The Force Behind Film Forum

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A room without books is like a body without a soul, and the same is true of a city without an independent cinema. If New York has survived the rise of VHS and DVD and streaming—and this is no Luddite’s lament; these are all great things, but the life of a city depends on people finding cause to leave their homes once in a while, if only to bump elbows in the dark—it must be due, in some measure, to Karen Cooper, the longtime director of Film Forum. Cooper started running the movie theatre in 1972, when it was a collection of fifty folding chairs in a shabby loft on West Eighty-eighth Street. She kept running it until the end of June, when she retired from what is now a four-screen cinema on West Houston Street. Many art-house cinemas have come and gone in that time, but Film Forum has thrived. It is one of those New York places which inspires passionate feelings. “It is the movies,” the filmmaker Phil Morrison told me.

If you ask moviegoers what they love about the place, they’ll talk about the excellence of the programming—the time that they saw “Hoop Dreams,” which the theatre booked before it had distribution, or the Sunday-morning children’s screenings that have exposed their kids to Hitchcock and Mae West—and also the excellence of the popcorn, which is widely believed to be the best in the city. They’ll mention their favorite seat, two rows back from the red column—no, against the left wall, behind the seat with the John Belushi plaque. They’ll recall Lou Reed posing in front of the screen before the lights went down, or Patti Smith bringing her guitar to the theatre during the run of Steven Sebring’s documentary about her, or Cornel West sitting in the lobby, chatting with two old ladies. What they are getting at is the mix of the hallowed and the haimish that gives Film Forum its personality, its je ne sais quoi. For fifty-one years, the quoi has been Cooper.

Cooper is seventy-four and less than five feet tall. She has a strong voice and pesky feet; in her office on King Street, around the corner from the theatre, she keeps a supply of Austrian wool slippers that she buys when she’s at the International Documentary Film Festival, in Amsterdam. “I never know if I should tell people the good news, the bad news, or the truth,” she said, by way of greeting, when I visited her there in June. The view, too, was of feet. Film Forum’s offices occupy the bottom two floors of a brownstone that was purchased in 2007, Cooper told me, by “an exceedingly generous” board member. For years, she had a big space upstairs, but she had recently ceded it to her successor, Sonya Chung, and moved to a little one below street level. “I just washed the sidewalk before you came,” Cooper said, gesturing at the wet pavement out the window. “Somebody once called me similar to a fifteenth-arrondissement concierge, and now I’ve become one.”

On the floor was a pile of books, written by former heads of artistic institutions, that Cooper, who was preparing to write her own memoir, was consulting for tips on “what not to do.” The bulletin board behind her desk was dominated by a poster for “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” a documentary directed by Jessica Oreck and released at Film Forum in 2009. “This is a marvellous film about how Japanese people are very involved with—obsessed with—the aesthetics, the environmental issues, all the things that surround insects,” Cooper said. “They have insect pets. They go out a certain night of the year and check out the fireflies. There are scenes with a father and his young son visiting a pet store and deciding what kind of beetle to get.”

The film sounded terrific. Most films sound terrific when Cooper describes them. “I’m like the Henry James of the press release,” Cooper told me. “I had an English teacher who said, ‘This reads like book-jacket copy,’ about something I wrote. And I thought, Great! I’ll never starve.”

I suggested, a little selfishly, that it might be a good idea to reprogram “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo.”

“No, no, we don’t do that,” Cooper said. “It’s against the rules. We do premières”—a film’s first American commercial release—“and occasionally, occasionally, after a certain number of decades, they can morph into being classics.” Classics are the province of Bruce Goldstein, whom Cooper hired in 1986 to show work in repertory. For decades, Cooper alone was in charge of choosing the new. Since 1996, she has done it with Mike Maggiore, Film Forum’s artistic director, and now with Chung, too; the three meet every Monday to discuss the films they’ve seen during the previous week. (Cooper, who is staying on in an advisory capacity for two years, will keep her selection seat.) “Karen is going to be blunt about her take,” Maggiore told me. “She’s such a straight shooter,” the director Kelly Reichardt, who has had a number of movies premièred by Cooper, said. Chung considers Cooper’s frankness to be an ethical asset. “You always know where you stand with Karen,” she told me.

In her office, Cooper had prepared a stack of DVDs of films that she had premièred, and for which she had particular affection. “These are mostly hits, but there are also misses, and, I have to tell you, I love the misses, probably more than I love the hits,” she said. The hits included “Crumb,” Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary about the cartoonist R. Crumb and his supremely troubled family; “The White Ribbon,” Michael Haneke’s 2009 Palme d’Or winner about evil deeds in a German town on the eve of the First World War; and “Son of Saul,” the Polish director László Nemes’s portrait of a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2016. “I have a tendency toward the dark,” Cooper observed. “We now serve beer and wine. Makes it a little easier.”

She flipped to a DVD of “Oblivion,” a documentary about street children in Lima by the Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann. “O.K., this was not a hit,” Cooper said. “But it’s an example of a brilliant, obscure documentary by a woman who should be a household name and obviously is not.” Cooper had premièred half a dozen films by Honigmann. “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 hallway, where a skeleton in a surgical mask was propped on a couple of movie-theatre seats. Cooper began to page through old Film Forum calendars, an archive of her frequently prescient taste. Here was “Paris Is Burning,” by Jennie Livingston, and “Daughters of the Dust,” by Julie Dash, and “Two Friends,” Jane Campion’s first feature, and an assortment of early Werner Herzog shorts (“Some of the greatest films I ever played”). Here, too, was “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” by Chantal Akerman, which was named the greatest film of all time in the British Film Institute’s latest Sight and Sound poll. Cooper premièred it in 1983, seven years after it was shown in Europe; no one else in New York had been interested in giving it a proper run.

“Chantal was a groundbreaking artist,” Cooper said. “It’s tragic that she died so early. But would I call it the No. 1 film ever made?” She made an equivocal noise. “I don’t know about that.”

Cooper’s mandate has been to follow her own taste, whether it bends toward the popular or the obscure. But how did she know that she had taste to begin with?

“I didn’t,” she said.

As a kid growing up in Queens, she loved dance. At Smith, she studied literature. “I was probably more interested in Martha Graham and Harold Pinter than I was in Alfred Hitchcock,” she told me.

But she graduated, in 1970, into a recession. “I came back to New York, and I wrote to all of these magazines—you know, nobody sent e-mails, you had to actually sit down and write a letter—‘I want a job, I can edit, I can proofread.’ And the only one who wrote back was a teeny film magazine that no longer exists”—Filmmakers Newsletter. This proved to be a lucky break. Cooper was asked to write a monthly column on independent film in New York. “Of course, in 1971, ‘independent film’ was not an expression anyone used very much,” she said. “But I did visit Film Forum, which existed along with a few other independent-film programs at MOMA, the Whitney, and Millennium Film Workshop.” Cooper found that she liked the place. It had screenings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. Coffee was served. The audience was made up of students, intellectuals, radicals, and working people of various stripes. “As grimy as it was, it felt welcoming,” she said. “I felt that I could be there without being, you know, a member of Warhol’s coterie.”

Film Forum had been founded, in 1970, by Peter Feinstein and Sandy Miller, two cinephiles who wanted to screen movies that weren’t from Hollywood. This was not a lucrative pursuit. “I had dinner one day with Peter, and he said, ‘I’m getting married, and I can’t afford to live on a hundred dollars a week. Do you want to take the business?’ ” Cooper said. “And I said, ‘What does “the business” consist of?’ ” What she learned gave her confidence. There was no risk of running the business into the ground, because the ground was where it already was. “I thought, Taste! It’s a matter of making critical decisions, and if I can do that about literature I can do it about film,” she said.

The trick was finding films to screen. She put a notice in Filmmakers Newsletter, inviting directors to submit their work. (“You pay sending expenses, we pay return.”) She would show any film, as long as it was interesting, but she particularly wanted to show foreign films. Going to Cannes seemed like a good idea, so Cooper went. She had no pass, no accreditation. “I went to Cannes without a reservation for a hotel room,” Cooper told me. “What was I thinking?”

She found a room that faced the cinema hosting the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, a selection of films meant to be bolder and stranger than the festival’s main slate. In the evenings, when she heard the projectionist starting up, she would roll out of bed and see what was on. “I sat through a film where dozens of people walked out,” Cooper told me. “But I saw Amos Vogel”—a founder of the New York Film Festival—“not walking out, and I thought, You know, I’m on to something.” The film was “The Death of Maria Malibran,” by Werner Schroeter—“a German experimental narrative filmmaker, gay, very operatic and lush and extreme in his vision,” Cooper said. She made a deal to show it.

Cooper figured that, if she liked something, someone else would like it, too. Her programming started getting attention from critics like Roger Greenspun, in the Times, who could be tough—a pair of films that Cooper billed as “funky westerns” were, he wrote, “as casually awful as anything that anyone has had the nerve to charge money for this year”—but championed the theatre. So did J. Hoberman, in the Village Voice. Like Cooper, he had grown up in Queens; their paths had first crossed in high school, at a meeting of the W. E. B. Du Bois club, a youth group sponsored by the Communist Party. “When I started writing for the Voice on a regular basis, in 1977, ’78, I was the third-string film critic,” Hoberman told me. “And I was happy with that, because I was not really interested in reviewing all the Hollywood movies that came out. In fact, I wouldn’t have liked that at all. And I was able to create my own beat by covering things that the first- and second-string film critics were not interested in. Documentaries. Foreign films from obscure countries. Experimental films. Animation. Political stuff.”

This was just the sort of thing that Cooper was developing a nose for. “I’ve been to festivals where Karen was there, so I know how hard she works,” Hoberman said. “I wouldn’t say that she doesn’t have an ego, because that would not be true. But she certainly is not somebody who got into this for the glamour.”

Taste and hard work alone, though, cannot support a business. Any success story in New York City is perforce a story about real estate, and here, too, Cooper was lucky—and savvy. By 1975, she had outgrown the Eighty-eighth Street space and got a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation that allowed her to move the operation downtown, to what is now the SoHo Playhouse, on Vandam Street. The arrangement was an improvement, but not by much. “I was sharing the space with a legitimate theatre, and after I showed a movie the screen came down and the stage was set,” Cooper said. “The woman who owned it had her bedroom right above the stage, and she’d call me up and say, ‘The volume’s too loud!’ She was a witch.”

In 1980, Cooper got a low-interest loan of four hundred thousand dollars, also from the Ford Foundation, and built a twin cinema in a former garage on Watts Street. Now Film Forum had a proper home—or seemed to. The Watts Street building was owned by Trinity Church. “I came to work one day, and there was someone outside with a jackhammer,” Cooper recalled. “I knew this was very bad. I said, ‘What are you doing? You’re looking for Manhattan schist?’ ” It transpired that Trinity Church had given a ninety-nine-year lease on the property to the real-estate developer Edward J. Minskoff. “I knew that my little garage was going to be a skyscraper,” Cooper said. “And then I go back to the lease, and I see that it has a clause that says, ‘Can be demolished.’ And then, you know, I got very involved with facing down Trinity Church.” What this facing down consisted of Cooper did not say, but evidently it was successful, because Minskoff gave her money to leave early.

The force of Cooper’s will is well known to her colleagues and compatriots. “She’s a tornado, in the best of ways,” the filmmaker Ira Sachs told me. “As someone who thinks intimacy is the possibility of disagreement, Karen is a perfect comrade and foil at the same time.” Alan Klein, a lawyer who serves on Film Forum’s board, recently represented Twitter’s board of directors in that company’s sale to Elon Musk. “She’s tougher,” he said. After I visited Cooper at her office, she sent me an e-mail to report that Richard L. Menschel, a major supporter of Film Forum, had once described her as “a cross between Napoleon and Mother Teresa.” Menschel, an eighty-nine-year-old investment banker, did not recall having said this, but allowed that Cooper’s Napoleonic side could not be denied. “I, for example, would not have added the fourth screen,” Menschel said, referring to the main reason for a five-million-dollar renovation that was completed in 2018. Nonetheless, Cooper marshalled his support. Speaking about the renovation, she used the first-person plural, then stopped herself. “I, not ‘we’—I renovated the theatre,” she said.

When Cooper took over Film Forum, its assets totalled forty-nine dollars and two cents. They are now around six million. The annual budget, Klein said, “doesn’t cover Tom Cruise’s catering costs on a film set,” but such things are relative. Ticket sales account for about half the cost of operations; the rest must be made up by donors, and donors must be courted. “Even though I used to loathe fund-raising, I’m actually very good at it,” Cooper told me.

One of her key decisions was to stop making all programming decisions herself. At Watts Street, Cooper said, “I was up a tree.” It had been hard enough to find independent films to show on one screen; now she had two. The solution was Bruce Goldstein, an affable New Yorker with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. At the time, Goldstein owned a film-publicity firm, but he had worked as a programmer all over the city, at the Bleecker Street Cinema and the Carnegie Hall Cinema and the famed Thalia on the Upper West Side, showing works in repertory. Still, when Cooper came calling, he hesitated.

“To me, Film Forum was the SoHo place where the guys in black went,” Goldstein said.

“He was infinitely unimpressed with me,” Cooper said. “He said, ‘I know film, but I’m not a dealmaker.’ I told him how I make deals: ‘You show it x number of days x number of times.’ ”

“She pretty much handed me a piece of blank paper,” Goldstein said. “And that was what was intriguing to me, because there were things I wanted to do that hadn’t been done at all. Repertory was hard.” It was also dying. The Thalia closed the year after Goldstein joined Film Forum. Old film prints were getting worn down, and studios weren’t making new ones. Repertory films were rarely shown for more than a single screening: if you missed it, it was gone.

Goldstein made it his mission to get new prints made. He organized revivals around themes: seventies American New Wave, spaghetti Westerns, classic 3-D. “His first calendar, it was genius,” Cooper said. “He brought in audiences at the drop of a hat.” He still does.

Cooper suggested that we walk to the theatre. It has been in its current home, a former printing plant at the far end of West Houston Street, since 1990. “It was very hard to find the location,” Goldstein told me. “Karen was very specific about this. It had to be near a subway, and she wanted it to be near the No. 1, because she started out on the Upper West Side. Our core audience is the 1 line—that’s the mind-set.”

On our way out, we stopped by Mike Maggiore’s office on the first floor. Maggiore, a courteous Midwesterner, could be heard apologizing to someone on the phone. Earlier, Cooper had told me that he was dealing with a “crisis from last night.” Now she motioned for me to wait in the vestibule outside the door.

Maggiore emerged, looking sombre. Apparently a Q. & A. had ended before audience members had a chance to ask their own questions. “The complaint is, like, ‘You should go to the Hague Tribunal for international war crimes,’ ” Cooper said.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Maggiore said. “I agreed with them. I said, ‘This should not happen again.’ ”

“It’s awful when you get a call saying, ‘We have chaos in the lobby,’ ” Cooper said.

But the lobby, when we reached it, was in order. It was noon, opening time. A few patrons were milling about, waiting for the first screening of the day. On the docket was a 35-mm. print of “Tokyo Story,” part of a festival celebrating Yasujiro Ozu; “Squaring the Circle,” a new documentary about the rock-album designer group Hipgnosis; and “The French Connection,” the last installment of a series of New York-centric films to which Goldstein had given the poetic title “The City: Real and Imagined.” Cooper bustled about like a shopkeeper opening her grate. She had designed the building, telling the architect that it should look like a cross between the Bauhaus and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” She had hung the art work on the walls. She had decided to sell banana bread at concessions, and bought the flowers arranged in a vase on the counter. I got that happy, humming feeling you get in certain New York places. It is a feeling of shared possessiveness: this belongs to me, but it belongs to you, too.

Shared taste works the same way. Maggiore told me that when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he subscribed to the Village Voice so that he could experience the exquisite jealousy of learning what was playing at Film Forum and other art houses around town. That was the city imagined. Sometimes reality does correspond. A few days later, I went to the last screening of “Tokyo Story.” You could rent the film for $2.99 on Amazon; you could buy the DVD from the Criterion Collection. Nevertheless, the house was full. As Setsuko Hara smiled her beautiful, sad smile, the door to the theatre quietly opened, and Bruce Goldstein came in, gazed for a moment at the screen and at the people watching it, then slipped out again.

Film Forum’s lease expires in 2035. “But that’s not my problem, is it?” Cooper said, with a laugh. She started thinking about succession more than half a decade ago. “Whether it’s the founder of a corporation or a C.E.O., the hardest thing for them to do is hand over the keys,” Alan Klein told me. “My analogy is, it required God telling Moses he was not going into the promised land. Moses could not figure that out on his own.” But Cooper did. Sonya Chung first came to work at Film Forum in development, and stayed from 2003 to 2007. Cooper brought her back into the fold in 2018. Chung, who has published two novels, has also taught English at Skidmore. She is fifty—a couple of years younger than the institution. When I asked Cooper how she was feeling about the transition, she demurred. “That’s what we’re not going to talk about,” she said. She was still Moses for a couple of weeks, and Moses had work to do. She went back to King Street, and I went to the movies. ♦


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