‘The Dying of the Light’: Film Review

Meet the last of the old-school projectionists.

A doc that isn’t nearly as funereal as its title suggests, The Dying of the Light demonstrates at most that a certain charming way of life — not cinema itself — is being killed by the transition from film to digital projection in theaters. One part history of the movie business, three parts exploration of the projectionist’s monastic lifestyle, the very enjoyable film has little to say about the new tech’s impact on cinema itself or the moviegoer’s experience. One suspects that Peter Flynn chose his melodramatic title in advance and stuck with it even after some of his charming interviewees — who together represent hundreds of years of exhibition experience — failed to share its apocalyptic view. Cinephiles should respond warmly to the film at fests and in niche theatrical presentations.

Flynn, a prof at Boston’s Emerson College, sticks mostly to the Northeast here, visiting small community theaters and digging through several ruined palaces that haven’t shown a movie since the ‘70s or ‘80s. Analog projectors were built like tanks, one retired projectionist shows us, applying the little bit of elbow grease required to get a long-dormant system back to life.

The Bottom Line

A treat for cinephiles that isn’t quite what its title suggests.

But plenty of finesse was required to keep the projectors operating for several shows daily, and Flynn enjoys talking to seniors who learned the machines’ intricacies from their predecessors. One of the increasingly rare jobs where apprenticeship was the only means of entry, the projectionist’s craft ensured a tutor-pupil lineage stretching back to the glory days of moviegoing.

David Kornfield, of Somerville Theater in Massachusetts, is one of our most animated guides here, helping Flynn track how the projectionist’s role evolved from being a key part of the event (hand-cranking projectors at the back of a small room) to the “man behind the curtain” who ruled for decades. But the chipper, nattily dressed Kornfield doesn’t supply the most colorful stories about what it was like to spend long, lonely nights in that little overheated projection booth. From the woman who had to make her apprenticeship in porn grindhouses to the gruff old dude who clashed with rowdy drive-in patrons, Flynn finds plenty of voices to balance the doc’s more academic side.

As it charts how rapidly new DCP systems replaced cumbersome film projectors, the doc only discusses image quality briefly, comparing today’s digital images with the glory of 70mm — and speculating about the possible impact of Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming The Hateful Eight, for which the Weinstein Company has arranged to refurbish scores of out-of-commission large-format projectors. Moviegoers who prefer even a battered 16mm print to multiplex precision will have to look elsewhere for someone to champion the glow of celluloid from a viewer’s perspective: For many of the pros interviewed here, digital is just one more sea change in an industry that has endured plenty since the days of the magic lantern.

Director-Producer-Director of photography-Editor: Peter Flynn

No rating, 94 minutes