You may not go to a more thought-provoking funeral than the one held for the art of film projection in Peter Flynn’s lovely documentary “The Dying of the Light.” With onscreen commentary and reminiscences by more than 30 projectionists — including those at the Somerville Theatre, the Brattle in Harvard Square, and Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, where the movie opens Friday — the film is an elegy to a century of watching movies and to the craftspeople who made it possible.
The corpse is still warm: In 2008, only 14 percent of US movie theaters had switched from celluloid prints to digital projection, a figure that had climbed to 93 percent just five years later, when Flynn started shooting. The conversion was pushed by the studios, who stood to save millions on shipping costs, and by multiplex chains looking to streamline their operations. It was also the final coffin nail for the old-school art of film projection.
“The Dying of the Light” opens with a scene of cave-diving: Flynn and a young projectionist, Raber Umphenour, prowling through the mouldering dark of the Columbus Theatre in Providence, shuttered since 1979. They proceed by flashlight up to the booth; a copy of Box Office magazine from 1965 lies on the floor. The old carbon arc projectors are still there under layers of dust. Graffiti from projectionists stretches back to opening day in 1926. “YEAH I’M STILL HERE” reads one.
The film interweaves more of these spelunking expeditions to derelict theaters — the Victory in Holyoke, the Michigan in Detroit, the Lansdowne in Lansdowne, Pa., — with interview segments featuring old timers and young acolytes. The nattily dressed David Kornfeld, head projectionist at the Somerville Theatre, regularly returns to guide us through the history of theatrical projection, from its 17th-century magic lantern roots to the changes that roiled the industry in the years following World War II, when the rise of television and the suburbs spelled doom for the grand old 1920s picture palaces.
George Christ, retired projectionist at the Lansdowne, recalls seeing his first movie, Will Rogers’s “Steamboat Round the Bend,” in 1935 and that there was a fire in the “the-ay-ter” when the print caught a spark. Says Kornfeld of the highly flammable nitrate print stock, “You start with gunpowder. What could go wrong?” (The industry switched to “safety film” in the 1950s.)
“The Dying of the Light” understands the rarity of its own occasion: a chance to talk with and celebrate a breed of artisans before they wink out altogether. They were gear-heads who could improvise a quick mechanical fix, aesthetes who could gauge and alter the quality of light, and plain old movie lovers. They tended to live in their booths, and their social lives often didn’t amount to much. They are the unacknowledged priests and priestesses of cinema. Says Dorman Bermingham, one of the few women in the field, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing a person can do. It’s a very tactile thing, film. It wants you to touch it. Not everywhere, but it wants you to touch it.”
You get an overwhelming sense of kinship and continuity here, between young hopefuls like Umphenour and Sara Meyers at the Brattle and Nick Lazzaro at the Coolidge and the older generation to which they’re apprentice — and to the generations before them, as well.
Says Jack Theakston of the Capitol Theatre in Rome, NY, “There’s this kind of beautiful lineage of projectionists learning from projectionists learning from projectionists, all the way back to that guy in 1905 who bought his first Powers projector through a catalogue and had to learn from a manual.” Chapin Cutler, who began as a projectionist in 1960 and now runs exhibition specialists Boston Light and Sound, says “I was being trained by people who started their career in 1910. My knowledge has been translated over 100 years, and not by reading books.”
So where does that knowledge go when all you have to do is shove in a hard drive and push a few buttons? Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the film’s older generation is more sanguine about the inevitable path of progress than the young pups, who feel they’re losing one more thing they can touch. “Why does it have to push us out as operators and push film out as a medium?” wonders the Coolidge’s Lazzaro, while Walter Gonet, retired projectionist at the Victory, makes his own digital films now and philosophizes that “There is no past. There’s only the present and the future’s only a projection. Why look back?”
A final irony, or three: “The Dying of the Light” was shot using digital cameras and will be projected at the Coolidge digitally. The print I saw was a digital copy on a DVD. Film is dead; the cinema lives on. More than one old-timer here references the Wizard of Oz’s plea to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” as the general public’s attitude toward their craft. “The Dying of the Light” pays attention to the men and women behind the curtain, and all of it is overdue.
THE DYING OF THE LIGHT
Written and directed by Peter Flynn. At Coolidge Corner. 95 minutes. Unrated (as G: old images, new ideas).