“We’re not selling the film, we’re selling the person.”
This is how Barry Kryshka, founder of the Trylon Microcinema, defends “The Defenders,” a mystery film series that challenges audience members to pony up admission without knowing ahead of time what they’re actually paying to see. The name of the movie remains under wraps until the theater lights go down. But the name of the person selecting and presenting the movie—usually a local luminary from the Twin Cities art/music/media scene—is publicized loudly and well in advance.
That’s how “The Defenders” works. The audience submits to being held hostage, aesthetically speaking, for a few hours by someone like former Fox 9 news anchor Robyne Robinson. Or emo songsmith Jeremy Messersmith. Tomorrow night, it’s MinnPost.com writer and art scene gadabout Andy Sturdevant. One of the original pricing schemes for the series, Kryshka says, involved allowing moviegoers in for free—but charging them if they tried to leave early.
That hasn’t been necessary. In fact, over the nine screenings that the series has so far attempted—“The Defenders” launched in June 2010 and plays the third Wednesday of each month—the theater has averaged selling 50 to 80 percent of its 50 available seats. Not a raging success, mind you. But pretty good for a crap-shoot art experience—especially one that costs $8 to enter. Post-screening Q-and-As, during which the presenters defend their selection to the audience, have sometimes stretched on for 45 minutes.
Why are people coming to see this? There’s the Kryshka theory: That we’re not paying to see a film, per se. We’re actually paying for a sneak peek into the potentially freaky pop-culture psyche of someone we know/hate/admire/resent.
But series founder (and defender selector) Jim Brunzell III—who also programs the Sound Unseen festival, hosts KFAI’s Cinema Shanty morning show, and blogs about film at tcdailyplanet.net—has a different theory.
“We all have our guilty pleasures at heart,” he says. “I want my defenders to pick a film that they feel passionate about but that they maybe wouldn’t share with their friends. Something they’d feel more comfortable revealing to strangers.”
There has been only one foreign film. And instead of art-house obscurity, film selections have tended to be mainstream—albeit forgotten or cult—sci-fi, drama, or comedy titles.
According to Brunzell, though they are not forced to, defenders often use the theater-hijacking opportunity to air embarrassing indulgences. “Jeremy Messersmith said he was more nervous to screen his film than he had ever been before a music performance,” Brunzell remembers.
What did he show?
Brunzell wouldn’t say exactly—audience members are asked to never reveal what a certain presenter has screened. “It had some charm,” he remembers. “But it was definitely something that could enrage people.”
The screenings, then, can take on a pathological, therapy-group, rite-of-confession vibe. My name is Bob, and I love Robocop 2. There’s a reason why Brunzell—who took inspiration from the Seattle International Film Festival’s “Secret Festival” tradition, which actually forces attendees to sign an Oath of Silence to view special advanced screenings—keeps the film-selections private. What happens at “The Defenders” stays at “The Defenders.”
At least for now.
For the one-year anniversary of “The Defenders,” slated for June 2012, Brunzell himself will be the host. And he plans to reveal the previous 12 months’ worth of film titles.
I asked Brunzell for any hints as to what he himself would present. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s like a magician that can’t give away his tricks.”
The Defenders: Andy Sturdevant
Wednesday, March 21, 7 p.m.
$8 (A portion of the proceeds benefit the Isanti County Historical Society)
Trylon Microcinema, 3258 Minnehaha Ave., Mpls. take-up.org