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Dying of the Light, The (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Its audience will find it interesting as much as illuminating."
4 stars

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the protectionist at my neighborhood theater by name when talking to a co-worker, and he took the fact that I knew him by name as a sign that maybe I spent a little too much time there. I doubt he'll see "The Dying of the Light" - documentaries about the last generation of people to regularly handle actual film in theaters are kind of the definition of a specialty production - but if he does, he'll maybe wonder if they should not have been so invisible. The picture does an admirable job of informing without wallowing in things-were-better-back-in-the-day nostalgia, enough that maybe the switch from film to digital would have been a bigger deal had audiences known these guys.

They did once - as the movie relates early on, the protectionist and his equipment were very visible when moron pictures were primarily exhibited in tents and public halls by traveling showmen at the turn off the Twentieth Century, with permanent "picture palaces" and their booths a later innovation. It's a tradition, one historian notes, that has its roots in magic lantern shows that go back to the mid-1600s, although director Peter Flynn spends much more time talking about the changes in technology that came afterward. Xenon bulbs replaced carbon arcs, switching between projectors whose reels held twenty minutes of film was automated and then made unnecessary by player systems, different types of sounds arrived, and 70mm was one of many ways theaters combated competition from television.

Many of these innovations are explained by David Kornfeld, one of the film's technical advisers and head protectionist at the Somerville Theatre (and, yes, the guy I referred to earlier, as that theater is about a block away from my apartment). David, as most Boston-area film fans will tell you, knows his stuff, and he does a good job relaying the information without it being too dry. As the movie goes on, one gets a sense of how passionate he is about his profession and how a lot of people with specialized skills can have a difficult relationship with the new, way of things that make his job harder but equally disgusting of the ones that make things easier, last they make him and his like obsolete.

With Kornfeld handling the nuts and bolts, there is room for the many other protectionists that Flynn speaks with to tell stories and speak about handling film in less technical terms. Though, as might be expected with a film by this title, many are older guys who had been retired for some years by the time the movie was shot in 2013, they're a less homogeneous group than one might predict. One of the older ones is actually enthusiastic about what digital tools allow him to do as a filmmaker, in contrast to the drive-in protectionist who practically boasts that he doesn't like computers. Many speak of apprenticeships that can reach back to the dawn of the medium, and though many rite that system's passing, there is a younger generation out there, at least in places with strong film communities. Many have stories that may merit a bit more elaboration - we hear that it was not uncommon for union protectionists to start off in adult theaters and work their way up to better assignments, for instance, or how hot and cozy a two-person both could get - but overall, it's an amusing collections of stories and personalities.

Flynn doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the pressures that put a lot of theaters out of business as well as the projectionists - that story's been told a few times - but the scenes that show these booths passing into history (or already there) are some of the most fascinating, with the film opening on two projectionists entering a theater's original projection room which has been sealed for decades. There's a visit to the famously gutted Michigan Theater in Detroit (once a 4000-seat palace now used as a parking lot) to salvage its projectors, a look at an overgrown drive-in, and several cases of projectors being removed. This is countered, of course, by how when a long-retired projectionist fires up the machines in his long-closed theater, those hardy machines run.

For the most part, Flynn's filmmaking is simple but effective; though the film is mostly interviews with a few archival photographs, he's able to frame things in interesting ways, effectively alternating between the tight quarters of the booth and the often expansive area of big auditoria. He doesn't get overly cute with certain contrasts but lets them stick in the audience's head, like when a retired projectionist talks about how "candy girls" were being put in the booth, and we're later introduced to a projectionist who did start out behind the concession stand and makes note of how the first movie she projected on her own was Inglorious Basterds, which notable has a woman running the films. There's also a repeated shot of a film visible through the portal in a corner of the frame that is called back toward the end, as lights fade and all that's visible is a drive-in projectionist's taillights in the same position as he leaves his last day.

I admit that it's tough for me to objectively discuss this film, as it spends significant time in not just my neighborhood theater, but the one I made was in easy walking distance when I first moved to the area (Cambridge's Brattle Theatre) and the one in which I was seeing the film (Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theatre), covering something I sometimes struggle to convince people is important. It's nice enough but will probably mostly appeal to those likely to spend it nodding in agreement, a category to which I readily admit belonging.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30378&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/14/16 12:08:04
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USA
  08-Apr-2016 (NR)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  08-Apr-2016


Directed by
  Peter Flynn

Written by
  Peter Flynn

Cast
  (documentary)



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