These staples of a middle class, middlebrow adulthood hold no interest for me and my ilk – and why should they? My friends (some, at least) and I are Millennials, born under a bad sign, destined to dismantle. The Millennial sprang forth, Athena-like, from a sinister marketing meeting in the late 1990s, just before the vaunted “End of History” proved little more than a teaser for some lousy sequel. With lives marked by an ever-evolving derision for the things that the elders held dear (sorry, Capitalism), coupled with a rabid nostalgia for a past that never really existed in the first place, this generational death train of disruption lurches ever forward – and the next step is supposedly your local cinema.
“Millennials are killing everything” is a journalistic trope grown rather stale by over-application. As a – ahem – Digital Native, I tend to scroll right past these screeds, but that quickly changed when something too preposterous to ignore landed in my social media feed. “Millennials don’t really care about classic movies,”the New York Post opined, swapping their trademark “Extra! Extra!” hysteria for a laconic, shrugging disclosure. Over the next few hours, shared posts of “Did you see this” and “OMG” spread far and wide like pollen on the breeze. How could that other paper of record, harbinger of bleeds and leads (and ledes) paint an entire generation with such a broad brush?
Maybe Millennials don’t really care about classic movies in America’s Heartland – although a quick survey of social media indicates just the opposite – but, really, in New York? Alongside skyrocketing rents, needless app-based services, and handsome public works, this
fair city boasts an ever-increasing roster of independently-run theaters that specialize in repertory programming: the old, the obscure, the kind of thing you won’t catch at any AMC. From hallowed institutions like the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, to the aged-in-amber seats (a renovation is now in the works) and sightlines at Film Forum, and newer venues like Metrograph, the revamped Quad Cinema, or the Spectacle theater, New Yorkers never want for options when a classic movie night is in the cards. In fact, the selection is so comprehensive that it borders on the unwieldy, inspiring its own micro-infrastructure of such resources as Screen Slate, the daily email round-up of each and every repertory and underground screening in town (full disclosure: I am a fan and contributor).
At a recent impromptu baby shower, attended predominantly by members of my milieu, the conversation eventually turned to this lazy and loathsome NY Post hack job. Each of us had a nuanced definition of what constituted a “classic film,” but all unanimously agreed on one thing: that to ignore the myriad ways in which New Yorkers of all ages enjoy classic film was a gross oversight if not malicious propaganda.
“Were there lines down the block for screenings of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) in the 1960s? Probably not! But I bet there was a weird teen or two present who loved silent pictures,” offered my old school chum, Ms. S, a 29-year-old casual filmgoer whose tastes tend toward the campy and obscure. “When your poll vectors are people under 30 and people over 50, of course the older folks have seen more black and white films, they watched them when they were new! Leaving twenty years out of your data rips out a lot of nuance.”
Format, too, seemed to be a deciding factor, but not a be-all-end-all one. Many prefer 35mm over digital projection, but for rarity’s sake cannot afford to be choosy. “If something’s showing in a theater and it’s on my ‘to see’ list, I’ll definitely go,” says Ms. D, 35, a local film writer and editor. “Screening on 35mm or original format (16mm, 8mm) is an additional spur, but even Netflix has odd bursts of acquiring smaller catalogues, and occasionally gets the better of even Filmstruck for genre film.”
This is a savvy crowd. For more than a few, repertory programming offers a quality that new releases simply can’t touch. “I like older films not only for the history and context around them, but for the higher level of talent behind the productions, on average,” volunteered Mr. E, an NYU film studies sophomore whose tender age places him on the tail end of the Millennial timeline. And he verifies that, while the bulk of attendees at New York rep cinemas tend to be blue-hairs, you’ll often find a handful of young’uns in the audience. “When I’m at the rep houses, I’m usually the youngest one there,” he added, “but the range in age depends on where you are. When I’m at MoMA, the difference between me and the rest of the audience is about forty years, but at the Quad and Metrograph, it isn’t nearly so stark.”
Asked why the Post felt compelled to throw another log on the never-ending thinkpiece fire, all agreed the attempt was little more than clickbait trolling. “People get old! Young people think differently! Shocking!” Ms. S exclaimed. “I am annoyed at how narrow their reasoning was,” Ms. D sighed. “At no point are access and exposure mentioned as possible reasons. The Post wrote this BS for the same reason studios keep cranking out their big movies: cash, baby.” Acknowledging that New Yorkers may be spoiled, Mr. E. complained: “to then extrapolate that to all millennials is myopic and uncalled for.”
Each theater in our repertory ecosystem fills a gap, of sorts, whether programmatically or
economically. The younger crowd at new-ish venues like Metrograph or Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse may not be drawn exclusively to a theater’s amenities – plush seats, a bar on the premises, or functional plumbing – but they certainly don’t hurt. The long-standing reputation for cantankerousness or senility among New York filmgoers is rarely on display; more often than not, you’ll find handsome ushers and well-appointed hepcats lingering in the lobby. But like anything else here, good things often come at a premium. Theaters that routinely screen 35mm prints, for instance, tend to have a higher overhead: print traffic, paying projectionists a union rate (if they’re lucky), and craft cocktails don’t come cheap.
For young cinephiles on a limited budget, smaller spaces like Brooklyn’s Light Industry or Spectacle theater are a cost-effective way to get a movie fix: admission at either venue can be had for less than $10, a veritable steal in a sea of $14 seats. Both venues specialize in programming that tends toward, if not the “obscure,” then certainly the uncommon. Light Industry’s line-up frequently features guest programmers who curate one-off shows with somewhat esoteric themes: recent examples include everything from Peter Watkins’s sprawling docu-drama Resan (The Journey, 1987) to a daylong marathon of the Zucker brothers’ under-appreciated TV comedy Police Squad! (ABC, 1982).
Spectacle wears its experimental chops on its sleeve: everything from the programming to the poster-making and box office administration is done collectively by a group of dedicated volunteers. It’s not unusual to see an audience member today working in the “booth” tomorrow: many of us (another disclosure: I am a volunteer, if that wasn’t apparent) joined the ranks after a memorable $5 movie excursion, conscripted into service after a screening of a 1980s slasher film or foreign micro-budget indie. “Spectacle isn’t just a platform for film programming, it’s a generative organization as well,” said Mr. Y, a local musician and longtime volunteer. “We cut our own trailers for the movies that we show, develop and edit live score programs closely with the artists, and importantly, champion and support the creative works of our own collective members and immediate network. For many younger people, it’s their first experience in a collective, and having to deal with others in getting things done, within a framework of their own making.”
My love affair with New York repertory filmgoing began shortly after I arrived in town: I was 18 years old, momentarily friendless, and spellbound by an array of options that, over a decade later, seems paltry by comparison. At my peak, I was averaging anywhere from three to seven showings a week, stealing time at the cinema between college classes or after work, and spending entire weekends in the dark. I’ve had the distinct pleasure (if you can call it that) of seeing both Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 429-minute epic Hitler: A Film From Germany (1978) and Bela Tarr’s 432-minute, equally epic Sátántangó (1994) at the stalwart Anthology Film Archives, sneaking granola bars between reel changes and feeling thoroughly like a naked mole rat after the lights came up.
In my eleven years in New York, I’ve seen too many rare and unusual films to count, but as the bloom of my young cinephilia begins to fade, I fear I’ve grown predictable, as my eye is inevitably drawn to more “escapist fare”: Poverty Row noirs, wuxia, erotic thrillers, Hollywood musicals, and the like. Its headline today is definitely erroneous, but whether the Post is on the “wrong side of history” remains to be determined. With each passing financial quarter, new streaming platforms and gimmicky releases add another nail to Old (and New) Hollywood’s gilt-edged coffin. I’m no prognosticator, but I know one thing: the eternal vogue for tarring “kids today” as the problem isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon. But for those who tire of easy caricatures, solace can be yours for $14 (or $5 or $7) a turn: at the movies, in actual physical spaces, surrounded by likeminded beauty-worshippers of, yes, every age.
This article originally appeared on October 26, 2017 in Film Quarterly.
Lauren Karaman (V.O.) is a brooklyn-based actress, model, and activist. You can follow her @thelauren_k.
Caroline Golum is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. When she is not working for the Man, she is usually at, writing about, or trying to make a movie. You can follow her on Twitter @carolineavenue.