DVD for the Week – Remembering New Yorker Films 1965-2009

I got the news from Girish Shambu (via Facebook), who directed me to a report on IndieWire by Eugene Hernandez, who confirmed it: New Yorker Films is closing its doors. The devastating news is on the New Yorker homepage.

new_yorker_films_topAnyone who was active in film culture in the days before the video business gave us access to many (though by no means all) of the classics of world cinema will remember New Yorker Films. When repertory theaters and college film programs were our only access to foreign films new and old, New Yorker  distributed new films from great directors around the globe and built a small but essential library that kept in circulation the works of such auteurs as Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Werner Herzog, Louis Malle, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ousmane Sembene… the list goes on and on. The prints weren’t cheap, but they kept the works and the artists alive.

When home video changed the landscape of film distribution and pretty much ended the culture of repertory cinema, New Yorker’s print library found fewer venues for theatrical showings. The rights for home video distribution were not in those original contracts and foreign studios shopped many of those rights around to other video distributors and, later, DVD labels. I hadn’t heard the rumblings at New Yorker, but I saw the signs. DVDs were announced, then delayed, then delayed again. The number of titles on their schedule dwindled. And, to be honest, New Yorker was still looking to define itself on DVD. They were late to mastering widescreen films in anamorphic widescreen. The quality of DVD masters, while fine, often showed the telltale signs of PAL-to-NTSC conversion, rather than a fresh digital master for American DVD. Supplements were slim, if there were any. Criterion had established itself as the gold standard for classics on DVD. New Yorker struggled to catch up, but you could see the efforts in recent releases.

But I imagine that the real culprit in New Yorker’s demise is the changing face of film distribution: foreign films are finding a harder time finding screens, local coverage of non-mainstream films is dwindling, and even the alternative weeklies in major cities can’t be counted upon to cover these films that live and die by local support.

At least, that’s what I’ve been observing. I don’t know the details of New Yorker’s business challenges, but I see what every specialty distributor faces. But New Yorker was more than a distributor. It was an institution, of sorts, a legacy from the days when American film audiences sought out the great works of world cinema. New Yorker’s demise speaks volumes to the state of film culture in America.

David Hudson collects the reports and reverberations at The Daily @ IFC here.

On a personal note, let me extend my condolences to all who worked at New Yorker, and especially my friend Cindi Rowell, whose presence I felt in the lively interviews she helped produce for New Yorker’s October, 2008, release of Six in Paris.

Instead of profiling a new DVD release this week, let’s remember New Yorker with highlights from their catalogue – only a sampling from the treasures they have brought to the United  States:

Discoveries: Voyages, the debut feature of Emmanuel Finkiel (a former assistant director to, among others, Krzysztof Kieslowski), is a powerful, beautiful cinematic voyage I could never have taken without New Yorker. I could say the same about Danny Verete’s Yellow Asphalt, which explores the collision of ancient Bedouin law and tradition and the modern social world of contemporary Israel in a trilogy of edgy stories. Roy Andersson’s mad, mordant black comedy Songs From the Second Floor was a revelation, as was Abdellatif Kechiche’s Games of Love and Chance (aka L’Esquive).

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Essentials of World Cinema: What more need be said about these films: Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and Hail Mary, two films that scandalized a culture, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Emir Kusturica’s Underground, plus many films from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Peter Watkins, Theo Angelopoulos and Ousmane Sembene.

The New Auteurs: along with the films of Herzog, Godard, Fassbinder and the canon, New Yorker has supported the some of the most important filmmakers of the new generation: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (La Promesse and The Son), Robert Guediguian (Marius and Jeannette and The Town is Quiet), Francois Ozon (Sitcom), Jia Zhang-ke (Unknown Pleasures, Platform and Still Life) Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant) and Hong Sang-Soo (Woman Is the Future of Man and Woman on the Beach).

Documentary: I don’t know if I can ever bring myself to watch Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah again, but I am thankful it is around for anyone and everyone to discover. In light of Milk, however, I think there will be many people ready to revisit The Times of Harvey Milk. And more: Emile De Antonio’s Point of Order!, Nicolas Philibert’s beloved To Be and To Have, Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, Mark Moskowitz’s The Stone Reader.

That’s a legacy worth remembering and revisiting.

UPDATE 2/24/09: More details are reported by Ben Sissaro in the New York Times here.