Written by Patrick Hao
The Cinema Village is one of the last great independent movie theaters in New York. From its famous triangular marquee jutting out between gentrified buildings to its dated decor that has probably seen more horrors than anyone can imagine, Cinema Village represents a period of time in New York that feels lost. That is why it is great that its owner Nicolas Nicolau, and his career as a movie theater owner, is the subject of Abel Ferrara’s loving documentary The Projectionist.
I recently attended a screening of The Projectionist at the Cinema Village with Abel Ferrara as special guest. This screening coincided with a special retrospective of Ferrara’s career and to commemorate the recent reopening of the theater, which had been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. At this particular screening, Nicolau was there acting like a nervous host during an important dinner party. He walked up and down the aisle of the nearly sold out theater (tickets were free) asking if he could get anyone concessions. Before the movie started, he even began to hand out bags of free popcorn.
Ferrara, the iconoclast independent New York filmmaker known for Bad Lieutenant and Ms. 45, was as rambunctious as his reputation suggests. As the trailer for his retrospective began playing, you could hear him in the hallways outside the theater screaming for the projectionist to increase the volume in colorful expletives. A real New York independent movie experience if there ever was one.
The film itself was middling. Nicolau, an immigrant from Cyprus, is an interesting subject for a film. Nicolau’s exuberance for cinema and his career as an exhibitor comes through as the film chronicles his experiences working as a ticket taker at art house cinemas and porn houses to owning several theaters across New York City. Some of the more interesting aspects of the film exhibiting business – the collusion of the conglomerate movie chains with film studios to prevent allowing the exhibition of their films in independent theaters – is only briefly touched upon.
Ferrara kept undercutting the pacing of the film by instilling film clips that lasted far too long and had little relation to what was happening in the documentary. At the Q&A, Ferrara complained that the film originally had even more film clips but he could not secure some of the film rights. And like the Q&A, the film can meander on Ferrara’s amusing tangents. At one point, Ferrara begins asking some of Nicolau’s patrons why they would want to see It and becomes preoccupied by their Egyptian heritage.
There is an interesting film here but Ferrara is far more interested in celebrating a New York that is slowly fading away. He revels at the section where Nicolau recounts the various movie houses across Manhattan that he worked in. As Ferrara stated in the Q&A, this film is using Nicolau’s story as a medium for Ferrara’s own autobiography. Many of these theaters are the same haunts that he attended which helped develop his unique taste and style.
In the end this film is an ode to a New York that feels like it is slowly disappearing. There are not many people like Nicolau anymore who are happy to forgo profit in order to keep affordable cinema for people. He and Cinema Village are worth celebrating, even in a messy uneven film.
As Nicolau spoke upon during the Q&A, last year, with Covid-19, he was very close to losing his theater because of the loss of patrons and no reprieve on property taxes. But, he is happy to be able to reopen and is excited to introduce a new batch of truly independent films to the public. I implore anyone who is in the New York City area to visit the Cinema Village. At the very least, support your local independent cinema.
The Projectionist Trailer
The Projectionist is currently available to buy and rent from multiple storefronts and is streaming on Kanopy.