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BY SEAN EGAN | “You go back and look at listings in New York Magazine from the late ’70s of movie theaters, and you’ll see there were dozens of movie theaters Downtown, and none of them are around anymore,” explained film programmer C. Mason Wells. “They’re all practically gone — but the Quad remains. The Quad has always persevered and somehow eked through in very different time periods in New York exhibition, and kind of changed with the times, and adjusted and showed all different kinds of movies, and I love that. The theater is a fighter. It always has been; it will continue to be.”
The latest chapter for the veritable, long-operating theater begins on April 14, when the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St., btw. Sixth & Fifth Aves.; quadcinema.com) reopens after a two-year renovation process, under the new ownership of Cohen Media Group. Since being founded in 1972 as the city’s first multiplex, the Quad built up a reputation as a go-to neighborhood moviehouse, as well as a haven for cinephiles looking for top-quality independent, arthouse, foreign, repertory, and queer cinema. This eclectic slate made the theater both a local gem and a respected cultural destination in its own right; no less than Andy Warhol was a frequent patron.
“Keeping those strands alive is a crucial aspect of this,” elaborated Wells, an IFC Center veteran who has been tapped to be the renovated Quad’s Director of Repertory Programming. “We have two managers who’ve worked there for decades who are still going to be our managers. But at the same time it’s a brand new space, and we’re going to be kind of building on what the theater has always been and represented, and kind of adding these new ideas, new programs, new exciting things. So it’ll kind of bridge that gap between something that has this history that a lot of other spaces in New York don’t.”
The renovation has ensured the Quad is well equipped for this gap-bridging mission. In addition to standard features like a popcorn-stocked concession, the space will feature funky modern touches — like the huge, rectangular arrangement of 32 screens on its back wall, which will be programmed to play unique video content year-round. Their four theater spaces are color-coded (red, black, blue, and gray) and each is outfitted with a sleek neon-light letter; when taken collectively, they spell out “QUAD.” And, most importantly, their screens are outfitted with the tools to screen in 4K digital, 3D, and from 35mm and 16mm prints. “There are still so many films that aren’t available in a digital format that if you want to program them, there’s no choice but to play a print,” commented Wells, who asserted that “there’s something very special and magical” about watching movies on film — especially older titles, which, as in the past, will be screening plentifully at the Quad.
“We’re doing something that’s an ongoing series called Quadrophilia, which will look at the great films that screened at the theater in the past,” said Wells, noting that due to the deep roster of quality films that fit that bill, it will be an ongoing series. “Both as a reminder to older New Yorkers who had been to the theater maybe in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, about incredible films they saw back in the day, but also to kind of educate younger cinephiles who might not know some aspects of the theater’s illustrious history.” Early highlights include director John Sayles in-person at a screening of 1980’s “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” (April 22) and the April 14 screening of a special IB Technicolor print of Busby Berkeley’s “The Gang’s All Here” — the very first repertory film screened at the theater in 1972, Wells noted.
In its first month, Quadrophilia will also be complemented by another Quad-centric series, the cheekily-named Four Play, featuring numeric titles like “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Quadrophenia,” and “Rocky IV.” But the new programmer’s commitment to the theater’s legacy cuts far deeper than amusing wordplay.
“The LGBT programming is really important to me, because for decades it was a go-to place for those types of films in the city,” revealed Wells. “We’re going to be doing a monthly series devoted kind of lost queer classics that have kind of fallen into the cracks over the course of history that aren’t as well known.” This series will kick off on May 19 with a new restoration of James Ivory’s “Maurice,” a 1987 gay romance Wells described as “a really fantastic and unfortunately lesser-known film in queer cinema history.”
But then, bringing unheralded, movies to the fore has always been an endeavor the Quad has excelled at. In fact, its first major retrospective program (April 14–May 1) focuses on Italian director Lina Wertmüller, whose taboo-busting ’70s films nabbed her the first-ever Best Director Academy Award nomination for a woman, but whose films fell out of the public eye in the ensuing decades.
“She has never had a comprehensive retrospective in New York, which is unthinkable to me. But somehow that’s the case, and now we have restorations of several of her classic films,” said Wells, noting “Seven Beauties” and “Swept Away” have been given 2K polish. “To be able to bring her films back to audiences and show them in the proper context is very exciting to me.”
Then there’s Wells’ “lifelong dream” program, First Encounters. “We invite filmmakers and authors and painters and curators to select a film that they’ve never seen before and then watch it for the first time with us and with an audience, and then they react live to it immediately after,” he explained. Thus far, Kenneth Lonergan (“Yi Yi”), John Turturro (“Pather Panchali”), and Noah Baumbach (“Withnail and I”) are amongst the New York notables that have signed up for the ongoing series to rectify some of their cinematic blind spots. “They’re entertaining people under any context,” noted Wells, “but I think they’ll be especially entertaining in this live and raw context of watching these films. It kind of gives a real portrait of a person’s cinephilia.”
Of course, as Wells pointed out, “There’s more films being made now than ever before,” and he and Senior Programmer Gavin Smith have ensured there’ll be no shortage of quality first-run movies. “It will be independent, foreign, documentary, arthouse titles that will be in the same adventurous vein as our repertory programming,” said Wells. He highlighted early-weeks offering like Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” and Bruno Dumont’s “Slack Bay” as examples of the challenging, “exciting and vibrant,” premieres the Quad will be home to. It’s in this balance of the classic and cutting-edge, and sophisticated and neighborhood-y vibes that Wells sees the Quad’s strengths.
“[The Quad] is something that’s been part of the fabric of the moviegoing landscape in one way or another for over four decades now, so when you’re stepping into the Quad to see a movie, you’re participating in that history,” Wells concluded. “It almost feels romantic to me in a certain way, in the way that going to the movies should be. That is the feeling I want a Quad viewer to have when they’re at the theater, when they’re leaving the theater, when they’re thinking of coming back: that the Quad is a place where movies still matter.”