I grew up above a movie theater.
The dirty beige apartment building towers over Broadway, between 62nd and 63rd Streets. It stretches across the block and cuts down 62nd, enclosing a small plaza—a weird privately owned public mutant, like Zuccotti Park, or the Trump Tower atrium.
I lived in that building for 24 years, and five businesses operated on the ground floor for most of that time: a bank, a newsstand, a coffee shop, a women’s boutique, and, yes, a movie theater. In the last three years, they have all closed except the bank and the theater.
In 1981, Dan Talbot opened Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Through his distribution company, New Yorker Films, Talbot played an integral role in bringing foreign film to the United States, introducing Americans to directors with names like Fassbinder, Sembene, Lanzmann, Kiarostami. He also owned Cinema Studio on 66th Street, and a few days after Lincoln Plaza opened, he told The New York Times that he hoped the new theater would “create within a three-block radius a new center of theatrical exhibition of international cinema.”
The theater filled a niche, but it complemented what was an already vibrant west side film scene. Across the street stood Lincoln Center and the Film Society, home of the New York Film Festival. Five blocks south was the Angelika 57, not yet banished to Houston Street and standing strong against the tide of porn theaters that crept up Eighth Avenue. The decrepit, tenacious Regency, opened in 1931, was a block north of Cinema Studio on 67th Street. The 70s and 80s were dominated by the Embassy Twin on 72nd Street and the Loews Quad on 83rd, the latter a herald of multiplexes to come. On 95th stood the Thalia, beloved by the Columbia set. On 99th, the Metro (another Talbot theater, reclaimed from the pornographers). On 103rd, the Edison, which showed Spanish-language fare, catering to the Upper West Side’s erstwhile Puerto Rican community. On 107th, the ancient Olympia, which had operated continuously since 1914.
There were others, a hodgepodge of forgotten single-screen, second- or third-run theaters. Their marquees were dismantled over the years, their ticket booths fogged with whitewash, their seats gutted by crowbar. Lincoln Plaza is the lone survivor, weathering cycles of New York real estate for almost four decades.
For the most part, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is an ordinary arthouse movie theater, but I also think there’s a refreshing lack of bullshit.
Buying a ticket means waiting on line at the booth because Fandango is anathema to the spirit of the place, which means movies rarely sell out. In theory, you can order tickets on their website (www.lincolnplazacinema.com—where the “s” went, your guess is as good as mine), but I don’t trust it. You can also call direct and listen to a recording of every showtime for the upcoming week dictated by a tired, nasal voice that may or may not belong to Dan Talbot.
“Agnes Varda’s Faces Places. So it’s a French film with English subtitles. Faces Places runs an hour and…”
“There’s also Meyerowitz Stories, New and Selected, with Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, and… Barry Stiller. Meyerowitz Stories is showing at…”
These are the types of movies that play at Lincoln Plaza—small, indie, international fare, often leaning toward Jewish themes. All new Woody Allen films run at least three months, regardless of quality, and if you choose a date at random, chances are that at least one film about the Holocaust will be playing. In simple terms, these are movies that don’t show at the AMC on 68th Street.
Outside, posters of current and coming attractions hang in light boxes, as do full, blown up reviews pulled primarily from The Times or The New Yorker. They are not content to flash a blurb (“Breathtaking,” “Astounding”) or a glib Rotten Tomatoes score. The theater itself is subterranean, and to get there, you must enter a glass-enclosed box and descend an escalator that always seems to be out-of-order.
Reserved seating is unimaginable and it gets crowded, especially on weekend afternoons. The average age of most patrons is somewhere between 70 and 110, so seeing a movie late (say, after nine o’clock) will sometimes yield a near empty theater. These people will arrive about 20 minutes early and mill around the lobby like a herd of Roombas until the usher starts ripping tickets.
They have a strict “no-children-under-two” policy. That somebody would bring a toddler to, I don’t know, Shoah, seems unlikely, but the Upper West Side is full of people with unconventional ideas about parenting.
The lobby is centered around a life-size fiberglass statue of Humphrey Bogart, an enormous acrylic mural of film archetypes (flapper smoking cigarette, man in fedora lunging for kiss), and a lush, plastic jungle, inexplicably wrapped around a black cistern and a floor-to-ceiling mirror. I have never understood this, but I like to think that the ushers perform unholy rites here after close. Blood offerings to the spirit of John Cassavetes, maybe.
Snacks at the Lincoln Plaza concession stand range from ordinary (popcorn, soda, boxes of candy), to unexpected (ice cream, pastries, espresso), to downright bizarre (ham sandwiches, carrot cake, lox). The carrot cake has not changed in decades—white, frosted tuffets sliced into triangles, each dotted with a cheerful fondant carrot. I’m not sure who is eating the lox, but it seems popular.
Among the audience, there exists a reverence for the moviegoing experience that’s often absent elsewhere. People do not talk, and because the theater lies beneath the city streets, cell service is spotty. The irradiated glow of a phone screen does not often invade your field of vision.
You tend to encounter two perspectives when discussing the ritual of going to the movies in New York City.
The first is that the city is hemorrhaging theaters, that the sprawling, antiseptic monolith that is the corporate multiplex has gobbled up the last of the great cinemas, and the ones that have managed to stay in business all these years are running out of time. The tiny neighborhood twin-screen where the sound leaks but tickets cost six bucks and change? Now it’s a bank. The great, gilded movie palace that feels dredged from the distant past? A televangelist church. That single-screen that used to show first-run features, then second-run, then exploitation, then porn, then indie mixed with the occasional classic double bill? Duane Reade. Thanks for nothing, Netflix.
The counterpoint is that New York, in 2017, is in fact undergoing a moviegoing renaissance. There are so many new theaters, so many old theaters undergoing refurbishment, and not just multiplexes, but repertory theaters, indie theaters, dine-in theaters, theaters attached to bars, and theaters with luxurious reclining seats. There are movie theaters for all species of cinephile in this great cultural metropolis, enough to inspire insufferable trend pieces in the Styles section.
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle; neither glut, nor famine, but stasis. For every single-screen lost, a multiplex opens. For every dingy rep theater shuttered, a slick new one manifests from the ether.
New York today probably has the lowest number of theaters since Edison first started franchising the Vitascope, but many more screens.
Growing up, the smell of fresh popcorn at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas would waft through the air ducts, travel through tangled layers of pipes and wires and concrete, and somehow, by a quirk of magic and geometry, permeate the elevators in my building. Every once in a while, the smell triggers fleeting memories: going to school in first grade, staggering home past curfew in high school, leaving my parents’ empty, bare-walled apartment for the last time.
Lincoln Plaza is frozen in time, despite seismic shifts in moviegoers’ tastes and the way we watch film. Online ticketing, reserved seating, reclining seats, dine-in meal service, phone-glancing, and so on. There is a sense of urgency here that is absent at other theaters where reserved seating has been instituted and patrons feel no natural pressure to arrive at the designated showtime, stumbling in during trailers or, God forbid, the opening credits. Snacks may be odd, but there are no spry, anxiety-riddled servers darting between the aisles, carrying themed flatbread pizzas and pricy Moscow mules. The seats may be uncomfortable, but movie theater seats should be slightly uncomfortable; reclining seating is hedonism worthy of Caligula.
At Lincoln Plaza, film remains the focus, wrapped in the comforting embrace of the familiar. It’s a bustling hub of memory, a conduit to a past when the Upper West Side had more bookstores than wine bars, and though nostalgia may be toxic, there are tendencies worse than retreating to the dark recesses of a cherished movie theater.
This is where my mom took me to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when I was nine, essentially blowing my young mind. We saw American Splendor when I was 12 and Sideways when I was 13. At 14, The Squid and the Whale affected me more than any movie I had ever seen prior. When I was 15, I snuck into The Lives of Others and Caché, which really just entailed buying a ticket and walking in. When I was 18, I returned from a miserable first semester of college and saw The White Ribbon, which put things in perspective. At 24, I saw Macbeth—the new one with Fassbender. It was the first time I had returned to the theater since moving out of my parents’ apartment, and for a while before the movie started, I sat shivering on a bench on one of the Broadway medians, staring up at my old window.
Part of existing in New York means experiencing an innate feeling of unease as you walk past a beloved neighborhood institution, knowing that it’s not long for this world. Depression washes over you as you enter a restaurant, a bar, a bookstore, a pharmacy, whatever, and find it bereft of customers, the proprietors hanging around listless with worried looks in their eyes. I have not yet felt this at Lincoln Plaza, but I can sense it looming on the horizon. When it does inevitably go, there will be other great arthouse theaters—those downtown miracles like Film Forum, or the newly restored Quad, or the sleek, Instagram-savvy Metrograph—but none of them will feel quite like home.