TEN THINGS I LEARNED AT THE 2016 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL
Well, another year spent in the company of classic cinema curated by the TCM Classic Film Festival has come and gone, leaving me with several great experiences watching favorite films and ones I’d never before seen, some already cherished memories, and the usual weary bag of bones for a body in the aftermath. (I usually come down with something when I decompress post-festival and get back to the working week, and this year has been no exception.) There have now been seven TCMFFs since its inaugural run in 2010. I’ve been lucky enough to attend them all, and this time around I saw more movies than I ever have before—18 features zipping from auditorium to queue and back to auditorium like a gerbil in a tube maze. In order to make sure I got in to see everything I wanted to see, I had to make sure I was in line as close to an hour ahead of the posted screening time as possible, and given how tightly the films had been packed together this year, accomplishing that proved to be one of the biggest challenges for festival attendees, seemingly more so than ever. I learned that there’s no time for hanging out after the lights come up. It’s on to the next queue to get your number—there will always be someone to talk to in line or to hold your place while you join the between-movie stampede to the restroom.
Actually, I learned several things while attending TCMFF this year, some of which surprised me and some of which confirmed beliefs or festival strategies I already had, all of which contributed, mostly positively, to my TCMFF 2016 experience. I came away thinking this might have been one of my favorite of the seven TCMFFs I’ve attended, and maybe this quick remembrance will give you some indication of why that seems to be true, ten things I learned while attending this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival.
1) TO SEE THE MOST MOVIES, MINIMIZE THE DISTANCE BETWEEN VENUES This has always been my strategy for constructing my scheduled weekend at TCMFF, and this year I was stricter than ever with this policy. I only left the main Chinese multiplex hub twice this year, for the relatively quick jaunt over to the Big Chinese to see The Conversation and Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. If a movie I wanted to see was scheduled at the Egyptian, like The Long Goodbye or Repeat Performance or The Passion of Joan of Arc, or even further away at the Cinerama Dome, like the Smell-o-Vision presentation of Scent of Mystery, I swallowed hard and skipped it. Most of the temptations being dangled at the Egyptian were ones I’d seen before; I’d even already seen Joan projected with a live score. And heading to the Dome would have meant missing the opportunity to see two rare films I’d never seen before, one of which, Edward L. Cahn’s early Universal western Law and Order (1932) turned out to be one of the best, and certainly most revelatory movies I’d see all weekend. By sticking close to the multiplex, I was able to maximize the amount of films I could see and still ensure that most of them would be first-time experiences.
2) IF YOU LIKE 35mm, STAY CLOSE TO THEATER FOUR The amount of 35mm being shown at TCMFF 2016 was down to only 33% of its offerings, most of those comprised of prints of lesser-known films that rarely make it out of the vaults. Which is why you’ll usually see these films only in the festival’s smallest venue, theater #4, the only auditorium in the Chinese complex that can still show 35mm. Movies like Double Harness (1933) caught early buzz this year and were tough to get into because the theater only seats 177 people, and they rarely get scheduled into a big venue like the Egyptian (which has 35mm projection capability) because it’s much more difficult to anticipate the level of audience interest in them. The rarity of the films shown in this auditorium makes them catnip to festivalgoers like me, who program their weekend around what they haven’t seen or even heard of, so much so that TCM programmer Millie De Chirico, who often hosts the good stuff in this auditorium, has started talking about a Theater Four Club (#Theater4Club) for us perennial stalwarts.
3) FESTIVALGOERS CAN BE A WHINY LOT Double Harness sold out quickly on Friday morning, and even though it was showing in the #4, where I’d just been to see Ida Lupino’s directorial debut Never Fear (1949), by the time that film let out the line to go back in for Double Harness was already beginning its long loop around the expanse of the outdoor food court. Grumble, grumble, grumble, many could be overheard grumbling, already grumpy over alleged “disorganization” of the festival. I knew, however, that such an overwhelming crush of people to see this picture would guarantee it being programmed into one of the festival’s Sunday “To Be Determined” slots, reserved for the smaller movies that garner the most unexpected response measured simply in how many people are turned away from its initial screening. Sure enough, Double Harness was scheduled for a second screening Sunday morning, so I made sure I was there in line at 8:00 a.m. for the 9:15 a.m. screening… and I was still number 76 in line! I knew I would get in, but as the line grew ever longer behind me, populated by people straggling in a half hour or more later expecting easy entry, the grumbling grew louder and the haranguing of exceedingly patient TCMFF volunteer staffers (like Lillian pictured here, who I ran into frequently and who never had anything but a smile on her face) began in earnest. There are few things more distasteful to witness in this environment than the righteous and entitled fury of festivalgoers who can’t figure out that being in line at least an hour early for the sure sell-out of a movie which has already proved difficult to get into is an absolute requirement. If you pay as much as you must for a pass to the TCMFF, it might be a good idea to process such fundamental business ahead of time so you won’t end up bullying a festival volunteer just because you couldn’t drag your ass out of bed in time to see a movie.
4) HOW TO DO THE TCMFF ON $6.50 Speaking of payment, unless you have a media credential like mine, you’ve already spent as much as two or three thousand dollars on passes and, if you’re coming in from out of town, food and accommodations before you ever set foot on Hollywood Boulevard. But since I’m sponsored by a magazine to write about the festival, my only expenses, provided I avoid the copious opportunities to drop coin on overpriced swag at the TCM Boutique, are incurred in transporting myself from Glendale to the Hollywood & Highland complex where the festival takes place and in answering the occasional rumbling of my prodigious belly. Well, this year I was determined to be as frugal as possible. I popped my own popcorn and packed a variety of snacks (apples, PayDay candy bars) and a load of homemade sandwiches (PB&J, ham and Swiss on rye) in my bag each day. My one extraneous expense was a large Diet Coke purchased at the Chinese multiplex snack bar. I kept hold of that cup from Friday through Sunday, amassing something like four or five free refills, and the $6.50 I spent on it was the only money I parted ways with all weekend long at the festival. Viva filmy frugality!
5) GINA LOLLOBRIGIDA IS A FINE COMIC ACTRESS I’d never seen Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell before, so my impressions of Gina Lollobrigida were essentially confined to Beat the Devil and her reputation as a va-va-va-voom Italian sexpot. Before she stepped on stage with Ben Mankiewicz for an interview preceding Buona Sera, TCMFF ran a promotional film spotlighting her career not only in movies, but as an acclaimed photographer and then, in a really unexpected third act, as a sculptor. These were all aspects of Lollobrigida’s career of which I was ignorant. And seeing Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell made me realizing that I was also ignorant of her prodigious talents as a comic actress. She’s the glue that holds this emotionally resonant farce together (it’s the unacknowledged inspiration for the stage hit Mamma Mia!), which can often mean playing the sober center of a universe where the orbiting satellites get to have all the wacky fun. But as Mrs. Campbell, suddenly besieged by the return of three American soldiers to her Italian village, one of whom fathered her daughter but all three of whom believe that they are the dad, she orchestrates exasperation, panic, joy, and of course boundless sex appeal, with the ease of a true maestra. It’s wonderful that she had such a fulfilling life after the movies, but a performance like this one can only make the tapering off of her movie career after this picture feel like a missed opportunity.
6) FOLLOW MICHAEL SCHLESINGER WHEREVER HE GOES If you’ve been to TCMFF more than once, chances are you’ve been to a screening presented by producer, preservationist and film historian Michael Schlesinger. He introduced one of my first experiences at TCMFF at 2010, the hilarious comedy Murder, He Says, as “a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made 30 years before that picture even existed.” He was right, and I’ve made sure to see at least one movie Schlesinger has introduced every year since, which means I’ve had the opportunity to see projected glories like the Abbott and Costello comedy Who Done It?, a thrilling restoration of Johnny Guitar and my own holy grail, Billy Wilder’s One Two Three with very appreciative audiences. Last year Schlesinger didn’t get to share anything, so in 2016 TCMFF gave him two showcases—Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the ultra-rare Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) which was indeed, as Schlesinger insisted, “The best movie you’ve never seen!” If you make it to a TCMFF in the future, do as I do—make sure you see whatever it is Michael Schlesinger brings to the party. I’ve never regretted doing so, and neither will you.
7) IT IS POSSIBLE TO WATCH AN ENTIRE MOVIE WITH YOUR MOUTH HANGING OPEN I stumbled into a midnight screening of Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) at the end of my first long day of movies at TCMFF 2016, but there would be no dozing off. In this notorious movie, Marshall and his real-life family, including Tippi Hedren and Melanie Griffith, act out a very thin story of peril among a menagerie of untrained and unpredictable lions, tigers, and panthers, was without doubt king of this urban festival jungle in the realm of unbridled disbelief. I’m pretty sure I’ve never watched an entire film with my mouth hanging open in shock before this one. Roar isn’t exactly a Disney True-Life Adventure snuff film (nobody dies), but the absolute knowledge that people could have been killed, and at the very least will be seriously mauled on screen, lends it a sort of tension that’s hopefully unique in movie history. The message the film desperately wants to send—regarding the preservation and the majesty of wildlife, particularly African cats of all shapes and sizes—keeps getting blurred by the insanity of the situations into which dedicated animal preservationists Marshall and Hedren put themselves and their family. The gore in this movie is real, the disregard for human safety is lunatic and irresponsible, and its motivations are strangely muddled, but I’ve never seen anything like it. A classic? No. But I was riveted. As noted film historian Richard Harland Smith suggests in his excellent article in the TCMFF program, the best comment on the well-intentioned, if bizarre hubris behind Roar would be to program it on a double bill with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.
8) DIRECTOR EDWARD L. CAHN WOULD BE AN EXCELLENT SUBJECT FOR FURTHER RESEARCH I’ve known and loved director Edward L. Cahn mostly for the late-career string of mediocrities he cranked out in the ‘50s and ‘60s, long after the promise of his early career had been winked out. Pictures like Creature with the Atom Brain, Girls in Prison, The She-Creature, Runaway Daughters, Zombies of Mora Tau, Voodoo Woman, Dragstrip Girl, Girls, Guns and Gangsters and Oklahoma Territory are all lean, no-frills time-killers that are maybe more fun than they have any right to be. And Cahn also directed one of my favorite ‘50s sci-fi classics, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, a movie to which Alien owes more than just passing acknowledgement. But I knew little of Cahn’s early career other than that he was a top-drawer editor for Universal before landing in the director’s chair for a series of inexpensive programmers for the studio, all before becoming a fixture cranking out shorts for MGM from 1935 to 1949. One of those movies, Law and Order (1932), screened this year at TCMFF and made me think there might have been more to Cahn than has ever met my eye before. The movie is essentially the Gunfight at the OK Corral with the names changed (to protect the mythological?), starring Walter Huston as notorious gunslinger-turned-marshal Frame “Saint” Johnson, née Wyatt Earp. Cahn lends Law and Order a somber, elegiac and entirely unexpected attitude toward death. The numerous killings here have a gravitas absent from the average horse opera of the day, and the film’s final shootout set piece has been choreographed and edited with a surprising degree of poetry that made me think of Sam Peckinpah more than once. I’m now more inclined than ever to seek out the eight other pictures he directed before migrating to MGM in the hope that Law and Order wasn’t just some sort of aberration. And even if it was, I’ll still have Girls, Guns and Gangsters and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
9) FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA MEANS MORE TO ME THAN I REALIZED I knew I couldn’t miss being part of the audience to see The Conversation at the Big Chinese on Friday afternoon; given that it wasn’t a big hit, the TCMFF audience would likely be the biggest one assembled to watch the movie since its premiere at Cannes in 1974. However, most of us were there not only to see the movie, but to see it in the presence of its director, Francis Ford Coppola. I passed on seeing Coppola get his hand and footprints memorialized in cement earlier in the day; this was the big ticket. And when Coppola came out on stage before the film, introduced by the ubiquitous Ben Mankiewicz, something unexpected happened: I started to get choked up and dropped a couple of tears in the process. Here was the director of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, two films which have meant so much to me in my development as a movie fan and as one who appreciates them perhaps more seriously, sitting down to talk about his movie and his process, and I was there to see him. I’ve never been an across-the-board Coppola apologist, but the emotion of this moment so surprised me that I came away thinking that it was time to look again at films like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart and Youth Without Youth and see if I might have missed something the first time around.
10) PICK THE RIGHT FILM WITH WHICH TO SAY GOOD-BYE Over my seven years at TCMFF I’ve had pretty good luck ending my TCMFF experiences in style. My string of closing films has included Metropolis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Haskell Wexler in attendance), Dial M for Murder (in glorious 3D) and Psycho. Even lower-wattage closers, like Robert Evans introducing Black Sunday and a screening of Alan Ladd as The Great Gatsby (1949), had appeal, even if they didn’t hit hard like those first four did. This year I had intended to finish off with Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. But I started to get weary on Sunday afternoon, and I started to miss my wife and my girls, whom I hadn’t seen much of over the course of the festival’s three days and four nights. So I decided to wrap things up with the glorious Technicolor of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a perfect movie with which to end it all, as it has about three or four endings just in itself. And it was indeed a perfect salutary to my TCMFF 2016, leaving me with just the right mixture of soaring emotion and appreciation for the experience of seeing such a grand Hollywood picture in the biggest and brightest presentation ever. My fondness for this festival is anchored in being privileged to witness screenings like this one, and one week later the afterglow of ending on Ford and Wayne’s thrilling, big-hearted adventure has yet to dissipate. That afterglow is one I expect I’ll still be feeling when it comes time to gear up for next year.
A complete list of what I saw over the course of three days and four nights would look a little something like this:
One Potato, Two Potato (1964)
Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Never Fear (1949)
The Conversation (1974)
Private Property (1960)
Six Hours to Live (1932)
My Sister Eileen (1955)
A House Divided (1931)
Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934)
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968)
The Endless Summer (1966)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Double Harness (1933)
Law and Order (1932)
Horse Feathers (1932)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
And finally, here’s my piece on the festival for Slant Magazine!