Hop into the Wayback Machine, spin the dial to Manhattan, 1973, pop open the portal door, and voilà: a crumbling, reeking, nerve-scraping, hieroglyphic-graffiti’d urbanscape beckons. It is not the meticulously curated set of HBO’s The Deuce but the real raw, shaking disco inferno. The streets throng with shifty lowlifes for whom Ratso Rizzo was a role model. Subway trains are crime scenes in progress and rolling theaters of the absurd. But if the city on a bad day evokes a Hieronymus Bosch mural, it’s a near-heavenly time to be an obsessive moviegoer, assuming you can get to and from the theater in one piece.
Before DVDs, streaming services, and cable’s respite from life’s woes that is Turner Classic Movies, revival houses were where epiphany-seeking cinephiles and less exalted film junkies could dip into the dark for a few hours and cut their Dracula fangs on Hollywood golden oldies, the latest foreign craze, avant-garde provocations, and camp treasures with cult followings (the immortal Maria Montez in Cobra Woman). Scan the movie listings and here’s what’s on tap: Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight at the Art, on East 8th; Broadway Melody of 1936 and Broadway Melody of 1938 at Theatre 80 St. Marks; Last Year at Marienbad at the Quad; Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Alain Resnais’s Je T’aime, Je T’aime at the Playboy; a mascara’d diptych of Death in Venice and Performance at the New Yorker, which was operated in the early, awakening 60s by Dan Talbot, whose death in December ended a long life valiantly devoted to the advocacy, screening, and distribution of venturesome cinema; East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause at the Thalia. In Times Square, Deuce territory, the marquees of grind-house fleapits blazed with horror/martial-arts/skin-flick double features that thrilled the freaky taste buds and rotted the fillings of a generation of dedicated sickies.
Revival houses in the 70s, nearly all of them shoestring operations, had their own distinct character, a creaky, lived-in, refuge-for-lost-souls wombiness that honored the passage of time and fostered sinking into reverie. It was as if the graininess of the films seeped into the worn carpets and seat cushions. The Elgin, despite its Deco exterior (preserved during its renovation and resurrection as the Joyce, home to contemporary dance), had a disreputable mise en scène, perhaps the residue of its midnight showings of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos. Architecturally, the Thalia was a true weirdo, with its reverse parabolic floor and flimsy soundproofing; ventilation didn’t seem to be a priority, either—“The air in the theater seemed left over from F.D.R.’s third term,” one Thalia veteran recalled. (Now an adjunct to Symphony Space, the Thalia has been handsomely re-modernized and re-christened the Leonard Nimoy Thalia.) The seats at Theatre 80 St. Marks were a stress test for the lumbar region, and the rear screen projection often made black-and-white films look bleachy, but the concession bar served Colombian coffee—singular then—and the audiences seemed more collegial than those at revival houses that attracted more solitary jaybirds. The much-traveled prints were usually far from pristine, at worst a flickering strip of scratches, blotches, missing frames, and faded colors. But there’s something to be said for encountering art in a primitive condition—it makes the synapses work a little harder.
Like it or no, Woody Allen has done more than any other actor-director to enshrine the integral role of the revival house in the dating rituals and cultural upholstering of the baby-boomer urbanite. In Annie Hall, Allen’s Alvy Singer drags Diane Keaton’s Annie to see The Sorrow and the Pity at the New Yorker; in Crimes and Misdemeanors, his mansplainer takes his young niece to the Bleecker Street Cinema for Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith for some tutoring and advice dispensing; and, in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s distraught Mickey staggers into a showing of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic Duck Soup at the Metro and finds it the consoling antidote to mortal despair. One by one, these theaters closed, grave markers in a lost New York. When Theatre 80 St. Marks sealed its tomb, in the summer of 1994, The New York Times ran a eulogy titled “New York’s Revival Houses: And Then There Was One,” the sole survivor holding down the fort being Film Forum. (For some reason, the Times overlooked Anthology Film Archives in the East Village, still alive and kicking today.)
Film Forum remains a bastion of established greats, retrospectives, and major excavations (the first U.S. release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mini-series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day). Now it has reinforcements. In March 2016, the Metrograph, a new art revival house, opened on the Lower East Side, its festivities drawing illuminati such as Greta Gerwig, Jim Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola, and the Vincent Price of auteurism, John Waters. The Metrograph immediately earned its eagle wings by unspooling a retrospective of the director Jean Eustache, showcasing Eustache’s rarely seen three-and-a-half-hour miserabilist masterpiece, The Mother and the Whore, a movie where existential and penitential were conjoined. Unlike the revival houses of yore, the Metrograph doesn’t rely on a revolving slate of double features but focuses on special events and guest coups, such as the Brian De Palma retro with the safari-jacketed director himself appearing for a Q&A. Its restaurant, bars, snack shop, lobby, bookstore, and clientele exuding hip cred, the Metrograph has quickly morphed into a Scene.
A year later, the other side of town got its own oasis with the renovation and reopening of the Quad Cinema. A runty, plucky pioneer, the Quad was the city’s first small-screen multiplex when it introduced itself in 1972, a quartet of shoebox theaters with a narrow lobby that on weekend date nights could get as clogged as a Greyhound bus gate. I always seemed to have bum luck in my visits to the old Quad. Shortly after the start of one film, smoke began issuing out of the projection booth—not a good sign. As I recall, it didn’t prompt a George Costanza stampede to the exit but a more orderly, disgruntled trudge, like soldiers moving out on patrol. Mishaps aside, the Quad had a lot going for it in its first incarnation: multiple choices under one roof, an adventurous hodgepodge of films, first-rate popcorn, and proximity to Cinemabilia, the now fabled movie-related bookstore stocked with titles and magazines that was run by Terry Ork, a bearded Pan figure who managed the bound-for-guitar-glory band Television; among Cinemabilia’s employees was Television bassist, ripped-T-shirt model, and punk-rock poèt maudit Richard Hell. Those rugged aesthetes who routinely caromed between the Quad and Cinemabilia on West 13th Street could practically apply for French citizenship.
Cinemabilia is long gone, but the Quad has been reborn, with improved seating, new screens to replace the old sheets, and extended look-backs showcasing those who stand holy high in estimation (a Daniel Day-Lewis tribute) and the fallen-out-of-fashion (such as the resuscitation of the films of Italian director Lina Wertmüller, whose indignation-inciting Seven Beauties and Swept Away gave everybody something to yap about in the 70s). The Quad ran into a hitch last November when it felt compelled to cancel a program of double bills selected by Louis CK after sexual-harassment accusations caused the earth to open under his feet and swallow his career. Understandable, but a pity too, because CK revealed superb taste in film combos (Baby Face and Dinner at Eight, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game), and it wasn’t the movies’ fault that the guy who chose them got shot down in shame.
As the Louis CK cancellation reveals, the Weinstein Effect presents a warp field for film revivalists going forward, a floating ethical and aesthetic quandary now that so many reputations have been corroded. The Quad’s Daniel Day-Lewis salute didn’t raise any red flags—why should it?—but a similar nod to Dustin Hoffman would be a dicey proposition now; Kevin Spacey, ditto. A Roman Polanski festival isn’t something I’d want to pitch at the next meeting. Who knows, Woody Allen himself, the celebrator of Manhattan’s revival houses, may eventually become too problematic an entity for his films to be fested without extensive disclaimers, trigger warnings, and juju dolls hung in the lobby to ward off negative energies. It probably won’t come to that, but the Furies unleashed in 2017 have a lot of unfinished work to complete before things are set right, and woe to those who get in their way.
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JESSICA CHASTAIN, actor, producer.
With her cherry hair and Creamsicle complexion, Jessica Chastain possesses a classical beauty suitable for Victorian high collars (Crimson Peak), to-the-manor-born hauteur (Miss Julie), heroic archery (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), and parts requiring her to keep her dimpled chin cocked. Chastain has also dived into the netherworlds of counter-intelligence (Zero Dark Thirty) and high-roller underground gambling (Molly’s Game, as real-life “poker princess” Molly Bloom) without losing translucence. On the horizon is perhaps Chastain’s greatest challenge: playing the sainted country-music singer Tammy Wynette in George and Tammy.Photo: Photograph by Kathryn MacLeod.Annie Leibovitz and team observe Jessicas Diehl and Chastain.Photo: Photograph by Kathryn MacLeod.
ROBERT DE NIRO, actor, producer, director.
It is impossible to determine which is more intimidating: Robert De Niro’s scowl, which in his gangster roles signals a beatdown about to ensue (see GoodFellas), or his jack-o’-lantern smile, which indicates he’s going to relish the beatdown about to ensue (see his Al Capone in The Untouchables). Violence isn’t the only language his characters speak, but it is the one in which they are most articulate, especially in the collaborations with Martin Scorsese, which began with Mean Streets and continue today with The Irishman (Netflix), co-starring, among others, Al Pacino (as Jimmy Hoffa!), Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and Bobby Cannavale—ya gotta problem with that?Photo: Photograph by Kathryn MacLeod.V.F. features editor Jane Sarkin and Annie Leibovitz review wardrobe options with Jessica Diehl.Photo: Photograph by Kathryn MacLeod.Photo: Photograph by Kathryn MacLeod.Photo: Photograph by Kathryn MacLeod.Photo: Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.PreviousNext