New York Stories: Abel Ferrara’s “The Projectionist”
On the surface, The Projectionist (2019) doesn’t reach very far. A 90-minute documentary about movie theater owner Nicolas Nicolaou, it relates his experiences working in New York from the ‘70s onward in a fairly straightforward, linear manner. The Projectionist begins in his home town in Cyprus. From there, it heads to New York, relating the time he began working in a movie theater as a teenager. He now owns three theaters, including Manhattan’s Cinema Village (where Ferrara filmed an extended interview in the lobby).
The Projectionist feels homemade enough that the soundman and his boom mic appear onscreen alongside Nicolaou and Ferrara a few times. But while the director resists editorializing as Nicolaou talks, he includes movie clips in the film. The first one, Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969), seems like an illustration of a point made by Nicolaou. But as the film goes on, Ferrara’s choices get less literal, encompassing several ‘70s porn movies and his own The Driller Killer (1979) (a scene in which he murders a man, no less).
The Projectionist premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Used to be New York” section. That phrase has an obvious application to the film, but it also describes Ferrara’s own life and work. If he was identified with drugged-out New York sleaze in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the protagonists of Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant (1992) couldn’t afford to live in New York in 2019. Nicolaou points out that the apartments on the block where Cinema Village is located sell for ten million dollars. Ferrara himself lives in Rome now.
Nicolaou’s stories about the early days of his career have a predictable nostalgic kick. But the film’s point goes far beyond a “Times Square was so much cooler before Disney moved in” sensibility. Nicoloau recalls a period when the boundaries between porn, arthouse, and mainstream cinema weren’t set in stone. He made money off that diffuseness, but he was also willing to cater to a gay audience — and run a theater that was a meeting place for in-person connection, sexual and otherwise — long before gayness was respectable. The film never mentions this, but Ferrara made his feature debut directing a hardcore porn, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976), before moving on to the slightly more upscale world of genre B-movies.
That world now exists online; if Driller Killer were made today, it would likely play a few horror-oriented festivals and then air on Shudder or go straight to iTunes. The idea of the movie theater as a valuable public space is dying out. In one of the few instances when The Projectionist takes its focus away from Nicolaou, Ferrara talks to a few Asian-American youths about their opinions of Blade Runner 2049 (2017) — a film upon which he seems to have placed deliberate emphasis — and learns that they’re filmmakers themselves. Nicoloau admits that Cinema Village gets by renting its space to filmmakers and distributors for $5–10,000 a week and guaranteeing itself a steady income regardless of the size of the audience for the movies it shows.
The Projectionist defends a vision of New York where people of all ethnicities and backgrounds live side-by-side peacefully and independent theaters can thrive. It champions small-scale capitalism, but criticizes monopoly and corporate collusion. (Nicoloau’s theaters only got access to major studio releases in the past few years as companies like Fox and Warner Bros. realized how fragile that market has become.) The Projectionist had its New York premiere the same weekend the monoculture asserted itself in full force with Avengers: Endgame (2019) grossing $1.2 billion worldwide and Disney/Fox distributing half the films in the U.S. box office top 10. The communal space the documentary celebrates is increasingly reserved for mega-budget spectacle.
Ferrara’s own ability to get his films shown in the U.S. has suffered as a result. In May, his 2014 Pasolini finally opens theatrically in the U.S. That same month, MoMA’s Ferrara retrospective will offer New Yorkers their first chance to see his cut of Welcome to New York (2014). Nicoloau’s taste and business strategies reflect a love for all kinds of cinema and a tendency to see them as equal. But in the current American landscape, Ferrara might have to ask Nicoloau for a favor in order to secure a theatrical run for The Projectionist.