About three years ago, when the Ludlow Street building that would become the Metrograph was lying empty and unused, Jake Perlin, the theater’s artistic and programming director, walked through the space with owner Alexander Olch. “The place was just brick walls,” Perlin remembers, “and Alex asked, ‘What do you need?’ ” Perlin took a piece of chalk and drew a huge line along one wall. “I want to show 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in CinemaScope,” he told Olch. “And if I can’t have a screen this wide, then what’s the fucking point?”
Perlin got his screen, along with another, slightly smaller one. And since it opened its doors in early March, the Lower East Side’s elegant, bustling Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Manhattan, metrograph.com, 212-660-0312) has quickly become an essential part of the city’s moviegoing scene, with repertory programming of mind-blowing breadth and quality. The credit for that goes to Perlin and head of programming Aliza Ma, who have been uniquely involved in building the theater from the ground up: Perlin is a co-founder (with Olch), and Ma was the theater’s first hire.
In its first few months, the theater presented retrospectives of a diverse roster of filmmakers, including Brian De Palma, Amy Heckerling, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Aldrich, and Jean Eustache. In one recent one-month period, you could see the collaborations of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, a collection of films about video games (hello, Last Starfighter!), a program dedicated to disco and the movies, and a series called “This Is PG?” highlighting all the crazy stuff Hollywood got away with before the PG-13 rating came along.
But perhaps the jewel in the theater’s crown is its ongoing “Welcome to Metrograph: A–Z” program, described as “a year-long, alphabetically ordered series that offers films we consider must-sees,” with the only limitation being that there can be only one film per director. The result is a kind of loose, shifting alt-canon that mixes classics with underappreciated gems, with the one-director-one-film rule leading to unexpected choices. When deciding on a Fritz Lang film, Ma and Perlin opted for the magnificently heartbreaking and underseen noir Scarlet Street over such warhorses like Metropolis or M. For a Yasujiro Ozu film, they went for lesser-known tale of marriage and independence Equinox Flower over Tokyo Story or Late Spring.
That said, “the goal is to program for people, not for the paper,” Perlin says. “I want people to say, ‘I saw that film on the screen and enjoyed it,’ not ‘I saw all these films in this series.’ ” Ma says that they want to foster “an atmosphere of discussion and excitement. We want people to want to hang out here and talk about what they’ve seen.” To that end, everything at the Metrograph, from the layout of the lobby to the placement of recycling receptacles, was conceived around the principle that it’s special to go to the movies — not to mention easy and welcoming.
Ma adds that this may be one reason that the theater has had no trouble attracting the demographic that arthouse and rep cinemas usually struggle to reach. “Maybe it’s the neighborhood we’re in, or the formula we’re presenting, but we’re getting a lot of young viewers,” she says. “And those are the people cinema needs if it’s going to thrive.”