The Critic's Choice
Harlan Jacobson '71
By Steve Manning '96
Chances are each time you lay down seven dollars to see a film, you already have in mind what your money is buying. You saw a preview for the movie when you took in Batman two weeks before, a quick thirty second appeal to your senses and emotions, leaving you yearning for the satisfaction of actually finding out if mankind will survive the doomsday device stored aboard the out-of-control airplane. Perhaps you saw a preview on T.V. Or maybe you read what the reviewer wrote in the paper and walk into the theater, clutching your Junior Mints, expecting to be wowed by the special effects but disappointed by the shallowness of the romance between the male and female leads. In short, you already know a good amount about the film even before you take your seat.
Harlan Jacobson '71 thinks this is the wrong way to see a film. "Films have marketing campaigns that someone has designed the sell of the film to appeal to what they think are a very narrowly defined set of interests. They are looking for a core group. Well, you might not be in that group. As a result, people either see films that are misrepresented or they skip films that they might find to be wonderful." His way around the marketing is called Talk Cinema, a film series that Jacobson started several years ago. Movie-goers congregate at the movie theater on Saturday mornings, take their seats, and only then find out what film they are about to see. Jacobson gives them no advanced warning of what is being screened, and most often the movies have not even been released yet. Often the films do not even have a distributor. "I wanted people to be able to see the films and not the campaigns," he remarks, "I wanted people to start fresh."
The talk part comes after the film. Rather than release his audience into the street with only their own thoughts, Jacobson encourages discussion from the viewers. Film critics and filmmakers are invited as guest speakers and field questions and comments from the amateur critics in the audience. He currently runs the program in four sites: New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and Westchester County. "I am always learning things from the audiences," Jacobson says, "and I am amazed at some of the reactions and the level of insight that some of them have."
Jacobson's Philadelphia audience certainly surprised him with their interpretation of the recent hit Secrets and Lies. The British film portrays a young black woman in search of her biological mother, who turns out to be a white woman. The mother never knew she had a daughter, since her family told her the child had died at birth. Jacobson explains that several members of the Philadelphia audience thought that "the last secret and lie was untold and involved an incestuous affair between the mother and perhaps her brother or father." The class got involved in a heated discussion over the claim, one that spilled over into the pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Director Mike Leigh got wind of the debate when he visited Philadelphia and was quick to weigh in against the incest theory. Nevertheless, the audience had impressed Jacobson with their critical abilities.
Critical approach has been an important part of Jacobson's work since he matriculated at Haverford in 1967. The Toledo native came to Philadelphia with an interest in film that stemmed from spending a lot of time at the local theater as a boy. However, it was a course in semiotics taught by the late professor of English John Ashmead that lay the foundation for his later work as a film critic. "The course in semiotics was fairly cutting edge thinking at the time and was one critical school of thought on how to understand and interpret film as well as a greater scope of visual information." Jacobson was also impressed by the curriculum in general. "The course offering at Haverford reflected an emphasis on being able to think critically, which is an invaluable skill to take into battle when you see a new film, a new play, or even when you listen to the president on T.V."
After graduation, he migrated to Chicago and held a several odd jobs until he took a position as a reporter for the Chicago bureau of Variety. He specialized in film, but also covered eclectic entertainment events such as the club scene. In 1975 he was promoted to Variety headquarters in New York, where he covered motion pictures until the early 1980s. At that point Jacobson took the position of editor of Film Comment, an intellectual film magazine published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The backlash from a dispute with filmmaker Michael Moore about the accuracy of Moore's film Roger and Me convinced Jacobson that he wanted to try something different than but related to criticism, so he set out on his own.
Talk Cinema grew out of his experiences at Variety and Film Comment. For the two magazines he traveled to film festivals throughout the country and world, getting a taste of films before they were released, and oftentimes before they even had a distributor. He was seeing films fresh, without the marketing campaigns and reviews. His work with audiences at the New York Film Festival, an event sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, gave him the idea of bringing the film festival format to the public, allowing them to see and discuss films that have yet to be released. In the early 1990s, he launched Talk Cinema.
Jacobson combs festivals throughout the world for films to show, seeking a broad range so that his audiences can see some of the commonalties of film-making. "In many ways the festivals have become a quasi-distribution method, quite like the Paris fashion shows; people save the very best films for the festivals to show them off." Some recent Talk Cinema titles have included Leon Gast's documentary When We Were Kings, detailing the 1974 Muhammed Ali - George Foreman fight in Zaire; the black comedy Fargo of recent Academy Award-acclaim; the Japanese drama Shall We Dance; and Kissed from Canada, in which the lead character is a necrophiliac.
A film that sticks out in Jacobson's mind is the Irish 1992 release, The Crying Game. Jacobson showed it to Talk Cinema months before anyone had heard about the film and its surprise ending. The lead female character reveals to the male lead that she is actually a man (my apologies to those of you who haven't seen it), forcing him to re-think their intimate relationship. Jacobson wasn't sure how his audience would react to this unexpected twist. "I was quite astonished to find that the audience was shocked, but won over," he recalls. "It substantiates my feeling that there is a mature and intelligent audience that wants not simply to be entertained, but are in fact starved for adult art and adult conversation."
Jacobson sees this as part of the allure of film. "It has the power to disengage our defenses for two hours to clarify experience. That is why people come. At the end of the day, we have to be entertained, not lectured. Film is to look at the lives of others as a fly on the wall, and the lives of those characters are in some ways mirrors of our lives." Talk Cinema is not only the vehicle for this experience, but the opportunity to discuss with others the personal experiences that they take away from viewing films. Jacobson sums up what his audiences are seeking, saying, "I see that there is a great hunger in the audience to find intelligent art and to have an educational experience."
He is trying to bring this experience to a larger audience. Talk Cinema is expanding, both in locations and types of media. Jacobson plans to start the series in two new cities, Chicago and Boston. He is also preparing to make the jump to television, showing unreleased films using the pay-per-view format. According to Jacobson, this would expand the exposure of foreign and independent filmmakers. "I believe that you can show a sneak preview of an unannounced film and whet the public's appetite to go to the theater to see it," he contends. "It would give people the first experience of seeing a film that hasn't been clouded by a publicity campaign."
For the time being, Jacobson has to content himself with using the cinema as his training grounds for amateur critics. It is an approach that is working well, as Talk Cinema plays to a packed house at almost all of its screenings. To Jacobson, this is proof that viewers are seeking out new, untested and unmarketed films, and are also looking for the opportunity to talk about what they have seen. So the next time you go to the movies, you can take a visit to the snack counter during the previews, or you could give Talk Cinema a try.