If you have a love for film history, old machinery, or just old stuff in general, this is definitely a film for you.
For most of the history of the movies, the images projected on the big screen have been created by shining a light through film. Many other changes have been made in the components of this process—the addition of sound in the 1920s, the switch from celluloid to acetate film in the 1950s, and the development of widescreen technologies in the 1950s—but for over a century there were no fundamental changes in the way most people saw movies in theatres.
Digital technologies changed all that. In 2008 only 14 percent of movie screens in the United States used digital projection, while by 2013, 93 percent did. We still call them “films” but the typical experience of seeing a film in a theatre now involves projection of digital images shipped on a hard drive and downloaded to a computer. I’m not sure most film-goers care about the difference between a movie projected from a film print, as compared to one projected digitally (after all, many people now watch movies on their phones or tablets), but it’s a sufficiently large change in the movie business that it should not pass unnoticed.
Peter Flynn’s documentary The Dying of the Light is a tribute to the old days of celluloid and acetate film and the projectionists who made it all happen. Along the way, it offers up a little potted history of the movies, from magic lanterns and nickelodeons to the present, noting how the culture of movie going as well as the movies themselves has changed over the years. But Flynn’s main focus is on the process of projecting film, and if you have a love for film history, old machinery, or just old stuff in general, this is definitely a film for you.
Flynn is more interested in the experience of being a projectionist than he is in the characteristics of the image projected (the latter being the reason people like me care about film vs. digital—the quality of the film image is much higher), and spends a lot of time shooting in old movie palaces and projection booths, both in active theatres and in those that have been abandoned. He also interviews quite a few collectors and projectionists, with David Kornfeld of the Somerville (Massachusetts) Theatre providing much of the technical and historical information about projection systems and equipment.
There’s a definite note of nostalgia among the older projectionists featured in these interviews, as you would expect to find with any group of people whose job has largely become obsolete. They speak fondly of learning their craft through apprenticeship, of the tactile feel of operating a film projector, and of their pleasure in training younger projectionists. At the same time, they don’t downplay the disadvantages of film projection, from working in a hot, smoky booth to the need to improvise repairs to the projectors (because, like any mechanical thing, they tend to break down with use).
Flynn also interviews are also some young projectionists who work in the few remaining theatres that still play films (which has not so much disappeared as become a specialty found mainly in specific theatres in major cities). While most of the projectionists are male, one of the two women interviewed proves to have the liveliest opinions. Dorman Bemingham, projectionist for the Bruno Walter auditorium of the New York Public Library, learned her trade in pornographic theatres and likes the manual experience of feeding film through a projector to sex: “Film wants you to touch it. Not everywhere. But it does want you to touch it.” | Sarah Boslaugh
The Dying of the Light will be screened at 8:00 p.m. on June 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO, 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University staff and faculty, and are free for Webster University students with proper ID. Further information about tickets is available here and the film series calendar is available here.