THE TRUTH ABOUT ZARDOZ, PLUS NINE OTHER THINGS I LEARNED AT TCMFF 2017
Just back from the 2017 TCM Classic Movie Festival with a few thoughts and thoughts about thoughts. I certainly held my reservations about this year’s edition, and though I ultimately ended up tiring early of flitting about from theater to theater like a mouse in a movie maze (it happens to even the most fanatically devoted of us on occasion, or so I’m told), there were, as always, several things I learned by attending TCMFF 2017 as well.
1) TCM STAFFERS ARE UNFAILINGLY POLITE AND HELPFUL
Thankfully I wasn’t witness, as I have been in past years, to any pass holders acting like spoiled children because they had to wait in a long queue or, heaven forbid, because they somehow didn’t get in to one of their preferred screenings. Part of what makes the TCMFF experience as pleasant as it often is can be credited to the tireless work all the behind-the-scenes and on-the-ground staffers do to ensure that. I always look forward to interacting with the volunteers, and this year one of them, Lillian, who I met several times over the course of the festival last year, recognized me in line on the first night and made a point to say hi and welcome to this year’s big show. The smile never leaves this woman’s face, and in the hard-scrabble, cutthroat world of navigating the TCMFF (I’m only half kidding) that’s really saying something. She epitomizes the sort of magic touch that, even at the point of exhaustion, makes TCMFF a fun festival to navigate.
2) COMEDY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
This year’s official theme at TCMFF was “Comedy in the Movies,” a broadly encompassing umbrella if there ever was one, and if you were so compelled to follow the theme there were plenty of obvious choices to be made on the schedule, such as The Awful Truth, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Palm Beach Story, Some Like It Hot and Twentieth Century. On my abbreviated lineup this year I saw a W.C. Fields short (The Barber Shop), a W.C. Fields feature (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), a Laurel and Hardy short (The Music Box), a Laurel Hardy feature (Way Out West) and a delightful William Powell-Myrna Loy screwball romp (Love Crazy). Given all that treasure, imagine my surprise when the funniest movies I saw over the weekend turned out to be… The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil. Neither of them are traditional “comedies,” of course, but they both go a long way toward indicating just how elusive and undefinable the comic impulse can be, and how delightful it can be when it unexpectedly explodes.
3) WILLIAM POWELL COULD BE MY GRANDMA
The wonderful Love Crazy (1941) finds married couple William Powell and Myrna Loy having a union-threatening rift on their fourth anniversary, all of which compels Powell to have himself declared insane and eventually masquerade as his own sister in an attempt to maneuver Loy back into his good graces. Powell making fake chock-full-o’-nuts is predictably enjoyable, but I would have never guessed he’d conjure such a convincingly dowdy old maid. This urbane movie star, who shaved his signature pencil mustache here for the first and only time in his career in order to make the transformation, makes a far more persuasive case than anybody I’ve ever seen doing cross-dressing duty, and that includes Dustin Hoffman. (Powell gets bonus points for not having learned hard lessons about becoming a better man by putting on a dress too.)
4) THERE CAN NEVER BE TOO MUCH PETER LORRE
The second film I saw this year was the English-language debut of Peter Lorre in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. (I swear I could see the image of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter from 80-some years in the future flitting across Lorre’s face occasionally.) When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I’d see was Lorre again as Rocky Rococo—er, Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and right after as the sinister, sweaty and quite improbably named Julius O’Hara (“There are many Germans in Chile who have come to be known as O’Hara”) in Beat the Devil (1953). If TCMFF had only shown The Comedy of Terrors (1963)—and would that not have been a better choice to illustrate the festival theme than, say, The Jerk?– my impromptu Three Decades of Lorre tour could have been gloriously extended into a fourth.
5) A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF PANIQUE IS A GOOD THING
Going in, I was unaware that Georges Simonen’s novel Les Fiancailles de M. Hire, the source material which provided the foundation for Julien Duviver’s mournful, masterful thriller Panique (1946), shown here in the West Coast premiere of a stunning restoration from Rialto Pictures, was the same novel from which Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire (1989), was derived. This is what happens when you pay attention to the estimable Rialto Pictures’ Bruce Goldstein, who interviewed Simonen’s son Pierre, before the screening of this disturbing and desperately riveting movie. (Rialto’s beautiful restoration of Panique opens on American screens in May, including a week at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles May 5-11.)
6) BRUCE GOLDSTEIN ALSO KNOWS SUBTITLING
The day after seeing Panique, I attended a talk hosted by Bruce Goldstein, who not only heads Rialto Pictures and programs at the influential Film Forum in New York City, but who personally edited the new and much improved subtitles for the restoration of Panique. How do I know they were improved? Because Goldstein showed those of us in attendance for his presentation “The Art of Subtitling,” held at Club TCM in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, just what the original titles looked like. Goldstein’s admittedly non-academic lecture on the subject covered the history of subtitling, from the days of silent film intertitling to those infamously difficult-to-read white-on-white nightmares familiar to anyone who watched foreign films from the 1950s through the 1980s, to the much more readable variety we see today on DVD and Blu-ray releases, and in theatrical releases as well. It was fascinating for me, someone who makes my bread and butter working in exactly this field, listen to Goldstein extrapolate the process and explain, with his customary good humor, his philosophy behind what makes a good and effective subtitle, as well as a clunky and terrible one (see above), and to find myself nodding in agreement with his conclusions.
7) EXPOSURE TO 35mm PRINTS CAN BE AN APHRODISIAC
This is a theory offered by a fellow festivalgoer which I overheard while standing in line before a film at TCMFF 2017. Well, 35mm certainly never worked that particular magic for me, especially on the rare occasions when I actually had a date in high school. I heard no reports of random orgies breaking out at screenings of Cat People or The Princess Bride, and not even at the unspooling of the luminous and potentially combustible nitrate prints of Laura and Black Narcissus shown this year at the Egyptian Theater, which would, you would think, be enough to get any film nerd hot and bothered. Needless to say, I eagerly await the results of further field testing of this hypothesis.
8) EXPOSURE TO 3D SEATTLE REDHEADS IS UNFORTUNATELY NOT AN APHRODISIAC
I didn’t exactly expect a debauch on the order of Fellini Satyricon when I donned my 3D glasses for the niftily restored Those Redheads from Seattle (1953), but I admit I held out hope that things might get a little saucy. Alas, this picture is far closer to a wholesome Disney picture (think The One and Only, Genuine, Original Redheaded Family Band) than to the relative erotic free-for-all of, say, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But it’s still a good bit of innocuous fun. The first of only two color movies I saw this year, this vividly hued would-be romp features Agnes Moorehead as the mother of the titular siblings, played by Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer and the Bell Sisters, who takes her flame-haired brood to the Yukon in search of fame and fortune during the Gold Rush. Gene Barry plays the owner of the town saloon. Are you aroused yet?
9) DIANA ROSS ASKS ALL THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
TCMFF fatigue set in early this year. Before even my first feature on Saturday afternoon I was feeling the impulse to pack it all in, and I eventually did just that later in the day, opting not even to return Sunday morning but instead to sleep in and then go serve spaghetti at my daughter’s concert band fundraiser. As I made my way from the subtitling presentation back over toward the Chinese complex I was still undecided as to what movie to see before I bailed for Santa Monica and a great Walter Hill double feature (with the director present) way across town. As I hemmed and hawed over the schedule, I crossed paths with a familiar Hollywood Boulevard sight—placard-waving Korean evangelists shouting intelligible warnings of damnation into badly calibrated bullhorns. (It really wouldn’t be TCMFF without them, and they’re—forgive me—a damn sight more pleasant than the denizens of the Westboro Baptist Church.) And not five minutes later, as I stumbled toward an escalator inside the complex, I locked eyes with one of those friendly TCMFF staffers who looked at me as if I obviously needed help and asked, “Do you know where you’re going to?” For a second there I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what to say in return…
10) ZARDOZ IS A GOOD MOVIE, GODDAMN IT!
I’ve seen Zardoz a few times, usually at home, after the wife and kids have gone to bed, thereby lessening the opportunity for them to be frightened. But I’d never seen it 900 miles wide until Friday night at TCMFF. Invaluable TCM programmer Millie Di Chirico began her introduction/warning to Zardoz, a movie she treasures, by suggesting it was not a movie best seen alone, but instead in the company of a like-minded, perhaps chemically enhanced audience. But given the response offered by late-night TCMFF viewers Friday night, I’m not so sure.
Say what you will about Zardoz, and you will (and you should, as long as it’s something more substantial than “Awesome!” or “Whaafuck?!”), but this singular film is one sprung from the mind of a true visionary director, no matter our conclusions about that specific vision. Whenever I hear of a corporate drone who’s coughed up another dour superhero fantasy acclaimed as “visionary,” I imagine that vision being programmed in a boardroom at the behest of the keepers of the lowest-common denominators and in fear of legions of fanboys who don’t cotton to coloring outside of the lines. But Boorman, who conceived, wrote, produced, and directed Zardoz flush from the success of Deliverance, when he could have done any number of other projects to secure his commercial and artistic future, sustained the production of one of the more original, deeply felt, and genuinely hallucinatory science-fiction allegories ever to make it to the screen bearing the imprimatur of a major studio. In the annals of odd studio releases, it deserves a place right alongside Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
Sean Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, one of a cadre of assassins murdering the population of Brutals in the name of a strange sub-deity called Zardoz, whose rock-carved visage floats over the hills and moors, vomiting weapons and ammunition to be used in the slaughter. Zed is somehow smuggled inside Zardoz, where he murders a man who claims to be Zardoz, found perched precariously at the mouth of the giant figure, and is subsequently transported into a realm, a vortex, populated by immortals, an elitist group of scientists and sensualists who have separated themselves from the society of Zardoz’s victims into what can only be described as a pastel-flavored religious commune. That commune is governed by the Tabernacle, an omnipotent, disembodied voice dedicated to sustaining the maintenance of life for these chosen, whose rare transgressions from the imposed idyll are punished by a measure of aging which, if enough infractions pile up, will result in debilitation and dementia, but never death.
Against the resistance of Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) and to the encouragement of May (Sara Kestleman), the immortal commune’s two arresting poles of rapacious, visionary (there’s that word again) pleasure, Zed slowly accrues awareness of his origins and of the past world, supplied by May and her minions. Zed slowly begins to approach a sort of godhead himself, one that might even replace the Tabernacle as the Immortals, grown weary of endless, unchallenged existence, mount an attempt to regain mortality, to kill God, to be able to once again experience life under the one thing that seems to give it meaning, the surety of termination.
That’s a lot to expect guffaw-ready, possibly chemically enhanced hipster audiences to digest, especially after a day filled with as many as six other films seen previous to it. Of course, when a director gives himself fully to the images and ideas cluttering his head, the result is usually not one that’s going to speak to great swaths of moviegoers who’d prefer the film to have more Gordon flash than existential philosophizing. And when Boorman drapes his hero in what looks essentially like a red diaper for the duration (and at one point, a wedding gown) and spins out phantasmagorical sequences draped in as much vintage early-’70s futurism as Zardoz sports, he runs the risk of looking like a fool. But for the patient viewer, Zardoz is also a film of ravishing beauty—and some of those images, particularly of the great Zardoz head floating across the Irish landscapes where the production was filmed, shoot straight beyond silliness and into the rarified realm of the sublime.
Zardoz doesn’t play by many recognizable rules, of narrative, of visual discipline, but even for the younger, presumably smart audience that it drew at TCMFF there’s apparently only a couple of ways to respond to something like it—derision, confusion, boredom, or some numb cocktail consisting of all of the above. The surprisingly large crowd, prepped by TCM’s invaluable programmer/host Millie Di Chirico and her peppy introduction/warning, giggled and hooted right out of the gate. But as I was secretly hoping, they didn’t end up having the stamina to turn the film into TCMFF’s very own episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and eventually, about a half hour in, the superiority-tinged laughs and gasps subsided as the audience gave in either to the effects of that numbing cocktail or, like I did, the strange buzzing in the brain caused by exposure to a genuine original.
The usual proclamations of “What the fuck was that?!” and “Worst movie I ever saw!” could be heard on the way out of the auditorium, but I left elated, as if my mental receptors had been seduced into opening at just the right frequency and taking in Boorman’s spectacular folly, letting it seed my brain and grow into what it would. And seeing it in such a beautiful DCP presentation on a big, big screen was a treat that unsuspecting audiences, or perhaps even suspecting ones looking for the next 2001-style head trip, shouldn’t take for granted. Zardoz is a head trip all right, and the mental terrain it traverses and transforms certainly isn’t without the frustrations and jarring transitions to accompany the beauteous revelation of a true journey. But when the whole thing is over there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve come back from an allegorical somewhere which surely has inquisitive intellectual precedent, yet at the same time feels like uncharted, idiosyncratic territory as far as the movies are concerned.
(For a more complete look at my TCMFF experience this year, please have a look at the report I filed for Slant magazine and their blog The House Next Door.)