By James Kenney
Abel Ferrara’s filmmaking talent is immeasurable, still often eclipsed by the violent nature of his early dazzling grindhouse efforts Ms. 45, Fear City and The Driller Killer. I think he still has trouble, in the U.S. anyway, of losing the tag “sleazy,” no doubt largely due to his body of work but also an outsized reputation for volatile behavior and drug addiction that he talks openly about although he’s been sober for over a decade, living a quiet live in Rome with his wife and young child, documented in his charming documentary Piazza Vittorio. Certainly his angry, audacious early works such as King of New York, Bad Lieutenant and the Funeral have been succeeded by largely thoughtful meditative works in the 21st century, where even in his film about New York City drug dealing, R’Xmas, the only thing shot is a basketball; one problem with Ferrarar’s rightful recognition as one of the major talents still working is despite a recent Museum of Modern Art retrospective, the majority of his 21st century work has not received much distribution in the U.S. Pasolini, Tommasso, Go-Go Tales, Mary; most American moviegoers haven’t heard of these, never mind viewed them. But he’s been a most prolific filmmaker and anything he puts his name to is made with honesty, by his own rules, luckily having some bankable actors, particularly Willem Dafoe, who is a neighbor in Rome, ready to show up and work. Ferrara has also made several low-profile documentaries, the most recent of which is The Projectionist, about Cyprus-born and NYC-made theater owner Nicolas Nicolau, who has kept several neighborhood theaters going in New York City despite rising rents and corporate competition, namely the Alpine in Brooklyn, the Cinema Village in Manhattan, and the Cinemart in Queens, a theater I regularly attend with delight at its sensible prices for both tickets and popcorn.
It’s an eccentric choice for documentary subject only as Nicolau has led a comparatively low-profile, uneventful life in that he is the “typical” immigrant story: come to the U.S. with nothing, work hard, build a fortune, and have a nice family that helps you run the business as you get older. But what likely caught Ferrara’s eye is Nick is an immediately empathetic figure to any film-lover; having made his millions running movie theaters (ok, there has been some real estate transactions as well), his love for movie theaters keeps him from selling the buildings that house them even when, particularly with the Cinema Village in Manhattan, he could make literally tens of millions of dollars doing so.
And his love is unequivocal; working his way up in Manhattan theaters until he had enough money to buy his own, it didn’t matter to him where he worked; art houses, porn houses gay and straight, he loves movie theaters (while noting you could make a lot more cash running an adult house back in the 70s). Ferrara can appreciate the American immigrant-makes-him-millions story does involve doing with good humor what others would not; the adult theater industry in Manhattan at the time was often run by aging Jewish woman who had escaped the Holocaust, and when they aged out, Nick took over.
Ferrara gets some good-looking footage of the quiet, quaint Cyprus village Nick grew up in and contrasts it with the hustle and bustle of modern New York City, as Nick gives him a tour of all the locations that once housed key New York art and porn houses that now house banks and cafes, save the independent theaters he still runs. Most pleasingly for film lovers, Ferrara utilizes much historic footage and stills from the 60s, 70s and 80s displaying the marquees of cinemas no longer with us, along with excerpts from movies that played in theaters Nick worked at or ran, such as Taxi Driver and various examples of gay and straight porn, all of it feeling like it belongs to a wholly different universe than the one we currently live in. But we remember. As for Nicolau, if he has any personal demons, Ferrara doesn’t suss them out. He comes off as a affable hard-working guy who rewards loyalty, loves New York, the movies, and his family, which does mean the movie doesn’t achieve the heft one often finds in the best documentaries; we never have the moment of epiphany where we recognize we have learned something new on the subject, perchance something the subject doesn’t even want us to know about. Ferrara seems to simply admire what Nicolau is about and wants to document his immigrant story and love of movies and New York City. For movie lovers, Abel Ferrara’s The Projectionist is vital, and while I’m at it, so is all of Ferrara’s underseen 21st century work