From 1981 until January of this year, husband-and-wife team Dan and Toby Talbot co-owned Lincoln Plaza Cinema, the beloved — if slightly dingy — arthouse theater located in “the basement” at Broadway and 62nd Street. The announcement, last December, that Milstein Properties would be shutting down the business was met with cries of nostalgia. “What we talk about when we talk about ‘foreign films’ is in no small part defined by their curatorial instincts,” I wrote in the Voice at the time, referring to the Talbots’ influential distribution company, New Yorker Films, “which released works by Bertolucci, Ozu, Godard, Bresson, Malle, Varda, Herzog, Merchant and Ivory, Sembène, Akerman, Mizoguchi, and more.” Adding to the outpouring of sadness: On December 29, just days after news surfaced of LPC’s demise, Dan Talbot passed away at the age of 91. Both man and multiplex were eulogized as the latest woeful example of our city losing its essential character. Which isn’t to say people haven’t been secretly hoping for a second act.
“It was a tremendous blow,” Norma Levy says of the sudden closure of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. “I had to do something.” A Yale-educated compliance lawyer by day and an admitted novice in grassroots arts campaigning, Levy quickly drew up a flyer and brought it to Dan Talbot’s memorial in January. Adds Levy, a longtime adorer of going to the movies, “I had a neighbor read it before I left.” When Levy met Toby Talbot, she didn’t just get the woman’s blessing to accrue email addresses and form a group — New Plaza Cinema — to try to save the spirit of the Upper West Side mainstay. She got Talbot to make what many of LPC’s core Jewish audience would call a shidduch.
Step in Isaac Zablocki, one of the hardest-working men in show business. Zablocki wears many hats in the arts industry, as an organizer of multiple festivals and the head of film programming at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. (The signature section on his emails is as lengthy as a Torah scroll.) But addressing the needs of the lost Lincoln Plaza audience, now out wandering the desert (or schlepping by cab all the way to the swanky Landmark on West 57th, between Eleventh and Twelfth avenues), was a task that captured his attention from the start. “It was a rarity,” he says of Lincoln Plaza. “A successful art house?!” The JCC, located just thirteen blocks north, caters to much the same crowd. “Movies were such a main activity for so many people in this neighborhood,” Zablocki declares.
This summer, Zablocki’s JCC has teamed up with New Plaza Cinema, lending the rookie organizer Levy’s heartfelt initiative “as much of our availability as possible” in the main auditorium, Zablocki says. The resultant (and wide-ranging) programming choices were a joint effort between Zablocki and the Lincoln Plaza team, including octogenarian manager Ewnetu Admassu. The plan was to serve the immediate community but — even more importantly — to pass around the clipboard and stockpile more emails. “There were some people complaining, so we knew it was the same great crowd,” Zablocki offers, chuckling.
The New Plaza Cinema–JCC series kicked off in late June with a run of The Catcher Was a Spy, a new release that did not play on any of the Upper West Side’s other remaining screens. While hardly a masterpiece, the Paul Rudd–led World War II story of a charismatic Jewish-American polymath behind enemy lines is a juicy yarn, and fairly typical of the thematically serious, for-grownups type of programming that thrived at Lincoln Plaza. “I figured it was also good for summer, with the baseball element,” Zablocki adds, noting the Rudd character’s pre-war backstory (based on Moe Berg) as an MLB veteran.
A round-up of screen adaptations of the work of the late Philip Roth followed in July, including Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Elegy (2008), American Pastoral (2016), and Indignation (2016). (Wisely, for this critic, The Human Stain, from 2003; The Humbling, from 2014; and especially Ernest Lehman’s wretched film of Portnoy’s Complaint, from 1972, were left off the docket.) Though critically maligned when it came out, American Pastoral apparently went over gangbusters with the current crowd: It has been the biggest seller so far. “Toby told me that Roth was a huge fan of the theater,” Zablocki remarked. This comes as no surprise, considering some of the names I can’t yet report on that have joined Norma Levy’s crusade.
After an initial strategy meeting she hosted at her apartment, Levy reached out to Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal; she also got a write-up by Vanishing New York blogger Jeremiah Moss. (“We can’t afford an ad in the Times; we don’t have any money yet,” Levy told me.) A second meeting was soon held in an office at the Beacon Theater, and a celebrity advisory board is coming together. Whether New Plaza Cinema will be nonprofit has yet to be determined — and, even if this all pans out, it’s still unclear where the eventual theater will be. Is the old location off the table? “It’s not off the table for us, but you’d have to speak to Mr. Milstein,” Levy responds. She’s a little cagey when I prod for more information — she’s a lawyer! — but there are only so many appropriate locations in the neighborhood. In the meantime, before any deals are done, there’s the JCC, chugging along.
Following the Roth series, the selections have been either movies that were selected to play at Lincoln Plaza before the shutdown or newer titles that feel like a good fit. The best of the bunch is In Between, the first feature from Arab-Israeli director Maysaloun Hamoud. (In Between is also screening this week at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the “Future of Film Is Female” series.) It focuses on three women: an observant Muslim, a successful lawyer and lover of nightlife, and a gay Christian club DJ. (It has some of the best music you’ll hear in a movie this year.) Together they navigate Israeli society (they live together in Tel Aviv), and also the horrible patriarchy in their own community.
Also intriguing is Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh, Lucy! (screening through August 1), a quirky, heartbreaking tale about a lonely Japanese office worker (Shinobu Terajima) who takes English lessons (from Josh Hartnett!), then ends up on a weird California road trip. Oh, Lucy! shares story elements with The Desert Bride (also through August 1), an Argentinian road movie about a middle-aged woman taking a trip of unexpected romantic and spiritual discoveries. Shubhashish Bhutiani’s funny, touching Hotel Salvation (opening August 12) starts off on the road, too, as a son joins his father on a journey to a peculiar resort on the Ganges. Dad has decided that it is “time to die”; one is only allowed a fifteen-day stay at the hotel. (The hope is that you die in that time, though there are loopholes.) The conservative son and earthier father do some picturesque bonding, but it’s a lot less schmaltzy than it sounds.
Upcoming documentaries include Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel (opening August 5), about Jewish major leaguers who played for Israel’s national baseball team. Lives Well Lived, which screened through last week, was another nonfiction curiosity; not dissimilar from one of Lincoln Plaza’s final movies, My Coffee With Jewish Friends, it’s an inexpensively made collection of sagacity from highly functioning seniors. Some sections are breathtaking windows into living history, engaging survivors of the Kindertransport or the shameful Japanese internment camps. Others are just plain nice, like the segment about Louie, a retired pediatrician who gets up early every day to make mozzarella. The commonality is that all keep busy; I half expected to see 89-year-old Toby Talbot to appear onscreen.
The closing night of the New Plaza series (August 17) offers one more documentary, Point of Order!, the 1964 assembly of footage of the Senate Army–McCarthy hearings co-directed by Dan Talbot and Emile de Antonio. That Talbot hat-tip is a nice, reassuring touch — and further evidence that New Plaza will do all it can to remain true to the old Plaza.
To get yourself on New Plaza Cinema’s mailing list, or learn more about the rebuilding effort, visit newplazacinema.com.