In his film Epidemic, Lars von Trier (portraying himself) comments that “a film ought to be like a pebble in your shoe.” This has always been my philosophy, as well, both as a film-viewer and a film-maker, and it is a description entirely befitting of Ryan M. Kennedy’s debut feature The Projectionist. There is a challenging aspect, a confrontational tilt to the piece, from its pace, to its inwardness, to its singular focus (for the majority of its running time) of portraying all events only from the damaged perspective of its central character—but most of all, in its (in a wholly different, perhaps even incidental way than Epidemic) insistence of wrapping things around a narrative-affect that feels hardly necessary or complete with regard to the non-narrative aspects it is set inside of.
Within The Projectionist is a certain film I could happily have watched for hours—Jacob Nicks (Russ Russo) a disenfranchised veteran of a modern war drifting without purpose or, it seems, desire through a nondescript life. I could have followed him (in no small way thanks to Russo, who I will get to in a moment) as he did absolutely nothing and been contented with it, seen it as a complete filmic journey, a total-in-itself expression of loneliness, of erasure both self and society-made, a character study needing no justification, dramatic incident, or result. Part of me, in fact, would have preferred that film, I must be honest.
Because that film is certainly not what The Projectionist is, looked at full. Yet one cannot view the film and call this a mistake, say it “meant to be one thing” and inadvertently let in distractions that sullied it—nothing is “put in” to the film that seems meant to sate the palate of a more casual viewer, no choice of narrative event or tone seems contrived to be a more broad “entertainment”. That is, I might not share the narrative aesthetic of Kennedy, but I cannot smugly pronounce it “ill formed” or “ill fitting” of the overall conceit he presents. In fact, there is no getting around that the enthusiasm present in shifting film-ground, in jockeying for “positional purpose” so to speak, is illustrative of the filmmaker’s intrinsic passion for “cinema as cinema” apart from story, character, or any isolated aspect of the art form. The Projectionist is a love letter to Film, first and foremost—and I am just not the sort who can ever find wrong in a love letter.
To be blunt, I’d have preferred to just say the film pissed me off, leave it at that, pick an arbitrary angle and dissect as though such angle were the entire aim of the bastard. I wanted the movie to annoy me, not to draw me in to a self-assessment of my own aesthetic, make me more culpable that it in my opinion.
But that’s just what it did.
Much of the blame for this can be set squarely on the shoulders of the lead, Russ Russo. Indeed Russo, in my opinion, should be given a co-writer credit for the performance he delivered. What he imbued the film with was nothing that was in the script, nothing that Kennedy could ever have planned on—his performance is not suggested by the content, is a secondary act of authorship wormed within the confines of another man’s vision. It’s tempting, for example, to describe Russo in terms of others’ performances, the way the film, overall, can be said to wear its influences on its sleeve: I could describe his portrayal of Nicks as a hybrid orchid of Christian Bale from The Machinist and a weaker-willed, more aimless Travis Bickle; or I could say that Russo found the truth of the character present in the words of the script and committed himself, above and beyond, to being certain that the subtle depths of this lost-figure found loud enough voice to be heard. But, true as all that may be if viewed at a squint, it would not give proper credit to what Russo was. His invention of Nicks is his and is, yes, Invention, is a life and story flatly apart from the narrative and character-as-called-for—the humanity he expresses is nothing to do with the themes or social commentary of The Projectionist (social commentary, as rough-hewn as it may get, and as aggressive without stable base, is certainly on the mind of this film) but all to do with the art of Acting, itself. He was another paint altogether, strokes of a whole-in-itself artists’ brush that, by happy accident, spread on the still drying canvas of another craftsman. He is at once too simple and too complex for the material he is performing—more than the (homage based and love-borne as they may be) contrivances and twists of the script and photography call for, Russo portrays a double-man, a story-inside-a-story losing itself and revealing itself and back pedaling and stumbling forward all in one motion. The script suggests elements of “truth” and “untruth” of “actual” and “imagined” while Russo performs both ends of the spectrum simultaneously: he is both the Celluloid and the Humanity—and is both in gallons-ful more than seem to have been part of the final product from conception. Yes, another actor could have played what was in the script and done it justice, but no, I doubt another actor would have brought such an original into a derivative (that word I do not use pejoratively, please bear in mind).
So Russo screwed me, yes. But moving on.
It was, in fact, the collective performances under “both writers” voices that put in the final nail. I say I could have watched a film of Russo puttering around and speaking in subvocalization for hours—the same can be said, in a different way, about Doug E. Doug as Marlon. I would have watched every facet of the life of the character he plays, which makes me giddy in a perverse way to say, as for all intents and purposes the film depicts him as a “character non-existent”. He should be playing a spectre, but he delivers a warm body—what should have been left a figment, he leaves as a corpse, which is a thing to applaud. True, some of this may also be due to Russo—the script itself perfectly calls for what Doug E. Doug brought, event-wise and reveal-wise, and if another lead had played Russo’s lines exactly to-the-page the final impact of the Marlon character might not have been the same. The performance would have been awesome, either way, though—yeah, I actually got happy when there was another scene with Doug E. Doug, pricked to attention just because I wanted more of his mannerisms, his exact line deliveries, nothing to do with his purpose as a part of a jigsaw.
Natasha Alam, albeit underused as Ivana, makes the most of her brief screen time to be both perfectly cold and exactly the half-real half-sketch of what her character is to be, nothing more; she’s a refreshing portrayal of a prostitute in a noir (as odd a thing as that is to say) no conflicted “I’m really a sweet person who a touch of kindness would save” nonsense to slog through, and then to be briefly heartbreaking (though on behalf of Russo’s character more than her own which, again, is just what needed to be there). Robert Miano as Sully—well, I guess I’m repeating myself now but, yeah, let’s have a hopefully existing Director’s Cut of this film come out containing scene lengths three times as long between he and Russo—fuck it, I’d watch the botched takes or rehearsal footage of the man, a true character actor who plays so naturalistically I might be tempted to think the scenes in his video shop were some guerilla tactic, the man not even an actor but just some lost-soul old-man clerk who Kennedy and Russo hidden-cameraed and then put in to the final film.
So—I said the film bugged me, but I’m not so far justifying that, am I? But that’s the very problem: my mind casts over the film, the pace, the performances (not to mention the photography, which is exemplary of that old-cinema alchemy of shot-angle speaking dialogue or portraying emotion as much as actors) and I can expound nothing but lauds.
So is it the script? In no small way, yes, but also in no big way. The writing is an asymmetry of clear homage and, I cannot help but say, seemingly conscious cribbing from several sources hoping to pass off the emotion of an original in a forgery (earnestly thought to be first-time, I think, but still); the seams show and the late game shifts are telegraphed quite early to anyone who has watched cinema in the last decade-and-a-half, the “split” from one-kind-of-film to another is a bit sudden where it seems, being frank, it was meant to be gradual (the Bickle-ness Russo brings is not the slow burn of the genuine article, but more a violent shift, a kind of hopeful “the end will justify the storytelling means” seemingly at play in Kennedy). But, the same script has grace notes that do denote a measured hand making the gouged stabs of the progression—not enough that it comes away feeling entirely “on purpose” or “philosophically executed”, but not “not enough” that the “love letterness” I alluded to earlier doesn’t clean them up, almost well enough.
It could be—here I go, revealing myself a nitpicky twerp, but I’ve set this investigation in motion and now would be remiss to all artists involved if I didn’t follow through—that the “frame-story” of the movie just seemed…incorrect. The mysteriousness of the combined cinema (script, performances, on-purpose and by-accident elements) of the “main film” should have been where The Projectionist lived and died; the audience should have been allowed to—no, should have been forced to—live with the unease of loose ends and a little bit of healthy “do I get this?” but the frame-story spoon feeds, seems to suggest a mistrust of the viewership, a pull-back right where there should have been a follow-through and a “fuck all where the final blow lands”. And that is the script—or at least the final presentation of it—no two ways around it.
That thing von Trier said, yes, is appropriate to level at The Projectionist—but it has to be said that while the center-film was a pebble, the frame-story was two extra pairs of socks around the flesh so that the grind at each step would be diminished as much as possible.
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