Cinematheque . CinemaTalk, March-April 2018
By John Ewing, Cinematheque Director
Dan Talbot, who died in late December at age 91, was a longtime exhibitor and distributor of art films. He ran the New Yorker Theater, a repertory house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, from 1960 to 1973, and New Yorker Films, a specialty film distribution company he founded, from 1965 to 2009. Through these two outlets, Talbot altered the course of foreign-film distribution in the U.S., and shaped the tastes of thousands (millions?) of art film aficionados in New York and beyond—including those of one movie-loving kid from Canton, Ohio.
Talbot’s New Yorker Films introduced America to major works by Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, Yasujiro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene, and Alain Tanner. The company was an early distributor of important titles from Brazil’s Cinema Novo directors (Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra, Carlos Diegues, et al.). New Yorker was also the primary American source for the much-heralded New German Cinema films of the late 1960s and 1970s, with a large library of titles by Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, and others. During its four-decade history, the company released important films by Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman), Gianni Amelio (Lamerica), Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist ), Claire Denis (Beau Travail ), Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore), Federico Fellini (City of Women), Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us), Emir Kusturica (Underground), Chris Marker (Sans Soleil), Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven), Maurice Pialat (Loulou), Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating), Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker), and Wim Wenders (The American Friend). New Yorker’s singular collection contained Bronco Bullfrog (1969), the only English-language movie with English subtitlesthat I had ever heard of, pre-Ken Loach. The company also handled the only movie that prompted a bomb scare at the Cleveland International Film Festival when it was based at the Cedar Lee Theatre—Jean-Luc Godard’s controversial Hail Mary (1985).
Many of New Yorker’s acquisitions debuted in America at the New York Film Festival. Then they opened commercially on one of Talbot’s screens. (After the New Yorker Theaterclosed, he ran a succession of Upper West Side art houses: the Cinema Studio, the Metro, and the six-screen Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which shuttered at the end of January when Talbot’s lease expired.) These were among the most coveted houses in Manhattan for distributors of foreign-language and specialty fare.
New Yorker did not have many breakout hits. Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre was one. Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 was another. Others included Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Tampopo, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, and Shoah. But most of the company’s revenue seemed to derive from renting 16mm prints of titles in their library to class instructors and college film societies across the U.S. This is how I saw most New Yorker Films during my pre-Cinematheque days.
New Yorker published an annual film catalogue that I perused continually. These handsome books boasted a distinctive, almost square 9” x 10” size and were printed on high-quality paper. The back cover of each edition contained a New Yorker Films logo and an alphabetical listing of the last names of the major directors whose works were distributed by the company and described inside. Talbot never hid his auteurist bent.
Unfortunately, there were two downsides to New Yorker Films. One was print quality. Many of their 16mm prints were worn and color 16mm prints were not especially vibrant (unlike 35mm copies I occasionally caught in New York or at the CWRU Film Society). Second drawback: their movies were expensive to rent. I suppose the prices weren’t unreasonable for a small, boutique distributor handling high-quality goods of limited appeal. But for somebody running a small college film program with limited resources (at Denison University) or a free library film series with virtually no budget (at Canton’s Stark County District Library), their titles were pricey. But one could get a reduced rate if you booked a package of movies. So the entire April-May 1982 Canton Film Society program at the Stark County District Library was “A Festival of New Yorker Films,” consisting of nine significant but rarely shown titles from the company’s library. I was especially proud of that two-month schedule.
When I started attending the Toronto International Film Festival in the late 1990s, one of my hopes was to meet Dan Talbot in person. Though I did not know what he looked like, I soon learned that he was the tall, bald gentleman whom I saw at many screenings with his much shorter female companion (his wife, Toby, as it turned out). Talbot always wore a white safari vest (to hunt for films?) and looked more like a hiker or rugged outdoorsman than a sophisticated city dweller. I introduced myself and thanked him for all the great movies over the years. He was kind and gracious.
The next time I saw him, maybe at a subsequent screening, maybe the following year, I asked him why New Yorker Films didn’t distribute a movie that was already a few years old, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1996 Iranian drama A Moment of Innocence. It was a masterpiece, I said. And since New Yorker already handled Makhmalbaf’s earlier movie Gabbeh, it seemed like a logical acquisition for the company. Talbot knew the film, liked it, and seemed surprised that it was still available for the U.S. market. He said he would look into it. Lo and behold, the following year, A Moment of Innocence turned up in the New Yorker catalogue! Whether I had anything to do with that, I’ll never know. By the time I suggested the film to Talbot, he may have already made a deal for it and was just being cagey.