Dir: Tom Lawes, UK, 2011, 81 mins
Cast: John Brockington, Paul Curtin, Les Castree, Phil Fawke, Graham Lee
Review by Mark Byrnes
Imagine watching a film inside a packed fairground tent with the added thrill of the feature being shown on highly flammable film stock that could ignite at any given second. Once upon a time, taking your life in your hands was part of the cinema-going experience in the UK before the advent of purpose built cinemas. One of the first of these, The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, opened in 1909, but by 2003 would close. Until film maker Tom Lawes purchased the site and set about restoring the derelict picture palace to its former glory, facing near bankruptcy in the process.
The Last Projectionist presents a potted history of independent cinema exhibition in the UK from its ‘vagrant art form’ roots in temporary locations to the multiplexes of today. Delving into The Electric’s illustrious and salubrious past – the cinema was once owned by an adult film producer who screened his catalogue of films there – Lawes charts how over time the cinema-going experience has improved, though at a cost to the jobs of projectionists with the advent of digital film. Admittedly this subject may have limited appeal beyond cinephiles, but eyes will surely be opened for those unaware of what a trip to the pictures in the 1970s was like.
A genuine affection for cinema and its history is the heart of this film, from the man with a scale model of an Odeon cinema that has taken up 20 years of his life to build, to Lawes himself, who shot, edited, produced and scored the film, but selflessly does not place himself centre stage. Lawes adopts a spirited tone throughout and with a certain homespun charm uses animated and intertitle sequences alongside archive footage to chart the historical, while the reminisces of the cinema patrons and retired projectionists – filmed in a round table discussion – offer up personal perspective. It is these projectionists whom Lawes views as the real heroes of the silver screen, who worked for the love of cinema and not for the money, and as such each of their names are immortalised during the title sequence – one of the many nice touches that Lawes brings to bear.
Inevitably the passing of an era is lamented but there is little in the way of bitterness, rather a sense of optimism pervades. As technology has developed so has the audio and visual experience as demonstrated by the IMAX format. And in response to the multiplexes – which are credited with significantly improving building standards in the 1980s – independent cinemas now cater for a discerning audience seeking a different, less homogenous experience – as one exhibitor calls it the ‘taste the difference range’.
Ironically, The Last Projectionist will perhaps find more of an audience on the small rather than the big screen. Grand in scope and modest in means Lawes presents an entertaining and informative journey down cinema’s historical aisles, which will give pause for thought the next time you think about staying in to watch a DVD.