Now playing at Cinema Detroit, documentary filmmaker Peter Flynn's The Dying of the Light (not to be confused with the Paul Schrader drama of the same name) is a positively heartbreaking love letter to cinephiles, covering the history of film projection from it's initial inception to the slow and gradual death as the advent of digital DCP projection continues to force projectionists out of retirement and close struggling movie houses. Comprised of many visits to movie palaces and local cinemas throughout the country with many interviews with projectionists who have either retired or are still trying to keep the fading tradition alive, Flynn's documentary is as much of a history lesson for those interested in the art of film projection as well as a kind of farewell to the illusion of movement through 24 frames per second film exhibition. Contrary to other documentaries about film vs. digital which would encompass the points of view from the artists making the films, The Dying of the Light comes directly from the people who were inside the projection booth with many fond, bittersweet memories of a bygone era that is slowly but surely becoming a tragic thing of the past. For someone like myself who has gone out of their way to see movies projected on film over digital, hearing the confessionals from the brave men and women who made the illusion of cinema possible for so many decades was simultaneously enlightening and tragic to behold.
Highlighting many theaters including but not limited to once great movie palaces that are now derelicts with torn curtains and eroding theater seats, The Dying of the Light achieves the rare feat of reminiscing on the past while looking ahead to the present. As our documentary filmmaker cracks open doors of projection booths that have been under lock and key for decades, you can hear the heartfelt sadness the projectionists and film preservation historians feel in their voice as they come upon the dust and cobweb covered machinery. One of the great things about the documentary is that if you don't know the differences between nitrate film, 16mm, 35mm or 70mm, you will know the intricacies of each format inside and out by the time the film is over. Tracing the history of film projection development over the course of the century, beginning from the late 1800s to the 1940s around the time television posed a very real threat to the industry's survival, the experience was both educational and exciting to see some of my favorite film formats systematically broken down so you understood fully why the technical differences matter so much to cinephiles.
As fate would have it, much like the VHS vs. Betamax war and the soon to be HD-DVD vs. blu-ray war, the invention of sound motion pictures also underwent a war between the Vitagraph which was a giant vinyl record used to play the film's soundtrack and the soon to be standard practice of printing the soundtrack directly onto the film print itself. The film also highlights the recent 70mm roadshow release of The Hateful Eight and all the painstaking work which went into rebuilding the projectors used to make the limited theatrical engagements possible. One of the most startling revelations in the film are the hard drives mailed out to theaters to make DCP digital projection possible with one projectionist remarking that eighteen reels of film weighing around 500 pounds can now be held in your hand weighing just under 10 pounds. I was shocked to learn there aren't any real training programs for anyone who wants to become a film projectionist with much of the knowledge merely passed on via word of mouth from generation to generation.
If you knew little to nothing about all the hard work that goes into this now soon to be dormant art, you'll know virtually everything about it by the time The Dying of the Light is over. One of the most profoundly sad documentaries about the film industry since Lost in La Mancha, it is as much of a loving tribute to a bygone era as well as a gift to cinephiles who still care about film exhibition and don't want to see it go away. Despite films like The Hateful Eight, Mad Max: Fury Road and Batman vs. Superman getting bona fide celluloid prints, the film industry has almost entirely gone the digital route while still charging the same ticket price with a fraction of the quality and care which went into showing an actual film to audiences. Many of the key players in this documentary have either retired, moved onto other jobs while grudgingly closing down the movie houses or struggled to maintain the art with revival screenings of older films. Film projection might be nearing the death throes but with the help of this new documentary which is essential viewing for all cinephiles, The Dying of the Light ensures the history of film projection will live forever.
- Andrew Kotwicki