Monday, 18 June 2012

Reel histories: "The Last Projectionist"

As anyone who's tried to pick up 6Music on a train passing through the Chilterns or attempted to watch absolutely anything at all on the ITV Player will be aware, the digital age isn't all it's cracked up to be: where analogue waves were always present in some form, however faint, digital - being chiefly a matter of ones and zeros - is either there (and coming through loud, clear and devoid of interference, which is great) or it isn't (which is just plain annoying). The slightly mistitled documentary The Last Projectionist, a spot of extracurricular tinkering from director Tom Lawes, strives to tell something of this story, while also recounting the history of British cinema exhibition, from combustible nitrates to pristine digital, through that of the cinema Lawes himself owns: the chameleonic Electric (formerly the Select, the Tatler, and then the Jacey) on Station Street, Birmingham.

As one might expect from a work that approaches cinemas themselves with the reverence usually reserved for cathedrals in BBC4 documentaries, there's an element of preaching to the converted cinephile about Lawes's film. Its target audience would appear to be the patrons and managers of those provincial arthouses who are understandably concerned about the demise of conventional, bespoke projection, and the costs attached to the digital upgrade currently demanded of them. The historical narrative the film ventures - addressing the post-War boom years in exhibition, the lows of the Eady levy and Eskimo Nell, and the double-edged sword of the subsequent multiplex revolution (where, as one erstwhile projectionist puts it, "you put the film on to sell the sweets") - has been so well-rehearsed in textbooks that Lawes has no qualms about framing it through the reminiscences of five men of a certain age, ex-projectionists all, sipping beer in a pub; the outlook is so parochial that indie cinemas can be compared to Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range, on the assumption its audience will be wholly familiar with the concept.

Using one cinema as representative of the whole - particularly when the director making these choices owns that cinema - can be a little problematic: the final sequence falls somewhere between hymn to and advert for the new Electric, and the occasional filler scene of Lawes and his employees pottering around the cinema's backrooms and upper floors will, I suspect, be of more interest the closer you are to the Bull Ring. The irony, of course, is that The Last Projectionist is the kind of project that could only have its moment in British cinemas thanks to digital's reduction of production and distribution costs, and Lawes is perhaps aware of this. His film is an affectionate watch, blessed with the traditional appeal of watching and listening to individuals who love and care about what it is they do; whatever its limitations elsewhere, it strikes just about the right balance between fogeyish lament for a bygone age, and an inquisitive, good-natured peer ahead to forthcoming digital attractions.

The Last Projectionist opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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