyne: a series of shots of a house interior and exterior. A slide of a translucent shower curtain recalls an earlier sequence where we have seen a shadow of Mimi naked. Now she stops in front of the image, the projected light landing on her skin, and her form creating a shadow across the screen. She circles the room in the gossamer light of the projector and then climbs on the table to dance. The home images are seen on the textured screen of her viridian devoré dress and her naked arms and shoulders. Her body and the indented fabric create ridges and surfaces (like the doorframe and handle interrupting Marcel’s magic lantern show). Mimi tips her head back yielding her torso as a moving field of vision. Bubba’s voice is heard off-screen speaking of memories as we see a whole house front across her body and she moves to caress her own skin, the still slide animated by her gestures. Mimi’s body makes obtrusive, tangible, the affective connection to the show. Her performance is interrupted as she catches sight of a slide of Noah’s house, the main locale of the film, a model house on a discontinued housing estate. We see the last three slides unimpeded. They are slides that could be stills from the film: Noah’s house, his child in the window, and his child closer to. Over these shots Bubba speaks of ‘a place not too far away’.

In his equivalent voice-over in Mad Men Don says that, in Greek, nostalgia means ‘the pain from an old wound’. He glosses this: ‘It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone’. He describes the Carousel as a ‘time-machine’. Svetlana Boym writes in The Future of Nostalgia: ‘Nostalgia (from nostos – return home, and algia – longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or that has never existed’. This explicit connection to home is made in The Adjuster. In both works, the Carousel slide projector works so obviously as an apparatus to remind us of screen media’s capacity to re-present a still moment from the past, both to connect us to it and distance us from it. Don’s reference to a ‘time-machine’ recalls Chris Marker’s La Jetée and its own stilled-frame, metacinematic reflections on memory. The very spacing of the frames, in La Jetée as in a slide show, works as a reminder of Laura Mulvey’s discussion of stillness in Death 24x a second (2006). She writes of the filmstrip:

Although the projector reconciles the opposition and the still frames come to life, this underlying stillness provides cinema with a secret, with a hidden past that might or might not find its way to the surface. The inanimate frames come to life, the unglamorous mechanics are covered over and the entrancing illusion fills the screen. But like the beautiful automaton, a residual trace of stillness, or the hint of stillness within movement, survives, sometimes enhancing, sometimes threatening.

In an interview with Paul Virilio, by exchanged video cassette, in 1993, Egoyan commented on the ‘video installations’ within his films:

What I choose to do by presenting video images within the film is to make the viewers very aware that the image is a construct. The image is a mechanical process of projection, and the viewers are made aware of that process by seeing the video image within the film image.

Egoyan has long been interested in dying technology and its relation to affect. In 2002 he mounted an exhibition named Hors d’usage (Out of Use) at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. As part of this project people of Montreal were invited to bring in their reel-to-reel recorders of the 1950s and 1960s and speak about their memories of using them. Also from 2002 comes his installation Steenbeckett which reflects on the soon to be obsolete Steenbeck, as well as reinterpreting Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Egoyan connects these works to his own archive of memories:

My father had a Sony from this period, and in my childhood I was very aware of diaries that he would record. He kept a very meticulous written diary of every day of his life since the age of thirteen. But starting in the sixties my father would also make recordings and I was really aware of him engaged in that process.

In his films from the 1980s forwards, Egoyan has cherished pre-digital technologies, anticipating their passing. In the early 1990s the Carousel slide projector is already an object of reflective nostalgia for him, and he uses it to animate unreachable images of this place ‘not too far away’. In a slowed-down viewing sequence, showing apparent stills from his film as a series of slides, Egoyan draws attention to the unglamorous mechanics of projection even as Mimi dances like a beautiful automaton. There is something eerie in finding this mechanism, a similar scene, reproduced a decade later in network television. The influence of 1990s independent cinema on recent television drama, and the involvement of the same creative personnel, has been striking. In the particular adventure of the revolving Carousel, affect and critique are shifted. At the end of The Adjuster Noah watches his show home burning to the ground, a conflagration anticipated already in the firelight of the projection sequence. If Mad Men shows Don entering an empty house at the end of episode 13, he nevertheless returns his family to life in the following season as the series continues to unfold. In Home in Hollywood, Elisabeth Bronfen writes:

The pact that we enter into as we pass over the threshold into the virtual home of cinema provides nothing more, but also nothing less, than the promise of provisional happiness, which is, perhaps, the only one we can really hope for.

Unlike The Adjuster, Mad Men restores such happy narratives even as it reveals the technologies, at home and in the studio, by which they are produced.

—Emma Wilson

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