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The Death of a Projectionist

Directed by Jonathan Beer

Starring Ian McElhinney

Short film review by Joseph Banham

There are many unsung heroes of cinema for whom the introduction of advanced technology in movie theatres has signaled nothing but misery. They are the experts of a dying craft. The few left behind by a fast-evolving film industry that has sprinted forward into the world of digital 4K resolution and 3D experiences without pausing to give them a second thought. I am, of course, referring to the lost art of the projectionist. John Beerman’s new short film, The Death of a Projectionist, examines the last few days of the career of such a man, and portrays it with all the heartache and sorrow that you would expect from reading its sombre title.

Jerry (Ian McElhinney) is an elderly film projectionist who juggles his time between operating his booth at the cinema and visiting his sick, bed-ridden wife at a nursing home. The film simply follows Jerry as he goes about his daily routine, which is about to be rapidly upset when his cinema starts to introduce digital projectors.

Jerry is the embodiment of nostalgic warmth. A very cordial man, dressed in a black suit, bow tie, and a trilby hat, he treats his job with dignity and passion. Here is a man who clearly loves what he does, which is why he is so instantly engaging, and why the story is so ultimately heartbreaking. The film is completely centred around McElhinney’s benevolent performance, glowing with kindness and affection for all those around him, even though his luck has run unjustly thin over the recent years.

The film is in awe of projectionists, presenting Jerry as a highly skilled artisan with almost whimsical abilities. He has an adept hand at magic tricks, leaving his fellow cinema workers in awe. When he is at the projector, he possesses a similarly magical power, standing above the patrons as an almost God-like figure, presenting stories that mould the audience’s emotions. The power is in his hands, but not for long.

There are two very short montages early on in The Death of a Projectionist that demonstrate the short’s main idea—it’s infatuation with the joy of cinema. Or more accurately, the joy of old-fashioned projected cinema, that of tiny celluloid frames flickering through light at 24 frames-per-second. The first is a quick succession of clips showing audience members bursting with laughter, and the second of them being moved to tears. Creating these reactions in people is what provides Jerry with his own happiness. It isn’t his job. It’s his life.

The music is suitably elegiac—a funeral march for the film reel. It provides the perfect accompaniment to a film that is essentially about the loss and loneliness of old age. Where the tone starts as bright and amiable, it soon dips into darkness. The sun goes down, and the lights go out, leaving Jerry’s sanctuary in sterile darkness. It is left reverberating with the humming dirge of the new piece of kit, sorely missing the human touch.

The most tragic thing about the film is Jerry’s lack of protest. He keeps his calm composure at all times, even when he is not sure what fate his slowly crumbling world has in store for him. By the time the 13 minutes are over, the future is uncertain. The film speaks to the very relevant, growing fear of technology making more and more people seem redundant in today’s society, as they struggle to adapt and keep up with the new world.

The Death of a Projectionist is a beautifully poetic swan song of a man’s wonderfully dedicated career. An ode to those masters of their craft who are scarcely needed anymore. It stresses the importance of the human component in cinema and has deep admiration for anyone who has spent their life devoted to the projection booth.

Read more film reviews from the Cork Film Festival.


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