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The Demise of the Arthouse Cinemas

Later this month, Lincoln Plaza Cinema will be shutting down not because it could not sell tickets for its middle-of-the-road art movies but because Milstein Properties decided not to renew its lease. Milstein claims that after major construction repairs to the high-rise above the screening rooms in the basement are complete, the space will be reserved for another theater. It is likely that it will not be owned by Dan and Toby Talbot, the husband-and-wife team who founded Lincoln Plaza in 1981.

Dan Talbot, who died last month at the age of 91, was a vanguard figure in New York’s arthouse cinema. He founded the New Yorker theater on the Upper West Side in 1960 and it soon became a shrine to revivals of classic films like “Citizen Kane” or the latest Kurosawa or Fellini. After graduating NYU, his first gig in the film business was writing reviews for The Progressive, a pacifist magazine based in Wisconsin.

This is by no means a scientific finding but Googling “Louis Proyect” and “Lincoln Plaza” returns 879 links, nearly all to my reviews. At the top of the list is my article on “Lifta”, an Israeli film that broaches the possibility of reconciliation between Zionists and their Palestinian victims. I had never considered this before but my colleague in NYFCO Jordan Hoffman saw the theater as catering to the sensibilities of elderly liberal Jews on the Upper West Side in a Village Voice article about the closing of the theater:

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 [shame].

It is unlikely that anything like the New Yorker or Lincoln Plaza will ever be launched on the Upper West Side again because real estate has become prohibitively expensive in Manhattan. In an article on the closing of Lincoln Plaza in the New Yorker magazine, film critic Richard Brody said that new theaters will likely be found downtown where real estate is still relatively affordable. But even there, the prospects are guarded as evidenced by the closing of Landmark Sunshine at 139 East Houston St. this month, which was sold for $31.5 million to East End Capital and K Property Group, who will presumably turn it into condos up above and a CVS or health club on the street level. With the proliferation of health clubs in NY and the demise of arthouses like Lincoln Plaza, we will end up with 6-pack bellies galore and plunging literacy.

I have my fingers crossed that Anthology of Film Archives will never meet this fate, operating out of a seedy location on Second Avenue and Second Street. Unlike Lincoln Plaza and all other arthouses in New York for that matter, this is the fearless vanguard of art films thumbing its nose at commercial exigencies as will be obvious from the upcoming films reviewed below.

But first, a few words about its provenance.

The theater was opened in 1970 by a group of experimental filmmakers: Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage. I had attended a lecture and screening by Brakhage in 1961 at Bard College who had been brought there by the poet Robert Kelly, who I was close to. I have to admit that I found Brakhage’s work impenetrable but felt like I was part of the avant-garde scene just by being there, a welcome escape from the rural idiocy of my upstate village.

Jonas Mekas, who is still alive at the age of 95, and his brother Adolfas who died in 2011, were Lithuanian refugees who became major figures in experimental film. I have a special place in my heart for Adolfas who taught film studies at Bard College starting in 1971. During my 20-year-long battle with Leon Botstein, the college’s president-for-life, I was thrilled to see Adolfas weighing in over the Joel Kovel firing:

I was shocked to read Prof. Joel Kovel’s letter addressed to Bard Faculty. Is this “New” Bard? Has Bard joined Taliban and other theocracies? A College where freedom of expression/conviction is no longer tolerated? What is next? Do you recant? To the stake! Terminate him! Can you imagine this happening in the “Old” Bard? The faculty would be outraged and come to class with their mouths taped, and the student power would shut down the College. To the barricades!

Adolfas Mekas

Professor Emeritus

PS If the Administration had known what I have said in my classes (before and after tenure), I would have been terminated fifty times over.

The hardcore sensibility of Anthology Film Archives remains intact. If you look at the current schedule, you will see films curated by Stigma Unbound schedule for January 12th. Stigma Unbound is “a New York City based collective dedicated to showing the art of Sex Workers and Allies, curates a night of sex worker cinema with two screenings which aim to explore different aspects and experiences of sex work, with an emphasis on the experiences of trans, genderqueer, and other gender non-conforming filmmakers and subjects.” Can’t get much more hardcore than that.

On the same day, there will be an opening for “Bitter Money”, a documentary I attended at a press screening last week. This a study of the daily lives of migrant workers in the pint-sized textile shops of Huzhou, China directed by Wang Bing who has dedicated his career to exposing the contradictions of Chinese “Communism”. If there will ever be a classless society in China, it will only be because the outlook of Wang Bing has become universal.

“Bitter Money” is a 152-minute film that makes no concessions to “entertainment” values. Indeed, this cinema vérité work plunges you into the middle of the workaday lives of deeply exploited workers who spend every spare moment after their 12-hour workday is done staring at their smart phones, drinking, gambling or watching television in their meager living quarters that are in the same building as the small garment shop where they toil away over sewing machines. Competition in the garment industry forces their boss to impose sweatshop conditions that are reminiscent of what Frederick Engels wrote about in “Conditions of the Working Class in England”.

The value of this “in your face” documentary is to remind the viewer, including those who maintain illusions in the beneficence of Xi Jiping, that migrant workers have been left out of the bounties of a rapidly modernizing China. In “Bitter Money”, we see them treated as wage slaves in the truest sense of the term.

In late 1978, I spent 3 hours as a spot welder in a Kansas City job shop that was the longest 3 hours of my life. After getting in my car and driving off at lunch, I wondered to myself how anybody can endure the pain and alienation of factory work. The answer is that Chinese migrant workers also have a tough time of it, even if the paltry wages are the only way to avoid starvation. In one scene in “Bitter Money”, we meet a worker who has walked away from a garment shop just like I walked away from my spot welding job. He tells Wang Bing, “I can’t do this job. It is too hard. I am going home.”

Four years ago I wrote an article titled “Wang Bing: cinematic bard of the Chinese working-class and peasantry” that begins:

In trying to explain to my wife the importance of Wang Bing’s tripartite, 9 hour documentary “West of the Tracks”, I described it as the equivalent of a time machine transporting a video camera back to 18th century Britain and into the hands of someone like Thomas Gray or William Blake—poets appalled by the rise of capitalism. In 1999 the 32-year-old film school graduate, went to Shenyang, a heavily industrialized city, with a small rented DV camera in order to capture a moment in time when the “iron rice bowl” would become a thing of the past. While the film itself is about as unadorned as the videos that I tend to make, their impact is overwhelming as Chinese workers confront their imminent demise as benefactors of one of the 20th century’s most powerful revolutions. Now they were becoming the equivalent of British self-sustaining small farmers dispossessed by the enclosure acts.

I urge you to put January 12th on your calendar since an opportunity to see a Wang Bing documentary is all you need to remind you why you became an anti-capitalist in the first place.

You might want to put January 19th on your calendar as well since that is the night that “Pow Wow” begins screening at Anthology Film Archives. This is a documentary about the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, California that draws a sharp contrast between the golf-playing rich white people who live in McMansions there and the Cahuilla Indians who came there millennia ago. The water that is used in profligate fashion to keep the fairways green originates from groundwater on their reservation, over which there is an ongoing struggle.

As expected, the whites are grotesque figures. The film opens with one man obviously dressed for 18 holes, wearing pants looking like they were designed by Versace after he took LSD. He arrives in a golf cart that is designed to look like the face of a villain in a Batman movie (don’t ask me which one) and after striking absurd poses, announces: “These have been good years, may I say”.

On the other side of the ledger is Antonio Heredia Jr., the chairman of the Cahuilla reservation who is articulate, deeply knowledgeable about his people, and the ecology of the region.

When it comes to ecology, nothing is more crucial than water as I pointed out in a CounterPunch article posted on Wednesday. Underneath the Coachella Valley, which is mostly desert, is a huge aquifer that supplies drinking water to over 260,000 people with approximately 80% percent of it sitting on Native American land. That the area is home to 125 luxury golf courses is as much of a contradiction as Iran exporting watermelons (mostly water, as the name implies) when it is running out of water.

Meanwhile, California is in it’s biggest drought in twelve hundred years, a drought that might last another two hundred years. There was an epic legal struggle over water rights in which the Cahuilla sued to gain control over the groundwater that was being wasted on keeping the fairways green. As should come as no big surprise, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Antonio Heredia Jr  stated “We don’t know how much water we’re going to need. Forever’s a long time.”

Besides its darkly sardonic commentary on ecology versus golfing and the rhinestone cowboy culture that surrounds it, “Pow Wow” also examines the story of Willie Boy, the Paiute Indian who lived close to the Coachella Valley and who became a fugitive from white justice in 1909 after killing the father of a 16-year old daughter of a Chemehuevi Indian, who would not allow her to marry him, in self-defense. For over 500 miles in 110-degree heat, he eluded a posse of white men. James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess, the co-authors of “The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian-Hating and Popular Culture”, are interviewed in “Pow Wow” and are welcome commentators on one of the countless tales of endurance against white colonizing power.

Among the people who found this story worth retelling was the formerly blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, who wrote the screenplay for “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” in 1969. He directed the film as well that unfortunately starred white actors in the role of Willie Boy (Robert Blake) and his love (Katherine Ross), with a sympathetic Robert Redford in the role of the pursuing sheriff.

Dialog from the film is heard throughout the film and is a constant reminder of the indigenous people who respected mother nature. Willie Boy knew every nook and cranny of the desert surrounding Palm Springs and survived for months by living off the land. After seeing news about the mudslides in Southern California that were brought on by the loss of shrubs and trees by out-of-control fires that in turn were a result of manmade climate change, you can only conclude that the only thing white capitalist society is capable of is dying off the land.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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