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It was August when news broke about Metrograph — the first independent movie theater to open in Manhattan in over a decade. The cluster of articles announcing the place read like a taunting, late-summer mirage. How could they not? A two-screen theater dedicated to both new releases and repertory fare, with programming helmed by two admired figures of New York film culture, Jake Perlin (of the Film Desk) and Aliza Ma (formerly of the Museum of the Moving Image), and snugly tucked into an attractive, two-floor, brick-façade space on the Lower East Side — also housing, by the way, two bars, a restaurant, and a kiosk selling rare and coveted cinema-centric books and other items.
It was impressive enough that they were taking on Manhattan’s less-than-forgiving real estate market; doubly so when one considers the risks of humping it in a cultural scene in which the security of cinema has long been imperiled. If the death of cinema is a contestable thesis — a weary claim that often radiates a myopic atavism — then the death, or dying, of film culture is nearly a commonplace. No one needs reminding of the headwinds blowing film culture back into the solitary space of the living room or the virtual space of the internet.
Metrograph, which was founded by designer Alexander Olch and opens to the public on Friday, is poised to be a confident retort to the prevailing climate — not only a freshly minted place for cinephilic congregation, but one steered by a team that’s dedicated to energizing an enthusiasm for film precisely by shaping an experience that would satisfy their own. “Especially because we feel like we’re in a moment where it takes some effort to get people to come to the cinema,” Perlin told Hyperallergic, “it’s really important to us to present the films in a way that really, really magnifies why it’s wonderful to see things at the cinema in the first place.” In this respect, Metrograph’s first calendar reads like a banner of intent: it cuts no corners while managing to bypass several of the obstacles that similar independent movie theaters regularly contend with. For instance, the lamentable trend of favoring digital restorations over the projection of film, owing to the difficulty and steeper costs of sourcing 35 and 16mm prints to project. Metrograph plans to screen films in their original, mostly 35mm formats at a high frequency — a decision emblematized by its showing of Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015) on 35mm, a rare opportunity to glimpse the film’s luscious pastiche of ’50s colors, and alongside a live event featuring the film’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, to boot.
Another hurdle that Metrograph’s calendar proposes to clear is that of distribution. The casual filmgoer many not realize how many great movies fester in obscurity after failing to launch and land a buyer out of the festival circuit. Metrograph appears, right out of the gate, not to be beholden to the rules of distribution. “For new movies it doesn’t matter that something has distribution or doesn’t,” said Ma, who personally secured a copy of Taiwanese New Wave filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s new work, Afternoon (2015), directly from Tsai himself. “It was something Aliza loved, wanted to show — so she found it and made it happen,” Perlin added.
But more than a bulwark against the sundry potholes afflicting the road to half-decent cinema experiences today, Metrograph is a celebration of film-going in all its aspects — from the private exhilaration of admiring a familiar film in an anonymous crowd to the communal ecstasy of discovering an unknown masterpiece elbow-to-elbow with others equally in awe. “Really important film-going experiences become milestones in people’s lives,” said Ma. “The kind of culture we want to cultivate is one that allows for these experiences every day.”
Metrograph’s first series, Surrender to the Screen (March 4–10), homes in on the physical spaces in which the individual and collective dramas of film-going unfold: a smattering of movies about watching movies, from the famous scene of Anna Karina’s screen-filling face, glowing like a saintly icon in the cinematheque in Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), to Bud, in Terrence Davies’s The Long Day Closes (1992), gazing at the screen with abandon as he takes refuge in the fiction projected onto it. Another highlight is Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), Tsai Ming-liang’s smoldering dirge for a soon-to-be-shuttered Taiwanese movie-house. In 1996, seven years prior to the release of Tsai’s film, Susan Sontag wrote that “no amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals — erotic, ruminative — of the darkened theater.” Goodbye, Dragon Inn is at once a haunting assent to Sontag’s remark and an unwitting rejoinder that, after all, such beautiful films are still possible. And the screening of such films (on film) at a place like Metrograph only seems to commute the death sentence passed on the communal movie space.
The first retrospective series, of the films of Frenchman Jean Eustache, will be crowned with multiple screenings of his masterpiece of destructive love, The Mother and the Whore (1973). Not to be missed, The Mother and the Whore is an epic in miniature — an elliptical patchwork of ambling lovemaking and eminently quotable, booze-drenched disenchantment that, though aphoristic in spirit, is gargantuan in length, running just under four hours. Eustache’s post-’68 bleakness (The Mother and The Whore), teenage bildung (Mes petites amoureuses, 1975), and heady formal maneuvering (Un sale histoire, 1977) will make quite the pairing with the theater’s first revival run — of exploitation filmmaker Stephanie Rothman’s The Student Nurses (1970), which Metrograph calls a “crucial counter to the overwhelming male vision of the American ’70s.” “That’s a masterpiece,” Perlin remarked, “it exists out of time for us now.”
Despite the modishness of the above mashup, Metrograph isn’t necessarily bent on trend-setting, taste-making, or conjuring a revival of the New York film scene of old, defined as it was by a sectarianism of competing schools claiming for this or that film the righteous and solemn peace of aesthetic superiority. Ma mentioned tendencies in film culture towards “making lists and declaring cannons and declaring anti-cannons that overtake previously established cannons,” underlining that that’s simply “not what we’re trying to do here.” Rather, Metrograph is far more interested in “jumping down these really weird rabbit holes and just asking people to come with us,” she said. And indeed, the playful clash of the Eustache series and Rothman’s feministsploitation cult classic embodies much of the fuck-all fun that Metrograph is aiming for. But the announced calendar of series also suggests a penchant for risk, even imagination. This is perhaps most discernible in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Top Ten Films on 35mm, which will be exactly what it sounds like, and will take place just prior to an exclusive one-week run of a new documentary about the German auteur.
The argument could certainly be made that, despite all its inventive attentiveness to the film-going experience, Metrograph will still be jostling with the few remaining, independent art-house theaters in New York for a fairly limited customer-base — a somewhat tenuous venture. But then again, the place isn’t only about slaking the thirst of a closed set of film-loving faithful; it’s also about stimulating a new enthusiasm for the seventh art in anyone at all who’s willing to part with two hours and $15.
From top to bottom, from planned live events to programmed series, viewers should be able to directly share in the cinephilic sensibility of the theater’s staff. For all those who hold dear the cult and culture of the exhibition of film, there’s a good chance that Metrograph — which is scheduled to be open 365 days a year — will become a second home.
Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) opens on March 4.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Metrograph is the first independent theater to open in New York City in over a decade, rather than Manhattan. We apologize for the error, and it has been corrected.