It has been a long time since I first met Dan Talbot — almost thirty-one years. In the late spring of 1986, Dan interviewed and then hired me as his assistant at New Yorker Films. It was just my second job in film, after working for a few months at First Run Features. I remember being wowed by the spacious sun-lit offices and by Dan, who was elegant, patrician and avuncular. Even at that first meeting I understood that he was a sophisticated man of culture. In fact, I got the impression that he was more impressed by my graduate work at Yale than my experience in film. Whatever did the trick, I was very happy to join the company.
I only lasted about a year in that role of assistant (as Dan later observed, I seemed to have a problem with authority… and still do), but I stayed on at New Yorker for another three years as a nontheatrical film booker. During those years, I learned so much of what I know about film distribution.
And so when it came out in 2009, I was excited to read The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, the memoir that Dan’s wife Toby wrote about their life together. And this month I eagerly turned to Dan’s article in the Spring 2017 Cineaste magazine: “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor.” And I also read Cynthia Rowell’s article: “The New Yorker Stories: Dan Talbot’s Life in Film” on the magazine’s website
In the Cineaste article, Dan writes brilliantly about his memories of the world of international and repertory cinema and about his relationships with of some of the great auteurs he has encountered. His descriptions of life at the New Yorker Theater, which he ran until 1973 (when I was still a NJ high school student) make me wish I had been in the audience for the incredible series and premieres. Truly, our cultural landscape would have been much emptier without his heroic — even herculean — efforts to introduce American audiences to such great filmmakers as Zhang Yimou, Ousmane Sembene, Alain Tanner, Louis Malle and so many others.
New Yorker Films honored those and other filmmakers, not only in the company’s gorgeous printed catalogs but also in a long line of photographs that stretched many yards down the right-hand wall of the company’s office when I worked there. These 8x10 photos were covered by long sheets of lucite that could be opened so that the order of the images could be rearranged. If Claude Lanzmann were coming by, his photo would quickly be moved to the number one spot.
The appreciation by Cynthia Rowell (a good friend, who worked with us at Milestone Films for years before joining New Yorker and now Cineaste) updates and contextualizes Dan’s great contributions to cinema in the US. She writes about how New Yorker helped fuel the flowering of film societies and independent cinemas because programmers could rely on the “New Yorker seal of approval.” And she rightly highlights the importance of Dan’s work in promoting films with strong political messages from around the world.
And although I really enjoyed these narratives, I came away asking one question:
“But, where is Jose Lopez?”
Because when I think about the New Yorker Films I worked at — and later worked with for decades — my very first thoughts are about Jose.
When I started at New Yorker, I worked as assistant to Dan and Jose — and as liaison between the distribution company and the three theaters that Dan owned or was partner in: the Cinema Studio, Metro, and Lincoln Plaza. The New Yorker Films office was on the top floor of a building at 16 West 61st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam and featured high ceilings, skylights and an open floor plan. In a previous incarnation, the space had been an automobile assembly facility. After being buzzed in the door, you faced a long reception desk and to your left was a cubicle featuring a desk, some filing cabinets and partition walls — which is where Jose worked. I sat at the assistant’s desk — just beyond the wall on the far side of Jose’s area. Facing me was Dan’s office, a separate room that featured a large glass window and a door.
When he was in the office, Dan had me working on contracts, correspondence, and sending telexes (Google this if you haven’t used one. And here is a photo of one.
This was before the Internet when international communication was a challenge. I was working at New Yorker when the company acquired its first fax machine, years later). But Dan came and went on his own schedule and even as his assistant, I often did not know when or if he would be in. In fact, that picture window into Dan’s office could be deceiving. It was not floor to ceiling, so several times I (and others) walked in to what looked like an empty office with the lights out, and almost stumbled on the six-foot-plus Dan Talbot, stretched out for a nap on the carpeted floor.
Jose was always, always there and always moving. When he stopped by my desk, I would assist him by writing marquee copy; contacting the theater mangers to make sure they had trailers, one-sheets, and 35mm prints; reporting box office; or proofreading ad copy. Then he would set off at a trot to check on problems in accounting or the office screening room or the shipping department or with the catalog layout. Very often, when we all left at the end of the day (there were eight or nine of us on staff at that time) he would still be at his desk or rushing off to the theaters to solve other problems. Jose lived on the Upper West Side and came in evenings, weekends, and holidays. He was the hardest working person I have ever known.
He was also funny and kind. Jose grew up in Cuba and although his English was excellent, he occasionally made mistakes that were both brilliant and hilarious. If you had to get over something, it was “water over the bridge.” My favorite was one that took me a while to figure out. When we started dating, my future husband Dennis was working at rival film company, Kino International. Jose heard about our romance and suggested that I might “pull a Camille.” It was only my familiarity with the films of Greta Garbo that allowed me to decipher that one. Jose was not suggesting I die of consumption, but was hoping I would take on the role of Mata Hari and learn a bit about Kino’s acquisition plans.
I am tempted to say that Jose was like the energizer bunny or that he was the heart of the company, but both those metaphors fail to account for how incredibly smart, competent and just encyclopedically knowledgeable he was about every aspect of film exhibition and distribution. Everyone relied on him all the time — for everything. Do you have a problem with the booking software? Ask Jose. Is there broken popcorn machine at the Cinema Studio? Jose will know how to fix that. Does a filmmaker need an advance on royalties? Jose will get a check cut. Is an exhibitor taking forever to pay? Ask Jose. Lab problems? Aspect ratio questions? Publicity concerns? Video production glitches? Everyone turned to him for everything.
Even years after Dennis and I had founded Milestone, we still would sometimes call Jose for advice. And he always welcomed our questions and really tried to help. That warmth and connection also made him a great boss and a great mentor.
When I was at New Yorker, I sometimes thought that in their partnership, Dan was the quintessential “dad” — both king of the castle and procurer of the household bacon (which for New Yorker meant attending festivals, meeting with filmmakers and sales agents, and acquiring new films). And Jose was “mom,” sensitive to the situations of all the kids/staff, constantly multi-tasking, incredibly hard-working, and somewhat unseen and under-appreciated by the outside world.
Well, decades later I am a mom — and co-owner of a mom-and-pop distribution company — so my perspective has evolved. I can see that both men loved the films themselves and that their dedication to cinema fueled their collaboration and gave their partnership tenacity. Dan’s role — representing the company and establishing it as a vital cultural voice and resource — was essential and suited his personality and many talents. I recognize too that Jose thrived on solving the million-and-one problems and challenges of keeping a business going.
I remember that despite his warmth and boundless energy, Jose is shy. I found exactly one photo of him online and it was taken another New Yorker alum, Reid Rosefelt (The photo above is a better image, also courtesy of Reid). I don’t really know if Jose will like that I am writing about him now
But as a working film distributor for so many years, I also know that what Jose did at New Yorker Films was absolutely essential to its excellence and success. And I know that I, and dozens of other working film professionals, owe him so much. I know that I can never fully thank him all his kindness and wisdom — but I offer this blog in partial payment.
Then I read a little of his book Seductive Cinema this morning and realized that I had to change tonight’s talk. It’s been a while since I first read it and now memories came flooding back. It’s been only twelve years since his death but in some ways it seems like another time – when there were giants in the field who first stamped their feet on this earth to create the film archives where none had existed before them. People like Jim, Henri Langlois, and so many others.
I assume that many before me on this stage in past celebrations have talked about his brilliance, his generosity of spirit, his absolute passion and devotion to the moving image — and on and on. That all is certainly true – he had an incredible gift for living. He was a drama king in the best possible sense of the word. He taught me, through our few talks together, that storytelling is not only an art, but also an essential one in life. To be able to enthrall your audience and convince them is an important part of your work. And his ability to do this led to tonight’s film, but I’ll get to that later.
Now back to this morning. Reading the first few chapters of Seductive Cinema, I recalled our first meeting and why we were such kindred souls. Let me read to you just a few sentences from his book:
“The men who brought about the essential magic of speechless cinema are few. They include Eadweard Muybridge, James Williamson, Louis Lumiere, Georges Melies, Thomas Edison and George Eastman. Fellow historians who may actually chance upon these lines may be horrified by my omissions. I myself am horrified by the need to include Edison and Eastman.”
Remember, that he wrote this after having worked at the George Eastman House for almost forty years. Here’s another…
“David Wark Griffith believed he had invented the closeup. And film editing and the moving camera and even restrained acting. Griffith staked out his claim to the “invention” of all these basic elements of cinematic art by taking out an ad in the New York Dramatic Mirror of December 3, 1913. And such is the power of the printed word, and rarely have pre-1913, non-Griffith films figured in preserved study collections, that too many historians have believed Griffith’s preposterous claims.”
Whether he was right or wrong – though he usually right -- it doesn’t matter. What it reminded me of was this. As charming and wonderful as he was, Jim Card could also be a cantankerous son of a gun.… and this is what I loved best about him. We immediately found that we were both passionate about a striving towards perfection and had complete disdain for anyone who was willing to take the easy way in life. And this included several film archivists we immediately agreed about.
Another thing. Whenever anyone proclaimed something was the first or greatest, Jim would find it nonsense. He would always have a ready answer with another film that was earlier or finer. He felt that by proclaiming anything as finite and set in stone, you would be limiting your future discoveries. You wouldn’t be open for the next surprise in life. The next Louise Brooks, the next Josephine Baker. I took this philosophy to Milestone; we’re always looking for a way to screw up all those textbooks on cinema with our next find.
So while the British Film Institute was setting their Sights — and Sound — on the fifty greatest films of all-time and the Museum of Modern Art was busily creating “The Canon,” Jim Card and his compatriot-in-crime Henri Langlois were fighting every inch of the way. How can you search out and value the wonders of Paul Fejos’s LONESOME or Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS when you are blinded by only the worth of Griffith and Eisenstein and their friends?
You might think my calling this a fight is a way to dramatize an intellectual conversation. Let me tell you this battle was very real …. it was intense … and every inch was fought for in the halls of the archives tooth and nail. For Jim and Langlois were intent on saving everything – that all films must be preserved and not just those sanctified by the Archivist Gods who controlled the canon. And during those dark days, there were films, like Herbert Brenon’s Kiss for Cinderella, that were indeed allowed to disintegrate because they weren’t considered worthy of the cost of preserving them.
So when I met Jim, we found we were similar in nature. It was about absolute commitment, a constant search for what I now call “outsider” cinema, a desire to find the next amazing film, to be passionate and intense about your beliefs and yes, a hatred of certain people who were too stodgy and set in their ways to believe that there will always be new discoveries. All that came very easy for me.
So this was in the mid-1980s when I was very young and just starting out at Kino -- with absolutely no experience in the archival world, Jim helped me immensely in my first two restorations – guiding me through Erich von Stroheim’s QUEEN KELLY and being an essential collaborator on Raoul Walsh’s SADIE THOMPSON. He also taught be an incredible lesson — that to save a film, sometimes you have to break society’s laws. Yes, and I confessed this first at a Selznick Commencement speech only a couple years ago that even though he was retired, he did help me pay off a guard to enter into the George Eastman House film archive one Saturday morning to find the missing soundtrack to QUEEN KELLY.
His wonderful stories aside, here’s the best part about Jim’s mentorship. During the restoration of these two films, sometimes, when I was bafflingly stupid and going in the wrong direction, Jim would pause for dramatic intent and say sternly, “think about it Dennis.” And he allowed me – and to be honest, it took much longer for me than it did for him – to come up with the solution myself. That he was very proud of me when I got it right was something, but even better, only the most confident of teachers allows their students to think for themselves. That’s a much better education.
So to end this speech and to tell you why I chose this film tonight. After QUEEN KELLY and SADIE THOMPSON were out and my career was launched – I sent him a long-desired 16mm print of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL as a present from Kino.
A few months later, Jim was back in New York City and wanted to take us to lunch to thank us. After we dined, we were walking down Broadway. Jim was suggesting a lot of films we could do, but Don was not into any big silent film projects. (One of them, DRAGON PAINTER, Milestone got to release many years later.) To be fair, SADIE THOMPSON had cost a lot of money to produce and it was still deep in the red. So that’s when Jim mentioned two films that he promised would make us a lot of money. They were Princess Tam Tam and Zou Zou. They were two films made in France in the 1930s that featured incredible performances by the great Josephine Baker and he enthralled me with stories about the films and the great Josephine. Honestly, I had no clue what the hell these films were and I probably had no idea who Josephine Baker was.
Well, Don would have no part of this idea. For six months I pleaded to acquire these films. Not because of anything I knew. But I always fell easily into Jim’s spell – and let’s face it, I still wanted to impress and please my mentor. Finally, Don agreed on one condition — that we could get them cheaply. And this is where I can talk of Jim’s generosity. He told me that PRINCESS TAM TAM was with the GEH and I had to negotiate with them on the film. But he told me his secret – to preserve ZOU ZOU for GEH, he had himself paid for a 35mm negative with his own money and it was at John Allen’s lab. But since John had given him such a good price, that it was really John’s negative. So I called John Allen and he insisted that Jim owned it. I called Jim back and he insisted that John did. But a few days later, just in order to see the film out there and for people to see Josephine Baker again, they both agreed to give Kino free access to the negative as long as we made prints at John’s lab.
And with ZOU ZOU in hand and with Jim’s blessing, GEH readily agreed to give us access to PRINCESS TAM TAM for no advance money and a percentage of future income. This gave Don the confidence to go ahead with the project. And here’s the thing. The country fell in love once again with Josephine Baker and these two films. Critics acclaimed them and audiences flocked to these fifty year old unknown films. Kino made a ton of money. John Allen made money making us prints. George Eastman House made a huge amount of money from royalties on Princess Tam Tam. And Jim? He was truly happy for all of us and never asked for credit, a dime, or even another 16mm print. So when I was asked a few months ago to choose a film tonight, I knew it wasn’t going to be one of my films. It had to be Jim’s.
Despite my youthful ignorance, Jim immediately welcomed me into the club of film archivists. Even if I didn’t believe in myself, he did. Back then, competition was rife among film archivists and petty disagreements could last a lifetime. Yet he never saw me as competition even as I worked on some of his favorite films. I can’t really tell you if he ever put his arm on my shoulders to encourage me, but to this day, I can still feel his encouragement and his warmth.