In Love with Movies
by Toby Talbot
Dan Talbot changed the way the Upper West Side—and art house audiences around the world—went to the movies. His memoir, In Love with Movies (Columbia University Press) is his account of running theaters for over sixty years, while discovering and distributing directors from around the world. Here’s how it all started: As newlyweds in the early fifties, living in Astoria, we could walk across the Manhattan Bridge, and with hero sandwich in hand, go to the Beverly Theater under the Third Avenue El, the Sutton nearby, the Little Carnegie on 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue, or the World Theater on Broadway. We feasted on Brief Encounter, I Know Where I’m Going, Children of Paradise, and Open City. Fast forward several years. After a wanderlust year in Spain, with two little daughters, we settled in a second-floor apartment in a brownstone on West 90th Street. Essentially broke, Dan began looking for a job and I started teaching Spanish and Latin American literature at Columbia University. One day, my sister’s accountant announced his plan to convert the Yorktown Theater on Broadway, between 88th Street and 89th, into a Spanish movie-house. Dan persuaded him to allow him run it for a year as a repertory house, with a salary of $125 a week. We opened with Henry V and The Red Balloon, a fantasy about a Parisian boy’s friendship with a balloon, who winds up soaring into the heavens. A line formed around the block. We proceeded with The Magnificent Andersons, along with Pull My Daisy, by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie with Kerouac’s memorable line “You better act real on behavior that.” The theater was a success from day one, with a mostly young audience. Students came from Columbia University, just three subway stops away. “Suddenly, I had a wonderful toy to play with,” said Dan “a nine-hundred seat theater!” We thought of it as our living-room, and showed films we ourselves wanted to see: Humphry Bogart Preston Sturges. the Marx Brothers, and W. C. Fields. Dan’s bold programming created a hotbed of activity. Program notes were written by writers and critics such as Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, William Everson, Eugene Archer, Jules Feiffer, and Jack Kerouac. Peter Bogdanovich had approached Dan when the theater opened, saying he wanted to work for him. He planned some of our series and wrote program notes which he sold in the lobby for twenty-five cents. Susan Sontag showed up as well right from the start, asking for a permanent pass. Which she got. We showed retrospectives of American films from the thirties and forties, some not seen for decades, and began playing foreign films. What a wealth of riches from which to choose! Eisenstein, Griffith, Lubitch, Renoir and Keaton, Chaplin, and W.C Fields, von Sternberg’s Blue Angel, De Sicca’s Shoeshine, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and Jacques Becker’s Casque d “Or. Dan’s bold programming would become a launching pad for art houses around the country. We showed many European films, which previously had no chance for commercial release. Our theater was a family store: my mother behind the candy-stand, my father in the lobby. I’d keep an eye out for pickpockets. People would confide their troubles to her. When asked for advice, she might answer “Whatever you do, do the right thing.” Manny Farber liked to chat with her, flitting in an out of a B movie, to catch the particular scene he wanted. He dedicated his book, “Negative Space,” to “Toby’s mother.” One day Dan and I saw a film we were eager to show. It was Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, but producer said we couldn’t, for Bertolucci had no distributor. “Okay,” said Dan, “I’ll be the distributor,” barely knowing what that entailed. Thus began our budding distribution company, New Yorker Films, with an office just a shoehorn space above the theater. In time, we amassed over four hundred films and our yearly catalogs became a guide for film classes and cinema societies. One of the funniest scenes in Annie Hall is with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton standing in line in the New Yorker lobby, overhearing some pretentious babble about Fellini and Marshal Mc Luhan. Suddenly, he points to the actual McLuhan, standing near a billboard! The New Yorker guest books were filled with thousands of film requests, as well as dreams, passions, and complaints. One entry read “Fix the water cooler”. Another implored us to show the Chaplins. Dan began corresponding with Chaplin, and succeeded in obtaining prints. In 1974 we sold the New Yorker to devote ourselves solely to distribution. But four years later Dan missed running a theater, and we opened the Cinema Studio on 66th Street and Broadway, then the Metro on 104th, and finally the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with six auditoriums. Moviegoers came from all over the city. In his memoir, Dan’s memoir describes the genesis of Point of Order, the film he and Emile de Antonio made about the shameful McCarthy purges in the United States, followed by the televised Senate Army McCarthy hearings in 1954. Dan also describes how we “discovered” certain films and his close relationships with leading world directors, among them Godard, Fassbinder, Wenders, Varda, Kiarostami, all of whom became friends. One day in Paris, our friend Louis Marcorelles, film critic for Le Monde, said he wanted to introduce us to a young Senegalese filmmaker. As we sat in a café, a young black man with a pipe emerged from modest hotel. We were introduced and next day screened three of Sembenes’s film shorts: Borom Sarret and Tau, along with Black Girl, a powerful film about a young Senegalese woman hired and exploited. We said that we wanted to distribute all his films. And we did, until the end of his life, including Moolade, an outcry against female circumcision. We regretted never having visited Ousmane at his home in Senegal. We’d been invited so many times. One day the director Louis Malle came to Dan’s office with a script he had no confidence in. Dan read it overnight, urged him to pursue it, and helped raise money. The film had just two characters: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, talking in a restaurant. We opened My Dinner with Andre at the Cinema Studio. It became the biggest grossing film in the history of New Yorker Films. One of the films that meant most to Dan was Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. On a Friday morning in 1985 we read a small item in the New York Times about a 9 ½ hour film on the Holocaust opening in Paris. “We have to go and see it,” said Dan. That night we were on flight to Paris. On Saturday morning, we saw the first four hours of Shoah, with Claude Lanzmann seated behind us interpreting. The film had no subtitles and was in German, Yiddish, French, and Hebrew. We were overcome by this Holocaust film, with no dead bodies–but powerful testimonies. The next day we saw Part Two and immediately recognized it as a masterpiece. At a café table after the movie, Claude poured out a shopping bag filled with his bills. We signed a contract with a handshake, then returned to New York. Shoah opened at the Cinema Studio and had a long run. Many Holocaust survivors and children of survivors whose parents had never spoken about their experiences saw the film. Dan traveled with Shoah to many cities with significant Jewish populations. He regarded this film as a moral obligation. Werner Hertzog, in his forward, tells how he personally owed Dan the discovery and release of all his early films. Aguirrre, the Wrath of God opened at the Cinema Studio, and it was his breakthrough in the United States. “There are some films for which I would like to bow to Dan, and then hug him hard, among them: Pickpocket by Robert Bresson, Tokyo Story by Yesijuro Ozu, the films by the French New Wave, and Brazilian Cinema Novo.”
At Dan’s memorial on January 21, 2017—the very day the Lincoln Plaza closed—five auditoriums were filled. Outside a woman was passing out flyers, announcing the “Coalition for the New Plaza Cinema”: its intent to show films throughout the year, of the sorts shown at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Dan had created a loyal and vibrant cultural community.
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