Abel Ferrara’s Nostalgic Amble Into Film Exhibition’s Past Fails to Illuminate.



Filmmaker Abel Ferrara has made some pretty, ahem, memorable films in his long and lurid career.  A New York director through and through, his recent documentary, The Projectionist, has been promoted as his first such filmic return to his beloved Big Apple.  

Unfortunately, The Projectionist can’t be ballyhooed as a “triumphant return”.  Basically a feature-length on-and-off chat with longtime movie theater owner Nicolas Nicolaou, the film details his life and passion for showing movies.  For the sake of clarification, it should be mentioned that despite the documentary’s title, Nicolaou is actually not a projectionist.  He is first and foremost a businessman who’s owned and operated a number of independent movie houses over the past several decades.  

But the title is the least of The Projectionist’s issues.  Shot piecemeal on what appears to be consumer-grade video cameras and edited with no-frills rudimentary prosumer blah, the movie fails to entrance, to captivate, as any film about the seduction of a life in cinema should.  Nicolaou isn’t the most verbose or camera-ready individual to begin with.  The flow of the piece- generally chronological, tracing his arrival in the U.S. to his first movie theater business to the Times Square boom of adult and art cinemas to bucking the multiplex corporations of today- still manages to wander about.  

The overall feeling isn’t one of control but rather latent confusion.  Ferrara comes and goes from his own film, at one point engaging with a bunch of cinephile youths who just saw Blade Runner 2049 and are keen to dissect it on camera right there outside of Nicolaou’s theater.  A tangent to be sure, but to what purpose?  Surely Ferrara doesn’t believe that such earnest parsing of that particular film is anything unique, even among that age group? 

When Ferrara isn’t doing that, he’s interjecting arbitrary vintage clips into The Projectionist, some of which stop things cold with their explicitness or gore.  Although these might be indicative of the brash fare Nicolaou’s Times Square houses played back in the day, there’s nothing about the conversation with the man himself that is at all congruous with, say, Ferrara’s own Driller Killer.  This is a long way from even that.

A far better detailing of an actual projectionist and past theater owner is filmmaker Matt Barry’s Cinevangelist: A Life in Revival Film (2018), included here as a bonus feature.  The twenty-five-minute short is essentially a locked-camera interview with career projectionist, exhibitor, and sometime-actor in John Waters films, George Figgs.  Here, Figgs engagingly recalls his own formative seduction with cinema and his subsequent drive to share it with others.  Far more animated and engaging that Nicolaou ever is, Figgs goes so far as to detail his love of movies as a kind of religious experience.  At one point, he romantically postulates that in the movie theater, “screens remember the ghosts of all the films that have been projected onto them.” Barry, with little editing or camera movement, wisely allows his subject to carry the whole of Cinevangelist.  

As we collectively begin to move on from COVID-dictated quarantine life, communicating the magic of moviegoing is more important than ever.  The hope with The Projectionist– a film made just prior to the pandemic- was that this new Blu-ray release would in some small way to entice people back to theaters as they’re able.  Instead, we get a meandering ramble about the evolution of the business of exhibition.  Depending on his mood when filming, Nicolaou could be either very bottom line-centric or somewhat nostalgic for the old days of NYC and the neighborhood cinema.  It’s somewhat clear that Ferrara was keen to celebrate the era-gone-by of 1970s gritty Times Square, a scene where he made his own marks.  But that that light doesn’t quite shine.