Would you believe that even my hometown of Cincinnati–primarily noteworthy for Italianate townhouses, imploding professional sports teams, and homicide–supported a respectable repertory movie theater up until 1996? Once shuttered, the lease was grabbed by a Shakespeare Festival. Moviehouses closing is maybe “sad,” never “preventable”; the NEA’s sole solemn duty is to assure that no town does without a forum for The Bard to render ninth grade field trips comatose.
Which brings us to New York City, 2009. Filmmakers Co-op is imperiled, New Yorker Films is auctioned off as I write. A metropolis of eight million has somehow lost its 80,000-film public video library (including thousands of VHS titles that will likely never see DVD–and thus, Netflix) to a tiny Sicilian village and its halfwit gadfly mayor. And, yes, Kent Jones, critic and scholar, just resigned from programming at Lincoln Center.
Jones escaped the resultant teapot tempest to Vienna, where he’s screening his superlative Val Lewton documentary, but he checked in yesterday at Dave Kehr’s blog:
Obviously he isn’t burning bridges with a succinct “I’m okay, you’re fucked,” but that “good programming” is a dicey proposition, since Jones did much of that himself. In this department, he shared duties with Richard Peña, but anyone with a working knowledge of Jones’s personal canon could identify his auteur-centric passion projects: The exhaustive retrospective for Maurice Pialat, complete with an exhibition of paintings (Jones has been a longstanding proselytizer for the best in French film), showcases for Tourneur, Losey, Allan Dwan, the Widescreen series, the recent sendoff to Manny Farber, an upcoming swansong dedicated to Richard Mulligan.
I don’t know Kent. My sole interactions with him were an internet snit over Alain Resnais’s Private Fears in Public Places (history will vindicate me) and accosting him on 21st St. when I happened to be carrying a just-purchased copy of his book (he got my name wrong in the dedication). But his programming at Lincoln Center provided some of the more significant moviegoing events in my life. It’s safe to say those series wouldn’t have happened without him. And I and many others–well, a happy few–owe him a debt of gratitude.
Anybody who’s been listening to the noise from uptown will presume that Jones’s volunteering to leave must have had something to do with the markedly changed atmosphere at Lincoln Center, which has something to do with staff cuts, which has to something do with the forbidding, closed-door tenure of new-ish executive director Mara Manus and her junta. Lou Lumenick at The Post helpfully illustrated his reportage with the poster for Reign of Terror (which I first saw at the Walter Reade at a fine Anthony Mann series.)
Upon her ascent, Ms. Manus inherited a bajillion dollar expansion and redevelopment plan, including two new theaters. She said of FSLC’s duty to fill them: “It needs to build a much broader base of community within the city and beyond… There is a huge opportunity to rebrand, to re-establish its identity.” Naysayers may interpret this as, “We will throw next year’s gala for Shrek, replace the NYFF with a program of yr fave superhero flix determined by an online poll, and the Walter Reade Theater will henceforth be used for Call of Duty 4 tournaments.” Even worse, it may just allow more opportunities for cultural outreach centers to rent screens to show the unremarkable peaks of their national cinemas (e.g. Broadening Boundaries of Laotian Film; Fresh Waystations in Macedonian Anime–a phenomenon astutely commented on by Richard Brody), and provide day-shelters for retirees with disturbing respiratory ailments (e.g. MOMA). Hopefully the ambitious new business model will at least involve letting people know where the Walter Reade actually is. (At present, no one who hasn’t been initiated could possibly locate the labyrinthine path; you may as well have to pass behind a waterfall to get there).
Who’s finally to blame? Ms. Manus, a career bottom-liner (who, in fairness, may very well be exceedingly tender towards animals and children on her own time)? The board that hired her in full knowledge of what they’d get? Incorrigible prankster Bernie Madoff? The asses that should’ve been in 240 empty seats at some of Walter Reade’s best nights? Manus’s old boss at the Public Theater, that goddamn Shakespeare, whose folios may be the only cultural outlet that’s preserved when this whole mess is over? As so often lately, I’m thinking of Decline and Fall, Otto Friedrich’s firsthand documentation of the slow sinking of The Saturday Evening Post, a fine illustration of how the guys at the helm always throw everything worth saving overboard in the first sign of choppy water:
“If all things in our system were as interchangeable as twopenny nails, this system might work better than it does, but the laws of profit make no allowances for time and tradition…”