STARING DOWN THE 2016 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL
I live in Los Angeles, and my residency here means that a lot of great film programming– revival screenings, advance looks at upcoming releases and vital, fascinating glimpses at unheralded, unexpected cinema from around the world—is available to me on a week-by-week basis. But I’ve never been to Cannes. Toronto, Tribeca, New York, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, SXSW, these festivals are all events that I have yet to be lucky enough to attend, and I can reasonably expect that it’s probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I never attended a film festival of any kind until I made my way to the outskirts of the Mojave Desert for the Lone Pine Film Festival in 2006, which was its own kind of grand adventure, even if it wasn’t exactly one for bumping shoulders with critics, stars and fanatics on the French Riviera.
But since 2010 there has been one film festival that I have attended that I can call home, a place that has felt like just that for going on seven years now, and that is the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Those who were there with me for that event’s first year were extremely excited when it was announced that the festival would be back for seconds in 2011, and now, as the curtain is being readied to be pulled back on the seventh TCM gathering in Hollywood, it feels now like a grand tradition, certainly the best place to see a varied concentration of favorites, rarities, special appearances and unique programming from the history of Hollywood and international cinema, and all projected (in one format or another) on the big screen. It’s a long, intense, exhilarating and exhausting weekend that I’ve come to treasure, and every year I work hard not to take it for granted, even if getting up and hitting the early morning train for that final day in Hollywood seems like an activity my festival-weary bones would rather set aside in favor of about four or five hours extra sleep.
On TCMFF weekend, however, unless you can find a quiet corner of the lobby of the Chinese Theater multiplex where the majority of the screenings are held, sleep is something that gets shifted to a lower priority for the festival’s three days and four nights. And each year, for me the only challenge bigger than marshaling the stamina to make my way through the bounty of offerings available at TCMFF from 9:00 a.m. till about 2:00 a.m. each day is sitting down with the announced full schedule and figuring out what the hell to see and, just as important, what will have to be missed.
Fellow TCMFF fanatic and film preservationist Ariel Schudson has been one of my close TCMFF pals since year one, and on her blog, Archive-Type: Musings of a Passionate Preservationist, she has this year provided an excellent rundown of the entire TCMFF schedule, broken down by title, distributor, format of presentation and, of course, where and when each screening will take place. Ariel’s guide is a more focused, less-cumbersome, spread-sheet approach to the festival’s own sprawling schedule guide and would serve as a great resource for your own TCMFF planning. Her pie-chart breakdown of precisely what percentage of films shown at TCMFF 2016 will be presented in DCP, 35mm or other formats, might seem disconcerting to those would expect a classic film-oriented festival like TCMFF to be more heavily weighted toward celluloid. But the reality of the effort put into discovering lost treasures of cinema and the act of preserving them in 2016 involves both the original 35mm materials and the tools of 21st-technology, and given the sort of rare and lesser-known films that get seen in front of audiences at TCMFF and on the TCM cable network, which are then are made available for screening in other cities and venues, it makes more sense to be appreciative of their availability than to debate about whether or not the legacy of 35mm is somehow being bastardized in the process.
Though digital cinema packages make up about two-thirds of the 2016 festival’s offerings, there are, of course, several films being shown in 35mm this year at TCMFF that rarely see the light of a projector bulb. A chance to see rarities like Larry Peerce’s interracial romance One Potato, Two Potato (1964), starring Bernie Hamilton and Barbara Barrie (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this performance), or an unfamiliar pre-code picture like John Cromwell’s Double Harness (1933), or Roy Del Ruth’s highly regarded but rarely screened Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), is a chance that should not be passed up by those of us lucky enough to be in Hollywood for the festival this year. Schudson, who this year will serve for a second time as a member of TCM’s network of social producers, a group dedicated to the proliferation of information and advancing the festival goals of enjoyment and education, would undoubtedly agree that focusing on these less familiar screenings, as well as special programs like Serge Bromberg’s collection of rediscovered Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy shorts, or this year’s presentations on the history of wide-screen formats and the 90th anniversary of the pioneering Vitaphone sound process, is what can makes the TCMFF experience expand from mere nostalgia into a more enriching, essential experience for casual and more serious film buffs alike.
Schudson also, like any TCMFF veteran, knows well the cocktail of agony and ecstasy that is devising your festival plan of attack. And you definitely have to have a plan, because the reality, one that took some getting used to for me, is that you just can’t see it all. One look at that schedule will likely fill the average festival attendee with simultaneous rushes of excitement at the possibilities and disappointment over all the good stuff that is going to have to be shunted to the side. Each year I have been able to manage about 15 or 16 movies over the course of a Thursday through Sunday marathon. But this year, by careful positioning and weeding out of some of the more obvious lures, I have set myself up to see a record 21 movies, providing I don’t collapse from exhaustion sometime early Sunday afternoon.
And, oh, the movies I will have to pass up this year. Here’s just a sample of what I’m not going to being seeing at TCMFF 2016 this year:
- Poolside screenings at the Hollywood Roosevelt of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), Batman (1966), with Adam West and Lee Meriwether in attendance, and Forbidden Planet (1956)
- A 40th-anniversary screening of All the President’s Men (1976) with a discussion between reporter Carl Bernstein and the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Spotlight, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
- Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1925) with an accompanying musical orchestral performance conducted by Richard Einhorn featuring the UC Berkeley Alumni Chorus
- Alec Baldwin speaking to Angela Lansbury before a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1964)
- Carl Reiner introducing Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a movie comedy that is about as perfect a fit for TCMFF as there ever has been
- D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) on the big screen
- Elliot Gould introducing Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and M*A*S*H (1970)
- Movie historian and raconteur extraordinaire Michael Schlesinger introducing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
- A rare Smell-o-Vision presentation of the Cinerama feature Holiday in Spain (1960; aka Scent of Mystery), directed by Jack Cardiff
- And Stacy Keach introducing John Huston’s Fat City (1972)
If you have any sense of the range of my movie tastes and obsessions, you can imagine that having to pass up any or all of this abundance would seem unthinkable to me. But as in past TCMFF years, which have been occasion to some of the single most rewarding film-going experiences of my life, I’m sticking with my strategy of seeking of the unfamiliar, the untested, the rare, or what might be in my case the first encounter with a venerated classic. Of the possible 21 movies that make my up my projected schedule (one which could be severely altered at any moment due to festival changes or my own failure to live up to my own fairly Olympian staminal expectations), there are only three that I have seen before. To my mind, that’s what makes prospects for year’s years TCMFF truly thrilling—the anticipation of the unknown.
I won’t be able to make it to Hollywood early enough this year to do much socializing and lubricating at the Club TCM bar before the commencement of the Thursday night programming, so I’ll have to pick up my credentials, get some cheap dinner and pack it straight on over to the Chinese multiplex, where I’ll be spending most of my time over the weekend. I scratched considering most of the programs at outlying venues like the Egyptian Theater, the Cinerama Dome or the Montalban Theater because the scheduling of screenings is fairly tight, and you have to give yourself ample time to get in line for the next screening once you leave the previous one. And I’m planning to do a lot of tight turnarounds to maximize my movie intake this weekend, so if you want to find me, just scan the lobby of the multiplex. I’ll be there.
And when I get there, here’s what I’ll be seeing, tentatively speaking, of course:
- The aforementioned One Potato, Two Potato (1964) which will be introduced by Cannes award-winning actress Barbara Barrie
- The rare Argentinian film noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956), directed by Fernando Ayala
- Ida Lupino’s directorial debut, Never Fear (1949)
- William Powell and Ann Harding in the saucy pre-code comedy Double Harness (1934)
- Francis Ford Coppola introducing his 1974 masterpiece The Conversation (1974)
- Leslie Stevens’ Private Property (1960) starring Warren Oates and Corey Allen; this lost gem of American independent cinema fell out of circulation for years and its restoration is getting a world premiere screening here, just the sort of delight I’ve come to treasure most from TCMFF.
- William Dieterle’s rarely seen science fiction picture Six Hours to Live (1932), another world-premiere restoration
- Recently restored by the Film Noir Foundation, the Twilight Zone-esque Repeat Performance (1947), with Joan Leslie as a murderess who is granted a wish to live over the year that led to her heinous act
- Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall’s notorious family-surrounded-by-real-(and real dangerous)-animals drama Roar (1981)
- Lionel Barrymore as a small-town doctor in One Man’s Journey (1933)
- William Wyler’s second talkie, A House Divided (1931) starring Walter Houston and Helen Chandler
- Perhaps the best of the popular movie series, Ronald Colman returns when Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934)
- Gina Lollobrigida will be at the big Chinese Theater in person to introduce the hit comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968), and I wouldn’t miss that. Jeez, Ann-Margret last year, Angie Dickinson in past years, now Gina Lollobrigida. I hold my fanboy breath in the hopes that maybe Claudia Cardinale will be next! A 50th-anniversary screening of The Endless Summer (1966), with director Bruce Brown in attendance.
- Another icon of European cinema, Anna Karina, will grace a screening of the restored Band of Outsiders (1964), directed by Jean-Luc Godard
- A digitally restored 3D performance of the Ivan Tors-produced Gog (1954), which hasn’t been seen in good shape for years. This promises to be one of the festival’s most visually gorgeous attractions, and it’s showing at midnight!Allison Anders introducing
- TCMFF favorite Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous All That Heaven Allows (1955)
- The recent announcement that Burt Reynolds would not be able to attend this year’s festival in front of The Longest Yard (1974) introduces the possibility that I may pass on Robert Aldrich’s great, raucous comedy and instead take in Edward L. Cahn’s little-seen Universal western Law and Order (1932), starring Walter Huston and Harry Carey, and the world premiere of the new restoration of one of my favorite movies, the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932)
- The second of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, and probably the best, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
- And my festival capper, which I’ve never seen projected in any fashion, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse
In addition to this ridiculous bounty, on the final day of TCMFF five slots are given over to the rescheduling of popular selections from the past three days, a second chance for festivalgoers to catch the usually lesser-known or rare titles that have experienced sell-out screenings. So depending on how blown up my plans to see some of the lower-profile treats on Friday and Saturday end up being, those “to be determined” slots could become, and have been in past years, key to a fulfilling conclusion to the weekend’s diving for cinematic treasure. Downloading the festival’s handy smartphone app is a great way to keep up on what’s coming up in those Sunday slots, as well as any other breaking news coming out of the festival, but you can always do what I do and corral one of the friendly TCMFF volunteers, some of whom have been around the festival as long as I have—I remember your faces!—and get the information from them the old-fashioned way.
So here we go. The 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival commences this Thursday, April 28 and wraps up on Sunday, May 1. If you’re going to be there, you’re one of the truly lucky ones, like me, who will get to spend three days and four nights wall-to-wall enthralled by just a sliver of the rich history of the movies, American and international. This is one weekend out of every year that I appreciate beyond measure, and I thank my editor, Ed Gonzalez at Slant Magazine, for making it possible for me to attend. I will report back.