Summer 2012 has been quite the summer of the documentary in terms of the number of documentary films given theatrical releases.
One that has quietly been touring the UK and gathering attention is Tom Lawes’ Last Projectionist, a self-financed, quasi-professional film by the owner of Birmingham’s Electric Cinema, which is apparently the oldest working cinema in the UK.
The film does a few things: it tells the story of that cinema, mapping its ups and downs, its rebrandings and reopenings against the backdrop of twentieth century history and a history of twentieth century cinemagoing; it tells of the decline of polyester-based cinema and of the conversion towards digital projection in cinemas, not least through the eyes of various Birmingham-based projectionists who gather to reminisce about old times; it elaborates the importance of the cinema as a specific venue in which to regard and to revere film; and it speaks of a love of cinema in all of its forms that is both touching and inspiring.
The film adopts an anecdotal approach to its various themes, but instead of this meaning that the film is unstructured (as were, for example, Tom Lawes’ anecdotes during the Q&A with him that I saw after a screening at the Curzon Soho), the film becomes all the more human and warm for this very reason.
For The Last Projectionist reminds us of several things that are very important, and yet which are easy for us to forget. All of the things about which the film reminds us are linked – and, oddly enough, they are linked in some respects by pertaining to the opposite of everything that mainstream cinema promotes.
What do I mean by this?
What I mean by this is that The Last Projectionist celebrates that which is often unseen and/or overlooked by mainstream cinema, because mainstream cinema would not deem such things worthy of its attention.
What are the examples of this?
Well, the examples of this are both in the film, but they also are the film itself, particularly if one casts aside the fact that the film does in part function as an advert for the Electric – as well as a celebration of cinemagoing more generally.
Examples in the film.
Well, the film is in part about projectionists. Projectionists are the invisible presence in cinemas – men (typically) whom we never see, but who are hidden away behind us in their booths showing films. In other words, The Last Projectionist reminds us of the important role that projectionists in particular and perhaps technicians in general play in the cinema experience.
Indeed, the assembled projectionists in Lawes’ film have mucked in in general at the cinemas where they have worked: dealing not just with reels of movies, but with the maintenance and upkeep of the cinema theatres in general.
Secondly, then, the film also reminds us of the importance of the theatrical venue itself. Lawes himself reminisces fondly about how the venue is as important as the film in terms of the cinema experience – something that Gabriele Pedullà has also written about recently, not least in the context of people watching more and more films on their laptops in anonymous and/or domestic spaces that are not dedicated to the film alone.
Thirdly, The Last Projectionist reminds us that cinema in the UK is not just about Soho and various studios in and around London. From the Brummie accents to the social history that the film offers (Lawes interviews his grandmother-in-law, who remembers the earliest film screenings in Birmingham, as well as various other details of life throughout the years), the film is as much a paean to Birmingham as it is to cinema. Perhaps an overlooked aspect of the film, nonetheless it is fantastic to see onscreen a major city that was at one time a chamber in the beating heart of England and which remains one of the most important cities in the contemporary UK.
Fourthly, a kind of combination of the last two points, The Last Projectionist show normal, working and middle class people, talking about normal, working and middle class life – a kind of democratic cinema that is interested in normal people and what they do, and which is all too rare in a mainstream cinema that is interested not in how everyone is remarkable but in demarcating how only certain people and things are remarkable.
(That said, while the film celebrates cinema owners who have created remarkable and comfortable spaces in which to watch films, and while it takes time to denigrate the cinema chains with their fast food approach to film viewing, The Last Projectionist does not take time to question whether the ‘bourgeoisification’ of cinemagoing at art house and repertory venues fundamentally excludes from art house cinema and from a sense of film history the working classes who traditionally supported cinema in a/the most widespread fashion – by going to watch films.)
What is more, The Last Projectionist fifthly and repeatedly reminds us that mainstream cinemas have through the ages often been propped up by the hidden undergrowth of film production, namely soft- and hard-core pornography. The Electric itself – in various of its incarnations – has screened skin flicks, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The point is no less simple than to say that these supposedly seedier aspects of the film industry have in fact helped to keep theatrical venues afloat in the face of economic downturns, competition from home film viewing and television, and so on. We should remember that cinema as a whole is a complex ecosystem in which all parts have their role to play – and that to remove one aspect would disrupt the whole in a fundamental and perhaps detrimental way.
And, finally, the style of Lawes’ film itself reminds us that cinema in its most well-known, widely advertised, and economically rich manifestations relies precisely upon grassroots filmmaking at this level. Lawes may not be a twenty something hipster (he’s an early 40s hipster if his IMDb date of birth is accurate), but it is evident that he makes films not strictly for business purposes/industrial reasons, but because he loves cinema, he loves the venue of cinema, the experience of the theatre, and the many types of film that are on offer. Without this, all of your self-important Hollywood stars who – to generalise enormously and unjustly – believe that the world owes them their wealth because of their supreme talent (a mythology hard not to believe about oneself if one is surrounded always by flashing lights) – well, these Hollywood stars would be nothing. Their stardom is dependent on normal people in Birmingham, England (some 5,335 miles away) – as it is dependent on viewers in Sabang, Salta and Salalah.
Although not strictly amateur, then, the independence of The Last Projectionist makes it truly emblematic of the foundations upon which the most professional cinema relies.
As polyester-based film becomes a thing of the past, it disappears into darkness. In fact, the film strip itself was always invisible – the contents of its images occupying the attention of most viewers who gave – and perhaps still give – no thought to how the images get to the screen.
In a sense, then, The Last Projectionist is a celebration of darkness – of that darkness which upholds and creates the conditions for the beauty of the images on the screen. If the theatrical experience is more intense than watching films ‘in broad daylight’, it is because the room is in darkness – it is invisible. And so of all of the things that make of The Last Projectionist a total delight, what links them is darkness, the fact that they are normally overlooked. And this infuses the film on every level.
In many ways, any film lover should watch The Last Projectionist: it is a lesson in film history, as well as a testimony to the power of cinema. But it is also a democratic (enough) film that it reminds us that even stars need the surrounding darkness in order for their lustre to seem so bright.