Dinner with the Straubs, and More: Toby Talbot's Cinephilic Memoir

Glenn Kenny

Above: The second in New Yorker's "American Premieres" series: April 6-May 10, 1967.

In her author photo on the back jacket flap of her book, Toby Talbot is standing outside, leaning against some structure, a fence maybe. Her hand hangs at her side; she's wearing a sheer red scarf around her neck and tilting her head back, squinting a bit and smiling quite confidently at the camera. She looks very much like a woman who knows her own mind.

This impression is more than borne out by the writing inside her book, The New Yorker Theater And Other Secrets From A Life At The Movies. Talbot is the wife of and partner in all things with Dan Talbot; together they founded the legendary New Yorker Theater in the early '60s. More than a rep house, it was a defining feature of New York—and hence, international—film culture for over a decade. Other theaters followed—the couple still run Lincoln Plaza—as did the exhibition concern New Yorker films, which fell out of the Talbots' hands in 2009 and was just recently recuscitated by a Los Angeles firm. But the theater itself, having been a very particular place (opening just as the Upper West Side was becoming home to a sort of post-Eisenhower-era Manhattan intelligentsia) at a very particular time (the exporting of the new wave, the rise of an American version of the politique des auteurs), is the main focus of this book as well as the object of Mrs. Talbot's infrequent but poignant bouts of nostalgia.

Talbot divides the book into seven reels, within which are various chapters/scenes, and while this is a nifty device, it has little impact on the book's general flow. This is a distinctly discursive work, in which Talbot may segue, with little fanfare or warning but with an ever-confident grace, from a disquisition on her preferred concession-stand goodies (she and Dan were at first opposed to popcorn, and then succumbed to a form of peer pressure) to a political observation, to yet another perfectly observed and beautifully drawn thumbnail sketch of...well there are plenty of filmmakers in here, for sure, but also authors, critics, artists, one-named musicians and street singers. Even someone relatively indifferent to film might be frequently moved by the scenes of a city Talbot sets down here.

Her eye for the telling detail never fails her. "At dinner that evening in a modest Italian trattoria in Greenwich Village, when the meal was over, Jean-Marie [Straub] stared at the breadbasket, worrying about what would happen with the leftover bread. Would it go to waste?" And while she can occasionally fall, for brevity's sake, into a glib critical commonplace—"Breathless left me breathless"—more often than not her aesthetic acuity and prodigious memory serve her and her reader well. 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. But it must be pretty challenging for the parties now overseeing that catalog. (Speaking of which, the story of how José Lopez came to his position in the Talbot family business is engrossing, instructive.) 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!

Talbot's brisk, lively text—this is a book you can open to any random page and find several pleasurable, edifying nuggets; it makes a lovely non-linear re-read!—is supplemented by all manner of graphic and archival goodies. A wonderful gallery of photos, kicking off with shots of Dan standing under the New Yorker marquee with Alfred Hitchcock himself; reproductions of the theater's program notes, penned by such luminaries as Terry Southern, Jules Feiffer, Jack Gelber, Jack Kerouac, Eugene Archer, and more; and perhaps best of all in its way, pages from the theaters guest book. In these various patrons would sign name and address, request films, scoff at certain requests, and leave comments and counter-comments. The hand-scrawled, graffitti-esque ur-equivalents of internet flame wars crop up. "The Cranes Are Flying was Monumental Junk, thrash, claptrap!" writes one patron. Another responds: "And you, my friend, are a totally monumental moron!" Finally: "And you are a totally monumental communist." Ah, plus ça change!

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