A room without books is like a body without a soul, and so is a city without independent cinemas. If New York survives the rise of VHS, DVD, and streaming — this isn’t a Luddite lament; those are great things, but the life of a city depends on people leaving their homes occasionally, if only to meet in the dark An elbow bump—in some ways, that must be credited to Karen Cooper, Film Forum director. Cooper started the movie theater in 1972 with 50 folding chairs in a run-down loft on West Eighty-eighth Street. She ran the theater until the end of June, when she retired from what is now a four-screen theater on West Houston Street. During that time, many arthouse cinemas came and went, but the Film Forum thrived. It’s one of those places that inspire enthusiasm in New York. “it yes movies,” filmmaker Phil Morrison told me.
If you ask moviegoers what they love about the place, they’ll talk about the excellence of the programming—they watch “Basketball Dreams,” which theaters book ahead of release, or the Sunday morning kids’ screenings that make Their kids were exposed to Hitchcock and Mae West, as well as what is widely considered to be the best popcorn in town. They’d mention their favorite seat, two rows behind the red column—no, against the left wall, behind the seat with the John Belushi plaque. They’ll remember Lou Reed posing in front of the screen before the lights went out, or Patti Smith bringing her to life during a screening of Steven Sebring’s documentary about her. Come to the theater with a guitar, or Cornel West sitting in the lobby chatting with two old ladies. . What they were trying to express was the mixture of the sacred and the vulgar that gave Film Forum a unique personality that was indescribable. For fifty-one years, Cooper has been the focus.
Cooper is seventy-four years old and less than five feet tall. She has a loud voice and annoying feet. In her office on King Street around the corner from the theater, she stocks Austrian wool slippers that she bought for the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. “I never know whether I should tell people the good news, the bad news or the truth,” she said in a greeting when I visited her in June. The field of vision is also limited. Cooper told me that the Film Forum’s offices are on the ground floor two floors of a brownstone that was purchased in 2007 by “an extremely generous” board member. For years she had a large space upstairs, but she recently gave it up to her successor, Sonya Chung, and moved to a smaller space below street level. “I just cleaned the sidewalk before you came,” Cooper said, pointing to the wet sidewalk outside the window. “Someone used to call me a District 15 concierge, and now I’m like that.”
There is a pile of books on the floor, all written by former arts institution heads, and Cooper is getting ready to write his own memoir and is asking for advice on what not to do. On the bulletin board behind her desk hangs a poster for “Queen the Beatles Conquer Tokyo,” a documentary film directed by Jessica Oreck that was released at FilmForum in 2009. — aesthetics, environmental issues, all things insect-related,” Cooper said. “They have insect pets. They go out to watch fireflies one night every year. There are scenes of a father and his young son visiting a pet store and deciding which beetle to buy. “
This movie sounds fantastic. When Cooper describes most of the films, they sound great. “I’m like Henry James in press releases,” Cooper told me. “One of my English teachers said to something I wrote, ‘This reads like a book jacket copy’. I thought, great! I’ll never go hungry.”
I suggest, somewhat selfishly, that it might be a good idea to reprogram “The Beatle Queen Conquers Tokyo.”
“No, no, we don’t do that,” Cooper said. “It’s against the rules. We do a premiere”—the film’s first commercial release in the U.S.—”Occasionally, OccasionallyDecades later, they can become classics. Classics were the responsibility of Bruce Goldstein, whom Cooper hired in 1986 to stage repertory productions. For decades, Cooper was single-handedly responsible for selecting new productions. Mike Maggiore teamed up, and now with Chung. The three meet every Monday to discuss the film they saw the previous week. (Cooper will stay on as a consultant for two years, and she will retain her casting seat.) “Karen is going to be outspoken about what she thinks,” Maggiore told me. “She’s a very outspoken person,” said Kelly Reichardt, the director of several Cooper films. Chung sees Cooper’s candor as a moral asset. “You always know where you stand with Karen,” she told me.
Cooper keeps in her office a stack of DVDs of films she has premiered and is a favorite of hers. “Those were mostly hits, but there were misses, and, I have to tell you, I like misses, probably more than I like hits,” she said. Hit films include Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary “Crumb,” about cartoonist R. Crumb and his troubled family; Michael Haneke’s 2009 Palme d’Or-winning “White Ribbon” A tale of evil in a small German town on the eve of World War I; Son of Saul, Polish director László Nemes’ portrait of the Auschwitz contingent, wins 2016 Oscar Best Foreign Language Film Award. “I have a tendency to go dark,” Cooper commented. “We’re serving beer and wine now. Making things a little easier.”
She turned to a DVD of “Oblivion,” a documentary about street children in Lima by the Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann. “Well, it’s not popular,” Cooper said. “But it’s an example of a wonderful but obscure documentary by a woman who should be a household name and who clearly isn’t.” Cooper premiered six of Honigman’s films. “She should be as famous as Spielberg,” she told me. “But documentary filmmakers don’t get that kind of attention.”
We moved to a small table in the corridor, where a skeleton in a surgical mask was supported on several movie theater seats. Cooper started flipping through the old Film Forum calendar, an archive of her often prescient taste.There’s Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Jane Campion’s No. A feature film, “Two Friends,” and a series of early Werner Herzog shorts (“some of the greatest films I’ve ever played”). Chantal Ackermann ( Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, newly voted the greatest film of all time by the BAFTA Movie sight and sound polling. Cooper’s first premiere came in 1983, seven years after the film’s European release. Nobody else in New York is interested in running it properly.
“Chantal was a groundbreaking artist,” Cooper said. “It’s a tragedy that she passed away so early. But would I call it the #1 movie of all time?” she uttered an ambiguous voice. “I don’t know that.”
Cooper is on a mission to follow his own taste, whether leaning toward the popular or the obscure. But how does she know she has taste?
“I didn’t,” she said.
As a kid growing up in Queens, she loved dancing. At Smith College, she studied literature. “I’m probably more interested in Martha Graham and Harold Pinter than I am in Alfred Hitchcock,” she told me.
But in 1970, when she graduated, the economy was in recession. “I went back to New York and wrote to all these magazines — you know, no one emails, you have to sit down and write a letter — ‘I want a job where I can edit, I can proofread.’ The only reply was a little film magazine that no longer exists”—filmmaker newsletter. It turned out to be a lucky break. Cooper was invited to write a monthly column on independent film in New York. “Of course, in 1971, ‘indie film’ wasn’t an expression anyone used very often,” she said. “But I did visit Film Forum, which exists along with some other independent film projects in Museum of Modern Art, Whitney and Millennium Film Studios. ’ Cooper found she liked the place. It showed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Coffee was served. The audience consisted of students, intellectuals, activists and working people of all stripes. It was popular,” she said. “I felt like I could be there and not be part of Warhol’s inner circle. “