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IN REVIEW: “The Dying of the Light”

Rating — 5/5

The title of movie projectionist documentary, The Dying of the Light, sounds all too drastic and doomful. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway has said repeatedly that cinema — the experience of going to a venue and watching a film with other people — is “dead”, given that, according to him, not as many moviegoers are going to movies anymore. I can see where he’s coming from, given the shortening of theatrical and home release windows and popularity of streaming services, but I don’t particularly agree with setting down the tombstone just yet. The “light” is still “lit” and consumers keep consuming.

Consumers? Consuming? Maybe, if anything, the context of that light has shifted. It’s not dying, but it’s been corrupted perhaps.

The men and women behind the light, behind the heavy and hands on machinery that provide those flickering frames, tell a story of affection, heartbreak and optimism — a tale of the current state of our economy, even. It’s interesting how such a specific industry, film exhibition, can be a microcosm and cross section of labor and corporate bottom line maintaining. Shouldn’t it be relatively simple and innocent? Just because wonderful trickery and illusions are conducted for the sake of childlike enjoyment doesn’t mean it’s not a business. That distinction has spoiled many a good thing, and The Dying of the Light makes sure to include the showmanship of movies into that fold.

“They took the curtains away!” one projectionist exclaims. A key part of old screenings is now just dressing or absent. What once was a true apprenticeship of a career, where you HAD to HAVE SOMEONE man the booth in the back of the auditorium, has become replaced with by the clock automation and “locked out” equipment. Small rooms with the personality of decades now either sit abandoned and in ruin or humming with cold and sterile computers. Care is being lost to cost effectiveness. Skill has gone away with convenience. Magic mostly defeated.

Mostly. While it does appear that the stream of light and digits — in theaters and at home — will be controlled by a powerful few, a passionate and determined many aren’t ready to be obsolete. The Dying of the Light features segments with cinephiles, interested heavily in what came before the pixels. They show an enthusiasm for learning and exploring that can only come from a true place. A universal place we all share. A love of moving images. While it’s a documentary about screening movies, we never really leave the booth or theater itself. That sputtering noise of spooling film and those bright colors hitting a white screen pop from behind seats and windows. We never leave that feeling of being there. And that feeling is like being home. So natural and comfortable. So full of spirit. Mostly.

The Dying of the Light combats the loss of innocence and takeover of business and tech models with constant reminders of setting. Settings of movie theaters. Or projection booths. Setting that could be out of time, being past and present at once. Timeless. It’s a young artform and a young slight of hand, motion pictures are. And for the last remaining “real” reel operators, it’s appropriate that “the highest point in the theater feels underground”, is unseen and out of mind. No matter how the mechanism changes, that light stays on, consuming all who witness. From consumers to the consumed. I like that. I prefer that.

Written by

Independent film critic. Progressive po’ boy, moviegoing romantic. SEFCA member, 🍅 - approved. Newsletter at ofthosewho.substack.com

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