14 Films In 4 Days: My Experience At TCM Classic Film Festival
Dissecting the role of a festival programmer
This past weekend I watched 14 feature films and a handful of shorts in less than four days at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and it reminded me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
It's taken me a few days to recuperate from the festival and digest all I took in. Here's my wrap up:
TCM may be doing more than any other single entity to keep a love for classic American cinema alive. Films need to be seen if they are to be appreciated by each new generation, and to be fully appreciated they also need a context. TCM, through its cable channel and more recently through its recently launched film festival, is doing both.
The TCMFF experience
TCM Classic Film Festival just held its sixth festival. It ran for four days in a half dozen venues in Hollywood, showcasing dozens of feature films and numerous interviews and presentations.
I averaged two hours of sleep a night, frequently opted for films over food in order to line up early for a popular program, and still wanted to see more movies.
My only real complaint is that it was so difficult to choose which film to see in some time blocks. I mean really, the restored noir “Too Late for Tears” or Garbo in “Queen Christina”? Tracy and Hepburn in “Adam’s Rib” or the black comedy “The Loved One”? Charles Laughton’s eloquent performance in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” or matinee idol Tyrone Power going against type in the grim “Nightmare Alley”?
It was agonizing, like choosing which child is your favorite. A key determining factor was: had I seen the film before. If I had never seen it, I always tried to opt for the unknown over the known quantity. I both love and hate TCMFF for presenting me with such dilemmas.
The programmers’ challenge
The festival has a built-in audience thanks to the TCM channel. So people would come to see anything it programmed. And the programming team at the festival could take the easy route and program well-known classics that would pack the theaters and have the audience cheering. But who wants easy. That's why the programmers challenge audiences, take risks, and set the bar higher in terms of what is shown and in what format (TCMFF has had 35mm prints struck specifically for the festival, that's how hardcore they are).
When I had the chance to speak with Charles Tabesh, a UC San Diego alumni and the senior vice president in charge of programming at Turner Classic Movies, he talked about his love of movies and the challenges of programming. He also mentioned that for a job interview at Encore, another movie cable channel, he was given “a list of a hundred movies and [asked to] create as many festivals as you can. So organize them by theme, director, actor, whatever you could think of.”
It’s the “whatever you could think of” that presents the most interesting potential.
What Tabesh’s comment points out is that sometimes forcing limitations can inspire creativity and surprising choices. So if TCMFF had no restrictions on what to program, it would make the field dauntingly vast (essentially anything ever made) and also might lead to lazy choices of more familiar titles, the ones laying right there at your feet. But by choosing a theme it forces programmers to dig deep in a narrower field to uncover some unexpected gems.
This year history was the central theme — History On Trial, Films About Revolution, History According To John Ford, and Herstory. So while “Viva Zapata!” might be an expected choice for revolution, “Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book)” might not.
The 1949 film about the French Revolution starred very American actors as Frenchmen, like Robert Cummings as Charles D'Aubigny and Richard Basehart as Maximilian Robespierre. On some levels the film is laughable as history. Cummings proclaiming, “I am a Frenchman,” is certainly silly, and the complex politics of the French Revolution get simplified into romantic melodrama. And yet director Anthony Mann conveys something dark and terrifying about the era, and about the terror of the mob (which resonated with a different sense of history when the film came out and the McCarthy witch hunts were in full swing). It is shot like a film noir with deep shadows and ominous close ups. Jack Pierce, the man who created the monster makeup for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, did the makeup effects here, and we have a pair of shocking gunshots to the head and face.
I never would have sought out this film on my own, but I am so glad to have seen it. Also of note in the film was Arnold Moss as the character Fouché. He delivered his lines with such contemporary sarcasm that he provided much snide humor. At one point, Cummings and Arlene Dahl are sidetracked by romance and Moss’ character chides them, "There's a revolution going on. Don't stay out late."
Similarly, for History On Trial you would expect “Judgment at Nuremberg” but perhaps not “They Won’t Forget,” a film famous for Lana Turner’s film debut but less well remembered as an indictment of small-mindedness and corruption.
And for Herstory, “Madame Curie” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” provide the obvious choices, while Garbo in “Queen Christina” is a refreshing selection.
Plus history unexpectedly weaved through films not officially branded with the overarching history themes but we as the audience were encouraged to see historical connections because of the festival's overarching theme. “The Wind and the Lion” was a swashbuckling adventure programmed to highlight stuntman Terry Leonard, yet Brian Keith also serves up the best Teddy Roosevelt ever on film.
“Gunga Din,” based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, has white actors playing Indian characters, and the presenters asked us to remove our PC hat and put on a pith helmet (which they literally did) instead. Yet the film showed that when a character is as well written as Din (played by Sam Jaffe) and the Guru (played by Eduardo Ciannelli) are, and not depicted as ethnic buffoons, the casting choice is less offensive. In fact the Guru cites some pretty sound reasons for an uprising against the Brits and the only reason we don’t cheer him on is that he wants to kill our very charming leads of Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. And the closing lines of the film are from Kipling’s poem asserting, “You’re a better man than I am Gunga Din.” All interesting in a 1939 film.
Another 1939 film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” suggests that there are two kinds of history to consider in some films.
In the case of “Hunchback,” screenwriter Sonya Levein drew deliberate parallels between 15th century France and Europe in 1939 as it entered World War II with the oppressed gypsies of the film clearly symbolizing the Jews of the occupied nations.
The historical theme also echoed through the festival in unexpected ways.
The film “The Picture Show Man” was part of the Discoveries sidebar and it focused on cinema history as it looked to the folks who traveled the Australian countryside showing silent movies on hand-cranked projectors. That history was brought to vivid life when TCMFF showed a collection of old silent films on a hand-cranked projector. It was a wondrous night of time travel as we went back to early films by Georges Melees and Thomas Edison, and got to see these filmmakers discovering the potential of their new medium. It was truly magical to see these early experiments in both special effects and storytelling. They possessed both a surprising sophistication and a charming naiveté.
That sense of cinema history was also evident in the Dawn of Technicolor Panel with authors David Pierce and James Layton.
The panel focused on the two-color Technicolor process and musicals from 1929 and 1930. Not only were the clips phenomenal (opiate usage must have been involved to inspire some of these flights of fancy) but also the behind the scenes information was impressive. The backstage stills showing hundreds of lights sending temperatures on the set soaring past 100 degrees were unforgettable.
I immediately bought the book at the festival, but Larry Edmunds Bookstore only brought a couple dozen copies and underestimated the interest in the $60 coffee table/academic book.
There is also a sense of cinematic history in seeing films like “Why Be Good?” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in close proximity. In the 1929 silent film “Why Be Good?” actress Colleen Moore was so effervescent and used her facial expressions so vividly that you could remove all the title cards from the film and still know exactly what was going on. Her style of acting seemed perfectly natural in the context of the film. Yet a decade later, Maureen O’Hara displays a style of acting that is the polar opposite. Her performance as Esmeralda is exquisitely still and serene. In fact, it feels transcendent like a religious portrait. In the context of this film, O’Hara reveals that less is truly more. The two performances reveal how artists were reacting to a medium that was still changing and maturing, and it offers a fascinating comparison.
Personally, the best sidebar is Discoveries. This always includes some pre-code films, restored lost films and just underappreciated gems.
The pre-code films dovetail nicely on Herstory. Films such as “Don’t Bet on Women” and “Why Be Good?” offer a tantalizing view of how women were depicted before the repressive Hays Code was put in place in 1934. It is so refreshing to see female characters that are strong, smart, witty, confident and even a bit sexually liberated. It’s both fascinating and infuriating to see how amazing these women were because I knew how the Hays Code would change all that — and not for the better.
Another discovery was “The Grim Game,” a restored feature film by escape artist Harry Houdini. It boasted some breathtaking stunts that included lowering a man from one biplane to the other with an unplanned midair crash (we were assured no one had been killed in the accident though).
The two midnight movies this year were listed as Discoveries, and kudos to Millie De Chirico for not making predictable or easy choices. She programmed “Boom,” starring a then-married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and “Nothing Lasts Forever,” described as a “1984 sci-fi comedy written and directed by series writer Tom Schiller” and done like a period Hollywood studio film.
“Boom” polarized the midnight crowd.
John Waters loves the movie and describes it as "beyond bad. It’s the other side of camp. It’s beautiful, atrocious, and it’s perfect. It’s a perfect movie, really, and I never tire of it.”
A lot of the attendees might dispute that; some were visibly angered. It’s a bizarre artifact, fascinating as a weird kind of time capsule (if only for Liz’s headdress, caftans, and wearing her own jewels) and for the voyeuristic appeal of seeing Liz, in fine bitchy form, and Dick battling it out again on screen and wondering how much of it might have been really them. Personally, seeing Noel Coward being carried onshore on the shoulders of a hunky servant was totally worth the price of admission.
The fact that this happy commune of film buffs — brought together by their passion for film — could be so violently divided was great. Coming out of that film we had to discuss why it was programmed and what it offered and that is a vital and necessary discussion. Which goes to another point of the festival: don't make film viewing a passive experience, go out and talk about the films! "Boom" most certainly did that!
“Nothing Lasts Forever,” which has essentially been sitting on a shelf for three decades, was more universally accepted. Many found it a revelation and a delight.
After four days of amazing film, I was most impressed by this notion: Limitations can inspire creativity and spur imagination.
The festival theme limited the programming choices but ultimately made them richer; and films with limitations (“Reign of Terror” had to write a script to fit the fact that they were forced to use old “Joan of Arc” sets) often produce surprising results. Limitations force filmmakers to use their imaginations.
Not having CGI forced stuntmen to create practical stunts in “The Wind and the Lion,” “The Grim Game,” and “Gunga Din” that make our jaws drop down in awe in ways no computer generated effect could do.
Not being able to have open sexuality in film noir forced writers to be more sly and create some of the sexiest and snappiest dialogue ever.
Today, filmmakers have a sense that they don’t have any limitations. CGI can create anything, sex and violence can be shown, and the audience doesn’t have to fill in any details with their own imaginations because everything is handed to them fully rendered. The films that are the best are the ones in which the filmmakers’ imaginations have no limitations even if technology or budget or censorship placed restrictions on them. In the end what this year’s TCMFF seemed to proclaim is that movies are a collaboration between the filmmakers and the audience, each needs to challenge the other and both need to bring an open and lively imagination to the table for the best results.
That brings me to the end of another TCMFF — and I didn't even mention 100-year-old actor Norman Lloyd and his hilarious behind the scenes stories or George Lazenby (the one-off Bond of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," which had a stunning screening at the fest) working without a filter as he entertained us with far too much detail about his sexual exploits but perfectly displayed the cockiness that won him the role of 007.
Please check out the podcast wrap up by my fellow TCMFF attendee Miguel Rodriguez. He also has a list of TCM groupies and movie experts worth following on Twitter. And this wrap up from a fellow Bond fan that I sadly failed to meet at the festival.
So once again, thank you TCM Classic Film Festival.