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David Kornfeld’s high noon

The most exacting movie projectionist in Boston faces down what he sees as movie history’s most cataclysmic technological “advance”
By CHRIS MARSTALL  |  July 25, 2012


Ian was warning me about David again. As he led me up the back stairs, past a trash can with a length of 35mm film spilling out of it, he reiterated: David didn't want to do this. David can be difficult. Don't take David the wrong way. When we arrived in the cramped, neatly organized projection booth, David took up the mantra himself. Looking up from a Styrofoam bowl of takeout Chinese food, his first words to me were a self-deprecating heads-up: "Ian told you I'm prickly." Then he told me he'd drop a projector on my head if I misquoted him in my article.

Within a couple weeks, he'd invited me into his cramped, neatly organized Somerville home to listen to Sergeant Pepper's on a pair of scavenged movie theater speakers the size of refrigerators. He'd been raving about them; he spent years tracking them down, they were the best speakers. They were in his kitchen. They were six feet from each other and I sat between them on a swivel chair. I listened to "Lovely Rita" and it felt like I could hear the traffic on Abbey Road, molecules of air hitting the studio walls, the sound of George Harrison thinking. And that was even with David standing over me shouting things like, "IS YOUR MIND BLOWN OR WHAT?" every minute or so.

David Kornfeld, who runs the projection booths at the Somerville Theatre, is perhaps best thought of as the enfant terrible of the local projection scene. His method of terror is a commitment to top-quality presentation that exceeds what many of his peers consider necessary. He is uncompromising. One elite local projectionist calls him a "mega-nerd," which I interpreted to refer both to his insanely encyclopedic knowledge of the craft, as well as — to a lesser degree — his forthright, suffers-no-fools demeanor. A prominent local cinema manager dismisses him, with a note of bitterness, as an "extremeophile," whose sole concern is "getting it 1000 percent right." Another veteran theater manager says he's a throwback, a "passionate projectionist" whose "zeal needs to be tempered." There is edge-free praise as well. Local horror festival impresario Janaka Stucky calls him "the most meticulous and painstaking projectionist I've worked with." Marianne Lampke, former co-owner of the Brattle Theatre, where David worked in the '80s, calls him "obsessive — in a good way. He's a real character and someone who will go down in Boston projectionist history as an eccentric and very devoted projectionist. We loved David."

The projection at the Somerville has indeed been consistently excellent for years now: bright, clear, full of all the joys of celluloid. But it wasn't always so. Ten years ago, the locally owned five-screen venue specialized in second-run movies at cut-rate prices; projection was an afterthought. "You can't imagine how bad it was, " says Kornfeld.

Ian Judge, then newly hired as the Somerville's general manager, was determined to turn that around. He fixed the popcorn machine, applied a fresh coat of paint — and exchanged the "slap-dash" projectionist staff for an all-star cast of veteran union men. "I was almost drooling to think about working with people who actually knew what they were doing in the booth," he says. He saw his theater competing in quality with the Brattle and the Coolidge Corner Theatre. David Kornfeld, he knew, was a man who could help him get there. And as cinema marks its transition from celluloid to digital, Kornfeld is the exemplar of an aesthetic that may soon by going the way of the nickelodeon —- the last of a special breed of movie lover.

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  Topics: Features , digital age, movie features
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