Aficionados might have known what the movie was as soon as they heard the score — a flutter of flutes followed by doom-announcing horns.
Others figured it out when the camera panned up a woman’s face as her eyes opened wide in horror.
But for most of the crowd at Secret Cinema, it wasn’t until the word “Vertigo” expanded across the screen that they realized they’d be watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller.
These days you can watch a trailer online, read critics’ reviews on your phone and get a score from Rotten Tomatoes. It’s almost hard not to know a lot about a movie, sometimes even before it opens. A small but growing number of people, however, are choosing to get their entertainment another way: by surprise.
Two Twin Cities series offer monthly movies followed by expert-led discussions. Both withhold the titles of the movies. Talk Cinema shows contemporary films that haven’t been released in the Twin Cities. Secret Cinema shows classics.
The mystery is the appeal, fans say, because it leaves space for them to form their own opinions.
Film critic Harlan Jacobson started Talk Cinema in 1992 as a way to give audiences the kind of pure experience he got when he’d see a new film debut at a festival.
“There’s no buzz, there’s no advertising campaign, there’s no marketing campaign, all of which are abstractions of what the marketeers think will sell the movie to most people, as opposed to what the movie may really be about,” said Jacobson.
Watching a movie without all that hype “lets them see the film the way the film really was built,” he said.
Talk Cinema recently screened “A Fantastic Woman,” a Chilean film, which won’t open here until spring. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, follows the injustices a woman faces as she grieves for her late lover.
During the post-movie discussion, led by MPR arts reporter Euan Kerr, members of the audience said they had no idea the protagonist was transgender until 20 minutes into the film. Had they read reviews, or even a description of the film, their experience of it might have been different.
“I don’t want somebody to tell me how to feel about a movie,” said Laura Ferenci, the Minneapolis site coordinator of Talk Cinema. “It’s nice to come up with my own ideas.”
By not announcing the titles he selects, Jacobson can move quickly to screen a film he’s just fallen in love with at a festival.
“We are mega on top of what’s interesting and current,” he said.
For some moviegoers, Talk Cinema has turned into a social event. Regulars come to the Saturday morning screenings at Landmark’s Edina Cinema, then go out to lunch together afterward. Some have even gone to film festivals around the world with Jacobson.
Linda Tell of Edina has been to Iceland, Morocco, Palm Springs and Montreal with Talk Cinema, and she comes to the Edina screenings every month.
“You see some crummy ones, but you see some good ones,” Tell said. “You can always find good out of bad.”
A curated surprise
Secret Cinema — which was launched at a Michigan-based movie theater chain and expanded to Emagine Willow Creek in Plymouth last year — digs farther back into Hollywood history.
Managing partner Jon Goldstein was running a classic movie series, and “when we would announce the name of the movie, people would be like, ‘Oh that’s so great,’ and then no one would show up,” he said.
So, Goldstein decided to keep the movie a surprise, and quickly, the theaters began to fill up. He invited local experts — film professors, critics, screenwriters — to make the picks and talk about the films afterward.
The series flips between old and new Hollywood, with 1967 being the dividing line. Minnesota screenings have spanned from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Die Hard.”
Even though you can stream movies like that at home, it’s the surprise, the curation and the big screen that lures people.
“I get on my TV set, and it’s not like I have a problem finding something to watch, it’s figuring out what to watch,” Goldstein said. “The great thing about Secret Cinema is that it takes the decision out of the equation. People can come in and know that they’re going to see something great.”
And if they don’t like the selection, they can get a refund. (At least within the first half-hour.)
The almost-sold-out crowd seemed quite pleased with the screening of “Vertigo.”
Len and Jan Kennen of Orono admitted that they had tried to figure out what the movie was going to be, but couldn’t.
“I had absolutely no idea!” Jan said after the screening.
As it turned out, they had always meant to see “Vertigo,” but neither of them had.
Said Jan, “It’s one of those bucket list deals.”