I count myself lucky to be a film lover who lives in the Boston area. As I’ve related often on this blog, my home is in one of the few cities left in the world where just about any day of any week a cinephile can still see movies projected on 35mm film in a real theater. With independent non-profit art-houses like the Brattle Theater, eclectic commercial cinemas like the Somerville Theater, university repositories that host public screenings like the Harvard Film Archive, and museums like the MFA, I could fill my days and nights with celluloid even more than I currently do. That abundance of riches may not be the case for much longer. The folks who know how to run and care for film prints properly—the projectionists—have mostly retired or passed on without handing down their institutional knowledge to younger apprentices, as those in their profession have done for the past hundred years. Many of the last remaining film projectionists, as well as a few newer ones, are the stars of The Dying of the Light, a documentary by Boston-based filmmaker, film writer, and film programmer Peter Flynn.
The movie takes us into the dark, stuffy, cramped little rooms where projectionists have practiced their craft, mostly in anonymity, for the last century. Many of the booths Flynn visits have been derelict since the theaters that house them shut down in the late 1970s. But some are still operating—often with the same equipment used when the venues were built in the 1930s. The passion of projectionists for their solitary, unsung, and not especially lucrative profession comes through clearly in The Dying of the Light, and Flynn captures some of the eccentricities unique to these individuals.
Unfortunately, however, this is one of those documentaries that will only be of interest to audiences who already appreciate the subject—and its meandering nature will exasperate many of them. Like the previous year’s All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, which blew a golden opportunity to fully explore the demise of the record industry through the story of one iconic retail chain, The Dying of the Light provides frustratingly little history or context that would intrigue a lay viewer and that would connect the loss of this profession to larger cultural issues. Instead it mostly consists of many talking heads, often conveying repetitive information or telling very similar stories. For cinema fanatics like me, any chance to hear people who love film talk about their love of film is worthwhile. But for most viewers, watching this movie will be like going to the funeral of someone you didn’t know.
Flynn spends an appropriate amount of time on the origins of motion picture projection and on developments in the duties of projectionist in the early twentieth century. Then he basically skips to the final chapter and draws it out, while still managing to omit much of what’s significant about the present state of the art. The ways that television, suburbanization, and multinational conglomeritization affected the experience of movies, and the work of those who run them, is barely touched on. We learn a little about how drive-ins and multiplexes altered the projectionist’s job, but nothing about how the emergence of non-union theaters threatened their job security. The advent of synchronized sound is well covered, but no mention of the introduction of stereo, Dolby encoding, and digital surroundsound. The differences between 35mm and 70mm are well articulated, both in terms of quality and in difficulty of transport. But we get no follow-up discussion on the various approaches to widescreen presentation nor the rich dimensions these mid-century formats added to the pleasure of movie going, the study of cinema history, and the challenges of film exhibition—all things projectionists love to talk about. The many 3D fads and processes that have come and gone through the decades don’t receive a single mention. How each of these developments impacted the careers of professional projectionists would provide The Dying of the Light with a linear structure capable of supporting all the stories from all the colorful characters Flynn interviews.
More importantly, for a movie about the death of film projection, little screen time is devoted to the many reasons why the industry transitioned to digital and how shortsighted that changeover was. There is a fascinating story here that would appeal to a much broader audience than just the old, pasty-faced curmudgeons like me who will go to this picture regardless. Learning a little about the two sides of the film/digital divide could have clarified how there was really no need to destroy 35mm projectors in order to make room in most booths for the new computerized machines. It could have discussed how this unnecessary loss has come back to haunt many theater owners, film educators, historians, and contemporary moviemakers who want their work to last as long as the work of the generations that came before them. As with the Tower Records movie, the larger cultural, political, and economic narrative behind the specifics of this documentary’s subject is right there waiting to be explored, but the director chooses not to go that route.
The picture’s greatest sin of omission is that it doesn’t acknowledge the small but significant resurgence of celluloid presentation that emerged in the wake of the digital changeover. Aside from a brief discussion about how the Weinstein Company commissioned Boston Light and Sound to rebuild and install 70mm projectors for the release of Quinton Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015, no time is devoted to theater chains like the Alamo Drafthouse or repertory cinemas like New York’s Metrograph that are building new theaters specifically designed to screen 35mm alongside with digital. The fact that The Hateful Eight was not a commercial hit seems to be Flynn’s ultimate pronouncement on the failure of the attempt to resurrect celluloid, but this conclusion is reductive and inexact. None of the projectionists interviewed in this movie discuss running recent features by Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the others who pressured studios and venues to release their films on film and who rescued Kodak—the last manufacturer of motion picture film left in the world—from bankruptcy. Of course, most projectionists I know dislike those filmmakers’ and their movies, but that ironic reality could easily have led to a funny, insightful segment in this otherwise grim and depressing picture.
From its title, The Dying of the Light, I understand that this affectionate tribute is meant as a wake for film exhibitors, not a wake-up for film audiences. But to ignore any positive trends that prove there is still some life left in this craft is a major oversight. True, the mini-revival of 35mm and 70mm may be short lived. It may last less than a decade. But many passionate folks are still out there nurturing this art and trying to keep it alive, not just mourning its demise.