Abel Ferrara and a theatre owner discuss the edgier, sleazier era of film that existed in the 1970s.
Equal parts deep-dish immersion in obsessive cinephilia and inspiring immigrant story, The Projectionist is the latest in a line of small-scale documentaries by Abel Ferrara on vanishing and/or beloved urban neighborhoods (Chelsea on the Rocks, Mulberry St., Piazza Vittorio, Alive in France).
Plainspoken Greek Cypriot immigrant Nicolas “Nick” Nicolaou, who in recent decades has endeavored to keep art and neighborhood movie theaters alive in various New York City boroughs deep into the multiplex era, may not be the most charismatic of screen figures, but his earnest devotion to film and family in a time of pervasive corporatism lends him a distinct Don Quixote profile that proves endearing. After its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, this labor of love should be embraced wherever the term cinephile means anything.
Nick appears to be one of those lucky guys who does what he loves with the support of a tight immediate family. Sincere, modest and never at a loss for words, he shows old pal Ferrara around his native village in Cyprus, a quiet place of “simple men, simple life” where becoming a fisherman is basically a given. Nick escaped this fate when a relative invited his family to join her in New York City, where the 12-year-old arrived in 1970.
School soon became a distant memory, total capitulation to the movies came quickly and Nick was drawn to the top-tier Upper East Side art houses moments from his doorstep: the Baronet and Coronet at 3rd Avenue and 59th Street, the Cinemas 1 and 2 and, when he was (barely) old enough, the East 59th Street Twins, where he worked long hours as night manager and before long made the acquaintance of porn, and consequently of Ferrara, whose hardcore first feature, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, played the venue. Some of the footage here is very explicit and feels out of place in what is otherwise a family-friendly, living-room-welcome documentary.
The stock footage of Manhattan’s flourishing cinema scene going on 50 years ago is both invigorating and depressing, given how thoroughly these sorts of specialized venues have disappeared from the city. Straddling an exhibition career that he describes in those days as half-art, half-porn, Nick bought the D.W. Griffith art cinema as well as a gay porn dive, basically subsidizing the former with the profits from the latter and learning everything there was to know about the exhibition business.
Nick looks to have flourished because he has a business sense, buying and then holding on to venues and sometimes whole buildings until previously undesirable districts started becoming trendy, then opening businesses and occasionally selling. For his part, Ferrara seems to get a big kick out of contrasting the furtive customers at gay porn sites of old around 42nd Street and 8th Avenue with the Disneyfied neon playground of the neighborhood today.
What’s heartening, even moving, about Nick to cinephiles is that he is the little guy who held out, who has dedicated himself to sustaining the theatrical moviegoing experience. “A movie theater gives character to the neighborhood,” Nick insists. “I want to keep movie theaters alive.” This he has done both with the Cinema Village in Lower Manhattan, which is so expensive that he’s lucky to break even, and, more profitably, in some outlying boroughs, where he shapes his programming to appeal to local families; in one location, his next-door neighbor is a mosque.
Basically, what Nick is advocating and living is a mom-and-pop operation, with smart programming, lower-than-average prices, comfortable seats, good projection and excellent popcorn, all stock-in-trade for what good neighborhood movie theaters used to be. “I don’t want everything to become mass production,” he insists. Well, that boat sailed a long time ago, but The Projectionist remains a warmly embraceable immigrant story of the most venerable, traditional sort.