Every few weeks a group of about 60 film lovers gather at 9:30 on a Sunday morning in the lobby of the Albany Twin on Solano Avenue, to sip hot beverages while waiting in anticipation for the day’s mystery movie. It’s a small room and it fills up quickly with people and chatter and the aromas of coffee and tea and bagels. Enthusiastic as the crowd may be, they’re in no hurry to enter the theater; it’s a Sunday morning, after all, and much too early to move at anything but a leisurely pace. So by the time 10 a.m. rolls around they almost have to be cajoled and herded into the theater.
The group is called Talk Cinema, a movie club with screenings and discussions led by UC Berkeley film lecturer Marilyn Fabe. The series takes place roughly once a month, with Fabe hosting a preview of an as-yet-unreleased film. Once Fabe manages to persuade the gathered throng that it’s time to get started, and after they have scattered throughout the auditorium to their preferred seats, she lets them in on the secret, finally revealing the name of the film they are about to see along with some background information on the production.
After the closing credits roll and the lights come up, everyone takes a quick break and then gathers toward the front of the theater for a recap of the previous meeting’s film in the form of a reading of selected audience comment cards. Then they’ll delve headlong into what often becomes a wide-ranging discussion on the vices and virtues of the current film.
Arriving for the Nov. 12 screening of The Painted Veil, it seemed as though I may have arrived a couple of weeks too late. The previous screening, on Oct. 29, had been Borat, the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy that would soon generate rave reviews along with a great deal of controversy. The film had sparked a particularly lively discussion with the Talk Cinema group. The Painted Veil, by contrast, didn’t seem to hold as much promise; a period piece about love and marriage in the time of cholera, on the surface, just didn’t seem capable of sparking as much debate as a guerilla comedy about a bigoted journalist from Kazakhstan traversing the United States in search of Pamela Anderson.
But once the group settled back into their seats an enlightening discussion ensued.
Reaction to the film was mixed. Some loved it and some hated it, with the rest of us landing at various points between. The result was a discussion that brought both the film’s virtues and failures to light, granting a better appreciation and understanding if not a better liking for the picture.
Talk Cinema members bring a wide range of knowledge and interest to these discussions. One man was very knowledgeable on Chinese history and provided a brief summary of the circumstances surrounding the cholera epidemic that provides the movie’s backdrop; several other participants shared their intimate knowledge of the works of W. Somerset Maugham, from whose novel the film is adapted; another member shared insights from his background in anthropology, casting doubt on the Chinese burial practices depicted in the film; and another woman offered a thoughtful comparison between the new film and the 1934 version starring Greta Garbo.
“That’s what I’m trading on,” says Fabe, “all the wonderful, knowledgeable people of Berkeley with their diverse areas of expertise. It’s wonderful to do this sort of thing in a place like this.”
Which is not to say this is a stuffy intellectual group; far from it. These are movie lovers first and foremost. Participants readily admitted their biases, some confessing to an intense dislike for Maugham, others a strong affection. Some were quite taken with the romance of the film, others not so much. Some found the transformation of Naomi Watts’ character compelling while others found it unconvincing. And while some found the background tale of politics and imperialism to be a complex and fascinating milieu, others thought the use of geopolitical struggles as a metaphor for a couple’s evolving relationship a trite device at best.
Yet all opinions were respected and taken seriously. This is not an academic environment; it is more like a book club.
“People are hungry for this kind of interaction,” says Fabe. “So many people come up to me and say ‘You know, I’ll go out to see a movie with my friends and afterwards they won’t have a thing to say about it. We just go out to dinner and talk about other things as though the movie never happened.’ ”
Talk Cinema was founded by film critic Harlan Jacobson 15 years ago as an attempt to replicate the experience of attending a film festival. Jacobson himself attends festivals around the country and hand-picks films for the series. A few years ago Talk Cinema started a chapter at the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto and hired Fabe as host and moderator. A couple of years later she persuaded the company to start a Berkeley chapter, allowing Fabe to avoid the commute to the peninsula and simply “roll out of bed and onto Solano Avenue to the Twin” on Sunday mornings.
While the audience doesn’t know what they’re going to see, Fabe really does her homework, viewing the films in advance whenever possible and doing copious research into each film’s history, reading reviews, interviews and production notes so that she can start off each discussion on solid footing.
“If you told them what the film was going to be, they might not come, and they’d miss out on a wonderful experience,” Fabe says, citing the example of The Woodsman from a previous season. “They’d say, ‘I don’t want to see a movie about a child molester!’ and they wouldn’t show up and they’d miss out. People always say to me, ‘If I had known what it was I wouldn’t have come, but I’m glad I did.’ ”
The Berkeley chapter apparently differs from other chapters in its preferences. The Painted Veil, for instance, did very well with other chapters, but Fabe’s group didn’t take to it quite as readily.
“They don’t like all that Masterpiece Theater kind of stuff,” she says. “They want something a little edgier.”
According to the Talk Cinema blog, 40 percent of Berkeley members rated The Painted Veil as “excellent” on comment cards submitted after the show, and another 40 percent described it as “good” for an overall positive rating of 80 percent. This compares with Boston and Dallas with positive ratings of 96 and 97 percent. When asked if they would recommend the film, only 65 percent of the Berkeley crowd said yes, compared with other cities in the series that recommended the film at rates of anywhere between 80 percent and 98 percent.
Comment card remarks ranged from grouchy to enthusiastic to silly. “Watching depressed people for two hours is unpleasant no matter how beautiful the scenery,” remarked one. “Illuminated what mature love consists of and how it comes to fruition,” wrote a second. “A celibate Edward Norton, what a waste!” bemoaned a third. A Dallas participant, quoted on the company’s blog, used a pun to register her displeasure: “A regular Maugham & Pop tragedy.”
The Berkeley series has steadily added patrons, but it’s a for-profit business and will likely need to find a consistent audience of more than 100 if it is to survive beyond this season. If the season is a success, Talk Cinema will return to Berkeley for another season in September. The largest chapter, in Philadelphia, regularly seats 400.
Patrons pay $149 for the 10-film season, but the cost is pro-rated for subscriptions taken out after the season has begun. Day of show admissions are also available for $20 per person.
10 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 at the Albany Twin, 1115 Solano Ave., Albany. Doors open at 9:30 a.m. Later screenings in the series take place Feb. 11, Feb. 25, March 11, April 22 and May 6.
To register, send check or money order to Talk Cinema PO Box 686 Croton-on-Hudson, NY 10520 or call (800) 551-9221 to subscribe by phone. For more information, see www.talkcinema.com.