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Active Cultures: giving cinephiles a reason to get out of bed

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The theater was still officially closed, but about 100 people were already taking their seats in black box number two at Northbrook Court's General Cinema at 9:45 on a recent Saturday morning. They'd forked over an $18 onetime admission charge or shown their series tickets, helped themselves from the big pots of free coffee in the lobby, and perused the flyers that told them--for the first time--what they'd be seeing. An anticipatory buzz hovered in the dimly lit screening room: the film was Dancer in the Dark, the latest work of Danish director Lars von Trier and winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, which had been shown only once in this country--at the New York film festival the night before. Host Bruce Ingram made a few announcements about what to expect at Harlan Jacobson's "Talk Cinema," a sneak preview and discussion series devoted to independent and foreign films. Then came the moment this audience of cinephiles had been waiting for: the theater went dark, the screen came alive. Show time.

None of us would have been there if City News Bureau had hired Jacobson any of the 15 times he barged through its door begging for a job in the early 1970s. Fresh out of college, the Ohio native had come to Chicago to launch a Front Page-style career in crime reporting and found himself (like Nelson Algren and other notable City News rejects) stymied at the starting gate by the inscrutable logic of CNB hiring. Things might have been different too if he hadn't been canned from his customer service job at Playboy for informing a disgruntled customer that his magazine had arrived without a centerfold "because the girls know what you do over it." After that, Jacobson said on the phone from New York last week, "I ended up at Variety and began my real career." He worked at Variety bureaus in Chicago and New York, then put in a decade as editor of Film Comment, the magazine of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York film festival. In the early 90s he went out on his own, covering film festivals for newspapers including USA Today and launching "Talk Cinema." He started at Washington's Walter Reade Theater in '92 and began working his way up the eastern seaboard. "Talk Cinema" now offers programs in a dozen cities from Seattle to New York. This is its fourth year in Chicago, where it shows at Pipers Alley, and its first season in Northbrook. "People were coming to our Pipers Alley screenings from the suburbs," Jacobson says. "We knew we'd have an audience out there."

Jacobson describes "Talk Cinema" as "casual cultural enrichment," an antidote to the usual scenario of going to a movie and then "just atomizing into the night with the rest of the audience, never to see or speak to one another again." It differs from the Chicago International Film Festival ("the first thing I ever did for Variety, a real resource for Chicagoans") in that it's a university-style seminar with a screening every few weeks from Labor Day to Memorial Day. "We wanted to use a different approach, to have an in-depth discussion led by two film critics and open to the audience," he says. "We really encourage people to say what they think. The declarative sentence rules, as opposed to the polite questioning that takes place at most film festivals, where the director is typically present."

Dancer in the Dark stars Iceland's pixie vocalist and composer Bjork (who also wrote the film's score) in a way-over-the-top sob story set in mid-20th-century America but filmed in Sweden. Cross von Trier's sadistic, gorgeous 1996 drama Breaking the Waves with Jacques Demy's classic 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; throw in Catherine Deneuve, playing impossibly against type; add a sledgehammer of a political agenda; and consider yourself forewarned. The drained Northbrook audience (some admiring, some angry) got a coffee break, then Facets Multimedia's Milos Stehlik, guest critic for this screening, took the stage. Before taking questions and comments, Stehlik talked about the 100 stationary video cams used to film the dance sequences; the Dogma 95 manifesto of "authentic" moviemaking (which this film violates); and the troubles between von Trier, who says the best actors are retarded, and Bjork, who accused him of being an "emotional pornographer" and ran away to chew on her costume. Then we learned something really pathetic: the film that we had seen had been altered for American audiences. The movie von Trier made opens with a completely dark auditorium. The audience sits, like a ship of blind passengers (a condition germane to the story), while the entire musical overture for the film washes over them. Fine Line Features, the American distributor, assuming that its audiences wouldn't tolerate ten minutes of blackness, substituted an abstract color painting, an inexplicable lava lamp that turned what we can only guess was an emotionally and intellectually perfect introduction into von Trier for dummies.

"Talk Cinema" will screen the second of seven films in its fall series this weekend. Show times are 10 AM Saturday, October 14, at Northbrook Court, 1525 Lake Cook Road in Northbrook, and 10 AM Sunday, October 15, at Pipers Alley, Wells at North. Jacobson refused to reveal the name of the film in advance, but gave us a clue as to its country of origin: the guest critic will be local expat Lisa Nesselson, who writes about film for the Paris bureau of Variety and Paris Weekly. Tickets are $18 for a single session, $99 for a series ticket, but they'll prorate the cost for the rest of this session. Call 800-551-9221 or check out the schedule at www.talkcinema.com.

--Deanna Isaacs

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