DVD: Dying of the Light (2015)

January 5, 2017 | By

DyingOfTheLight2015_sFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  First Run Features

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  December 6, 2016

Genre:  Documentary / Film History

Synopsis: Very affecting documentary on film projectionists, and their arc from integral participants in film exhibition to itinerant artisans as digital projection reduces the demand to screen film prints.

Special Features:  4 Deleted Scenes: “Terry Borton” (2:48) + “Rick Shamel” (3:08) + “Andrew Mungo” (1:15) + “16mm Film Collectors” (4:49).




Shot between 2013-2015, Peter Flynn’s documentary is a bittersweet portrait and homage to the dying skill of the film projectionist in an age where digital cinemas leapt from dominating 18% of screens in 2008 to 93% five years later.

There are several strands that repeatedly crossover each other, but the main anchor and de factor emcee is projectionist David Kornfeld, who explains the film projector’s main predecessors including the iconic magic lantern, and the evolution of that technology to slide and movie film strips which remained the standard form of movie exhibition for decades.

We’re shown how projectors work, their use in primordial cinemas, the elegance of movie palaces, the pop culture of drive-ins, the megaplex, carbon arc and xenon projector lights, and reels and platters. Also spotlighted are struggling indie cinemas like the former Fremont and their poignant tales of trying to meet the needs of filmgoers as studios scale back the availability of film prints, and female projectionists who broke the glass ceiling in what was an exclusive boy’s club.

The battle to retain the artistry of the projectionist is distilled into a simple axiom early in Flynn’s doc: convenience trumps everything, and in the era of digital exhibition, it’s easy to see why studios would switch from heavy cans of film to a hard drive shipped in a case smaller than a handbag.

As host Kornfeld traces the evolution an decline of film, Flynn cuts back to the doc’s opening scene where a projectionist enters the long untouched projection room of the Victory Theatre on Holyoak, MS, which opened in 1920 and was shuttered in 1979. That continuing montage is contrasted with a later visit to Detroit’s former Michigan Theatre (now an indoor parking lot) where film projector collector Tom Wilson gained permission to enter a sealed-off stairwell and remove remnants of the projectors; the last print screening at indie cinema The Screening Room months before it reopened with digital projectors; and the Lansdowne Theatre, PA, where a projectionist and electrician turn on and screen a film after the gear and electrical systems lay dormant since the 1986.

Flynn’s camera is also present when a retiring projectionist rips out the projection gear at a drive-in slated for a digital renovation, and there’s the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival showing Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) – one of its last film projections before a swap to digital.

Dying is steeped with nostalgia and love for film, but it doesn’t take sides and paint the switch to digital as evil. What’s tragic is the knowledge that resides among a select few film projectionists, and the apprentice system that is only way someone can learn how to screen film, its assorted gauges, and specific ratios.

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) is highlighted due to the director and studio’s determination to screen 70mm prints of the film, but Flynn acknowledges that their effort proved disappointing, failing to ignite a resurgence or movement to bring back 35mm film to cinemas. Tarantino’s gamble and bullheadedness was valiant, and if anything 1) saved rare 70mm projection gear from the dumpster (with restoration work conducted by Boston Light & Sound); 2) recreated the magic of a classic Road Show Engagement; and 3) exposed audiences to the beauty of celluloid film which in any gauge should remain an option for all filmmakers.

First Run Features’s DVD features a few extended interviews that work better as standalone additions in a separate gallery. Terry Borton of The American Magic Lantern Theatre describes his commitment to training new apprentices in the art of the film projector’s progenitor, the magic lantern, a highly influential and beloved device that Ingmar Bergman wrote about in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, and whose function was demonstrated in Fanny & Alexander (1978).

Software engineer Rick Shamel didn’t make the final edit, and his segment shows him at home, working two projectors the acquired that were slated for the junkyard. A slightly extended version of Rick Mungo talking of the last film print screening at The Screening Room (“good riddance!”) offers a contrasting view of film as a physically cumbersome medium besotted with toxic chemicals.

And finally, there’s a longer segment on The Landsdowne Theatre, PA, that focuses exclusively on 16mm film collectors, a format that lasted for decades and was killed off within 10 years after home video’s rapid adoption by the general public. It’s a highly bittersweet vignette that has collectors describing the inevitable decay of rare and treasured prints of classic films which disintegrated due to vinegar syndrome. The irony is that videotape, the format that pushed 16mm film to the curb, is equally fragile, and has its own gradual slope where tape becomes unplayable as metal particles flake of, or turn into sticky goo.

While there’s no director commentary or making-of featurette, the film stands as a homage to a an artful trade which perhaps in less than 10 years will ultimately exist in niche markets playing rare contemporary film-shot releases and archival prints, as the studios push film farther towards obsolescence.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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