It takes a while for Thomas Lawes’ documentary The Last Projectionist to tap the melancholy undertones inherent in the title. For the most part, it’s an ambling, amiable and fascinating examination of Birmingham’s Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK (it first opened in 1909). As the documentary proceeds, the history of The Electric effectively acts as a microcosm for the birth of cinema in the UK.
From the early days of gas lamps and the ‘tuppeny crush’, The Electric went through a turbulent history, eventually marred by its reputation as a sleazy hang-out for perverts and porno viewers. Lawes’ film charts the building’s many ups and downs (and name changes), prior to its triumphant re-opening in December 2004.
Intercut with the gripping history of the cinema itself is a lively conversation between five of the building’s former staff members in the local pub. There’s nary a glimpse of a perma-tan or bleached teeth; John, Les, Paul, Phil and Graham are salt of the earth Brummies, and all the more likeable and fascinating for it. There’s a wonderful sense of modest charm in seeing ordinary, working class guys tear into nostalgia and the present state of the industry with gusto.
And then, in the last 30 minutes, the film gets into the proper meat and drink: does the rise of digital equal the death of the cinema experience? Will 35MM die a death, and if so, is this a tragic thing? Lawes’ documentary is nicely even-handed here, with positives and negatives presented on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, simply clicking a button on a digital projector doesn’t measure up to the skill of loading a film reel, and arguably drains the theatricality out of the experience.
On the other hand, digital projection is easier, cheaper and simpler, affording members of staff the time to focus on other areas within their job. Lawes’ film presents these arguments with clarity, wit and humour, both magnifying the argument through the point of view of industry experts (managers of The Rex and The Phoenix in East Finchley); and honing it down to a more intimate point of view.
If any conclusion can be gleaned, it’s that the cinema experience will never die. Instead, it will simply take new forms and move with the times. This is exemplified in a lovely little fracas between two of the chaps in the pub, one of whom argues that cinema will eventually die, and the other insisting that people will always seek out the experience of watching film in a public space with other people.
It’s only a little movie but The Last Projectionist has more to say about the industry than almost everything else this year, and says it with great panache. What initially seems like a shapeless, if agreeable, documentary, suddenly becomes a remarkably profound and very important one, essential viewing for anyone who cares deeply about cinema.