Art appreciation

king of the art house

Left, Daniel Talbot and Alfred Hitchcock in front of the New Yorker marquee, January 13, 1965.

“In love with the movies”
Daniel Talbot
Columbia University Press, $25

Broadly speaking, there are two types of people who go to the cinema: the first group, much larger, goes in search of entertainment and/or an escape from everyday life; the second, in search of art and/or intellectual stimulation. We call these last moviegoers.

Daniel Talbot’s recently released memoir, ‘In Love With Movies’, reveals that he was equally comfortable and equally well-regarded on both sides. Mr. Talbot, who died in 2017, was a New York film and movie buff who, for more than 50 years, played an important role in movie theaters and film distribution. Its influence has taken on an international dimension.

As a young man, Mr. Talbot left a job as a publisher for the luxury of spending a “quiet” year during which he read a lot. Back at work, he follows his passion for cinema. In March 1960, he opened the New Yorker Theater at Broadway and 89th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (“Our first program was ‘Henry V’ and ‘Le Ballon Rouge’. A huge success. From that first day the place had an electric atmosphere, almost all of the patrons were young, with a genuine hunger for film – and not satisfied with the banal junk. All the shows ended with applause.”)

Although he had no intention of becoming a film distributor, a meeting with Italian director and screenwriter Bernardo Bertolucci proved providential. (“From the start, I resisted any urge to distribute films. But it was the collector’s euphoria that was triggered when I first saw…’Before the Revolution’ by Bertolucci. I wrote to the Italian producer to tell him that I wanted to launch at the New Yorker Theater. He replied: “No, I am not interested in a single exhibition of the film, but if you want to buy the distribution rights, that’s another matter.” “)

Thus was launched an important part of Mr. Talbot’s career. He founded New Yorker Films in 1965. The distribution company became known for its artistic, innovative and politically engaged films from around the world. It is this aspect of his work that has led Mr. Talbot to participate in a wide variety of international film festivals. (Excerpts from his notes on many of them form one of the valuable appendices to the book.)

At the Cannes Film Festival in 1991, Mr. Talbot was honored with the prestigious Rossellini Prize. In his acceptance speech, he said, “If I’ve worked in film all these years, it’s only because of Roberto Rossellini.” He told how, in his youth, seeing two of the Italian director’s films inspired him to pursue a life in the world of cinema.

Mr. Talbot remained a film distributor for 49 years. For much of this time, he also owned and ran movie theaters. His last and greatest was the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which opened in 1981 on the lower level of a newly constructed apartment tower across from Lincoln Center.

This book is many things, and readers will find different aspects of it to be of the greatest value. It is practically a reference volume on the most important art films of much of the 20th century and on many of their creators. It is a very accurate reflection of the intellectual life of the Upper West Side of New York during the same period. (“I rarely go below Fifty-Ninth Street or east of Central Park West.”) It’s a thoughtful consideration of the place of cinema in our culture. But above all, it’s a glimpse of one of the lucky few – a man who turned his passion into a fulfilling career.

While it’s full of names known only to dedicated moviegoers, there are plenty of others that are widely recognizable. The author describes his meetings with Gloria Swanson, Marcello Mastroianni and Roy Cohn, among many others.

The depth of the content becomes accessible through the organization of the volume. It is divided into 11 parts, ranging from “Unsung Film Pioneers” to “Directors [and More Directors] in My Life” to “Portraits” (of some important film contributors) to “Upper West Side Cinemas”. In the section titled “Acquisitions” there is a chapter on the cult 1981 film “My Dinner With Andre”, the success of which Mr. Talbot had an impact.

Most of the chapters are short and focused. Longer than many of them is the letter that Mr. Talbot sent to the esteemed New York film critic Pauline Kael, about her negative reactions to “Shoah”, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 French documentary about the Holocaust. The film’s only bad review was from Ms. Kael. Mr. Talbot took her to task massively, which most other mortals would not have been quick to do, given the influence she wielded.

One of the lessons from these memoirs is that genuine devotion to an art form breeds taste and an appreciation for quality, rather than snobbery. Another is that such devotion can contribute to a well-lived life.

After the author’s text, there is a loving epilogue from Toby Talbot, his wife and editor. “Our Lincoln Plaza theaters are no more,” she wrote. “Closed January 28, 2018. After almost forty years. . . .” The latest films that were screened there included “Happy End” and “Darkest Hour”.

Mr. Talbot had died a month earlier. “It was my darkest hour,” she wrote. “Gone, my dear husband of nearly seven decades.”

A cinematic ending, some would say.

Jim Lader, who owned a weekend home in East Hampton for many years, has reviewed books for The Star since 2009.

Daniel Talbot had a house in Water Mill.