Heaven up in Harlem: Maysles Cinema

A legendary clan offers an art-house above 110th Street.

  • TALK OF THE UPTOWN The Maysles Cinema opens its doors to Harlem's armchair...

  • Albert Maysles

TALK OF THE UPTOWN The Maysles Cinema opens its doors to Harlem's armchair...

The first screening at the Maysles Cinema wasn’t exactly planned, but the story behind it captures the open spirit of the lively Harlem theater. “A woman named Hellura Lyle knocked on our window and wanted to find out what the place was,” programmer Philip Maysles recalls. “She wanted to start up a documentary club. So we screened a film for them.” That was in early spring of 2008; since then, the documentary-focused venue has blossomed into something closer to a multipurpose, YMCA-like community center than your standard movie house.

Located on Lenox Ave between 127th and 128th Streets, this cozy spot programs a reliably eye-opening lineup where, per its pedigree (Philip’s dad is Albert Maysles, whose rsum includes Gimme Shelter and the original Grey Gardens, both with brother David), you can watch essential direct-cinema chronicles like the siblings’ Salesman. But the venue is much more than a showcase for family affairs, and during any given week, you might catch rousing hip-hop and reggae films, complete with musical guests like Schooly D; a panel discussion about Times Square, starring a zonked-out sex performer from Gotham’s sleazy glory days; and must-see rarities like Demon Lover Diary and The Police Tapes. Cocurated by Philip and indie-movie producer Jessica Green, the Maysles Cinema has become a source of temptation for the adventurous, a boon for uptown residents and a well of regrets for cinephiles too lazy to trek uptown.

Like many New York stories, it starts with real estate. “I was living in the Dakota,” says the 83-year-old Albert. “If you wanted to talk to a neighbor, they’d think you were crazy. So we moved up here and got such a fondness for the community.” The proceeds from the 2004 sale of the family’s old-school apartment in the Upper West Side fortress paid for three buildings, and regarding the extra space in one, Albert’s thought was immediate: Let’s show movies!

“There hasn’t been an art-house cinema, historically, in the neighborhood,” Green says. Although a nightclub had kept the space packed back in the day, the building was vacant at the time the family acquired it. Now, its basement doubles as a classroom for the Maysles Institute’s free film class and a staff workspace; offices for Albert’s production company are upstairs. Nestled behind a storefront, the 55-seat, denlike theater focuses on local-issue panels and mixtape-eclectic series that strive to make the art form and the reality outside its doors shake hands. The recent “Rent Control” series showed movies rooted in various NYC neighborhoods: Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea (Chinatown), Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (UES), The Education of Sonny Carson (Bed-Stuy), Captured (LES) and Nick Gomez’s indie cult classic, Laws of Gravity (Greenpoint). And audiences are encouraged to keep the calendar a two-way street; Green cites critic Armond White’s presentation of The Cry of Jazz as a case in point. “That screening came from a viewer suggestion,” the programmer says. “We wouldn’t be able to come up with all these ideas on our own.”

“I don’t think we could have done this 30 years ago, quite frankly,” Green adds, crediting the boom in documentary filmmaking (and audience acceptance of the genre) as providing a foundation. Meanwhile, premieres at the Maysles, like the recent weeklong run ofthe African genocide drama My Neighbor, My Killer, have helped institutionalize its presence further. Coming in March: The Fixer, the twisty tale of an Afghan guide for Western journalists. Which brings us back to Albert, who will keep a hand in things by presenting some Russian docs traceable to his 1955 motorcycle trip behind the Iron Curtain. “I had already traveled in Western Europe. I thought, Gee, it would be interesting to go to Russia...” he says. The cinma vrit pioneer’s cosmopolitan curiosity still seems to be moving forward and seeking out new experiences; thanks to the theater bearing his family’s name, sampling such journeys is just an A-train ride away.

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