Remembering Dan Talbot

From C. Mason Wells comes word that Dan Talbot, founder of New Yorker Films (and pictured above in front of the New Yorker Theater with Alfred Hitchcock), has passed away. “Alongside his wife Toby, few did more for world cinema distribution and exhibition in this country,” writes Wells. “A crushing loss.”

As Jordan Hoffman writes in the Village Voice today, Dan and Toby Talbot had been “at the forefront of arthouse cinema since they opened the New Yorker Theater in 1960 (with a double bill of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon), followed by the Cinema Studio and the Metro. They ran the New Yorker Films distribution company, which released works by Bertolucci, Ozu, Godard, Bresson, Malle, Varda, Herzog, Merchant and Ivory, Sembène, Akerman, Mizoguchi, and more. They brought the nine-plus-hour documentary Shoah to theaters. What we talk about when we talk about ‘foreign films’ is in no small part defined by their curatorial instincts.”

In its Spring 2017 issue, Cineaste ran an article in which Talbot looked back on his years as a distributor and exhibitor. It’s not online, but Cynthia Rowell’s introduction to the piece is, and she notes that Talbot “started his illustrious career with words, not images: the 1959 publication of Film: An Anthology (a volume collecting invaluable essays on the art), and short-lived stints as an East Coast story editor for Warner Bros. and film critic at The Progressive. This literary interest would manifest itself in one of the New Yorker Theater’s defining qualities: the film program notes, often written by well-known authors.”

In 2009, Toby Talbot wrote a memoir, The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, reviewed for Offscreen by Daniel Garrett: “Talbot’s book is a love story, for her husband, film, the theaters they have operated; and the love that is celebrated is a broadening, complex circle of connections. The Talbots knew Peter Bogdanovich and Jonas Mekas, as well as Morris Dickstein, Phillip Lopate, Dwight Macdonald, Susan Sontag, and Parker Tyler. At their theater, the Talbots began a film society, and people like Jules Feiffer and Terry Southern wrote program notes.”

When New Yorker Films was sold to Madstone Films in 2009, “the now-defunct entity that used portions of New Yorker’s library as collateral for a loan,” Anthony Kaufman spoke with Dan Talbot for Variety in 2009, noting that he took full responsibility for the demise of the company. But he also credited “the success of many of the company’s groundbreaking standouts (e.g., Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God) to a confluence of factors: The films of the French New Wave helped cultivate ‘a climate of excitement’; critics such as Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris championed the films and kept them alive among the cognoscenti; more New York arthouses created an expanded environment for the films and sparked word of mouth; and audiences ‘were extremely literate, cultivated and traveled,’ he recalls. . . . Ultimately, however, Talbot says, he didn’t have a magic touch: ‘I’ve always maintained that the real distributor of a film is the film itself. There is something inside successful films that’s not definable that makes them work. The role of a distributor, seems to me, is to get behind the film and not get in front of it and fuck it up.’”

“Despite the loss of New Yorker Films—it took him years to get over it, he said—Mr. Talbot remains upbeat about the industry side of the art-film world,” noted the New York TimesManohla Dargis when she met him in Cannes in 2011. “The movie business (‘It’s not a business,’ he corrected me, ‘it’s a casino’) is more complicated now. ‘I don’t think it’s worse or better—it’s just different.’”

Though New Yorker Films was gone, Dan and Toby Talbot were still running Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, “a temple of the art house movie scene in New York for thirty years,” as Dade Hayes called it in a story for Deadline—reporting, sadly, on the theater’s imminent closing.

In 2004, the Independent Film Project presented its Gotham Award for Industry Lifetime Achievement to Talbot, and IndieWire ran his acceptance speech. He had stories to tell.

Update: For IndieWire, Tom Brueggemann reports that a memorial service is “scheduled for Sunday, December 31 at 9:30 am at the Riverside Memorial Chapel, 180 W. 76th Street in New York City.”

Updates, 1/2: “Although he had been ill for some time (in May he did not attend Cannes, where he had been an enthusiastic regular since 1967), Mr. Talbot continued to be involved in the industry,” writes Anita Gates in the New York Times. “On the Friday afternoon before Christmas, he even dropped by Lincoln Plaza to catch a movie. ‘He watched the Haneke film,’ Mr. Admassu said in a telephone interview, referring to the German-Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Happy End. ‘And he asked how business was.’”

At IndieWire, Tom Brueggemann has news regarding Lincoln Plaza Cinemas: “Milstein Properties, who have been the Talbots’ co-partners in the theater since its opening in 1981, has stated that it hopes to reopen the theater after structural work to the building, with programming in line with Talbot’s legacy.” Looking back on that legacy and the history of New Yorker Films, he suggests that “perhaps the most unlikely hit came in 1981 with Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. The straightforward filming of a dinner conversation between writer friends Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory became, after a slow start, the company’s biggest success. It grossed the equivalent of $16 million in 2017 ticket values.”

In 2010, Glenn Kenny reviewed Toby Talbot’s memoir for the Notebook: “I was particularly grateful for her cogent account of Brazil's now-very-nearly forgotten cinema nuovo, and her portrait of Glauber Rocha is particularly moving. We also learn of her and Dan's business practices—almost every distribution deal made by New Yorker Films was a handshake deal, which speaks well of the Talbots' overall menschiness and progressive convictions. . . . Finally, having known pretty much everyone who was anyone in their time, Toby can reveal some nearly head-spinning social match-ups—Manny Farber and Nicholas Ray having dinner with Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, for instance. How one would like to have been a fly on that wall!”

Update, 1/5:Adrian Curry’s “Movie Poster of the Week” column for the Notebook is devoted to posters for New Yorker films. “What I like about New Yorker’s posters, especially those from the late 70s and early 80s, is that they have a very distinctive look: mostly illustrated (with the artist nearly always credited) often in a charming style that wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of the New Yorker magazine, and admirably light on text, sometimes with just the title and the director’s name.” Curry also recalls Talbot giving him his first job in New York in 1990: “Dan took a chance on me based on a rather corny application letter I sent him using stills of classic movies with speech bubbles pleading my case. Walking into the New Yorker Films office on 61st St, with its long wall of fame of framed photos of New Yorker’s star auteurs, and with posters all over its white walls, was a moment I will never forget. Though I only worked there for a year and a half, I continued my association with the company until 2008, editing, co-writing and laying out their catalogue every year.”

Update, 3/9: “It’s rare that someone engenders such an abundance of goodwill and gratitude,” writes Kent Jones in the new issue of Film Comment. “And at this strange moment, it’s important to remember Dan Talbot as more than just a guy with great taste. The fabric of the cinema and its culture is dangerously frayed and tattered, but that it holds together at all is a tribute to the spirit embodied and engendered by this man who loved Fassbinder’s work so much that he once bought eleven of his films ‘in one shot, like rugs,’ and who happily and publicly made the immortal statement: ‘How I managed to survive all these years with zero interest in the business end of things always puzzled me.’”

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