114: TCM Film Festival 2017 Focuses On Comedy
April 6, 2017 12:40 a.m.
Episode 114: TCM Film Festival 2017 Focuses on Comedy
TCM senior vice president of programming and production Charles Tabesh previews the 2017 TCM Film Festival and talks about building a nitrate projection booth.
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Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I’m Beth Accomando.
Okay, classic film zealots it’s that time of year to make the pilgrimage to the Mecca known as the TCM Film Festival. The festival runs April 6th through the 9th in Los Angeles, as a cable network Turner Classic Movies better known as TCM has won a devout following of cinophiles that counts Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino among its fans. But eight years ago the network decided to expand the classic film experience to an actual film festival. The festival centered around classic and mostly American films. Each year festival organizers led by Charles Tabesh pick a theme of focus and this year it’s Make Them Laugh.
For this podcast I get to geek out with Tabesh about all the difficult choices an attendee of the TCM film festival must face when trying to decide which of the 80 films to view at five different venues. As someone who’s been attending for three years, I can confirm that it’s pure agony to have to choose between films you love and films you’ve never seen before. But every single film is a transcending experience because TCM takes care to present each in the most pristine quality possible, sometimes even striking brand new 35 mm prints specifically for its festival. Since the TCM film festival is still relatively young at eight years old, I began my interview with Tabesh by asking him to explain what makes his festival different from others.
Charles Tabesh: Well, I think there are a couple of things that make it different than what’s out there. One, obviously it focuses on older films so most of the prominent film festivals in the country and around the world are devoted to new films and new releases and hot directors and hot actors and almost the business of Hollywood or filmmaking, and we are devoted to the history of Hollywood and beyond. Unlike the major festivals like Cannes and Toronto and Telluride, we are classic movies. And there are a couple of other classic movie film festivals out there that are very, very good, but I think we are different from those in that we are a little bit bigger and broader. A lot of those are really tailored towards hardcore people. You’ve got an incredible festival at the George Eastman House every year devoted to nitrate screenings. You’ve got Cinecon which is just a great festival for hardcore film fans who really want to see the most obscure films. We try to be a little bit broader and show big Hollywood classics as well as more obscure films and have five screenings going at the same time. So you’ll really have a lot to choose from at any given time and I think it’s rather unique because it’s really about movie history in a way that nobody else does it.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, five screenings at one time. It’s choice but it’s also agonizing at times because there is just too much to choose from.
Charles Tabesh: I know. And I know every year it’s fun to hear people complain because I think it’s all good-natured and I think that they are genuinely torn sometimes about what to go see but they understand that if you’re going to have a lot of films, you’re going to have to make some choices and so it’s sort of fun for me to watch that play out.
Beth Accomando: Hard choices, yes. Another thing about the festival that I think stands it apart from others is you guys really have a commitment to trying to get the best possible prints for a lot of these and I had the opportunity to see some really gorgeous 35 mm prints that were struck specifically for your festival. That seems kind of rare.
Charles Tabesh: We are lucky. I mean we have a budget sometimes to create new prints. We have a great partnership with Photocam and they help us with both prints and DCPs and they are a wonderful sponsor for us. We work very closely with the studios and with all the major archives to try to get the best prints that we can. So there are times when the only choice is a vintage print because that’s all that exists and the elements are there to create something new. But 99% of the time you will see the very best that’s possible and that’s very important to us.
Beth Accomando: Because I know there are a whole group of people who are very much film purists who want to see film projected in theatres. And sometimes the problem you run into is that theatres will be running magenta-colored prints or really old ones that are scratched up. and it’s harder to maintain that commitment to wanting to see those 35 prints when they are in that kind of condition but I have seen a few at your venue where you are reminded of just like how beautiful a pristine like black and white print can be projected on a big screen.
Charles Tabesh: I agree and I understand and respect people that really only want to see film and certainly you can do that if you come to our film festival and you just want to see film, but the reality of the restoration work that’s been done today, a lot of it is digital and in fact almost all of it is digital. So you can get the best versions sometimes that’s the digital version but when we are able to get an amazing print and we can play it, we love doing that and we do think it’s important to have films that’s part of the festival in 35 mm. And then this year we have added nitrate to this festival too so we are super excited about that.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, tell me about that addition.
Charles Tabesh: Well, we have a partnership with this film foundation, Martin Scorsese’s organization devoted to film restoration and preservation. And they called us a couple of years ago to see if we would partner with them on building out a nitrate screening room at the Egyptian and we were able to work with them on that. And it took about a year for it to be built but it was just finished late last year. And so for this year we have the ability to screen nitrate prints and it’s a little more complicated than that because we had then had to get access to those prints and they’re special and unique and the archives that hold them, we really want to make sure that they are taken care of properly and that they don’t abuse them in any way or we don’t abuse them in anyway. So we’ve worked with various archives to get access to some key titles. And in partnership with the film foundation we are showing four different prints, one each night throughout the festival at the Egyptian.
Beth Accomando: And why did you feel that this was an important thing to add? I mean for people who may not be familiar what that means to have a nitrate print, explain why that was an important kind of goal for you to do to add this year.
Charles Tabesh: Well, I think for films I want to say fanatics maybe but first hardcore film fans, nitrate is something a little bit that’s been allusive to a lot of them because nitrate was the primary way of exhibiting films up and through into the 40s I think. It’s known for the quality of the picture, the way that the light projection of screen is unique and quite beautiful. But because nitrate film is also very unsafe, usually flammable and there were several accidents and fires because of nitrate film. The industry had to change and it evolved and not used nitrate anymore. So while nitrate prints exist, they are closely guarded, there are a lot of laws about how they can be stored and projected and there are very strict laws.
And so, as a consequence people who know a little bit about film history might be intrigued and want to see a nitrate film but they are really very few opportunities. There are a couple, I mean in LA, UCLA does a festival where they will sometimes project nitrate and as I mentioned the Eastman House does an annual festival devoted to nitrate screening. But it’s rare and especially if you are coming from not a big city, it’s very hard to ever see a nitrate film.
Beth Accomando: And one of the exiting things about that is you also have an evening of, I believe it’s called Frozen Time, where it’s not a complete single film but it’s a discovery that was made. Tell me what that program is going to be like?
Charles Tabesh: Yeah, actually it’s a documentary. It’s by a film historian named Bill Morrison. In the 70s there was just a treasure trove of old film, like nitrate 35 mm, a different film that was discovered underneath, underground in Canada and it had been there for many years. A lot of things would come and go. I think there was a hockey rink at one point over that and/or maybe a swimming pool over that ground at some point. But very deep beneath was some old film footage that had never been seen since it first came out back in the 20s. The film footage that he found was or that they found was pretty incredible, a lot of really interesting out-takes from movies, movie stars and lost scenes, that sort of stuff. And he put it together in a really compelling, unique, interesting way with fantastic music and a lot of the clips from these various films that were discovered and it’s just a fascinating documentary. I think for anyone who really is interested in kind of film history in a deeper way will really appreciate it.
Beth Accomando: That’s funny. When I was reading the description of that I had a moment where I was wondering if it was fake or real because there was that great Peter Jackson film Forgotten Silver, that was just like fake documentary about finding all this missing footage and so --
Charles Tabesh: Yeah. It’s a reasonable thing to sort of guess and there are various documentaries out there that kind of do that. There is another one too called Love among the Ruins about a film discovered in Italy that came out a couple years ago. But, yeah I know this is real.
Beth Accomando: The theme for this year’s festival is Comedy: Make Them Laugh, what made you decide for this particular theme this year and what’s kind of – because you break it down into kind of sidebars of comedy or different tracks of comedy for the festival?
Charles Tabesh: Yeah, I mean, to be honest there is no really usually genius rhyme or reason behind the theme. It’s just kind of what we think might be fun or interesting. So it’s not a subject that we had done before. We thought it was time to do it and we thought it would be a good year. It’s actually been a little bit challenging to program for a couple of reasons. One, because there are just certain movies you don’t want to leave out, there are certain directors you don’t want to leave out. At the same time there is no way you can play every comedy or get every great comedian included or comic actors. So that has been difficult and we can’t only be comedy, there are people that don’t always want comedies. There are new restorations that are not comedies or even their key anniversaries, you know, of non-comedic films. There are stars that we want to contribute to that didn’t just make comedy. So there are things like that that make it a little bit challenging but within now I wanted to make sure we had a good representation of various types of screwball comedies, romantic comedies, slapstick, anarchic.
So you will definitely see the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, as part of a show that’s playing before our film [indiscernible] [00:14:39]. Abrahams, Zucker & Zucker are coming to host Top Secret, what I think is just one of the funniest movies ever.
Charles Tabesh: So there are plenty comics and then there are plenty kind of little subtheme, comic themes like – I’ve always loved the movies about couples that decide to get divorced and then change their mind. So there’s a collection of four or five divorce remorse movies sprinkled throughout.
Charles Tabesh: There are some dark comedies as part of the theme, films like Dr. Strangelove and [indiscernible] [00:16:35].
Charles Tabesh: There are films that feature comedians in non-comic role,
so like Richard Pryor in Lady Sings The Blues.
Charles Tabesh: Or Jackie Gleason in Requiem for a Heavyweight, Bob Newhart in Hell is for Heroes, and a couple more. We always try to have kind of subthemes sort of floating throughout while still providing enough diversity for people that might not want to dive into their theme to be able to have other option.
Beth Accomando: And you have also have movie spoofs, so you have Hollywood sproofing itself which is always entertaining.
Charles Tabesh: Yes, movie spoofs and Mel Brooks is coming with the anxiety and as part of that which I think is, you know, that’ll be a great event. And other theme I’m really excited about is Best In Show which is such a funny grouping, so a lot of the cast members are coming to help contribute that as well.
Beth Accomando: The TCM festival does make an effort to have introductions for all of the films and bring people there. Do you find that kind of the TCM brand and the way it attracts real movie lovers is helping you to get like a lot of these people to come and present their films where they might not be as eager to do that at other venues?
Charles Tabesh: Yeah, I do think. So first of all I think you’re right. That’s very important part of the TCM brand is to provide that contacts and duration. And so if it’s not somebody that was in the film or maybe a relative of somebody that was in the film or that made the film will have an expert host to provide a little history, we’ve always done on the channel and when we first launched the festival we thought that was really important. And I do think our reputation has helped us to get people to want to participate, and so I would imagine that helps maybe sway some people that would be less inclined to do these sorts of public events. I don’t know, I think so.
Beth Accomando: In having attended the festival for a number of years now, it’s not just the celebrities that make for good programming in terms of the presentations, the introductions, but I’ve gone a couple of times to the ones that and I forgot the other guy’s name but Ben Berg and…
Charles Tabesh: Craig Dern and Ben Berg.
Beth Accomando: Yes, and they are not big Hollywood celebrities but they have had the best programs. I remember The Adventures of Robin Hood, them explaining how they got the sound effect for the arrow and that was so fascinating.
Charles Tabesh: They are fantastic. We love them. We now bring them every year that they are willing and they are willing to come in so far. We’ve been lucky that since their first one, I think four or five years ago they have been willing to come back. The academy actually had started a program called Academic Conversations and they are the ones that told us about Craig and Ben and we decided to follow up on that suggestion. And they came in and they did a really great extended presentation behind the special effects for several films and they are entertaining and thorough and interesting. And this year they are doing a special presentation on It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at the Cinerama Dome. Yeah, I think that would be really awesome.
Beth Accomando: That sounds great. You also program a few midnight movies and this year you have a crazy good choice of Zardoz as one of them. What goes into the midnight programming?
Charles Tabesh: Well, we have a franchise on TCM called TCM Underground where we play kind of cult movies and obscure, weird movies that kind of have a following and the person that programs that force is Millie De Chirico. And I went to her and I said Millie, you know, what is it to be really you should play at midnight and she was adamant right away. She said Zardoz, you have to play Zardoz.
Charles Tabesh: I said okay and luckily Fox is allowing us to access their DCP and we were playing Zardoz at midnight and the other midnight movie is The Kentucky Fried Movie and we got Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker coming along with John Landis to help. Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker team will be doing Top Secret followed by Kentucky Fried Movie which will be at midnight and John Landis who is the director will join them for that. That’s just one of those cult comedies from the 70s that was just super whacky and hilarious.
Beth Accomando: So midnight movies are really great fun because they usually are a bit of a change from what you are seeing during the day. And after seeing like four movies during the day you are usually a little like bleary and it usually is a little bit of a surreal kind of experience like a bit prone to hallucination at that time and Zardoz will be perfect.
Charles Tabesh: Yes, that’s right, exactly, that’s right. I think this year I can’t sit through, by that time I’m so exhausted. So I think I’ll make it to the opening of the midnight movie and then at 12:10 I have to go to bed. So I don’t know if I’m going to make it through either of them this year but I will try.
Beth Accomando: Well, if it helps I’m planning to make some Zardoz cookies of Sean Connery.
Charles Tabesh: That’s great.
Beth Accomando: That’s the thing that I like to do. I make theme desserts to go with movies and when I saw that – there’s a cookie recipe actually for Zardoz cookies.
Charles Tabesh: That’s so great.
Beth Accomando: So I couldn’t resist. Are also this year, there’re a number of films which whether it was planned this way or not kind of fall into a group of films that seem very appropriate as we are going through the new Trump administration. And it seems like artists are very kind of energized to find art that kind of helps them express their opinions and coping with things. And you’re going to a group of older films that have a resonance now that might be a little different than when they initially came up at their films like America which is about immigration, The Great Dictator with the great Charlie Chaplin; Casablanca, which I just did an interview with Noah Isenberg who just wrote a book about it, and he talked about that as being a refugee film and quite a beloved country which is about apartheid. These films whether you program them to be this way or not, do you tend to have an interesting resonance right now?
Charles Tabesh: Yeah. So some of those that you mentioned were actually explicitly or intentionally programmed because of the current climate; one of those is America America which I definitely thought it’s a great movie and given the immigration discussion or actions that are taking place I thought it would be appropriate to play. And then The Great Dictator was certainly something that came to mind, I mean obviously it’s comedy and playing Chaplin, so it sort of made sense anyway.
Charles Tabesh: I did not make the connection with Casablanca but I think you’re right that it is resonant. It’s the 75th anniversary, so that was the rationale for being there. I mean there are definitely times or films or quite a beloved country too – was intentional thinking it would be a good time to play it. Sometimes you do that because you think that’s kind of out there in our current environment and this is the important forum for people to see or they might be interested in it, and sometimes you I guess get lucky or you connect in a way unintentionally but I agree. Classic movies are – one of the things that make them great is that if they are really good, I mean that the themes are resonant forever just like any art. And so it certainly applies to classic films and I hope people get something from that.
Beth Accomando: And then also you have Dr. Strangelove. Every time I see that film I can’t believe how little it’s dated. It feels like very fresh and it feels as pointed today in its satire as it did when it came out more than what 50 years ago.
Charles Tabesh: Yes, I agree. It’s an important movie and it plays really well today. It’s always relevant but it’s especially relevant now.
Beth Accomando: A lot of these titles are tiles that everybody is familiar with. You mentioned Casablanca’s having an anniversary. These are films that people know about. But I wanted to highlight just a couple of films that probably your hardcore TCM people are excited about but maybe in the broader kind of mainstream might not be. But you have some really interesting little films like you have a film with Lucille Ball called Lured which I haven’t had a chance to see. So I’m thrilled to be able to see it but most people are familiar with her as this television committee and then might not be aware of some of the works she did in future films.
Charles Tabesh: Yes. So that’s actually an example of one of the threats I was talking about earlier of comedic actors but in non-comic roles, because she was a serious actress and as well as a comedian and this is one of her roles and it’s a really good movie directed by Douglas Sirk early in his career. And so we are really excited to be playing a recent restoration done by Cohen Media and so we always try. As I was saying earlier, we definitely try to have it arranged, so that if you are in the mood for something familiar you can go see something familiar on the big screen but if you want to discover something new there are plenty of options for that as well.
Beth Accomando: Another film that I haven’t seen in ages but I remember being hilarious was a British comedy, I’m All Right Jack and those films don’t play quite as often?
Charles Tabesh: No, it’s great and just, you know, so many of the things that we play just come from suggestions. We get suggestions from everywhere all the time and so I’m All Right Jack was suggested by Rialto, one of the distributors we work with and we played it on key theme a couple times and it’s very funny. And I realized that I didn’t have any British comedies this year and at that point I thought well, this would be a perfect film to play. So it’s great and I’m really excited to be playing that. There are also, as you mentioned, a couple of films that [indiscernible] [00:30:43] was really passionate about and wanted us to play. One being The Magic Box and the other one is Street Scene. Every year he sends a list of maybe 10 to 12 kind of films that he does not think get enough attention and we usually try to include one or two and those are a couple examples there.
Beth Accomando: And if I’m not mistaken Magic Box is kind of a film about film, isn’t it?
Charles Tabesh: Yes. It’s about the early days.
Beth Accomando: Early days…
Charles Tabesh: Yes.
Beth Accomando: Which is another film that I haven’t had a chance to see, so I’m very excited about having that opportunity. And although the majority of these films are English language films, I believe Panic is in French and a French film and again a film that probably is not as well known?
Charles Tabesh: Yeah, exactly. It a crime, it’s a [indiscernible] [00:31:29], a French film that I haven’t seen them years. And I remember trying to get it for TCM maybe just ten years ago and I was not able to either find the rights or copy of it. Rialto again told me they had a new restoration and wanted to know if we would be interested in playing it and said yes, absolutely. So it’s great and I think that would be a really interesting screening.
Beth Accomando: Has the festival expanded in any way since the beginning or you have more venues, the same number of venues or you accommodating a lot more people or has it changed that much in that respect?
Charles Tabesh: A little bit. The first year we had one fewer theater, one last of the multiplex theaters. Since then we added another multiplex, so we always have five screens going. And then at various time we have added, for example, we now have screening occasionally for Cinerama Dome. We have screenings by the pool. We didn’t have either of those originally. At different times and different years we have been able to do screening at the El Capitan although not this year. So we were always on lookout for different ways to project or play the films. And we have expanded some but the fundamental, hopefully intimacies remains and there is still the gathering in the sense of community especially at the Roosevelt Hotel and at Club TCM that we want to maintain. So it’s expanded a little bit but I don’t think we know there are any plans to do a whole lot more but every year we try to add a wrinkle or two here and here.
Beth Accomando: And is there anything else you would like to highlight about the festival in advance before we wrap up here?
Charles Tabesh: Well, nothing specific. I don’t think, I mean, well, I guess the one thing I want to mention is that Carl and Rob Reiner are coming in for the very first time. There will be father and son doing handprints and footprints at Grauman’s Chinese. And so I think that would be very special and then we’ve got Rob Reiner with the screening of The Princess Bride and Carl Reiner Wiener with The Jerk. So I think that’s a really special event and then for a conversation at the Montalban Theater and Michael Douglas is coming and he will be also introducing or coming out of the screenings of The China Syndrome doing conversation about that. So I will mention those, I mean there are a hundred different events including the presentations at Club TCM and over 80 films. So I know I’m let leaving out a lot of good stuff but as you can tell there’s a lot there.
Beth Accomando: Yes, you’re leaving out a lot of good stuff as part the dilemma of going to the TCM fall festival.
Charles Tabesh: Yeah. You mentioned Peter Bogdanovich coming in [indiscernible] [00:34:30] to him and Lee Grant [indiscernible] [00:34:31] to her and then a special tribute to Debbie Reynolds and Terry Fisher and of course the entire festival is devoted to Robert Osborne. That’s the most important thing of all this. I should have mentioned right upfront because as you know he is the heart and soul TCM and so it’s very sad for all us and we’re dedicating everything to him this year and doing what we can to honor him in various ways.
Beth Accomando: Well, I thank you very much and I’m looking forward to the festival yet again and to those painful decisions of what to watch.
Charles Tabesh: Well, good. Thanks Beth. I look forward to seeing you there and hearing more about the agony you’ve had making the decisions.
Beth Accomando: All right, thank you.
Charles Tabesh: All right, thanks a lot.
Beth Accomando: That was Charles Tabesh, Senior Vice-President of Programming and Production at Turner Classic Movies and at the new streaming service FilmStruck. If you love classic cinema TCM film festival is something you need to experience. I’ll be at the festival this weekend and will have an NPR report on what went into creating the nitrate projection booth and how dangerous projecting nitrate really is. I will also have a follow-up from the TCM film festival focusing on the 75th anniversary screening of Casablanca. And next week I speak with Stuart Gordon about reviving his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan at Sacred Fools Theater.
And finally I remind you that Cinema Junkie is a proud sponsor of Landmark Theater’s midnight movies at the Cannes Cinema in San Diego. So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.