The gentrified life of film screens


(versão em português aqui)

Last month, news circulated that the Trump administration plans to end the Paramount decree, the late 1940s antitrust decree that prohibits movie studios from directly engaging with film exhibition. This is probably the most impactful law on how the American film industry has organized itself over the past seven decades, and given Hollywood centrality to the rest of commercial cinema, it affects us all in some way. Since I heard the news I have been thinking a lot about Abel Ferrara’s documentary The Projectionist, one of the best films I saw in this year’s São Paulo Film Festival.

The starting point of Ferrara’s film is a portrait of Nicolas Nicolaou, a Cypriot film exhibitor who has been involved with the New York exhibition market from the 1960s until today. The film alternates between a visit by Ferrara and his family to Nicolaou in Cyprus with a conversation between Ferrara and Nicolaou in New York about the latter’s business. And so between an affluent home and city streets. It is almost a home movie (in the scenes in Cyprus, Ferrara is always highlighting the presence of his wife and young daughter), a film very proud not only of its intimacy, but of how it plays like an amateur film. When I was among friends after the screening, we even joked that Nicolaou almost certainly funded the movie from his own pocket.

Throughout the film, Ferrara gives ample opportunity for the exhibitor to speak on first person about his experiences and he is visibly pleased with the ego boost the film represents, but if The Projectionist was a film about Nicolaou instead of a film throughout Nicolaou, I’d probably wouldn’t be here talking about it. Consider the incongruity of its title: there is no projectionist here, no figure who operates an old film projector. Nicolaou is an exhibition businessman who once worked in old low-rent theaters in the Times Square area. The idea of ​​the projectionist exists here much more as a symbolic and political gesture that Nicolaou’s business and trajectory serve well. What is fascinating about The Projectionist is that it is a film about cinema and society, public spaces and how these things all connect and reflect each other. In short, it is a film about New York gentrification, but it is also a film about the gentrification of the act of going to the movies.

The Projectionist is an essay on how we went from Putney Swope to Blade Runner 2049. The latter serves as a constant reminder of contemporary cinema partly because its billboards were scattered around the city at the time of filming and a lot because of its symbolic power. As soon as Putney Swope is name-called, Ferrara recalls that the film was directed by Robert Downey, the transgressive filmmaker father of “the famous movie star”, nothing here is accidental and weightless. This is not a nostalgic movie, but a film about transformations and the today. The Disneyfication of cinema is on the agenda, but it is fascinating to observe the ways Ferrara approaches it.

The film traces the history of the exhibition circuit in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, with special emphasis on the slight differences between the art and the pornographic circuit and how men like Nicolaou worked on both fronts and often used the profits of the latter to support the former, the space between Pasolini and dirt movies is very small. There is a peculiar form of democracy in this populist universe that Nicolaou’s nostalgic voice celebrates. It is worth noticing that Ferrara himself directed a pornographic film before his “official” debut. The Projectionist makes extensive use of movie clips to illustrate his ideas and is well aware of his own position as documentary likely screened in elitized spaces. The clips are not just taken from Taxi Drivers and Italian film classics, but Ferrara also uses several scenes from gay porn movies of the era, suffice it to say that the Reserva Cultural audience was not in the mood for any of this [translation note: Reserva Cultural is a very fancy arthouse theater at Paulista avenue, the title really means Cultural Reservation because we paulistas are the worst]. There was no lack of walkouts. In a key transition moment from the movie, Ferrara shows himself forty years earlier as The Driller Killer.

History lesson taken, much of the second half of the film is devoted to Nicolaou’s contemporary business. We see how the pressure of the exhibition market and real estate speculation made the old street theaters impossible. The streets and movie screens are one and same. Outside world speculation also impacts what is played. Certain movies are undesirable, certain audiences as well. Ferrara made the greatest movie about Giuliani’s New York back in 2001’s ‘R Xmas.  It is worth to remember that Ferrara himself reinvented himself from exploitation filmmaker to arthouse one without changing his obsessions and the essence of his style, but only the target audience determined by the film market.

In the theaters that Nicolaou maintains in Queens, a standard American film industry  schedule rule (Blade Runner 2049, American Sniper, It) and even that, the film reveals was only possible after the businessman set up a campaign to receive them since for a long time his cinemas were seen as undesirable and condemned to screen films many months after the first-run theaters. The interview with two young students about the new Blade Runner sets a certain tone (the cinematography of the new one is better, the story worse). The hostile tone about the contemporary throughout the film changes during the interviews that reveal a curious and affable Abel with those people he meets (unlike most decadentist snobs Ferrara puts all of his anger into the forces of the market). From my part, I must confess I felt very attacked by the young man who decided to see It because You Tube vídeo criticism promised him a scary movie.

When it comes to independent cinema, what’s symbolic left is  Nicolaou’s last Manhattan theater, which today is dedicated to renting its playing time for producers who want to be able to say that they premiered their films on the local circuit and get a review from the New York Times. Any resemblance to the independent Brazilian film distribution is merely a frightening coincidence. Needless to say, none of the posters one can see there are from a Pasolini movie, Ferrara’s own 2014 film about Pasolini’s last day was finally released in American theaters this year.

Throughout The Projectionist we go through various forms of capital hell. That Nicolaou dexterously adapts himself to all of them is very well noted. The streets, movie theaters and the movies on its screens were all properly sanitized. This is a violent movie in which everyone somehow loses amid Ferrara’s editing articulations. The movies, however, survive. This is one of Thee Projectionist’s two truths. The other one is that the Blade Runner 2049 billboard is inescapable.

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