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The Closing of Magno, the Quintessential New York Screening Room

This Wednesday, the famed Magno Screening Rooms in New York, at 729 7th Ave. (near the corner of W. 49th St.), will close their doors for the very last time. They’ve been there for 68 years, and for those of us who are lucky enough to include watching a movie in the middle of the day as part of our jobs, and who have spent more of our daily lives watching movies in those two rooms — especially the main one, Magno 1 — than we have anywhere else, it feels like the curtain is coming down on something. Apart from the boilerplate end-of-an-era nostalgia that always accompanies a moment like this, I wonder, in a way, if it is the end of an era. I wonder if it’s one more telling, creeping example of the metaphysic of movies transitioning from a shared experience to a solitary-viewer-fixed-on-the-small-screen transaction.

I suspect I speak for more than a few movie critics when I say that Magno wasn’t just a screening room. It was a ritual, a second home, a connection to the past, and a rather perverse joke. The joke is that for a place that hosted screenings of many of the most vital films around, it has always been a notably flawed venue. It is, for one thing, a little grubby. The nine or ten rows of seats are raked ever so slightly (imagine stadium seating as first designed in 1890), but the screen itself, which is a perfectly good size, is sunk down a bit too low, so that if you’re sitting in, say, the third row (or the fourth row, or fifth row, or just about any row), and the place is at all full, you’re liable to find yourself tilting to the side to see around the person in front of you and take in the whole screen.

That the most widely used screening room in New York had the worst sight lines of any screening room you could imagine is one of those quirks that make life interesting. But the comedy of Magno is that it’s a New York phenomenon that no one even bothered to complain about, because it’s just something that you accepted, like the tourist hordes of Times Square or the sound of Michael Savage blaring from a cab driver’s radio.

In so many ways, though, it was the place. I saw “Reservoir Dogs” there, and “Boogie Nights,” and “The Piano” and “The Wrestler,” and “Menace II Society” and “Mulholland Drive,” and “Lost in Translation” and “Memento” and “A Separation” and “Birdman.” The screening room across the hall, Magno 2, was the one you thought of as “too small,” and it was, but if you sat in the back row, as was my insistent custom (there were, I believe, only five rows), it gave you an ironically panoramic view of a screen that loomed up before you. The greatest film I ever saw in that tiny room was “Ed Wood,” and to this day, when I think of “Ed Wood” (which I’ve seen a dozen times), the first thing that flashes into my head is watching it at Magno 2.

Magno was created in 1950 (it also had a Sound and Recording Studio, which will continue on in another location), and in the ’80s, when I first started coming to New York for screenings, it was one of a handful of screening rooms that were rented out to show a mixture of studio and (mostly) independent features. Other rooms were notably cushier, like the Broadway Screening Room in the fabled Brill Building, with its plush wide seats and womb-like aura of inner-sanctum exclusivity, or Todd-AO, a sprawling, high-ceilinged facility that had the greatest sound of any of them. Yet in the last decade, as those rooms closed down, Magno, though it isn’t quite the last of them, became the last New York screening room that felt like a hub. With its shaggy accessibility and center-of-midtown location, it seemed to take the very idea of watching a movie before it came out, in a hobbit-hole chamber sprinkled with media and film-world people, and democratize it.

The studios, like Fox and Warner Bros. and Universal, always tended to use their own screening rooms, and still do, though every so often they would use Magno. What began to change in the 2000s was the introduction of DVDs to film-critic culture. They became an additional way to “pre-screen” a movie (the DVDs were called “screeners”), and though this was a convenience I held out from partaking in as long as humanly possible, believing that it wasn’t fair to the movies (a film you “screened” on DVD wasn’t being experienced on a level playing field with a movie you saw in a screening room), the battle was doomed.

Now, instead of DVDs, there are links. At any moment, you’re a click and a password away from watching that indie Greg Kinnear thriller or documentary about human-rights abuses in Syria on your computer screen. As someone who periodically reviews films off links, because that’s the only available way to see them ahead of time, I treat them as a necessary evil and do all that I can to level the playing field of my own perceptions. At least the movie is getting reviewed — and, after all, it isn’t a perfect world.

But one of the reasons that the Magno Screening Rooms are closing down, apart from the perpetual scandal of over-the-top rents for New York commercial real estate, is the rise of link culture. Independent film companies, the kind that have always used Magno for several hundred dollars an hour, may increasingly think of links as a way to cut costs. And though there are a handful of independent screening rooms left in New York that, theoretically, can take up the slack (the stately and inviting Dolby 88, the elegant Park Avenue Screening Room), the closing down of Magno has to make one wonder how long they’re going to be around.

Of all the questions I routinely get asked as a film critic, the one that always comes up — it’s second only to “What’s your favorite movie?” — is “Where do you see the movies?” I usually start off by saying that those of us who are New York-based critics see movies in a variety of places, including, nearly every week, the Times Square megaplexes where “all-media screenings” are held for blockbusters and other commercial releases. But I know that’s not the answer they’re looking for. They want to hear about screening rooms, those mythical posh bunkers. What those rooms, in their la-di-da way, represent is the reverence for cinema. And at Magno, you always felt the purity of that reverence, maybe because the room itself was so ordinary. There were no trimmings, nothing there — except, on occasion, the person’s head in the seat in front of you — to get between you and the movie. What you felt at Magno was primal. You felt the connection.

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