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The Beacon Challenges Audiences to Abandon Expectations in their Secret Cinema Series

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Edited by Marian Mohamed

In collaboration with South Seattle Emerald

The inside of The Beacon Cinema in Columbia City. (Photo courtesy of The Beacon)

As an expansive and varied medium, film has the ability to challenge, bewilder, and even provoke viewers. Yet, in contemporary cinema, moviegoers generally have a decent idea of what they are getting into when they enter the theater. Sensationalized advertising and incessant promotions pique the interest of targeted audiences, but what would happen if an audience experienced a film without any preconceptions? Without even knowing which film would be screened?

The Beacon, a beloved art-house theater in Columbia City, is asking these questions with their Secret Cinema series. Inviting adventurous cinephiles into the space to experience an unannounced film, the free events offer the opportunity to view a 35mm surprise. With a fresh perspective and an open mind, viewers are left utterly exposed to the evening’s entertainment.

“Expectations can function as a real burden to appreciation sometimes and prevent us from genuinely seeing and absorbing what we're watching,” said Tommy Swenson, co-founder of The Beacon and curator of Secret Cinema. “We want to just drop you off in the world of the movie, no compass, no map, and let you find your own way through it.”

Without the predictable trailer-to-feature-film pipeline, viewers are given an alternative to floundering through vast collections of streamable movies. Secret Cinema bypasses the perpetual struggle against monotony by removing the obstacle of algorithmic profiling. All movie-goers need to do is prepare a receptive attitude, distancing themselves from the belittling content-prediction paradigm. The Beacon’s staff channels passion for unique and unconventional cinema into an intentional calendar that gives audiences access to, in Swenson’s words, "the masterpiece that people don't know they need.”

By undermining the influence of strong-handed advertising, Secret Cinema incites what Swenson calls an “enjoyably disorienting experience.” For both experienced film fanatics and those just dabbling in cinema, placing confidence in local curators is an invigorating trust exercise. Independent cinemas like The Beacon gain a local following by diving headfirst into the periphery of film, introducing groundbreaking and experimental movies to the public.

“There are movies that I so desperately want more people to see, but just don't have the sort of innate marketability that feels like it's going to compel someone to get out of the house,” said Swenson.

Exposure to these films can transform an audience’s experience of movie-going, allowing the power of visual storytelling to stimulate thought-provoking and emotional responses beyond overtly sensationalized tropes. Condensing the seemingly endless catalog of deep-cut cult classics and arthouse films into something more approachable encourages more people to indulge their curiosities without the intimidating barriers to entry.

“We've spent our lives exploring the depths and outer limits of the art and don't ever feel like we've ‘seen it all," said Swenson. “We deliberately try to go in wildly different directions with the Secret Cinema picks each time, just time to sketch as wide of boundaries as we possibly can.”

Alongside their creative promotion of artistic integrity, The Beacon staff demonstrates a refreshing commitment to film accessibility. “We're all broke!” said Swenson. “Just as there aren't many opportunities to experience a completely context-free movie discovery anymore, nor are there very many opportunities to do literally anything for free.”

By showing the movies free of charge, the assortment of viewers drawn to these screenings further amplifies Secret Cinema’s cultivated mystique. After the showing of Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man, an audience member managed to catch Swenson off guard in return.

“Someone came up afterwards, thrilled to have been there, and showed me a tattoo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis proudly emblazoned across his chest,” said Swenson. “I'm not sure who that was, but knowing that someone that committed to comedic stupidity managed to be in attendance that night felt cosmically significant.”

The Beacon’s subversion of consumer-driven art encourages Seattleites to reconsider their watch habits. “We see performing the ritual of cinematic presentation almost as an act of resistance against the flattening and deadening effect of, I guess, the streaming era,” said Swenson. “We work against a corporate framework in which viewers are simply individual consumers isolated in the alienation of their private homes.”

Supplementing their already radical approach to movie-going, Secret Cinema, by design, contradicts passive reception to media, playing into the gamble of a chance encounter. Shattering the stronghold of analytical profiling on individual viewers, liberated movie-goers become engaged participants in the display of artistic expression.

“Collectively, communally, together in public, we become an audience. And the active thing that an audience does is to respond to the idea of a public film exhibition with a public exhibition of human curiosity and mutual respect," said Swenson.

Secret Cinema is taking over the Egyptian on June 2nd for a 600-seat showing of something special. Find out more about The Beacon and Secret Cinema on their website, or on Instagram thebeaconsea.


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