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  • Suitcase Cinema
  • Haidee Wasson (bio)

When did the film screen grow a handle? In 1939, the Victor Animatograph Company announced a new 16mm film projector, the Victor 40, also known as the "Add-a-Unit." Sold from 1939 to 1947, the machine espoused a devout multimedia modularity (Figures 1 and 2). The Add-a-Unit could be purchased with a range of lenses, a record player, a radio, a microphone, a public address system, a sound recording unit, multiple speakers, and an auxiliary amplifying unit. The Add-a-Unit invited users to create their own live or recorded soundtracks. It allowed them to turn the volume up or down, to make the image bigger or smaller. The projector had the ability to play at different speeds and to be stopped, in order to project a single film frame in suspended form. Thus, the user [End Page 148] exercised a degree of control over key vectors of cinema such as size, speed, volume, illumination, and image density. The Add-a-Unit was presumed—as a projector proper—to be incomplete, sold as it was to be attached to other related media. Also key to completing this particular device was a portable screen, perched opposite the projector, providing the necessary stage for any show. Throughout this period, portable screens and projectors often came in cases integral to their design. A sturdy handle allowed each to be carried with ease.

As when clocks were first attached to wristbands and cassette players to belt clips, the handle of the projector and screen indicates a shift in technological articulation. In the case of this portable pair, there is a rebuff to the professionalized, purpose-built theater and an embrace of the load-bearing, ambulatory human body. The Add-a-Unit, like many portable projectors from this period, was designed to be carried by a single person. It came with finger-friendly knobs and buttons, inviting manipulation, tinkering, and a degree of agency over projected images and amplified sounds. These projectors allowed any person to become a film projectionist, a human-machine hybrid purveying electro-mechanical, audiovisual expression.

The current variety of lightweight moving-image cameras, rapid-fire distribution methods, and pocket-size display gadgets is often understood by invoking the enduring sense that before video, and most certainly before the rise of the digital, the technological apparatus that constituted moving pictures was relatively stable, coherent, and unchanged from its nineteenth-century beginnings. To be sure, the so-called early and silent periods of film history have been complicated by recent scholarship that posits hybridity in film form and theatrical presentation, with its relations to varied spaces, industries, and audiences. The transition to synch-sound cinema has been plainly revealed as an intermedial one.1 Yet, with few exceptions, there remains an overdetermined narrative of a dominant cinematic ideal that endured throughout the midcentury: large and dark room, celluloid, projector, screen, seated audience—in short, the movie theater.

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Figures 1 and 2.

The Victor 40, or "Add-a-Unit," was a multimedia projector that connected to an array of cognate media devices. It was sold from 1939 to 1947 by the Victor Animatograph Corporation, Davenport, Iowa (Papers of the Victor Animatograph Company, Special Collections Department, University of Iowa).

[End Page 149]

The history of portable projectors and the small screens that accompanied them tells the story of a very different kind of cinema from the one we are accustomed to discussing, researching, and theorizing. This is a story of a cinema that readily complicates ideas about a stable cinematic apparatus, providing insight into the variations of design, function, and use that have long characterized but one branch of cinema's technological family tree. In our current media environment saturated with the language of mobility, the concept of portability sounds familiar but also rather quaint. The term, which essentially names the quality of a thing that can be moved, has a complicated genealogy. It has been applied throughout the twentieth century to seemingly huge and permanent things like buildings (e.g., mail-order homes) and to seemingly immaterial and ephemeral things like music. In the context of cinema, the term...


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