Consider the sum total of all the psychic and social energy expended on whatever today’s social-media pileup happens to be. Now imagine a world where that same gigawattage would have been spent debating the merits and meaning of a film such as L’Avventura or Persona or Last Tango in Paris. That’s what movie-going was like in the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s, when catching the “new Fellini”—or Godard or Altman—was essential if you aspired to be culturally literate. It was the golden era of art-house cinema.
It was also “an epoch that has vanished,” as Werner Herzog writes in his introduction to a new memoir by the late Daniel Talbot. The latter name may not be familiar, but Talbot was a behind-the-scenes hero to several generations of New York City movie-lovers, first as a pioneering repertory-theater owner, later as a distributor of films such as The Marriage of Maria Braun, My Dinner with Andre, Tampopo, and Shoah.
For the long final act of his professional life, Talbot ran the six-screen Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, on the Upper West Side, which well into the 21st century continued to promote a sober, literate, mostly Eurocentric film culture even as many cinéastes began taking their cues from the more splatter-philic likes of Quentin Tarantino. The complex closed in January 2018, after its landlord declined to renew the lease. Talbot had died just a few weeks prior, of heart failure, at the age of 91.
Talbot began his professional movie life in fairly genteel fashion as a film critic and an East Coast–based story editor for Warner Bros. In 1960, he and his wife, Toby, decided to get their hands dirty by taking over a failing theater on the Upper West Side. They renamed it the New Yorker, operating with a philosophy that boiled down to showing movies they wanted to see. “We thought of it as our living room,” Toby once observed.
“A wonderful toy to play with,” Talbot confesses in In Love with Movies: From New Yorker Films to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. The opening double feature: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and The Red Balloon. “A huge success,” Talbot notes. Another early bill: Forbidden Games and Beat the Devil—“as unlikely a combination as you will find in a theater,” but nevertheless “very big at the New Yorker.” Believe it or not, people lined up around the block for the New York premiere of the uncut Triumph of the Will.
If the enterprise was first and foremost a labor of love, the business side of things mostly worked out, too. “I learned by doing,” Talbot writes, “making mistakes, heeding an urge to make it fresh.” Part impresario, part curator, part fan—whatever, his skill set worked. The bottom line was aided by the fact that 1960s New York harbored an abundance of young audiences “with a genuine hunger for film—and not satisfied with run-of-the-mill junk.”
Talbot eventually began programming first-run foreign films and independent American movies, continuing in that niche when he migrated 20-odd blocks down Broadway, opening the Cinema Studio theater at West 66th, in 1976, and finally the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas at 63rd, in 1981. He also started his own distribution company in 1965, when that proved the only way to book Before the Revolution, the second film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, then relatively unknown in this country. Talbot’s New Yorker Films would ultimately amass a library of more than 400 pictures.
He seems to have been of two minds about his day-to-day work life, complaining that it could be “mainly tedious, if not downright boring” watching more than 350-odd movies a year, most of them lousy, in “dark, stuffy screening rooms”—a sacrifice only partly offset by regular lunches at the Four Seasons and the Russian Tea Room.
But for the most part, Talbot’s love of movies seems to have been happily requited. He boasts of attending film festivals around the world, hanging out with directors and actors, and often enough discovering movies so “fresh, different, exciting” that “I want to sing out to everyone that something new has come along.”
In Love with Movies is not a conventional memoir. It appears to have been cobbled together posthumously from one or more genuine attempts at a memoir, along with journal entries, personality sketches, festival diaries, a couple of untethered essays about the film scene that read as if they date from the 1970s, and other fragments. Toby Talbot, who edited the book, might have included some annotation. It’s an uneven read, best approached—maybe appropriately—like a film festival or repertory schedule, inevitably a mix of winners and dogs.
As an Upper West Sider myself, I particularly enjoyed Talbot’s portraits of the neighborhood, especially in the early days of the New Yorker theater, when the area was dicier than it is today, “heroin the drug of choice” rather than Xanax. The New Yorker shared a block with Murray’s Sturgeon Shop (still in business!) and Benny’s, a long-shuttered greasy spoon that served cops, junkies, hookers, and fences as an informal underworld message center.
The Benny’s network did Talbot a solid when it passed on word to one of his ushers that “Tony, a gimlet-eyed dope addict whom I’d fired several weeks before for stealing money from the box office, was going to bump me off.” Forewarned was forearmed—literally. The threat lifted when the hapless Tony botched a newsstand stickup and ended up in “the slammer.”
The old Upper West Side wasn’t a total war zone. Audiences at the New Yorker included neighborhood regulars such as Jules Feiffer, Peter Bogdanovich, and the playwright Jack Gelber. “And then there was Susan Sontag up at nearby Columbia University where she was teaching. One week after the New Yorker opened, Susan, with young son David in tow, approached and declared, ‘I’d like to have’—or did she say, ‘I want to have’—‘a permanent guest pass to your theater.’ And I gave it to her!” A few decades later, at the Lincoln Plaza, Robert Caro was a regular—not for the films but for the concession stand’s homemade gingerbread.
Talbot’s portraits of directors he knew are respectful but clear-eyed and witty. Agnès Varda turned up for lunch one day at the family apartment on Riverside Drive, “dressed in one of those flowery tunics she’d unearthed in a flea market.” She had requested a light meal, but after polishing off two courses “with typical gusto and concentration.… She gazed at Toby with the imploring expression of a baby having downed its bottle one-two-three, now asking for more.” Luckily the Talbots’ larder that day included several slabs of serious cheese as well as the gingerbread that also wetted Caro’s whistle.
Another lunch took place in Paris with M. et Mme. Jacques Tati. He carried on endlessly about himself and his films, while Talbot’s attention turned to the wife: “That poor suffering woman, hearing the same stories over and over again. It wouldn’t have surprised me at the restaurant if, by chance, asking his wife to corroborate some event in his life, he might not have remembered her name. He could always call her Tati.
“There’s healthy narcissism and sick narcissism,” Talbot concludes. “Tati’s had no category.” The same could be said of this eccentric, rambling, frequently delightful book.
Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult