Even in the absence of quality whitefish, western Brooklyn has been serving as a surrogate Upper West Side, absorbing refugee hordes of artsy, political, and academic types for whom hauling to Manhattan for primo movies is a well-established ritual. So when the Brooklyn Academy of Music announced it would be opening the Rose Cinemas— four screens of independent and foreign films— it sounded too good to be true.
And it might have been, had nonprofit BAM failed to acknowledge that running a multiplex is the closest thing to a commercial venture it’s ever undertaken. Originally, BAM hired MOMA’s Adrienne Mancia to curate special programs, while the first-run movies were expected to largely take care of themselves. But as opening day— November 12— approached, it became increasingly clear that someone was going to have to run the store. Just two months ago, BAM signed up Daniel Talbot, the West Side’s king of independent movie commerce, to book its movies and serve as “a sort of house yenta,” he says, while the theaters were getting built and staffed to his unforgiving standards.
As he’s done for his Lincoln Plaza Cinemas for the last 18 years, Talbot plans to present what he likes to call “quality pictures”: heavy on European drama, with some American independents but, as his gentle detractors point out, nothing too Ferrara, too Araki, too Haynes or Wong or otherwise attitudinous. Talbot may be New York’s greatest living champion of what used to be called art movies, back when he founded New Yorker Films and began to distribute the efforts of challenging international auteurs— including Godard, Fassbinder, Wenders, Ozu, and Sembene— to hungry U.S. audiences. (The company endures today, with Underground, La Promesse, and The Eel its recent standouts.) His New Yorker Theater was another pillar of movie culture, home to Talbot’s acquisitions and assorted revivals. A third legacy is Point of Order, the astonishing 1964 documentary Talbot and Emile de Antonio assembled from TV broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Talbot admits he’s not sure what a new generation of filmgoers living in the neighborhoods surrounding BAM— Fort Greene and assorted Slopes, Hills, Gardens, and Heights— want to see. “My whole life has been on the Upper West Side,” he says. “I know my audience up here cold. I don’t know Brooklyn.” And while he promises to listen to what the locals want— including departing BAM president Harvey Lichtenstein, who will keep a hand in the theaters— the choices at the Lincoln Plaza and BAM will differ “not much,” Talbot laughs, “except that now I talk to people about what I’m doing.” While he’s willing to take creative risks the institutional affiliation affords him, the idea, he says, is to have the theaters pay their own way. “When something doesn’t make money,” he observes, “you’re open to compromise, and that’s one thing I don’t want to do.” Certain obligations come with the territory, and Talbot says he’s looking forward to programming for Brooklyn’s diverse communities, particularly African and African American films. Aside from other offerings he pleads he can’t reveal yet, Talbot’s striking a new print of Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi for a run this spring.
BAM’s central location is both a blessing and, well, less than ideal. Outside lurks a surreal vista of hulking new megastores, crisscrossed with high-velocity avenues whose traffic lights are programmed to squish pedestrians. Though it sits atop a spaghetti of subway lines, BAM is not a place one strolls by accidentally; says Talbot charitably, “There seem to be a lot of wide-open spaces over there.” Talbot’s in on the gamble that movies like Dancing at Lughnasa and the Brazilian social drama Central Station will keep audiences floating above the streets.