Of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver, the film critic Ty Burr once wrote, “Before Times Square was a Disneyfied tourist heaven, children, it was hell.” The New York of the 1970s had the dangerous luster of a well-polished razor blade, with hedonism and crime simultaneously hitting a hysterical peak. Forty-second Street was full of coke, pimps and working girls; the downtown scene was all art freaks and experimentalists creating raw expressions of urban fervor with whatever they could get their hands on. The neon lights of porn theaters would advertise smut with the same caliber of pizzazz as the major cineplexes. Though muggings may have been a fact of daily life in some neighborhoods, the Big Apple was cheap and thrilling and sexy during this era – the bad ol’ days.
In his new documentary The Projectionist, the film-maker Abel Ferrara seeks a return to the city that molded him into the world-renowned sleaze connoisseur he is today, playing tour guide on a 40-year delay. The Bronx native whisks viewers back to a New York that has largely been erased by clean-up legislation and the natural erosion of time, and he underscores the distance between then and now by taking brick-and-mortar movie houses as a bellwether. A whole world is slowly disappearing, replaced by multinational conglomerates and automated recliners and seat-side food service. Before it vanishes completely, a legend well-schooled in the fine art of exploitation laments the passing of the time and place that made his career possible.
He traverses the boroughs from one long-gone temple of cinema to the next, but orients his focus around one in particular that’s still standing. The Cyprus-born immigrant Nicolas Nicolaou is the proprietor of the Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills, Queens, and the ostensible subject of Ferrara’s film. But the director treats him more like a co-host than anything else, an ideal commiserator for the death of exploitation screenings in the public arena. Nicolau relates the story of his American dream, of rising from nobody to somebody by cultivating a relationship to his community through dedicated arthouse and XXX programming. In between memories, he and Ferrara shoot the breeze about the absolute sanctity of the moviegoing experience.
For cinephiles, this will be effective propaganda in service of a belief they already hold, a reaffirmation of their purist convictions from a simpatico mind. This is a love letter, by no means a State of the Movie Union, with zero mention of Netflix or the other barbarians at the streaming gate. It is a loose, easy sit at a compact 81 minutes, precisely the sort of Gotham-friendly nostalgia-bait that the Tribeca film festival selection committee cannot resist.
That contentedly inessential quality can sometimes slip into slightness, as Ferrara pads an already slim run time. A clip from Taxi Driver (Travis Bickle taking his crush Betsy to the skin flicks, natch) eats up a few minutes, as does another from fellow NYC classic All That Jazz. Of course, Ferrara also includes a liberal sampling of his own filmography, suggesting low-rent early works The Driller Killer and Ms. 45 as emblems of a faster, dirtier era. Then there are the stretches in which Ferrara conducts creaky man-on-the-street interviews with patrons leaving the Cinemart. There’s a certain pleasure to be taken in watching him try to cut it up with a Battle of the Sexes viewer by chuckling, “The battle of the sexes is happening for me back at home,” it does invite the question of why this hasn’t been trimmed to a length of a meaty short.
That short would be dominated by the scenes in which Nicolau has the camera all to himself, speaking freely about his passion for moving pictures. The fondness for all things disreputable that he shares with Ferrara keep things from getting too mushy, and still there’s a sentimental sweetness to their rose-colored recollections of such XXX classics as The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Even when the people onscreen spend most of their time humping, movies have a way of bringing people together and making daily life richer. Nicolau conceived the Cinemart under his stewardship as a space where that idea could be put into practice; tickets for adults currently cost $11, and everyone else pays $8, the same price of a matinee. The commendable notion that everyone should be able to access the most popular communal art form gives a minor effort from Ferrara a firmer conclusion. At a time when Manhattan multiplex rates have climbed to obscene heights while an admittedly robust repertory scene charges unconscionable sums for popcorn, it’s easy to get behind Nicolau and Ferrara’s exhibition ethic.
The Projectionist is showing at the Tribeca film festival with a release date yet to be announced