Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) are waiting in line to see Marcel Ophüls’ two-part documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). Standing behind them is a bespectacled man (Russell Horton), and a woman. To Alvy’s annoyance, the man pontificates—mostly in a derogatory way—about the films of Federico Fellini. While he drones on in dire academia-ese, the sulky Annie and the petulant Alvy squabble about her depressiveness and their “sexual problem”—which causes both the man in front of them and the pontificator behind them to cock an ear.
By the time this bore makes a reference to the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan and his belief that film is a “hot medium”—movies don’t require the viewer to do anything to understand them—the exasperated Alvy has had enough of his pseudo-intellectual prattle. He denounces the man to the camera. Incensed, the man steps forward and boasts that he teaches a course in TV, media, and culture at Columbia University and, therefore, his “insights into Mr. McLuhan have a great deal of validity.”
Then comes Alvy’s coup de grâce. He produces McLuhan himself from behind a poster stand, and McLuhan tells the bore, “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is amazing.” It’s one of the greatest takedowns in movies.
“Boy, if life were only like this,” Alvy triumphantly remarks, breaking the fourth wall again.
McLuhan should have said another word, perhaps philosophy, instead of “fallacy,” which is meaningless in this context. But it seems that after 18 or so takes of the two-and-a-half minute scene, Allen gave up on McLuhan getting the line right. So Russell Horton told Entertainment Weekly.
McLuhan wasn’t Allen’s first choice for the role. He had tried “many people,” hoping at first to get Fellini, who “didn’t want to come over to the United States to do this, which is okay,” Allen said. “So I got Marshall McLuhan.”
The McLuhan scene in Annie Hall is memorable not simply as an example of Allen’s wit and inventiveness in one of his finest films and as a commentary on McLuhan’s ideas, but as a cinematic memorial for the New Yorker as a gathering place for movie lovers—including argumentative and talkative types. In her book The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, Toby Talbot cites the critic Andrew Sarris saying, “The New Yorker myth was born not simply out of scholarly input, but because Dan [Talbot] initiated a dialogue with the audience. Dan believed an audience is always as intelligent as you want it to be. It was a lot of fun holding discussions in the lobby. It was kind of a salon. There was much excitement and enthusiasm.”
The New Yorker Theater had begun life as the Adelphi Theatre by 1914. It was rebuilt and renamed the Yorktown Theater in 1933. In early 1960, Dan and Toby persuaded the leaseholder, Henry Rosenberg, to let them run it as a revival house on an experimental basis. They named it The New Yorker not after the magazine, but after a hotel owned by Toby’s ex-bootlegger Uncle Harry in Miami Beach, one of the first such establishments to open there. The Talbots used the Y, O, R, and K from the old Yorktown neon sign for The New Yorker’s new sign, which cast yellow and green light on the sidewalk. The Art Deco relief of Diana the Huntress and her hound above the marquee was also preserved.
Dan and Toby began their career at the theater on March 17, 1960 when they presented the double bill of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Albert Lamorisse’s celebrated short The Red Balloon (1956). “Shortly before noon, we stood in the empty theater, hall dark and quiet, seats unoccupied, screen blank, an air of stillness pervading an Edward Hopper kind of space,” Toby wrote. “Moviegoers began drifting in, seats filling. The screen came alive.”
The initial Friday evening screenings drew over 2,000 moviegoers, and, Toby recalled, “within three months audiences came flocking, not just from our neighborhood but, as guest books revealed, from the five boroughs, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The two-week total for that first twin bill was over $10,000. Soon theaters around the country were copying our programs.”
These included, in early days, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) with Marcel Pagnol’s Harvest (1937), and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959). The success continued, and in 1962, the Talbots bought the theater’s lease from Rosenberg. Over the years, it became a haven not just for discerning moviegoers and critics like Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby, but for filmmakers, too. Visitors drawn by screenings of their films included Bernardo Bertolucci, Alfred Hitchcock, Montgomery Clift, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The massive film library built by the Talbots enabled them to diversify into distribution in 1965. Among the filmmakers they championed were Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, Ousmane Sembene, and Werner Herzog. The distribution concern eventually became their priority, and in April 1973—after a glorious 13-year-run—they left the New Yorker. It officially closed in 1977, and the grand old movie house was torn down in its 53rd year in 1985. (The couple went onto run two theatres near Lincoln Center: Cinema Studio and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, both of which are now shuttered.)
The New Yorker Theater may be gone, but it seems likely that in some alternative universe Alvy Singer is still hyperventilating in the lobby—as the pontificating academic mouths words like “Weltanschauung”—and getting ready to call Marshall McLuhan into action.
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