The digital revolution represents the biggest shift in the exhibition sector since the ‘multiplex boom' of the 1980s. Old-school projection booths, once the beating heart of the cinema-going experience, have all but vanished, replaced by sterile environments housing touch-screen monitors filled ‘encrypted files’. Dying of the Light is a stirring, melancholy account of American film exhibition up to this moment in time; a point in film history that threatens to reduce to museum pieces 1000s of spools of classic film storytelling and the grand machines that lit them up. In his moving, insightful film, director Peter Flynn, Senior Scholar-in-Residence at Boston’s Emerson College, profiles the projectionists who have forged generations of film-going memories and who are now faced with a ‘change or perish’ life choice. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his loving tribute to the art and romance of movies…
SCREEN-SPACE: Where did your passion for the moving image and how it is presented and preserved originate?
FLYNN: I’ve always loved film. My earliest memories are of the large-screen cinemas of Dublin City, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s—the Ambassador, the Savoy, and the Adelphi. Back then it was not uncommon to spend two hours waiting outside in the rain for the doors to open and for the show to start. But it was worth it. To enter those old theaters, with their ornate surroundings and lush carpeting, their balconies and curtained screens, was to enter another world. Going to the cinema was something special back then, and it remained so throughout my childhood. The Dying of the Light digs deep into those memories, I suppose. Try as I might to be balanced in the film, its by no means objective.
SCREEN-SPACE: As a lover of film culture and academic dedicated to film history, how did the research period and the trips to hollow, dilapidated halls in small towns impact you?
FLYNN (pictured, right): The image of the ruined abandoned movie theatre/projection booth became a sort of visual metaphor in the film, I suppose; a way to underscore the loss and ruination of the practice of film-handing and projection. It was also the right place to start—with this palpable sense of loss, of better days gone by. The idea of the projection booth as an archeological site fascinated me from the start. So many had the feeling of being tomb-like—relics of an older order, filled with the possessions of the dearly departed. It was not uncommon as late as three or four years ago to enter a projection booth and find traces of the very early stages of film’s history. Fire shutters dating back to the nitrate days which lasted up until the 1950s; old 1,000 foot reels, which would have held silent films of the 1920s; notes written on the walls from one projectionist to another; old magazines tucked away in corners. Projectionists spent so much of their lives in those little rooms. How could they retire without leaving something of themselves behind? So the film was inherently sad, or inherently reverential in a way. But I’m also Irish and I entered into this with the idea that the film would be a wake—mixing the sad and the solemn with a spirit of tribute and celebration, with humor and energy. I hope balance comes across.
SCREEN-SPACE: The film walks a fine line between eulogising a dying/dead aspect of the industry and celebrating its impact. Was it a struggle not to succumb to the sombre, sad loss of film projection?
FLYNN: Yes, it’s a very fine line. And I did struggle at times to temper my own nostalgia for, or romanticization of “the good old days.” But as a documentary maker you have to listen to your interviewees. And not all waxed lyrical on the old days. Nor were all critical of the new digital technologies—some “old-timers” embraced the future. The final lines in the film, spoken by one of the older projectionists (ironically to one of the younger ones), ask that we look ahead to the future, not the past. And I thought that was a very important note to end on—a corrective to the romantic view that so many of us can easily fall into. (Pictured, above; David Kornfeld, projectionist at the Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Massachusetts).
SCREEN-SPACE: How much did your film's tone waver in post-production?
FLYNN: Post-production is where you (hopefully) find the right balance. You go out with your camera, you follow your gut, you engage emotionally and instinctually—in other words “on the fly”—with the world you are capturing and then you come back and you have to edit intellectually. You have to moderate all the voices you find, give each its proper weight in the film, and hopefully find the right balance in the end.
SCREEN-SPACE: Did you notice defining personality traits that were common across the projectionists you interviewed? What drove these men and women to commit to a life inside a small, dark room?
FLYNN: There is certainly a love and devotion to cinema uniting these people, but there’s a lot more besides. There’s a commitment they all share to a quality of performance that is lacking today—to the idea of doing a job to the best of your ability, whether you’re acknowledged for that or not; and also to a notion of showmanship, which is likewise missing today. The projection booth is a place of arrested development in many ways. Its easy to hold onto older practices, older standards, when you’re isolated from the rest of the world as you are in the booth. As such, many projectionists may be seen to be out of step with contemporary culture, or normal social conventions—a hazard of spending too much time alone in a darkened room, I suppose—but, without exception, the people I interviewed for this film were wonderful; very warm and welcoming, open and generous. Many have become good friends. (Pictured, above; projectionist Dave Leamon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
SCREEN-SPACE: You address the recent release of The Hateful Eight, noting that it was ultimately a box office disappointment. But the initial 70mm 'roadshow' screenings were sell-outs. Does this indicate that large-scale film projection may still have a place as a 'prestige ticket' event?
FLYNN: The success or failure of The Hateful Eight in relation to the future of 70mm has yet to be determined. It’s a case of “wait and see.” My guess is that 70mm will pop up periodically in specialty theaters (but) not on the grander multiplex scale that the Weinstein Company and Tarantino had hoped for. For me, the great visual surprise of the holiday season was not The Hateful Eight in 70mm, but Star Wars in 4K Digital 3D. It was the best digital presentation I have ever seen. That seems to be the future of large-format, large-screen presentations. That does not imply that there is no room for 70mm presentations. In fact, the arrival of digital does not, or rather should not, imply the complete eradication of film presentations. There’s room for both—maybe less room for film than we’d like, but room for both nonetheless. Theaters like the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, prove conclusively that there’s still a place for analog film in commercial exhibition. And that more than anything makes me feel there’s a future, albeit a limited one, for 70mm.