As the founder and sole employee of Film Noir Cinema, Will Malitek seems to be the newest movie rental clerk in New York.
As his industry collapsed, Mr. Malitek prospered. Film Noir began in 2005 as a walk-in closet of abstruse DVDs dipped in a Brooklyn commercial drag. In 2017, it became a spacious haunt of movies and movie memorabilia attached to a 54-seat cinema.
Mr. Malitek, 55, who worked in movie rentals in New York for more than 20 years, continues a lifestyle that faded with the closure of rental and record stores. He’s the storefront scholar, the popular aesthete, the connoisseur whose respect is earned, but also the enthusiast whose recommendations could change your life.
A review of five lists published between 2014 and 2018 of remaining movie rental locations in New York City indicates that all but Film Noir have closed. The Alamo Drafthouse outlet in Lower Manhattan, a small movie theater chain, now offers rentals, but does not employ a movie rental clerk.
On a recent afternoon at Film Noir, which is located in the traditionally Polish section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Mr. Malitek groomed a plastic container of borscht and considered the sanctuary quality of his store: no furniture, no digital gadgets, just a niche for movie posters (like the one from the 1984 superhero dark comedy “The Toxic Avenger”) and wooden shelves with DVDs.
“I try to keep it as old school as possible,” he said, “so when people are here, they feel like they’re in a different world.”
Catherine Curtin, an actress who grew up in New York and recently visited Film Noir for the first time, said it reminded her of nothing so much as the now-forgotten arthouse theaters of her youth, like the old Upper West Side Thalia, which closed in 1987.
Whether film noir is an offshoot of the past or an alternate dimension unto itself, it strikes most who enter it as noble and somewhat inexplicable.
“I would say, ‘Do you have ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’?” Filmmaker and former regular tenant Jess Magee recalled in a phone interview. “He was like, ‘Come back tomorrow, 2 o’clock. “”
No matter how dark the request, Ms. Magee would return to find Mr. Malitek with a DVD, case, and photocopied DVD cover.
How did he do it?
“I didn’t ask too many questions,” Ms Magee said.
Cinema programming seems designed to confuse audiences. Events include “Fear Noir”, which the program identifies only as “a collection of animated shorts to create total black fear in your mind” and “Cult Cinema”, or “a night of pure cinematic madness dedicated to movies most obscure. ever made.”
Alongside a few new indie flicks like the haunting ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’, recent hits on Film Noir’s schedule include ‘Tomato’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘DE’ – all listed with no explanation of the intrigue nor any identification. director, actors and release year.
Mr. Malitek doesn’t care if a movie is likeable; he wants it to shock, and therefore be remembered, and he thinks that response can be heightened by shrouding the film in mystery.
His taste reflects his style. Mainstream contemporary American films are “propaganda,” he said; The Internet “destroyed art”. But in underground cinema, ancient and foreign, Mr. Malitek finds the authenticity he associates with the macabre.
He prefers Japanese films. “They don’t have these ridiculous happy endings,” he said. “They speak to life.”
Mr. Malitek gives his own theater an enigmatic motto: “Here at Film Noir, we bring darkness to light, not light to darkness.
He strikes customers as a bit gloomy himself.
Alternative spirituality historian Mitch Horowitz spent three years visiting Film Noir, which he calls “a little jewelry box of the occult and the dark side.” The theater shows, he said, “some horror classics or martial arts classics that you don’t see anywhere else, including things you don’t find on streaming services.”
Mr. Horowitz has become close enough to Mr. Malitek that last month he began hosting his own Film Noir festival called “Chamber of HORRORwitz”.
Yet, during a telephone interview, Mr. Horowitz was surprised to realize that he did not know Mr. Malitek’s last name. They communicate mainly through impromptu visits and handshake agreements.
Actor, artist and Film Noir regular Jason Grisell said he cherishes the personal qualities of Mr. Malitek that make such half-close, half-distant relationships possible.
“In a culture built on overexposure, it’s a dying commodity,” Grisell said. “Mystical.”
“It’s Just That Guy”
Mr Malitek was born in the port city of Gdansk in 1966. “There was nothing in the shops except vinegar,” Mr Malitek said. He found another world on Polish TV Channel 2, which showed American movies like “The Maltese Falcon” and “Touch of Evil.”
Mr. Malitek formed two childhood dreams: to open his own cinema and to move to the United States.
He saved up for a bribe needed to get a passport. When he got one, at the age of 23, Mr. Malitek was gone within 48 hours. He used East Berlin as a jumping off point for the other side of the Iron Curtain and soon made his way to New York.
Learning about the movies had also taken an enterprising, rule-breaking spirit. In Gdansk, Mr. Malitek was visiting a flea market where dealers hid censored VHS tapes in backpacks and under tables. If you saw the secret police, you were supposed to warn everyone by whistling. During raids, whistles filled the market.
Today, Mr. Malitek sometimes answers questions about himself as if being interrogated by one of these undercover agents.
Prior to opening the initial rental-only version of Film Noir (also located in Greenpoint), Mr. Malitek’s first job in the industry was at a location in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “From obscure, sick and kinky pornography to Hollywood titles, it was all there,” he said. However, Mr. Malitek, although he has worked in this store for five years, claims that he does not remember his name.
Mr. Malitek answers general questions about Film Noir – much of his income comes from events held at the cinema, for example – but at some point he tends to reply: “I don’t want to talk about money” .
Kier-La Janisse, the founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, a film scholarship group that uses Film Noir as a New York location, described the theater as perfectly suited for discussions of horror. Two open bulbs dimly illuminate the speakers, leaving darkness around them, as if they were telling a ghost story. And, says Ms. Janisse, the building once housed a funeral home.
An average screening at Film Noir draws a crowd of just a handful, usually first-time visitors looking for a quirky evening.
The evening of May 5 is characteristic: five young newcomers from Brooklyn show up at an evening advertised only as a “cine-club” during which Mr. Malitek plays the Japanese baroque noir “I, the Executioner” (1968) .
It depicts not just rape and murder, but a series of rapes and murders by a man against a group of women in retaliation for raping a young boy (who also, naturally, kills himself).
The group generally agreed that the surprise screening shockingly offended the lights and sensibilities of 21st century liberal progressivism.
Could they imagine going back to Film Noir?
“Honestly,” said Molly Walls, a 27-year-old editor, “yes.”
Mr. Malitek would rather twist the minds of the few than entertain the many.
Therein lies the real mystery of Film Noir: that a place posing as a public catering business is actually the fantasy world of its owner.
Mr. Malitek designed the theater himself. Thanks to revenue from private events, his whims dictate the programming. He avoids checking the marquees of other independent cinemas in New York, not wanting to be influenced by outside forces.
He appears at Film Noir whenever he wants. He rarely answers his phone and emails – you go to Greenpoint if you really need to talk to him. He rewards the faithful of Film Noir for the fruit of his knowledge.
“I don’t like recommending movies to people I don’t know,” Mr. Malitek said. “You have to know a person’s taste.”
All of this makes Film Noir underground even by the standards of the New York underground film scene.
Sean Price Williams is a cinematographer and director who worked at the flagship location of Kim’s video rental store on St. Marks Place, the former headquarters of New York City’s underground film industry, and now hosts his own unofficial film screenings at the Kraine Theater and the Roxy Cinema in Manhattan. . Yet Mr Williams said that although he had visited Film Noir, he had never seen a film there.
“The smaller his audience, the cooler and more pure it makes him,” Williams said. “It’s just this guy – it’s his personal collection, it’s his personal taste.”
Guide to the dark
Mr. Malitek established this taste for 25 years by watching at least one movie almost every day. He read hundreds of books on cinema and studied encyclopedias as esoteric as “The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies”. As the last rental clerk, he is perhaps the most expert in New York movie suggestions, which is also available to any member of the public.
If you tell him you’re interested in Italian director Lucio Fulci’s 1982 horror film “Manhattan Baby,” he’ll ask you to see Mr. Fulci’s 1979 “Zombi 2.” If you happen to mention that you loved “Le Samouraï”, the 1967 noir thriller by French director Jean-Pierre Melville, he will have another similarly styled French film on hand next time you visit. If you enjoyed the Jason Statham and 50 Cent 2010 “13” vehicle, Mr. Malitek can give you “13 Tzameti,” the mid-2000s Franco-Georgian film it was based on.
Film Noir regular Mr. Grisell once chatted with Mr. Malitek about “The Denial of Death,” a 1973 book that studies cultural attitudes toward mortality. Mr. Malitek suggested that Mr. Grisell watch a series of Eastern European films, Mr. Grisell said, and in them he discovered a vision of death – a vision with “brutality and aggressiveness but also spiritual qualities” – which seemed new to him.
Mr Grisell was reluctant to speak to a Film Noir reporter for fear he would become “too popular”, he said. “It would be at the risk of losing his freedom and his ability to express his enthusiasm, because I think the trade at a certain point removes that.”
To be the recipient of Mr. Malitek’s particular enthusiasm might indeed be an honor, but he would hate if it was too pleasant.
A customer returned film on a sunny afternoon in May. “Not a lot of laughs in that one,” he commented.
“It’s Czech,” replied Mr. Malitek.
What was the movie – a less bloody but profound classic?
The learned adviser has become the enigmatic character of film noir. Mr. Malitek did not mention names.
The movie was just “something weird,” he said. “That’s exactly what this place is.”