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15th of November 2018

Books



The Death of a Movie Theatre

There is something disturbing about a blank movie marquee. It’s like a face without a mouth. I don’t mean the brief transitory blankness when the lettering for one movie is taken down at the end of its run to be replaced with lettering for the next movie but, rather, a marquee that remains blank, day after day, week after week. This has been the condition of the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas marquee, on Sixty-third Street and Broadway, for the past six months. The theatre closed at the end of January, the lease not renewed. Every time I pass it by, the blankness provokes a feeling that some crime has been committed here. For a while, as though to make the metaphor explicit, some construction equipment beneath the marquee was surrounded by yellow tape. The theatre had been at that location for thirty years, but its legacy dates much further back, to a pair of cinema visionaries and entrepreneurs named Dan and Toby Talbot.

In 1934, Broadway had eighteen movie theatres between Fifty-ninth Street and 110th Street. By 1960, according to Toby Talbot, there were just ten. “Most were ‘flea pits’ or ‘toilets’ in movie house jargon,” Talbot writes in her book, “The New Yorker Theater, And Other Scenes From a Life At The Movies.” In 1960, Toby and her husband, Dan, were cinema buffs with two little children who had been fantasizing about opening a bookstore, perhaps somewhere up in New Hampshire. On long driving expeditions to scout for locations, they passed the time by making lists of all the old movies they would like to see again. “One day my sister and brother-in-law casually mentioned that their accountant was thinking of buying the Yorktown theater on Broadway between 88th and 89th Streets,” she writes. “Maybe we should talk.”

One February evening, the accountant, Henry Rosenberg, came to dinner. He gave the Talbots a year to run the theatre as an art house, and then they would see. The Talbots replaced the seats in the Yorktown—all nine hundred of them—with seats from the just closed Roxy Theatre, which had opened in 1927. They changed the name from the Yorktown to the New Yorker, named after the Miami Beach hotel opened by Toby’s uncle Harry in the early nineteen-thirties. The first program, in March of 1960, was a double feature of “Henry V,” starring Laurence Olivier, and the celebrated French short “The Red Balloon.” Two thousand moviegoers came on opening night. The next program, also a success, was Carl Theodor Dreyer's “Day of Wrath” paired with Marcel Pagnol’s “Harvest.” This was followed by Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s “Pull My Daisy,” which Talbot describes as “a quirky Beat generation riff shot in Leslie’s loft in 1959 and narrated by Jack Kerouac of the mellifluous voice.”

At some point, a mouthy teen-ager named Peter Bogdanovich started showing up and pestering the Talbots with programing ideas; he would write program notes and advise the Talbots on selecting films. The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and W. C. Fields were all heavily featured. The place developed a reputation. The book includes a marvellous picture of Dan and Alfred Hitchcock standing in front of the theatre’s marquee—an atmosphere of toughness, comedy, and erudition cackles between the two men in their ostentatious suits.

Dan’s father, who had studied language and philosophy at Krakow University but had ended up a textile jobber in New York, did not approve of the enterprise, despite its fast start. “Get yourself some real work,” he told his son. “Study to become a pharmacist.” In 1962, the Talbots bought out the lease. It’s not hyperbole to say that with both their theatres (they owned several after the New Yorker) and their distribution company (founded in 1965 when a twenty-three-year-old filmmaker named Bernardo Bertolucci couldn’t find distribution for a film that the Talbots wanted to show), they profoundly affected the fate of cinema in America. But that is too general a statement to convey the loss of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the six-screen movie theatre that they ran from 1981 until January 28th of this year.

It’s difficult for me to write about Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with any objectivity because my relationship with the theatre is entirely bound up with the Talbots. I have known them as family friends for what feels like forever. On closer inspection, I realize they came into my life shortly after my father's death, from cancer, when I was nine years old. Because I met them as a child, I noticed tactile things: the smell of Toby’s scarves, the gleam of Dan’s shoes, the relaxed, expansive sound of their laughter. It took a while for me to wonder what Dan and Toby did for a living. Then it took a while for me to understand what they did for a living. I could grasp owning a movie theatre; what it meant that they distributed movies was more abstract. And then, once I more or less understood that there was a world of non-Hollywood movies, often made abroad, whose presence on New York screens was not a foregone conclusion, and that someone had to choose to exhibit them, it took a long while for me to fathom the accomplishment inherent in their choices: their discovery of filmmakers like Bertolucci, Fassbinder, their championing of Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, and Claude Lanzmann.

Last December, the news broke that Lincoln Plaza Cinemas would be closing. In spite of its profitability, the landlord had declined to renew the lease. Howard Milstein, the patriarch of the family that owned the building, had, after an initial period of discussion, stopped returning the Talbots’ calls. Dan had not been well for much of the past year. But what about Toby? Shortly after the news that the theatre would close came the news of the passing of Dan Talbot.

A friend of mine who once worked in a bookstore told me that whenever the building put up scaffolding, customers whom he hadn’t seen in years would rush into the store in a panic asking if it was going out of business. When they were told no, they would vanish again until the next panic. But that was not the case with Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which did good business until its last day. A petition was circulated in the run-up to this closure with the tagline “Save Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.” It generated more than ten thousand signatures and seemed, at first, to be a purely symbolic gesture. But it is important to raise a fist in protest against these plunderings. The same grief that propelled nearly twelve thousand people to sign a petition protesting the end of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas led to the creation of a group called New Plaza Cinema, which hopes to continue the programming of the Talbots on the Upper West Side. It has Toby Talbot’s blessing, if not direct involvement. In the summer, they screened movies that had been scheduled to be shown at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Now they are are continuing this program at the Thalia, on Ninety-fifth Street.

When I heard about Lincoln Plaza Cinemas’ closing, I rushed to the theatre as often as I could, as though to visit a loved one in ill health. I saw the Churchill movie “Darkest Hour,” and I saw the new Haneke movie, which I found to be hilarious at times, though I was the only one laughing in the dark. I saw previews for my own mother’s film, which, in a further complication, opened at the theatre, on January 5th. There was a memorial for the theatre, a kind of closing ceremony, held at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, on January 28th. It was open to the public. Clips from movies that had been shown there over the years (“Tampopo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Shoah,” among others) were interspersed with commentary from filmmakers and writers (Wallace Shawn, Molly Haskell, Phillip Lopate, Michael Moore, among others), and the theatre’s employees.

I didn’t attend, having returned home to New Orleans, but later I wrote someone in attendance—my mother—to ask about that last day. It felt like a terrible a loss, I said. But why? She wrote:

It is not so much the physical place as it is the atmosphere. The level of the films. The world of the films selected that created, in turn, a world of its own that encompassed us. The physical space became dear to us. I want to hug it so it could not be taken away from us. But it is not hug-able. It is the elusive very special and unique something created by Daniel and Toby, by their personalities, humanity, special taste, intelligence.

The way that the end of the theatre so neatly coincided with the death of Dan has made the entire experience seem emotionally perverse. Dan was ninety-one. It almost feels as if the whole thing had naturally come to an end. But it did not have to end. Now that it is gone, I have been thinking: What was this entity that could not be hugged?

I was hired as an usher at the theatre shortly after it opened, in 1981, when I was sixteen. It was one of my first jobs, and therefore it was one of the first jobs from which I got fired. I lasted all of two days. The firing infraction was that I kept getting into conversations with people as they waited on line about what else was playing. Some of these films were good, I felt, and some were not, and I had a lot to say in either case. The manager politely told me to look for a job where freely expressing my opinions to customers would be appropriate, or at least tolerated. I didn’t feel at all bitter about this. I had so enjoyed the two days of talking with, and to, the captive audience on line that it didn’t really feel like a job, which I knew meant that I probably wasn’t doing it right.

In its early years, after it opened, there was something sleek, even a bit opulent, about the place. The seats felt cushy, the polished metal of the two escalators churning in opposite directions had a glitzy, show-biz quality. Over the years, that faded. The concession stand sold some unusual things—salmon sandwiches, hard pretzels, pieces of cake. The staff had been mostly unchanged. At some point, maybe a decade in, a huge mural by the Talbots’ daughter Nina appeared on one of the walls. It depicted faces talking. It added to the feeling of mom-and-pop-ness, of idiosyncrasy and taste. In the thirty years of its run, the movies changed but the place didn’t. The quality and taste of Dan and Toby Talbot never faded.

I started going regularly in late high school or early college. I liked to go to the late show, ideally on a Sunday night. If the movie was a hit, I would wait until the second or third week of its run, when the crowds had dissipated. The theatre would be mostly empty, or at least it was empty enough that I could spread out. For a long time, I got a popcorn and a soda, but then I started experimenting with the bags of hard pretzels. By the end, thirty years later, I was a hard-pretzels guy. I liked the quiet, nondescript nature of these late shows. I liked how when I came back aboveground afterward, somewhere near the midnight hour, the city had quieted. It felt like I was hiding out down there.

I saw many movies there but recall very few specific instances of the act of seeing—one vivid moment that I do recall involved Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” I suddenly became aware, in the theatre, of myself, and of what was on the screen. I remember the moment: the film’s protagonists are about to embark on a road trip. One of the characters, a woman, says something in a foreign language. Or maybe just a foreign accent. There is snow on the ground, and this accentuates the starkness of the black-and-white footage. There is an old car. Are they going to go on a road trip? Or not go on the road trip? That is the question. One of the guys is wearing a hat. Or both of the guys. Nothing much is happening onscreen, not even talking. Yet I remember feeling this tingle of excitement, of discovery. Or was it just boredom? I discussed this—with myself, as I always went alone—when I came out of the theatre. I may have stopped to read the reviews that were posted near the box office. I felt as though I had discovered something, some way of seeing and being.

The anonymity of a movie theatre is central to its paradoxical charm—a public place where people do private things: kiss, cry, laugh. This is captured in such book titles as Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark,” and Pauline Kael’s “I Lost It at the Movies.” Roland Barthes writes of how, after leaving a theatre, it is as though he has emerged from hypnosis, with its inevitable association with psychoanalysis. I agree with this characterization and its suggestion of moviegoing as self-discovery. Perhaps one feels, upon leaving a theatre, not just like a patient but also an analyst after a session. Ideally a very stimulating one.

The best representation of a movie theatre as a setting for epiphanies is Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The narrator goes to a theatre and sees up on the big screen his mother and father in the act of courtship, before their wedding and his birth. He watches the developments with increasing ambivalence. Eventually, his father proposes. At the key moment, the narrator can restrain himself no longer and begins to shout, “Don’t do it!”

At the back of “The New Yorker Theater,” Toby Talbot lists notable films shown in each year of its existence, and one title caught my eye: “A Flash of Green.” I have thought of a scene at the end of that film for many years. The movie came out in 1984, and centers around a small community in Florida that is trying to resist the development of a power plant on the Florida coast. There is one man in particular who fights it. The fight is lost. The movie ends with the man standing at the edge of the water, a bay of some kind. It’s night, and he is peering at the newly built plant in the distance. There is a bitter comedy in the moment, or, rather, sadness leavened with something else. Something redemptive, ever so slightly. Maybe it was the simple act of testifying to a fight that had been fought. But there was also a sad feeling that the consequences of this plant glimmering in the distance would be felt for a long time. It’s a very ambiguous moment.

I don’t know how this scene, this feeling it provoked, got into my head and hibernated there, appearing now and then, often when some seemingly hopeless environmental battle is on the verge of being lost. Here in New Orleans, there is a drama unfolding in which the local electric utility, Entergy, is trying to build a gas plant in New Orleans East over the objections of the community. The company was caught hiring actors to pack a City Council hearing on the subject, leaving actual citizens outside. I read this story and thought, almost half-consciously, of “A Flash Of Green,” thirty-three years after I saw the movie. There is so much in art and life that you don’t know about until people like the Talbots create a space where you wander in, open-minded, trusting that you might encounter some revelation, something that might stay with you.

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