Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
It’s fascinating to watch two Tribeca documentaries back-to-back that not only use literally the same scene from “Taxi Driver” (and not the mirror one) but almost feel like they’re in conversation with one another. They’re both movies that are fueled by a love for the communal aspect of moviegoing. After all, you can’t really appreciate “Showgirls” unless you’re surrounded by cheering fans screaming the dialogue, and there won’t be many places to do that if we can’t keep independently run movie houses in business.
Abel Ferrara, the filmmaker behind “Bad Lieutenant” and “The King of New York,” now directs “The Projectionist,” a clearly personal love letter of sorts to a man who has seen the movie theater industry change in New York City over the last several decades. Often appearing on-camera with his subject, Ferrara takes a very laid back, casual approach to what is sort of a bio-doc and sort of a commentary on how going to the movies has (and hasn’t really) changed. He opens by wandering the streets of Cyprus on which theater operator Nick Nicolaou was raised, making it clear that this is going to be as much about a man as it is about the movie industry.
Of course, it’s not long before “The Projectionist” gets to New York City and starts to go through what Nicolaou saw in his years as a movie theater owner in the city. Nicolaou was there when Times Square was dominated by adult movie theaters, and he made quite a bit of money off the form before Giuliani cleaned it up and turned the area into a tourist trap. However, unlike most of the businesspeople from that era, Nicolaou has survived the shifting landscape of theatre ownership, investing in small houses in the boroughs, and the biggest in the Alpine. Nicolaou is a fascinating subjects, saying, “Two things I like to do—make money and keep neighborhood theaters alive.”
Ferrara is still such a smart filmmaker and he avoids turning “The Projectionist” into a nostalgia piece by keeping it very present. He carefully and interestingly chooses film clips—“The Devils,” “All That Jazz,” “Blade Runner”—but the movies works so well because it’s not so much a tribute to a lost era as it is evidence of how the two things that Nicolaou likes to do have had an impact that remains present. There’s a funny little diversion in which Ferrara speaks to young ticket buyers about what they thought about “Blade Runner 2049,” but its casual, conversational tone fits somehow. I was worried that “The Projectionist” would be another dirge about the end of an era, but it’s Ferrara’s light touch and likable subject that make it so much more.
I’m more torn about the scattershot, repetitive, and yet never boring “You Don’t Nomi,” a documentary about one of the most famous bad movies of all time, Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” A movie that throws the words “masterpiece” and “shit” (sometimes together) around with reckless abandon, “You Don’t Nomi” has a lack of focus and feeling that it’s little more than fan service that belongs on a Special Edition DVD. But it has a cumulative power that’s impressive and eventually won me over. Kind of like the movie itself, I suppose.
In a way that I think is meant to mirror the radical tonal shifts of “Showgirls” itself, “You Don’t Nomi” veers wildly from serious discussions about how the film fits in Verhoeven’s career to the making of the movie to the Razzies to drag queen celebrations of it to the controversial rape scene and so on and so on. It’s almost overwhelming, and doesn't always make the most sense, but a movie about “Showgirls” should be overwhelming and kind of scattershot. If the film has one disappointing aspect it’s that it doesn’t include any of the people who actually made the movie as interview subjects, focusing instead on critics, scholars, and fans (one of the critics is our friend Susan Wloszczyna!) Roger Ebert wrote that the movie was “in short, quite redeemably bad.” “You Don’t Nomi” makes the case that, at least in some ways, it has been very much redeemed.
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