Abel Ferrara makes a case for theaters in “The Projectionist”

The Projectionist The Projectionist (Kino Lorber)

Abel Ferrara serves up a moving, fun ode to a moviegoing experience we all miss, even if it ironically needs some focus.

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Late in The Projectionist, Nicolas Nicolaou sums up his ethos thusly: “Business is business for the city… But movie theaters give character to the neighborhood. Movie theaters give life. So it’s about humans, people…” The sentiment is painfully, painfully bittersweet amidst the ongoing pandemic, but it’s still true. 

Abel Ferrara’s The Projectionist, which is donating all profits from screenings to help support local theaters (Please do not go to a theater if it is not safe to go), is a heartfelt ode to a champion of theaters and moviegoing. It’s quite moving and a lot of fun to watch, but it would be a stronger film if it was a bit more focused.

The Projectionist turns on a set of long-running conversations between Nicolaou and Ferrara. In Cyprus, they discuss Nicolaou’s youth on the island, his family’s decision to emigrate to New York, and his eventual return as an adult. In New York, they discuss movie theaters – Nicolaou and the city’s long history with them, the ways they’ve changed across the decades, and their future.

In addition to these conversations, Ferrara inserts archival footage of New York from Nicolaou’s youth. Assorted movie clips demonstrate he types of material that played in his various workplaces – everything from vintage pornography to contemporary indie movies. Late in the picture, Ferrara and Nicolaou take the time to talk to guests at some of Nicolaou’s theaters about the movies they’re going to see and what they thought of them.

Every part of The Projectionist is interesting, but they don’t quite come together as a whole. The film covers decades of Nicolaou’s life and New York cinema history in just over 80 minutes. It discusses major events – Giuliani’s clean-up of Times Square, the crackdown on adult movie theaters, the rise of conglomerate-owned multiplexes, but Ferrara does not have the time to really delve into them in significant detail. 

Nicolaou does discuss his frustrations with the clean-up and the conglomerates, but The Projectionist moves on before the conversations get deeper than an outline of how he felt at the time.

Every part of The Projectionist is interesting, but they don’t quite come together as a whole.

The same goes for the rest of the picture. It’s bursting at the seams with interesting subject matter that screams for more attention than The Projectionist can give to it. The role of New York’s immigrant community in the city’s movie business. The history and culture of New York’s adult movie theaters. The increasing conglomeration of movie theaters into the hands of a few powerful corporations and the shadier side of their business relationship with studios. The role a local movie theater plays in building a community. The rising generation of movie lovers and their relationship to movie-going.

Ferrara approaches all of these subjects with interest and passion – especially when he is on screen. It is a genuine delight to see him banter with Nicolaou or talk to two young movie lovers who’ve just seen Blade Runner 2049. But The Projectionist’s brevity demands Ferrara zip on, so on he zips. It would be a treat to see him and Nicolaou do a deep dive into any one of the many facets of moviegoing that they explore. As it stands, The Projectionist plays a bit like a video game demo. There’s a whole lot of neat stuff, but it’s not a full experience.

The Projectionist is not a bad movie by any means. Nicolaou’s an interesting person who’s lived a fascinating life, and Ferrara’s deep affection for him is evident throughout. It’s a pleasure to watch them talk. The multifaceted movie history it covers is never less than intriguing. But The Projectionist’s short running time really does trip it up. It’s a scattershot love letter to movies, moviegoing, and Nicolas Nicolaou that would be stronger with a narrower focus or more time to tell its story.

The Projectionist is currently playing in select local theaters; we strongly advise you not to go to movie theaters until it is safe to do so.

The Projectionist Trailer:

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