Less Chance to Get Together in the Dark

Posted January 27, 2018 7:09 p.m. EST

Businesses die every day in New York, but all deaths are not equal. Some rend the very fabric of a city that fancies itself, quite reasonably, the nation’s cultural tastemaker. So there is reason to mourn the passing of two movie houses in Manhattan that believed in the capacity of films that aren’t dominated by car explosions, light sabers and computer-generated gimcrackery to more faithfully reflect the human spirit.

Last Sunday the Sunshine Cinema, dedicated to independent and foreign films, shut its doors after a 16-year run on Houston Street (that’s HOW-stin, people, not HEW-stin). A developer plans to demolish it and put up ... something. Whatever it is, it’s bound to be less soul-satisfying.

This Sunday brings the end to an older theater, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which has been around since 1981, in a worn area one flight below the street at Broadway and 62nd Street. The Lincoln Plaza faithful — who tend to be, shall we say, not young — aren’t just hanging crepe these days. They are practically ready to call in grief counselors.

Call it an art house if you must, a term bound to scare off some people. It’s where devoted audiences have long flocked to see works of intelligence, many of them imports, because not all things great are American. On the final day at the theater, its six screens have films by Italian, Lebanese, Austrian, English and Scottish directors. There is also one film by a not-so-typical American named Woody Allen.

What happened to this theater is a landlord-tenant story so familiar to New Yorkers that it’s trite. The lease expired, and the building owner, Milstein Properties, didn’t renew it. Structural work is needed around the building, Milstein said. It has promised that once the job is done, a new cinema will be birthed in the old Lincoln Plaza space. We’ll see. For now, it’s probably not a bad idea to bear in mind an old line about verbal agreements and how they’re not worth the paper they’re written on.

Places like Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza are among the small delights that give New York its fizz. One by one, they are fading. It doesn’t mean the city has become a total cinema wasteland, not when it still has the likes of the Film Forum, Quad Cinema, Metrograph, Angelika Film Center, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center. But knowledgeable guides to inspiring, even transformative, cinema are being squeezed out in a town steadily succumbing to real estate cold-bloodedness and gentrified homogeneity.

Dan Talbot, for decades a godfather of film revivals in New York, created Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with his wife, Toby. They understood that gathering in a theater is more meaningful than isolated viewing at home, and that algorithms are no match for human intelligence and heart in shaping audience taste. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are fine enough, but as Talbot said to me in 2009, they cannot provide the “social congress” inherent to the movie house experience.

Talbot didn’t live to see the last picture show. He died last month at age 91. On Sunday, his employees plan two farewells, one to him and one to their workplace. “It’s a very sad moment for us,” said Ewnetu Admassu, the theater’s general manager. “Losing your theater — it’s a very difficult thing.” That’s true for moviegoers as well.

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