BY ALEX EBRAHIMI | There are four theaters at Film Forum. In one you’ll find the art house premieres. In the second you’ll find the repertory. In three and four you’ll find the most popular of one and two. And after July, after 50 years, at four different locations from the Upper West Side to the West Village, from Bogie to Bertolucci, you’ll find Karen Cooper, in her words, “spending more time in Paris.”
But that was toward the end of our conversation. The beginning started where the Film Forum started:
One screen in 1972.
The teller must’ve told the tale a thousand times. Green-as-grass college grad writing for a movie magazine interviews two movie buffs about their indie movie house. The folding chairs. The projector the size of a toaster. Parisian ciné club meets the Upper West Side. Only, you didn’t have to be a member to watch the movies. Karen Cooper meets Film Forum. Only, it wasn’t anything the green interviewer asked… .
“They asked me to take over and that’s how it started,” she told me matter-of-factly.
Bringing up Andrew Sarris’s metaphor of “the forest and the trees” to distinguish Hollywood from the directors, I then asked: “It takes a vision to be a director. Does it take vision to run a movie theater?”
She checked me.
“Well…’vision’ sounds pretentious,” she said just as matter-of-factly. “I’ve always just shown what I like.”
Whether you’re on Andrew Sarris’s side or Pauline Kael’s, it’s not a matter of fact, just a matter of movies. But if it’s the forest and the trees out in Hollywood, the fallen leaves landed in theaters like the Film Forum, the Bleecker Street Cinema, the New Yorker. Naturally, I asked about the Thalia.
“What about Ursula Lewis?”
“My mother had an apartment just down the street from the Thalia!”
She told me about a double bill she’ll never forget. “Grand Hotel” (1932) and “Dinner At Eight” (1933). Not just any double bill. Before Marilyn there was Harlow. Before any of them there was Garbo. She was so thrilled, she asked someone in line to hold her place so she could run over and tell her mother, “You gotta see this!”
She checked herself later in the conversation: “I’m not one of these movie buffs,” going on to say, “If you want to talk history, talk to Bruce Goldstein.”
Second screen, third location.
After Cooper took the reins of the Film Forum in ’72, the nonprofit theater moved Downtown to Vandam Street in ’75, and with a grant from the Ford Foundation in ’80, a two-screen Film Forum was built on Watts Street. In the late ’80s, Bruce Goldstein met the Forum. The repertory of Goldstein met the art house of Karen Cooper.
It’s the kind of balance necessary to the survival of these kinds of theaters. And not just between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. With the madness of the ’60s and ’70s overshadowing the country, the avant garde was being overshadowed by documentaries like “Harlan County, U.S.A” (1976) and the ones Cooper was premiering at the Film Forum. Theaters like the Charles on Avenue B suffered. At any rate, Lower East Side immigrants were too busy working to go see Warhol’s 12-hour shot of the Empire State Building.
Well, one morning around ’89 Cooper was coming in to work when construction workers drilling the Watts Street sidewalk were in her way.
“What are you doing?” she asked them.
“Drilling for core samples.”
That’s when she knew the Film Forum’s days were numbered. In very short notice, the landlord was selling the site. When Ursula Lewis’s landlord threatened not to renew the lease of the Thalia to a single woman after her husband died in the ’50s, she managed to remain until she retired to Palm Beach in the ’70s. What remains of the two-screen Film Forum is a big glass ghost on Watts Street.
Third and fourth screen.
Film Forum became a three-screen theater when it arrived on West Houston Street in 1990. And in 2018, as a result of a major renovation, a fourth screen was added.
It’s at the West Houston location where I stood in line for “Paris, Texas,” by Wim Wenders, a member of the New German Cinema that Karen Cooper championed.
Standing in line. Movie posters on the walls around us. The young pointing at them and quoting lines from their lectures. The old quoting lines from the movies themselves.
It was like the scene from Cooper’s memory of the Thalia. Or maybe more like the scene from “Annie Hall.” Only, if Woody Allen were in this line, it wouldn’t have been a balance between young and old, but a debate between “separate the art from the artist” and “separate the artist from consciousness.” Or, more likely, and mercifully, the ones who recognize him and the ones who don’t.
Sitting down in the theater is like opening an old book. Nothing like the sweet smell, even if it’s just the paper’s decay. It’s when you finally sit in the theater that the generations go down with the house lights. Something that the cinema of distractions — television in the ’50s to video in the ’80s to streaming services today — can’t replace, even if theaters like the Film Forum went extinct tomorrow.
The movie filling the rectangle up there is Fordian in its vastness. It’s so vast, you don’t know where to go. Might as well be empty. And that’s what makes you search. Dean Stockwell saying, “There’s nothing out there,” as Harry Dean Stanton looks out at the desert. John Wayne standing alone in the doorway as the Sons of the Pioneers sing, “What makes a man to wander?” It’s like what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.” But whatever you’re searching for, whatever you find, if you’re searching for the undiscovered movie, you’ll find Film Forum at 209 West Houston St.
If you’re feeling tired of life,
Go to the picture show.
If you’re sick of troubles rife,
Go to the picture show.
You’ll forget your unpaid bills,
Rheumatism, and other ills,
If you’ll stow away your pills,
And go to the picture show!
— Thomas Curtis Clark’s 1914 poem “An Effective Remedy,” (Photoplay magazine)
Succeeding Karen Cooper, in turn, as Film Forum’s director on July 1 will be Sonya Chung. She has a 20-year history with Film Forum, having been its director of development for five years beginning in 2003. Chung left the film world for a period to write and publish two novels: “Long for This World” (2010, Scribner) and “The Loved Ones” (2016, Relegation Books). She taught literature and writing for three years at Columbia University and nine years at Skidmore College. In early 2020 she was appointed Film Forum’s deputy director, after which she helped program and promote its virtual cinema program during the COVID shutdown period.
“I have the highest regard for Sonya,” Cooper said. “She has superb taste in films and impeccable judgment on a wide range of administrative issues, ranging from finance to personnel. Knowing she was ready and willing to become director gave me the luxury of stepping down at a time when the theater is financially solid, ceding to a woman who is both intellectually astute and ethically grounded.”
“I count it both a great honor and great responsibility to bring Film Forum into its next stage,” Chung said. “Karen Cooper is an extraordinary leader: She has demonstrated what 50 years of unwavering excellence yields — a rigorously, lovingly curated cultural space that generations of New Yorkers consider indispensable.”