Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 12, 2018

Bitter Money; Pow Wow

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm


Later this month, Lincoln Plaza Cinema will be shutting down not because it could not sell tickets for its middle-of-the-road art movies but because Milstein Properties decided not to renew its lease. Milstein claims that after major construction repairs to the high-rise above the screening rooms in the basement are complete, the space will be reserved for another theater. It is likely that it will not be owned by Dan and Toby Talbot, the husband-and-wife team who founded Lincoln Plaza in 1981.

Dan Talbot, who died last month at the age of 91, was a vanguard figure in New York’s arthouse cinema. He founded the New Yorker theater on the Upper West Side in 1960 and it soon became a shrine to revivals of classic films like “Citizen Kane” or the latest Kurosawa or Fellini. After graduating NYU, his first gig in the film business was writing reviews for The Progressive, a pacifist magazine based in Wisconsin.

This is by no means a scientific finding but Googling “Louis Proyect” and “Lincoln Plaza” returns 879 links, nearly all to my reviews. At the top of the list is my article on “Lifta”, an Israeli film that broaches the possibility of reconciliation between Zionists and their Palestinian victims. I had never considered this before but my colleague in NYFCO Jordan Hoffman saw the theater as catering to the sensibilities of elderly liberal Jews on the Upper West Side in a Village Voice article about the closing of the theater:

The concession stand sells popcorn and Milk Duds, but also smoked salmon sandwiches. This is the neighborhood of Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass and the JCC Manhattan and a block ceremonially named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. This Christmas, the neighborhood Jews, ordained as they are to go to the movies and then hit a Szechuan Palace after, included Lincoln Plaza in their ritual for the last time. A final congregation at the Ciné-gogue. It’s a Shanda [shame].

It is unlikely that anything like the New Yorker or Lincoln Plaza will ever be launched on the Upper West Side again because real estate has become prohibitively expensive in Manhattan. In an article on the closing of Lincoln Plaza in the New Yorker magazine, film critic Richard Brody said that new theaters will likely be found downtown where real estate is still relatively affordable. But even there, the prospects are guarded as evidenced by the closing of Landmark Sunshine at 139 East Houston St. this month, which was sold for $31.5 million to East End Capital and K Property Group, who will presumably turn it into condos up above and a CVS or health club on the street level. With the proliferation of health clubs in NY and the demise of arthouses like Lincoln Plaza, we will end up with 6-pack bellies galore and plunging literacy.

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  1. Unless you lived through the 1960s, it’s almost impossible to comprehend just how important art house cinemas really were at so many levels including the birth of New Left sensibility and subverting the cultural and political puritanism so central to McCarthyism.

    In Philadelphia there was exactly one theater called The Band Box that was central in showing one incredible film after another. It won’t appear in any history book but its cultural influence was immense. These theaters were something like the original underground press but for films. They arose around the same time as folk music, early Dylan, and early SDS. They totally exposed Hollywood crap via imports primarily from Europe but from India, Japan, and other nations as well.


    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — January 12, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  2. I worked at an arthouse cinema, J Street Cinema in Sacramento, in the 70s. It was the only job I could get with an anthropology degree, but it really was a fantastic place to work. It was split between foreign and American classics and independent. I think my wife and I watched about six movies a week. It really is a cultural loss to see these go. One other point worth mentioning. The deaf in Sacramento would descend on us for foreign movies, the only ones with subtitles. Think about that for a secondary service such theaters provided.

    Comment by David Moore — January 13, 2018 @ 1:58 am

  3. “I worked at an arthouse cinema, J Street Cinema in Sacramento, in the 70s.”

    I have a schedule for the J Street Cinema in a box in my garage somewhere, but can’t remember actually seeing a film there. I also went to the Showcase Theatre across the street from Macy’s between 4th and 5th and L Streets. It was torn down for a parking lot, which it has remained to this day.

    It is difficult to overstate the importance of these cinemas. I discovered foreign and domestic films outside of the ones made by Hollywood at the Showcase (and probably the J Street Cinema, too, else why would I have a schedule?), although, to be fair, Hollywood wasn’t that bad back then, Hollywood made a lot of great movies in the 1960s and 1970s, too, but Star Wars brought an end to it. Still remember seeing “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York” at the Crest nearby on the K Street Mall. There were also Kung Fu films screened about a block down the mall at the Star. My friends and I liked those as well, not surprising for a group of teen age males (some from Chinese immigrant families) at the time.

    The movies exposed us to a larger world beyond, however imperfectly, different kinds of experience and perception. There was no Internet, of course, and TV was 3 networks and an independent channel. There was something exciting about seeing these films, even (or especially?) the Kung Fu ones, and I was exposed to different ways of understanding people, places and relationships. I had moved across the country from Georgia to California, and the movies enabled me to to continue to vicariously travel.

    Now, I’m left with the Pacific Film Archive, with its new, cold screening facility in downtown Berkeley, and DVDs, which I can watch in the comfort of my home. Nearly all the art house cinemas of the Bay Area are gone, too. Of course, there is much more available, but I can help but feel nostalgic for the possibilities associated with watching movies in these old theaters. Or, maybe, I’m just romanticizing my youth.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 13, 2018 @ 4:54 am

  4. One reason why there was a bit of a Hollywood renaissance in the early 70s was that the directors has been art house cinema junkies themselves.

    Say what you will about George Lucas but he has said one of his influences in thinking up Star Wars was Kurosawa films and you can see the samurai idea in the light sabers in Star Wars for example. Polanski only got to make Chinatown because of his reputation for his earlier films that you could only see in art house cinemas. Same for Antonioni and Zabriskie Point. It was so influential that the word “Felliniesque” became popular. You also had critics like Pauline Kael who had been schooled in art house films when living in San Francisco.

    The guy who seems relatively unaffected by the art house movement was Spielberg or at least that’s my impression. My guess is that where he grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, they didn’t have an art house cinema sub-culture. But a guy like Scorsese was an art house fanatic in part because he lived in NYC. Spielberg, however, only seems to have had an American pop sensibility. Hence “Jaws.”

    The other influence that is harder to see immediately is in the actors who did European movies and then came back to the US. People like Jane Fonda. Also there was in the European film business some Americans who fled the US during McCarthyism. Some of them also later got back into American movies and/or they were still friends with Americans in the film business who didn’t have to flee.

    IMO, the great European film revolution came to its end with the German renaissance in the 70s and early 80s. After that, Europe was over. It had gone through Italy with neo-realism to France with New Wave to Germany with the likes of a Fassbinder. The British film industry more or less was a non-player. In the East, Polish cinema was the most important but things shut down there and in Prague as well. The Russians never really got going and so Tarkovsky was a fluke. By the time his films got any distribution in the West, it was in the early 1980s when America had turned to Reaganism and the art cinema sub-culture was long dead.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — January 13, 2018 @ 11:51 am

  5. “Say what you will about George Lucas but he has said one of his influences in thinking up Star Wars was Kurosawa films and you can see the samurai idea in the light sabers in Star Wars for example.”

    The first Star Wars film had an emotional and narrative depth that is by and large missing from later ones. I watched it again with my son recently, and was struck by the attack upon the Death Star. If I recall correctly, Lucas said that it was inspired by Doolittle’s 1942 raid on Tokyo, and the dialogue between the pilots is derived from World War II fighter bomber argot.

    “The guy who seems relatively unaffected by the art house movement was Spielberg or at least that’s my impression.”

    I think that this is generally true, but “Duel”, “The Sugarland Express” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” suggest that there was some influence that evaporated. Critics compared “Close Encounters’ to Truffaut when it was released.

    “IMO, the great European film revolution came to its end with the German renaissance in the 70s and early 80s. After that, Europe was over. It had gone through Italy with neo-realism to France with New Wave to Germany with the likes of a Fassbinder.”

    Yes, although I do think Assayas directed a number of compelling films afterwards.

    For me, I focused upon the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien (“The Puppetmaster”, “The Assassin”, “City of Sadness”), Jia Zhangke, and the eclectic creations of the Hong Kong cinema, particularly the brilliant performances of Maggie Cheung (“Actress”, “Comrades: Almost a Love Story”; “As Tears Go By”).

    One of the striking things about Fassbinder is the extent to which his subject matter and technique have been subsequently incorporated into mainstream US and international film.

    By the way, look forward to the release of “Bitter Money” on video, Wang Bing is one of the great filmmakers of our times. His “West of the Tracks” trilogy is extraordinary.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 13, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

  6. Europe is still capable of making great films and Assayas’s Something in the Air is for me one of the best “60s” films ever made. Carlos is awesome as well. It’s just that it’s a single film and part of his work and not part of a great wave in French film-making that makes the rest of us rethink cinema. Godard cranks out films as well but they lack the majesty of his run in the 60s up to and including Weekend.

    I think the first Star Wars is great myself. To me it’s like From Russia With Love, a great Bond film that remains fresh no matter how many Roger Moore sequels made a mockery of the brand name. The thing about the first Star Wars is that it had just an amazing look to it from the opening credits that took you right in to the story. I think you are right about Close Encounters as well. I remember being very impressed with it when it first came out although I haven’t seen it in ages.

    As for Chinese and Hong Kong cinema, I remember thinking Peking Opera Blues brilliant but the Chinese films that really became influential came in the mid-1980s and by that time we were in Reaganism and the power of cinema like the power of music had vastly lessened. To me the Hong Kong stuff was sort of like the black exploitation films and very sub-genre films without a lot to add to the critique of Hollywood or the advancement of cinema. In fact, they seemed throwbacks to B films where a ton of junk was produced with a few gems as well. Same for Italian Westerns.

    I wish personally that someone would show more films made in the Soviet era for popular consumption as opposed to art cinema a la Tarkovsky. I’d love to see Soviet World War II movies made in the late 1950s and 60s myself.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — January 13, 2018 @ 8:47 pm

  7. “I think the first Star Wars is great myself.”

    At the time, we all thought it was cool when we saw it in the theater in 1977. We had no idea that it would become a huge brand, so there was no cynicism in how we related to it. The mixture of futuristic and retro design was a delight. I still think it looks far superior to the CGI atrocities of the prequels and the Disney releases. My son thinks so, too.

    “To me the Hong Kong stuff was sort of like the black exploitation films and very sub-genre films without a lot to add to the critique of Hollywood or the advancement of cinema. In fact, they seemed throwbacks to B films where a ton of junk was produced with a few gems as well.”

    Pauline Kael has a similar attitude, but it may have made a difference whether you lived on the West Coast or back east (assuming you live there). Out here, especially in Northern California, we got exposed to a wide range of films across many genres, from the art house work of Wong Kar-wai to the violent crime stories of John Woo to the period films of Tsui Hark.

    Even the B movies could have a political edge that one rarely found in Hollywood ones. For example, “Executioners”, a contemporary female martial arts film, was an allegory about the transfer of Hong Kong to the PRC, with a plot that prefigured the corporate control of water that resulted in protests in Bolivia several years later. It also displayed a political ruthlessness that Hollywood shies away from.

    “Burning Paradise” is a Kung Fu period film that some say allegorizes the PRC suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Ringo Lam, the director, denies it, but the brutality and sadism of the villainous General is surely meant to have contemporary overtones. Later police films evoke urban corruption in the manner of “Serpico”.

    I agree with you about the Soviet films of the 1950s and 1960s. I think that they do show up on the Pacific Film Archive schedule from time to time. I’ll have to make an effort to see some of them

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 14, 2018 @ 1:15 am

  8. Oops, Pauline Kael “had” a similar attitude. I’m well aware she is no longer with us.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 14, 2018 @ 1:16 am

  9. When Hong Kong came to New York in the 1970s, I remember it was very localized to some theaters in Chinatown. I don’t think there were even theaters in Flushing, which is now far bigger than Chinatown. There were a few theaters for Bollywood but I think they came in the 1980s. So I don’t think there was much of a crossover in NYC when Hong Kong got going with Run Run Shaw et al.

    When I saw Hong Kong, I hated it. The fight sequences were utterly ridiculous in the martial arts films and the hyper-aesthetic John Woo gun-fetish cliche shots were equally terrible. They might work the first time you see them. By the tenth time some guy is shooting with two guns in his hands, I wanted to throw up. It may be that the Hong Kong I saw was already corrupted because as they made more money they had to increase the violence and thrill level for the audience. It could well be that the earlier films were much better. I just don’t know.

    The other thing I don’t know is how much we are supposed to see them realistically and how much as fairy tales before we enter the theater. So I am not sure I had the cultural chops to even evaluate them to be honest. The Shaolin temple was already deeply mythological so I never felt I really got a lot of Hong Kong because I didn’t grasp Shaolin’s role in reality but much more in mythology. I don’t trust my own judgement. All that aside, the best martial arts film I can remember was the Indonesian film The Raid because the fight scenes are so unnerving. To me, it’s the ultimate homage to and ultimate rejection of Hong Kong.

    As with B films, I’m not sure what to think. Tons of Hollywood B films have the evil white guys plotting no good behind their corporate and government lairs. Not to mention the corrupt cops on the force, the bad company polluting the local river, the CIA spooks gone rogue, etc. Then there comes the good white guy to save the day (maybe with his black or female sidekick) reaffirming the audience view that the good white guys win in the end. (Of course, given the world market Hollywood is now more “multicultural” than Wichita. Also they are terrified as Beijing is building a huge studio system.)

    In any case, on one level tons of films are “anti-establishment” on the plot level. Obviously they are preferable to films celebrating greedy Wall Street crooks, CIA nogoodniks, or greedy cattle ranchers out to steal the honest farmer’s land. (Blazing Saddles was so brilliant because it took apart so hilariously Hollywood’s great white plebeian myth of the West. But Blazing Saddles is one of the last great glowing embers of the 1960s revolt.)

    Still, I suspect most films with “anti-Establishment” “political” plots remain deeply conservative. The brilliance of film noir and great films from East and West Europe in the 1960s is that they were politically, culturally, and aesthetically so radical. They were ultimately defeated but times change and can change again.

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — January 14, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

  10. This is the best thing to read on Hong Kong cinema:


    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

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