Film

Saying So Long to Lincoln Plaza, the Upper West Side’s Home for Schlemiels and Cinephiles Alike

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“God, I love this place,” I stage-whispered to Menashe director Joshua Weinstein. “This is the most fun Q&A ever,” he replied. I had referred to the put-upon Yiddish-speaking lead in his film as a schlemiel, when a voice in the crowd perhaps rightly fired back, “He’s more of a schlimazel!”

We were in “the basement,” my nickname for Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and I was moderating a post-screening discussion on a random weekday to the usual engaged crowd of predominantly senior citizens, most of them local to the area. This not-very-modern multiplex on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been showing independent and foreign language films since 1981. That will end on January 31. The rents and Milstein Properties are to blame, not the lack of ticket buyers.

Lincoln Plaza is run by Dan and Toby Talbot (one just shy of, the other just over 90,) who have been at the forefront of arthouse cinema since they opened the New Yorker Theater in 1960 (with a double bill of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon), followed by the Cinema Studio and the Metro. They ran the New Yorker Films distribution company, which released works by Bertolucci, Ozu, Godard, Bresson, Malle, Varda, Herzog, Merchant and Ivory, Sembène, Akerman, Mizoguchi, and more. They brought the nine-plus-hour documentary Shoah to theaters. What we talk about when we talk about “foreign films” is in no small part defined by their curatorial instincts.

But there’s something that people often snicker about when they mention Lincoln Plaza today, something I think should be embraced rather than ignored. The theater, which does good business, is overrun by the last of the Upper West Side’s alter kakers.

My septuagenarian Jewish parents live in Monmouth County, New Jersey, yet still refer to this strange subterranean spot as “our theater.” It’s for neighborhood people who want to take a walk and get a little cultcha. The titles at Lincoln Plaza are not usually in-your-face edgy, but they are cerebral and engaging. As of this writing, their six screens are showing Loving Vincent, 1945, Darkest Hour, Wonder Wheel, Happy End, and Hostiles.

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.

While I doubt there are strict quotas, a high percentage of the programming seems devoted to movies “of Jewish interest,” either from highly visible Jewish American talent (lots of Woody Allen at Lincoln Plaza), films from Israel (I remember a sold-out house during an extended run of Ushpizin), or European movies touching on the Holocaust or anti-Semitism. The place is decidedly old schul.

Lincoln Plaza doesn’t really have a lobby (or a website beyond the age of dial-up), but the area out front of the descending escalators, and the little garden behind it, make a nice spot to meet up, schmooze, or read the printed reviews on enormous placards. (I swear, if Film Forum ever gets rid of its corkboard, I’m throwing in the towel.)

The audiences there aren’t shy about complaining about the temperature or volume or if someone is wearing a hat, but there is a charming “small town” quality to the place that, sadly, seems to be leaving the Upper West Side. Slate critic Dana Stevens recently told me that when her parents saw My Dinner With André in the early 1980s, they exited and found Wallace Shawn and André Gregory just hanging out. They proceeded to chat about the movie, and life in general: an early, highly localized version of a “deleted scene.” (And a weird echo of the “I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here!” moment, shot at the Talbots’ earlier cinema the New Yorker.)

Critic and author Mark Harris lived in the apartment building above the theater all through the 1990s. While he joked about going down “to the old country” and admits that the audience is “more tote-baggy and fussy and crabby” than the rep houses below 14th Street, he points out that Lincoln Plaza’s programming “conferred distinction for a generation of movie lovers the way Criterion confers distinction for a different generation of movie lovers.”

He also adds that it isn’t all old Jews. “I got felt up during a Fassbinder film!”

Toby Talbot’s 2009 book, The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes From a Life at the Movies, has an appendix listing all the American theatrical debuts that happened at Lincoln Plaza. The list is a murderers’ row of every important auteur (or one-off magic-maker) from the mid-twentieth century on. Wim Wenders, Maurice Pialat, Hector Babenco, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, Zhang Yimou, Agnieszka Holland, Olivier Assayas, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lukas Moodysson, Arnaud Desplechin, Agnès Jaoui, Noah Baumbach, Guy Maddin, Andrei Zvyagintsev, and the list goes on and on. Will those films still play in New York? Sure, the swank Metrograph or sleek Quad is ready for the job. (And some rumors suggest we shouldn’t lose hope for a worthwhile theater in this location down the line.) But will you be able to complain about the line while noshing carrot cake beneath tropical-themed canvases painted by the owners’ daughters? Unlikely.

More importantly, the UWS locals aren’t schlepping downtown. Their grandkids are going to have to show them how to use that Roku after all. Another temple lost to history

Editor’s Note: Lincoln Plaza owner Dan Talbot passed away on Friday, December 29. A memorial is scheduled for Sunday, December 31 at 9:30 am at the Riverside Memorial Chapel, 180 W. 76th Street in New York City.

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