How Film Forum Became the Best Little Movie House in New York

It’s just before 8 p.m. on a recent Friday night in Manhattan, and a crowd of moviegoers is lined up to see “Great Freedom” (2021), an Austrian film that tells the tender and terrible story of a concentration camp survivor in Germany who’s repeatedly imprisoned for his sexuality. Sebastian Meise, the film’s director, and its star, Franz Rogowski, will be giving a Q. and A. after the showing, so there’s a palpable sense that this is an event.

Outside on West Houston Street, the glow of the marquee — “Film Forum” written in curving, blue neon letters — beckons like a spaceship. Upon seeing it, I feel the thrill of catching a movie in an actual cinema: It’s my first visit to Film Forum since it reopened in 2021 following a nearly 13-month closure on account of Covid-19.

In the lobby, there’s anticipatory chatter: film students talking into their phones and older Greenwich Village and SoHo locals (like me) discussing the state of the world. The reserved seating system — a measure instigated during the pandemic — ended this month, and the first-come-first-served rule resumed, bringing back with it the kvetching about grabbing a preferred seat. The theater director, filmmaker and painter André Gregory, a devout Film Forum fan, once left sweaters on a pair of chairs while he and his wife, the filmmaker Cindy Kleine, went for chocolate egg creams in the lobby and returned to find people sitting in them. “The woman said, ‘I don’t care. We’re not moving,’ and [her companion] threw my sweater in my direction,” Gregory says with a laugh. In 2018, the theater underwent a renovation — prompted in part by a common refrain, “Love the movies, hate the seats,” from guests in an audience survey two years earlier — and upgraded its chairs, which are now softer, wider and infinitely more comfortable.

The rest of the interior is also welcoming, with big red columns, and walls hung with movie posters, film schedules and original art. At the lobby concession stand, there’s good espresso and great snacks, both the requisite popcorn and baked goods, including a particularly delicious orange-chocolate Bundt cake. The theater’s director, Karen Cooper, who has been in charge of Film Forum for 50 of its 52 years, may be fiercely political in her choice of films — tonight’s movie was her discovery — but she’s all doting mother when it comes to the sweets, most of which come from Betty Bakery in Brooklyn.

The story of movies as art, especially in Manhattan is, in part, a tale of the rise and fall of independent cinemas. When I was a child, there was the Art on 8th Street, the 8th Street Playhouse and the Bleecker Street Cinema, all within blocks of one another. By the end of the 1990s, though, these had all shut down. But Film Forum, which opened in 1970, has always been special and thrives to this day, playing as many as 400 or 500 films every year (a fourth screen was also added in the renovation).

It has spawned and nurtured a real community of cinephiles, who come to laugh, cry and argue. Sometimes, the audience feels like a part of the show — I once heard a fight break out in Russian in the back row. And before a screening of “Amazing Grace,” the 2018 concert documentary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel performances in a Los Angeles church, I witnessed a lobby packed with middle-aged women of all races singing “Respect,” as if they were teenagers about to enter a rock concert.

For many, Film Forum is also a place to get an education. Peter Nelson, a cinematographer and director, most recently of the acclaimed honeybee documentary “The Pollinators” (2019), says, “In the early ’80s, when I was at N.Y.U. film school, their incredibly diverse program of indies, foreign movies and classics provided access to films that were often not shown anywhere else in town.” Nelson adds, “From time to time, I would do a ‘cinema binge,’ where I would finish watching a film, leave the theater and line up for a different one, often with a delicious brownie to hold me over.” Gina Duncan, the president-elect of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is also a fan. “Anyone who wants to run their own cinema imagines a place like Film Forum: a dedicated audience, good concessions and great programming,” she says. “It’s unpretentious, and I think that’s got a lot to do with Karen Cooper.”

Cooper was a newly minted Smith College graduate when she arrived back in her native New York City in 1970 and started looking for a job in the arts. In 1972, she became director of the nascent Film Forum, then located in a small loft space on West 88th Street with 50 folding chairs. “My annual budget was about $19,000,” she says. “And I made the coffee.” She’s held the same title ever since. In 1975, Cooper moved Film Forum downtown to the Vandam Theater; in 1980, she built a two-screen cinema on Watts Street. In 1990, Film Forum moved once more, this time to its current location between Varick Street and Sixth Avenue. Today, Cooper’s budget is around six million.

At 73, Cooper, who lives in the far West Village and walks to work every day, is vividly articulate and fast moving, a dynamo who oversees a staff of 50 (give or take), the cinema’s fund-raising (Film Forum is a nonprofit with a board of 24) and much of programming. It’s Cooper who, along with the programmer Mike Maggiore and the deputy director Sonya Chung, looks after the new indie films and documentaries, while repertory director Bruce Goldstein handles revivals with the associate repertory programmer Elspeth Carroll. Cooper attends at least a couple of international festivals each year, and she’s rubbed elbows with everyone in the business from Werner Herzog to Robert Redford, but never name drops. “No one really knows celebrities,” says Cooper. “I wouldn’t pretend otherwise.”

She believes the best documentaries can help change the world. “I grew up in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement — all essentially about human rights — and they move me deeply,” she says of the nonfiction narratives.

Cooper has brought in films like Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” (1997), about the children killed in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church, and, in March, Christine Turner’s “Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day’” (2021), a documentary short about 20th-century postcards depicting scenes of murdered Black Americans and bloodthirsty white onlookers — once souvenirs — and the way Black activists repurposed them to combat the horrors of lynching.

Sergei Loznitsa’s “Babi Yar. Context,” the devastating 2021 documentary on the 1941 Nazi massacre of tens of thousands of Jews over two days at the Babi Yar ravine on the edge of Kyiv in Ukraine, is slotted for an April 1 showing, but was programmed months before the current Russian invasion. No doubt, Gregory, who was born in France and fled Europe with his Russian Jewish parents just before the Nazi invasion, will catch it. “I have a similar interest in films about fascism,” he says. Cooper confirms this: “André has seen every one of my Nazi movies,” she says, “and that’s saying a lot.”

Other noteworthy documentaries that have shown at Film Forum, some political and some more in the slice-of-life school, include Michael Apted’s “Up” series of films (1964-2019); “The War Room” (1993), directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning” (1990); and Bruce Weber’s “Let’s Get Lost” (1988), about the jazz musician Chet Baker. On opening weekend of Michael Levine’s “Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream” (2016), the theater gave out free boxes of matzo. And last month it opened “The Automat,” Lisa Hurwitz’s 2021 celebration of the Horn & Hardart chain of automated cafeterias that once flourished in New York and Philadelphia. Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Carl Reiner all appear as fans of the retro-futuristic establishments, as does Mel Brooks, who sings an original composition — his own ode to the nickel in a slot automat.

Goldstein came on in 1986, and it’s his selection of repertory films that’s most likely to have me at the theater more than once a week. He puts on classics from the likes of Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Ida Lupino, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. He’s built festivals around Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo and has created series after series beloved by the theater’s fans — many centering on the city itself, with monikers like “NYC Noir” and “Madcap Manhattan” — highlighting films such as “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “The Lost Weekend” (1945) and “The Naked City” (1948). He’s also responsible for showing the great silent films, most recently those of Buster Keaton, and he often has the pianist Steve Sterner accompany them live. Next month, he’s co-programming a series called “Sidney Poitier and His Trailblazing Contemporaries” with the film historian Donald Bogle, who will introduce some of the included films.

Though he also founded a film distribution company, Rialto Pictures, that distributes some of the 4 K restorations that routinely play at Film Forum and around the United States, Goldstein has told me that, as a kid, he was an art cinema know-nothing. “I went to see Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Silence’ (1963),” he recounted. “I thought it was an Ingrid Bergman movie.” By now, though, he’s something of a film historian himself, and can recall almost every movie he’s ever shown. In April 1999, he assembled a festival called “Tout Truffaut,” dedicated to the French New Wave director François Truffaut. “At the end of ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959), I said to the audience, ‘Oh, by the way, … Jean-Pierre Léaud is here,’ and they went ballistic,” he recalled. “Then I said, ‘Oh, … and there’s someone else here: Jeanne Moreau,’ and the place came down.”

Last summer, Goldstein programmed “La Piscine,” Jacques Deray’s 1969 French thriller with four drop-dead gorgeous stars — Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Jane Birkin and Maurice Ronet — who wear teensy bathing suits and mostly lounge around a pool. One night, as the characters smoldered to the swoony score by Michel Legrand, Hurricane Ida overtook the city, and water began to seep into the theater. The audience had to be evacuated, but the space only suffered minimal damage and was cleaned up for showings by the next day.

How wonderful that Film Forum — this living, breathing institution that reflects the world in movies old, new, tragic, political, historic, classic, funny, urgent — has held on. Some of the films that I’ve seen there and will never forget are “The Third Man” (1949) and Joseph Losey’s “Mr. Klein” (1976), a stunning film about Paris, fascism and World War II, both in gorgeous 4 K resolution; Francesco Rosi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (1979), based on Carlo Levi’s memoir about his time living in exile among impoverished Italians, some of whom lived in cave dwellings, in the country’s south; and Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” (1969). But heady as some of Film Forum’s fare may be, it’s not snobbish. I also saw Gordon Parks’s brilliant Blaxploitation film “Shaft” (1971) there, and laughed my head off at Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles” (1974). There’s something for everyone and, thanks to Goldstein’s Film Forum Jr. program on Sunday mornings, there are even movies for children and their parents — I will certainly be joining them on May 15 for “Follow the Fleet” (1936), with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Gregory has two cats and tells me that one of them, Felix, likes art movies, especially Fellini’s “8½” (1963), whereas the other, Pucein, prefers Doris Day flicks. Gregory himself is best known for Louis Malle’s 1981 film, “My Dinner With André,” in which he and the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn play versions of themselves and discuss life, philosophy and the pleasures of working in theater — and of a good cup of coffee. It will be shown on May 9, with Gregory doing a Q. and A.; on the 11th, Kleine’s “André Gregory: Before and After Dinner” will screen, followed by a discussion with the couple. At 87, Gregory just loves the place — the movies, arguments, good cake and all. “If New York lost the Statue of Liberty, it would not be a real loss, ” he says. “But if Film Forum disappeared, it would be absolutely heartbreaking.” How Film Forum Became the Best Little Movie House in New York

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