Bypassing a velvet rope in the lobby of Purchase College's Performing Arts Center, Susan Jacobson navigated the aisle between the last rows of orchestra seats and flicked on the house lights at the PepsiCo Theatre. It was 6:15 p.m., about 15 minutes before ushers would open the theater to subscribers of Talk Cinema, one of the Hudson Valley's most popular film clubs.
Normally, the event Susan was leading that night would be hosted by her husband, movie critic Harlan Jacobson, who curates Talk Cinema and has covered the film industry for Film Comment, WBGO-FM and Variety. But with Harlan, 63, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Susan filled in for the evening. Co-founding Talk Cinema in 1992, the couple found their first home for the film club at Lincoln Center in Manhattan and would start welcoming members to Purchase College screenings in 2000.
"They're all film nuts, at various levels of nuttiness," Harlan Jacobson told Newsday Westchester in a previous phone interview. "They're not really film insiders; they are doctors and lawyers and Metro-North conductors that have an interest in film."
Screening films with a lasting impact
Back at Purchase, Susan Jacobson, 52, told Newsday Westchester about that night's film, "Lore," the story of five German children who journey to their grandmother's house after Allied Forces arrest their Nazi parents in 1945. She expected the movie to challenge Talk Cinema's members, especially because it demonstrates a level of empathy toward the children of Nazis. Although selected as Australia's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at February's Academy Awards, "Lore" did not make the final list of nominees.
But most Talk Cinema members know Harlan Jacobson isn't going to spoon-feed them movies with Oscar nods solely because they're nominated, or pick universally beloved movies. A primary goal of the club, whose slogan is "Smart films for smart folks," is to expose subscribers to movies they wouldn't ordinarily see, often before wide theatrical release. In keeping with that philosophy, Talk Cinema provides advance notice of the next film title only to Purchase College students, not subscribers.
"Talk Cinema is an opportunity to see films, festival style, the way critics do, without any preconceived ideas," Susan Jacobson said, while 100 or so film fanatics filled their assigned seats. "One of the most rewarding aspects of programming and hosting Talk Cinema over the years is people's response to seeing pictures that take them out of their comfort zone, or take them out of the multiplex."
She said one of the best-received examples of that was the screening of "When We Were Kings," a 1996 documentary about the 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman; subscribers raved, thanking the Jacobsons for showing a documentary they otherwise would have ignored. But opinion was more divided in 2006, when Harlan Jacobson screened Sacha Baron Cohen's controversial comedy "Borat."
"What was not surprising about screening 'Borat' for [Talk Cinema] audiences is that there was some kind of a generational divide," Susan Jacobson said. "Some audience members thought it was the funniest thing they've seen in their entire lives, and talk about it to this day. And some members of the audience were extremely offended and did not think it had a place in Talk Cinema -- and they're still talking about it, to this day."
The audience speaks
With most of the evening's audience settled in their seats, several munched popcorn out of red-and-white-striped boxes that were popular in the '50s. Those containers, as Susan Jacobson would note in her opening remarks, proved far more popular among members who'd complained about popcorn bags that rustled in previous screenings.
David Weinberger, an Ossining resident who has been a Talk Cinema participant for at least five years, spoke of the club with popcorn in hand. "The best thing about Talk Cinema is being able to go to a movie that you know nothing about, and being surprised, and, generally, loving the movie," he said, citing "Brokeback Mountain" as one of the best and most surprising films the club has screened.
Sitting a few rows away from him was Eleanor Phillips Brackbill, a Mamaroneck resident who also has been attending for about five years. "The thing that keeps me coming back to Talk Cinema, I think, is the certainty," she said, adding that she trusts Harlan Jacobson's picks. "I bought the subscription; it's on my calendar, [so] I know I'm going to come, and there's something comfortable about that. I don't have to think about it."
Phillips Brackbill said she also appreciates the club for its conversations with critics, filmmakers and other industry experts who analyze films immediately after their Talk Cinema screenings. On the night of the "Lore" screening, the guest was critic and entertainment reporter Stephen Schaefer, who discussed the film following its 108-minute run.
After announcing "Lore" as that evening's film and Schaefer as the night's guest, Susan Jacobson read some of the audience's comment cards about the previous screening, which involved another Germany-set film titled "Barbara." Some whispered while hearing their peers' anonymous assessments, which ranged from "predictable, but well-done" to "best film of the series so far," with the superlative prompting a subtle gasp from one member of the crowd.
With the conclusion of her opening remarks, Susan retreated to her seat, and the house lights dimmed. From the projection booth, light beamed onto the screen in front of an audience that appeared quiet and content to stow its phones and enjoy the show.
The big picture
With about 300 active subscribers, Talk Cinema's typical audience member is 40 to 70 years old, Harlan Jacobson said. "But we grab a lot of [Purchase College] students," he added, "so there are a lot of 18- to 24-year-olds in the audience as well on select titles."
Screening films on 10 Tuesday nights from Oct. 2 to May 7, Talk Cinema's winter season also has included showings of "The Oranges," "Quartet" and the Oscar-nominated "Silver Linings Playbook," which Harlan said packed the house with Purchase students. Attendees were invited to subscribe to all 10 films at the Performing Arts Center for $175 or see individual movies there for $20 each.
"We encourage audiences to attend the whole subscription program," Susan Jacobson said, "because what you see on one occasion may appeal or may not, but if you take the whole subscription, a 10-part program, you really get a very good tour of new cinema in that [season]."
And that's just in Purchase; Talk Cinema also convenes at Lincoln Center in Manhattan and in nine other cities stretching from Boston to Scottsdale, Ariz. It's safe to say Harlan Jacobson has embraced travel: Talk Cinema invites members to sign up for his guided tours of some of the world's top film fests. At least eight Talk Cinema tours, ranging from festivals in Costa Rica and Cuba to ones in Switzerland and Iceland, have been scheduled for 2013.
"We have a pretty active travel schedule to film festivals around the world," he said, "and we do it better than anyone else that I know doing it."
Far closer to the couple's Croton-on-Hudson home, however, is the 713-seat PepsiCo Theatre in the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College. "I love the Performing Arts Center: It's centrally located, it's beautifully staffed, it's immaculate," Susan Jacobson said. "I think that, for a number of our subscribers, it's a familiar venue ... and I think that it's an enormously important resource for our community."
Combine that with the Jacobsons' passion for cinema and you have a local program that's near and dear to their hearts.
"I've always been a movie guy," said Harlan Jacobson, who said directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese shaped his upbringing. "Movies have a chance to put a lens on the world, and tell the truth in a way that the newspaper can't."
IF YOU GO
What: Talk Cinema at Purchase College
Info: PepsiCo Theatre at the Performing Arts Center, 735 Anderson Hill Rd., Purchase, 800-551-9221, www.talkcinema.com; $175 for 10 sessions, $20 for individual screenings; three-movie packages also available