The New Yorker Stories: Dan Talbot’s Life in Film (Web Exclusive)
by Cynthia Rowell
Our spring issue features the article “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor” by Daniel Talbot, owner of the legendary New Yorker repertory theater (1960–1973) in Manhattan and founder of the New Yorker Films distribution company (1965–2009). For those readers not familiar with Talbot’s historic accomplishments and continuing activities, the following notes will provide a brief introduction.
For nearly six decades now, New York audiences have gone to view the best of classic and contemporary films at the Upper West Side Manhattan theaters Dan Talbot has owned, including the Cinema Studio, Metro, and the still-functioning, first-run, six-screen multiplex Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Straight out of the gate, his freshly named New Yorker Theater was a success when it reopened in 1960 as a repertory venue. The first twin bill, consisting of Henry V and The Red Balloon, ran for three weeks, regularly filling up the 900-seat capacity. Within two years, Talbot was able to take over the lease. He would, however, achieve a far greater sphere of influence in shaping film culture that reached well beyond Manhattan.
In 2004, the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) honored Talbot with its Gotham Award for Industry Lifetime Achievement. He started his illustrious career with words, not images: the 1959 publication of Film: An Anthology (a volume collecting invaluable essays on the art), and short-lived stints as an East Coast story editor for Warner Bros. and film critic at The Progressive. This literary interest would manifest itself in one of the New Yorker Theater’s defining qualities: the film program notes, often written by well-known authors.
In a New York Times article when the Lincoln Plaza opened in 1981, Talbot stated that by “the mid-60’s, having exhausted playing the American films of the 30's and 40's and not wanting to repeat any of the programs—no matter how successful they were, I started casting my eyes at international cinema.” He jumped into the deep end by assuming the role of distributor when he could not book Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution for a single show at the New Yorker Theater, and thus its namesake, New Yorker Films, was born in 1965.
The revival house began showing more contemporary foreign films, an act which itself was getting reanimated after struggling during the dark period of McCarthyism and censorship. The influx of these new international styles would indeed have an effect on the American film industry as the studio system evaporated and independent filmmakers weaned on the fare at the art houses forged a “New Hollywood.” Before the proliferation of film studies in American colleges, independent theaters such as the New Yorker essentially provided an education in the moving image. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen (who filmed a scene for Annie Hall in the lobby after the Walter Reade Organization had taken over the space), Barbra Streisand, and Peter Bogdanovich, who was also responsible for some of the programming and notes, were among the regulars.
Through New Yorker Films, Talbot introduced America to New German Cinema (R. W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders) and furthered the appreciation of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer).. He cemented his tastemaker status by taking chances on exciting new talents, such as Hong Sang-soo and Jia Zhang-ke, and indispensable works of art most other distributors then would deem “uncommercial,” including films by Robert Bresson, Ermanno Olmi, Chantal Akerman, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Theo Angelopoulos…the list goes on. Eventually, there were more than 400 films in the library he amassed, everything from Michelangelo Antonioni to Zhang Yimou. I recall that when, as a DVD producer at New Yorker Films, collaborating with colleagues to design a generic digipak to hold the discs, we were flummoxed over what director names to highlight as representative of the company’s history: there were too many to choose from and not enough space.
The company logo may have been the Gotham skyline, but audiences now stretched from coast to coast. Film societies and independent cinemas booked his latest choices, putting their trust in his impeccable judgment and “the New Yorker seal of approval.” Many programmers, critics, curators, filmmakers, and cinephiles got their initiation by flipping through New Yorker Films catalogues.
Some may also have had their minds awoken to radical politics. After an inspiring programming choice of screening all 188 hours of the 1954 Army–McCarthy hearing kinescopes in 1961, Talbot and Emile de Antonio would spend three years condensing that into a ninety-seven-minute film, Point of Order. His political use of cinema did not stop there: as a distributor, Talbot engaged in another type of service by not being afraid to venture into new territories or to showcase controversial subject matter. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah opened eyes to the horrors of the Holocaust; Godard’s Hail Mary was met with the charge of blasphemy by protesting Catholics. New Yorker released films about the hot-button topics of the day, from civil rights (Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary), fascism (Ice), and war (Far from Vietnam). They also shined a spotlight on countries that did not get as much exposure, such as Serbia (Emir Kusturica), Iran (Mohsen Makhmalbaf), Senegal (Ousmane Sembene), Brazil (Nelson Pereira dos Santos), and Argentina (Fernando Solanas). Exhibiting De Antonio’s Millhouse: A White Comedy would later land Talbot on Nixon’s enemies list.
Through Talbot’s stories recounted in our spring issue, as well as the many others in his wife Toby’s 2009 book, The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies detailing their pioneering adventures in exhibition and distribution, the films that circulated during the “Golden Age of cinephilia” and beyond will be remembered, even though not all of them may resurface in repertory houses or on home video. New Yorker, the theater then the distribution company, was always a family shop—the first literally so with Toby and her parents working by his side. Toby was also a globetrotting partner in the search for films to acquire and to screen; the latter activity prevails, even after the initial demise of New Yorker Films in 2009 (it was resuscitated in 2010, but without the Talbots’ participation). Employees of both ventures became part of a surrogate family, and many of them went on to form distribution companies of their own, or run film festivals and theaters. All, including myself, had a reason to be grateful to the exposure to such cinema gems and to learn the business from a trailblazer.
His writing parallels the man: original, compelling, perceptive, cultivated, forthright, steadfast, passionate—all of which could be used to describe the films he selected. A continuing fixture on the international film festival circuit—attending Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, and/or, of course, New York—he’s surely accumulating additional stories. Above the New Yorker theater marquee was an Art Deco relief of Diana, Roman goddess of hunting but also, appropriately, of the light; Dan Talbot has not stopping sharing his silver-screen catches with us.
Cynthia Rowell is an assistant editor of Cineaste.
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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2