The Heroic Age of New York Movie Theaters
I have spent large chunks of my life in repertory movie theaters. Coming to cinephilia at the height of auteurism, and being both an auteurist and a completist, eager to see all of my favorite directors’ works, I would track down obscure titles, like The Model and the Marriage Broker during my George Cukor phase, or Two Guys in Manhattan by the ever-cherished Jean-Pierre Melville. Often, these minor films were not that great, but they taught me something about a master’s artistic range and development. (And sometimes they were very great, like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Miss Oyu). Since I knew that these rarities typically had short runs, perhaps only a day, I would scan the listings of the repertory movies theaters for revivals and prepare to pounce. In this wise, I haunted The Thalia, The New Yorker, The Charles, Theatre 80 St. Marks, The Regency, The Elgin, The Bleecker Street Cinema, The Film Forum, and many another venue that revived older films. Of course, I still kept up with the new releases, but my first concern was to fill in the gaps.
A new study by Ben Davis, Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde 1960–1994, with copious photographs, has just been published. I confess I approached it with trepidation, fearing it would get wrong somehow the passion to which I had given so much time and energy, rather like going to a mass political demonstration and coming home to see it distorted in the nightly news. I also worried that this subject which was so meaningful to me would not matter much to the reading public; and in seeing it thus diminished, I would realize that I had wasted my life. Not that I would take back any of the sublime movie-going moments that I had experienced from youth to middle age; just that I would be embarrassed to find myself grouped with a pack of obsessive, nerdy aesthetes, who in their prolonged-adolescent fandom had over-valued their idols and mistaken the shadow for the act.
As it turns out, Davis has done a superb job (I was almost disappointed not to be disappointed) of capturing the phenomenon of New York repertory movie theaters and placing it in historical context. His prose is clear, intelligent, engaging; his anecdotal examples colorful and often humorous; his research impeccably extensive and his facts for the most part accurate. He has interviewed everyone on the scene who is still alive—even me (the index shows I am quoted fourteen times, although I have but a dim recollection of being interviewed.) Davis has divided the book into a first wave, taking us through the Sixties, with separate chapters on Dan Talbot’s New Yorker, Lionel Rogosin’s Bleecker Street Cinema, Walter Langsford and Edwin Stein Jr.’s Charles, and Martin and Ursula Lewis’s Thalia in its first incarnation, followed by a second wave, from the Seventies on, focusing on Chuck Zlatkin and Steve Gould’s Elgin, Howard Otway’s Theatre 80 St. Marks, Frank Rowley’s Regency, The Thalia reborn under Richard Schwarz, and Sid Geffen and Jackie Raynal’s Carnegie Hall Cinema.
Read more at The New York Review of Books.