There isn’t much actual rage against the dying of the light in Boston filmmaker Peter Flynn’s new film, “The Dying of the Light.” But there is a great deal of sadness.
Flynn’s documentary is about the few projectionists who still run film at indie theaters, several of them in Boston, and it’s an elegy to the craft. It’s also a love letter to the artisans and odd characters who, alone and out of sight, work their magic for moviegoing purists who still appreciate all that celluloid has to offer.
Flynn, who teaches at Emerson College, arrived at his subject about three years ago as the shift from film to digital projection was nearly complete. He found a few local theaters — the Brattle, Somerville, and Coolidge Corner among them — still projecting film at least some of the time and using trained projectionists. Their movie presentation skills once were prized, but there isn’t much technique required to program a digital projector, which can even be done remotely.
“I’d always loved film and filmmaking but I had no idea how it was handled and projected in that booth behind my back,” Flynn says.
Even over the brief time that Flynn was making his documentary — shot digitally, by the way — the landscape changed drastically. “When I started, the chains had already converted but there were still some indie screens with reel-to-reel and carbon arcs,” he says. “I wish I’d made this film 30 years ago when the connection to the past was greater.”
Flynn visits several cinemas, such as the Columbus Theatre in Providence and the 4,000-seat Michigan Theatre in Detroit, that shuttered long ago. Accompanied by flashlight-wielding projectionists, he excavates booths with projection equipment still eerily intact. “It was an archeological dig through layers of the past,” says Flynn. He and David Kornfeld, head projectionist at the Somerville Theatre and Flynn’s technical adviser, visit the Sutton Motor-In, a decaying, defunct drive-in. “We just hopped a fence. The place was forgotten; people were disinterested. You just push open a door and have access to a place once so alive and filled with emotion,” says Flynn.
Flynn says his first cut of the film was bleak, owing to his emotional state while making it. “You have to acknowledge [film projection] is dead or dying; there’s no way to sugarcoat that. But I was preoccupied with loss in the beginning.”
That loss was also personal. An eight-year romantic relationship had just ended. The old-timers he interviewed reminded him of his deceased grandparents and “conversations I never got to have.”
Still, Flynn says, when he “pulled back in the editing process,” he found some glimmers of light. Though the melancholy is there, Flynn also knew he’d discovered an untapped reservoir of film history seen through the eyes of projectionists.
“Each booth has traces of film history, each projectionist left something of himself or herself,” notes Flynn. “The booths were exotic spaces to me. . . . The machinery itself is from an era when things were built to last and built to be beautiful. There’s no reason for a Peerless [brand of projector] to be ornate; no one is going to see it except the projectionist. But there was such pride in that era.”
Nick Lazzaro, head projectionist at the Coolidge, remembers the day in 2013 when the sleek digital projector was installed in the booth. “The only place for it to fit was where the projectionists would sit; we had a chair and some books there. It was like it was literally pushing us out.” But Lazzaro made his peace with digital and actually considers himself lucky; like others who work repertory houses that show old movies, he still gets to run film sometimes.
Lazzaro says Flynn captures the responsibility that projectionists feel for the films in their custody, as well as the quirkier parts of the job. He cites grizzled operator Paul Bader, the longtime projectionist at the Northfield Drive-In, who recounts “how he pulled a gun on kids who threw a firecracker into his booth. He’s the real deal,” says Lazzaro. “Those are the kinds of stories that mythologize the booth.”
That’s what kept driving Flynn to document the people he met and the cramped, colorful spaces they inhabited.
“So much is in danger of being lost or forgotten. There’s no book with this information in it; it’s just been passed down. It’s an oral culture, in a way,” he says. “One projectionist [Bob Throop] died two weeks after my interview. That underscored for me that fading away meant forever, that all this could be lost entirely.”
‘You have to acknowledge [film projection] is dead or dying; there’s no way to sugarcoat that. But I was preoccupied with loss in the beginning.’
Kornfeld calls himself “a dinosaur” and says he has the distinction of being “the last full-time working union projectionist in the jurisdiction” (all the others are non-union).
“The craft is gone. Kids learn it wrong because there’s no [old-timers] left to teach,” he says. “In the past you attached yourself to a guy and they trained you. Their knowledge base was gigantic. No kids are coming to me saying, ‘I want to be a projectionist.’ ”
After seeing this film, they just might.
There will be a special preview screening of “The Dying of the Light” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday at 7 p.m. with director Peter Flynn and several of the projectionists featured in the film in attendance. The movie opens Friday. For more information, go to www.coolidge.org.Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.