When I heard about Lincoln Plaza Cinemas’ closing, I rushed to the theatre as often as I could, as though to visit a loved one in ill health. I saw the Churchill movie “Darkest Hour,” and I saw the new Haneke movie, which I found to be hilarious at times, though I was the only one laughing in the dark. I saw previews for my own mother’s film, which, in a further complication, opened at the theatre, on January 5th. There was a memorial for the theatre, a kind of closing ceremony, held at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, on January 28th. It was open to the public. Clips from movies that had been shown there over the years (“Tampopo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Shoah,” among others) were interspersed with commentary from filmmakers and writers (Wallace Shawn, Molly Haskell, Phillip Lopate, Michael Moore, among others), and the theatre’s employees.
I didn’t attend, having returned home to New Orleans, but later I wrote someone in attendance—my mother—to ask about that last day. It felt like a terrible a loss, I said. But why? She wrote:
It is not so much the physical place as it is the atmosphere. The level of the films. The world of the films selected that created, in turn, a world of its own that encompassed us. The physical space became dear to us. I want to hug it so it could not be taken away from us. But it is not hug-able. It is the elusive very special and unique something created by Daniel and Toby, by their personalities, humanity, special taste, intelligence.
The way that the end of the theatre so neatly coincided with the death of Dan has made the entire experience seem emotionally perverse. Dan was ninety-one. It almost feels as if the whole thing had naturally come to an end. But it did not have to end. Now that it is gone, I have been thinking: What was this entity that could not be hugged?
I was hired as an usher at the theatre shortly after it opened, in 1981, when I was sixteen. It was one of my first jobs, and therefore it was one of the first jobs from which I got fired. I lasted all of two days. The firing infraction was that I kept getting into conversations with people as they waited on line about what else was playing. Some of these films were good, I felt, and some were not, and I had a lot to say in either case. The manager politely told me to look for a job where freely expressing my opinions to customers would be appropriate, or at least tolerated. I didn’t feel at all bitter about this. I had so enjoyed the two days of talking with, and to, the captive audience on line that it didn’t really feel like a job, which I knew meant that I probably wasn’t doing it right.
In its early years, after it opened, there was something sleek, even a bit opulent, about the place. The seats felt cushy, the polished metal of the two escalators churning in opposite directions had a glitzy, show-biz quality. Over the years, that faded. The concession stand sold some unusual things—salmon sandwiches, hard pretzels, pieces of cake. The staff had been mostly unchanged. At some point, maybe a decade in, a huge mural by the Talbots’ daughter Nina appeared on one of the walls. It depicted faces talking. It added to the feeling of mom-and-pop-ness, of idiosyncrasy and taste. In the thirty years of its run, the movies changed but the place didn’t. The quality and taste of Dan and Toby Talbot never faded.
I started going regularly in late high school or early college. I liked to go to the late show, ideally on a Sunday night. If the movie was a hit, I would wait until the second or third week of its run, when the crowds had dissipated. The theatre would be mostly empty, or at least it was empty enough that I could spread out. For a long time, I got a popcorn and a soda, but then I started experimenting with the bags of hard pretzels. By the end, thirty years later, I was a hard-pretzels guy. I liked the quiet, nondescript nature of these late shows. I liked how when I came back aboveground afterward, somewhere near the midnight hour, the city had quieted. It felt like I was hiding out down there.
I saw many movies there but recall very few specific instances of the act of seeing—one vivid moment that I do recall involved Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” I suddenly became aware, in the theatre, of myself, and of what was on the screen. I remember the moment: the film’s protagonists are about to embark on a road trip. One of the characters, a woman, says something in a foreign language. Or maybe just a foreign accent. There is snow on the ground, and this accentuates the starkness of the black-and-white footage. There is an old car. Are they going to go on a road trip? Or not go on the road trip? That is the question. One of the guys is wearing a hat. Or both of the guys. Nothing much is happening onscreen, not even talking. Yet I remember feeling this tingle of excitement, of discovery. Or was it just boredom? I discussed this—with myself, as I always went alone—when I came out of the theatre. I may have stopped to read the reviews that were posted near the box office. I felt as though I had discovered something, some way of seeing and being.