Sunday, November 30, 2008

Houston Street

The recent closure of Avenue A’s Pioneer Theater set off another round of hand-wringing over the sorry state of indie film and the diminished audience appetite—even in New York!—for avant-garde cinema. The Pioneer is a major loss. Eccentric retrospectives focused exclusively on Luis Guzman flicks and 42nd Street Smut Films of the Late 70s. And it might be the only movie theater in the world to lay claim to both a Robert Altman Q&A and a recurring double bill of Poultrygeist and Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie. But there are still a number of venerable arthouse theaters that endure. And a number of them are located right along Houston Street, just a stone’s throw from the Pioneer’s old stomping grounds.

The Landmark Sunshine (Houston between Eldridge and Christie) is a spiffy newcomer to the New York indie scene. It opened in a converted vaudeville theater in 2001. Landmark screens relatively mainstream independent movies (current options include Synecdoche, New York and Happy-Go-Lucky) for mind-bogglingly long runs. (Man on Wire has been there since July.) This theater stands out in the Houston Street crowd for remarkably tush-friendly stadium seats, perhaps explaining its frequent red-carpet premieres.

Across Houston Street on 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street is the Anthology Film Archives. Founded in 1970, it has operated out of its distinctive brick home (a former courthouse) for thirty years, seemingly without a single cosmetic touchup. The theater emphasizes experimental (very) early cinema, shorts, foreign film and avant-garde work of the 60s and 70s. Recent repertories examined the New York vigilante genre, the Polish director Andrzej Wajda and contemporary Turkish cinema. Anthology sates the most obscure cinematic appetites. Chomping at the bit for Paraguayan Hammock, the 160 minute long movie about, well, little more than a Paraguayan hammock? Anthology is the place for you.

The Angelika (Houston and Mercer) opened in 1989 during the heady days of the American indie explosion. It’s defiantly 90s: a coffeehouse monopolizes the entire ground floor and its marquee makes it seem like a Miramax annex. These days the Angelika runs the most mainstream fare of the Houston crew and skips the retrospectives and midnight movies that set its peers apart from the multiplex herd. Still, the Angelika is an institution and a uniquely New York one—don’t fret over the shaking floor; it’s just the 6 train rumbling down below.

In 2005, the IFC Center replaced the Waverly Theater on 6th Avenue just above Houston Street. The IFC runs shorts before all of its screenings—sometimes a blessing and sometimes a fate worse than Fandango commercials. Its slate of new movies consists of festival favorites that otherwise would not have seen the light of day. (This is New York’s House of Mumblecore.) The midnight movie is religion here—Buffy: The Musical and El Topo are perennial favorites. You can also count on the IFC reviving either a Lynch or a Bergman movie on any given weekend. Another Lynchian quirk: the concession stand serves a roast trademarked by the master of the surreal himself.

Walk west down Houston and you’ll find Film Forum, the granddaddy of New York arthouses. As with actual granddaddy’s (which many of its patrons are), Film Forum’s programming can smell a little musty, but God you’ll miss it when it’s gone. Like the Met, this is where you go for the European masters: Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman. It’s not all repertory though; the theater was the first outside the festival circuit to screen Lou Reed’s Berlin and will soon run Wendy and Lucy, Kelly’s Reichardt’s hotly anticipated collaboration with Michelle Williams.

Whether you’re looking for subtitles or sexploitation, animated shorts or Renoir marathons, the Houston Street crawl will likely deliver.

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