“So, what movies have you seen?”
This is such a loaded question. It’s often asked as a solicitation of bragging rights, especially at film festivals. Someone might as well be asking me if I went to Harvard, then recalling all of their exploits when they attended. That’s different at The TCM film festival. The reason is not so strange.
When I was 19 I lost my job at a video store. I’d recently dropped out of college and spent all of my time watching movies. Lots. I was watching anywhere between 3-5 per day. I’d wake up around noon or 1:00, watch movies and go to sleep at 4:00 or 5:00 am. It was during this time that I discovered TCM and took full advantage of it. Every movie was a building block of my film knowledge. They were movies that made a huge impact on the culture of the times as well as the history of cinema. Looking back it was similar to taking a film history college course, albeit, without structure or grading. I would study the picture, read as much about it as I could, and how it impacted other movies or filmmakers and continue on to the next. I had seen many movies up to this point but these were the basis of film theory. I was watching motion pictures from 1895 to the mid 1970’s. “Classic” movies had enveloped me and changed my entire perspective of cinema. I never thought that years later I would be attending a film festival curated by TCM, allowing me to continue my study, nor that I’d be surrounded with people who were as passionate about them as much as I was. Only here would this question be acceptable because of one reason: They actually want to know the answer. That person really wants to hear others’ thoughts and opinions on movies they might not get to see, to get a different perspective of those they did see.
With that in mind, this is my account of the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival:
Day 1: Friday
After getting off the plane from Boston, I quickly caught a shuttle to my hotel and headed over to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Headquarters of TCMFF. This is the 4th time I’ve attended the festival so I know the drill: Get checked in upstairs, visit Club TCM (the festival’s amazing bar and lounge in the famed Blossom Room), check the info desk for any last-minute changes, and prepare for the onslaught of movies that lay ahead. After attending the welcome party in the hotel’s lobby, it was time to head over to my first movie. Excited, I made my way over to the Chinese 6 Multiplex to get in queue for the first of what would be many movies.
Too Late for Tears (1949)
Ah, the underappreciated film noir that had recently been restored by UCLA after years of unbearable public domain prints.
Didn’t get to see it.
I should probably take this time to explain something about this festival’s movie seating policy. In order to gain admittance to the movie in question one must have an official TCM festival pass. Some only work for the matinées, others get you to the front of the queue or into the Opening Night screening. None of them guarantee seating to the rest of the festival’s movies. My pass allowed me to get a queue ticket where I could enter the theater provided that the movie house hasn’t exceeded capacity. Well I was running a little later than I had hoped, I got in line and my queue ticket was #180. That meant that there were 180 pass holders ahead of me, not factoring in VIPs and other guaranteed audience members. About 10 minutes before the movies started, I was informed that I the house was full and I wouldn’t make it in. This was a rookie mistake and I never once got in a line shorter than 45 minutes before another movie started for the rest of the weekend. Let’s see what else is playing…
Queen Christina (1933)
I make it a point to try to watch movies I haven’t seen when I’m here. But I’ve got a bag full of lemons to paint gold, so here I am. It had been years since I first saw this classic Greta Garbo picture and as much as I didn’t think I’d gain more from a second viewing, I was surprised. I hadn’t remembered some of the subtle but gorgeous framing that the cinematographer had interspersed into some of the more static scenes. Seeing it on an actual movie theatre screen certainly helped point that out. Of course, the androgynous and gender-bending portions of the story still show a fresh perspective of mainstream Hollywood at the time, and its portrayal of independence (or lack thereof) were aspects that really stood out. I could feel the desperation of John Gilbert’s acting, hoping that this would help start a resurgence in his dying career, but the chemistry of him and Garbo still stands out. The last shot is still one of the best closing sequences I’ve ever seen.
The Sea Hawk (1940)
My final movie of opening day was a movie I had often passed over. This seemed like a great opportunity to take in a film whose genre of which I’m not a huge fan. Errol Flynn (who else?) stars as a buccaneer defending his country in advance of the Spanish Armada. Claude Rains is great as usual as a conniving ambassador sent to divert Queen Elizabeth’s fear of attack. Overall the movie was good but ultimately I was struck with the movie’s message and the timing of its release. The war had just begun and its “stand your ground – save the country” theme seemed rather intentional. Once this movie let out at 12:15 PST, I was ready to get as much sleep as I could.
Day 2: Friday
I’m not a huge coffee drinker but I left my hotel with a cup of very black java before my first full day started. At this point I’m getting into the rhythm of the west coast time change, and the pace of eating, hydration and nutrition it takes to keep up with a film festival schedule. This day was slightly different though.
Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935
One of the festival’s most intriguing offerings was a presentation by two men who recently completed a book about cinema’s two-color film process, better known as Technicolor. Technicolor is typically remembered as the lush three-color process identified with movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939) or Gone With the Wind (1939), but this was before that.
This was the story of Technicolor’s start as a small company in Boston (shout out to my city) and it’s trials and tribulations over a 20 year period that included a world war and The Great Depression. While describing the film processes through graphics, stills and even some amazing newly discovered film clips from the period, authors David Pierce and James Layton gave an idea of the many problematic and sometimes dangerous issues the company encountered. One that stood out to me was the amount of light that was needed to shoot scenes. Some scenes required huge sets made of lights that could cause the numerous actors involved to overheat. The presentation in general was very informative and gave me a great appreciation for the many innovations in cinema that often go unappreciated.
Reign of Terror (1949)
Don’t let the name or year of the release fool you – this is not a film noir; at least not in the conventional sense. The year is 1794 and France’s most powerful man, Robespierrre, wants complete control of the country. His black book of enemies is key to his takeover since it’s missing and its revelation could be detrimental to his political career, as well as his life. A local man (played by Robert Cumming) whose heart lay with his country is determined to get the book first, much to the chagrin of Robespierrre. This is a period of history I’m not that familiar with, but as far as suspense is concerned, this kept me interested for the length of the movie. Although, by and large it’s a period piece, the movie is steeped in film noir ideals: Dutch angles, sinister framing, high contrast and depth of field. These are the calling cards of a classic thriller. It shouldn’t come as a shock since most of the cast and crew (including director Anthony Mann) were mainstays within the Film Noir community. It’s not a great movie, but worth seeing for some of the shot compositions.
Don’t Bet on Women (1931)
A love-scorned woman-hating man makes a 24 hour bet with his best friend that he can get a kiss from the next women who walks in the room. That woman ends up being his friend’s wife. Did I mention that Jeanette McDonald stars, but doesn’t sing in this? I can see why this movie is long forgotten. It’s another film that had terrible prints circulating until MoMA recently restored it. My favorite aspect of the movie was Una Merkel’s over-the-top portrayal of a Southern belle with no filter. Again, not a bad movie but not great.
The Invisible Man (1933)
I had first seen The Invisible Man during a TCM Halloween Marathon some years ago. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but over the years my memory of it kind of blurred together with the rest of the movies I’d seen in that group. This was my chance to rewatch it with a clearer head and on the silver screen. It’s still as good as I had remembered. Claude Rains can do no wrong. Besides the innovative and clever visual effects the movie offers, its use of sound, or lack thereof was extremely eerie. This is a must-see for anyone who wants to see a classic thriller.
The War Game (1965)
No film throughout the festival moved me as much as this did. I love movies based on wars of the 20th century, but I was taking a shot in the dark with this one. Honestly, I was just trying to find one last movie to end my night and this was what I chose. I couldn’t have made a better decision. As soon as I entered the theater, someone was handing out a large packet that turned out to be a letter from the director informing us of his initial intentions for this movie, as well as his feeling of its legacy. Originally meant as a special to air on the BBC, the network ultimately decided not to show it, claiming it would be too shocking for a national audience. Set in modern-day Britain, the film shows the effects of a nuclear attack from the Soviets. Instead of a narrative film approach, this is depicted as a documentary of sorts, blurring the line between fiction and reality. It’s a Procedural, giving the viewer an idea of preparation, absorption and fallout of nuclear war. It left me speechless not only as an audience member, but also, as a human being. This movie shot 50 years ago still rings true in most of the world. It was meant to be topical but shows now how very little we have progressed in foreign relations. This movie went on to be screened in select theaters and even won the Best Documentary Feature at the 1967 Academy Awards. When the picture ended I felt compelled to stay for the Q&A session with film scholar Joseph Gomez that followed. I spent most of that time taking in the thoughts of others around me, but also, coming to terms with the message of the movie. It was so stunning. I don’t remember getting back to my hotel. Just lying on my bed, trying to wrap my mind around what I had just experienced. It is still with me today.
Day 3: Saturday
Avoiding a night filled with what I was sure would be apocalyptic dreams, I woke up, had another cup o’ joe, and prepared myself for an ambitious day of movie watching. Seven programs – six of which were features and one presentation that I had waited months to see. To the movies I go!
Why Be Good? (1929)
My first silent of the festival was a simple story about a girl who parties at night and works at a department store by day. One problem: this flapper partied with her new boss – the son of the store’s owner. When they meet the next morning things get tricky. His father doesn’t approve of her and he’s gets fired, but she thinks it’s the young man who fired her. It’s pretty lighthearted and nothing terribly poignant happens, but I enjoyed it. This movie had been considered lost for decades. A print was recently found in Italy and subsequently restored along with its soundtrack.
So Dear to My Heart (1948)
Young Jeremiah adopts a black lamb, whose hijinks almost derail him from competing at the local fair. This was a tough one to sit through. I’m not sure why, but I have a really hard time with live action Disney movies from this period. The addition of animation really took me out of the movie and it just didn’t resonate with me. I gave this movie as much of my attention as possible but it just dragged on. The overall tone was so saccharine that it was hard to bear.
Air Mail (1932)
A welcome change of pace, this film had a lot going for it: John Ford at the helm. Air stunts. Mail. In many ways this is the precursor to Only Angels Have Wings (1939). They have similar plot lines and perils, but this was very raw. Again, I loved the use of sound in the movie. The sound of a revving airplane gets a little tiresome at points in the movie, but here it uses it for cues and ominous wonder. If you hear it, it either meant someone was unexpectedly alive or about to die.
The Picture Show Man (1977)
One of the themes at this year’s festival was history and how it is perceived in cinema. The Picture Show Man tackles that in an interesting way. It shows us how travelling projectionists and accompanist or “picture shows” were able to go from town to town. It also gives us an idea of how important to history those shows were. Based on the memoirs of Lyle Penn, who accompanied his father’s projections by playing piano, the story is set in 1920’s Southern Australia. It had some great shots on location where the story originally took place, but the movie starts to fall apart as we enter the third act. I’m still happy to have seen it even if it did meander a bit toward the end.
Madame Curie (1943)
Continuing with the theme of how cinema has shaped how we view history, the film adaptation of the story of scientists Pierre and Marie Curie was next. Often considered to be the peak of biopics, historic movies of 1940s were often riddled with inaccuracies. For instance, of my favorites biopics, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), allegedly had the film’s subject George M. Cohan comment from his deathbed “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”
Madame Curie wasn’t any different. Besides omitting her sister entirely, it famously left out Curie’s outspoken views on the liberation of her native Poland. That said, the performances from Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon are stellar and really drive home how tirelessly the main characters both worked to create a major scientific breakthrough.
Return of the Dream Machine
The one event that stood out the minute I read the festival’s schedule fell on Saturday. It was so amazing I had to read the description three times. Hand. Cranked. Projector.
From the first book I read about film (in 1st grade), the notion of hand-cranked cameras and projectors were cinema’s ground zero. This is where it all began. The idea that I would someday be able to watch these films being projected by one of these projectors is still hard to fathom. But it did happen and I was elated to be in the same room as this magnificent machine. Dressed in tails, standard attire for projectionists in 1909, two men (Joe Rinaudo and Gary Gibson) hand cranked movies along with piano accompaniment while an audience of 477 sat in amazement. They showed nine shorts and fragments that included:
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The Dancing Pig (1907)
Serpentine Dance (1905)
That last piece was a surprise world premiere restoration that Mr. Rinaudo shared with us. Among the many amazing facts I learned was that a projectionist of hand-cranked movies had to know each movie front to back. Because it was hand-cranked when it was shot, the cadence of revolutions was always different. At some points during a film the frame rate would speed up or slow down in a matter of seconds. I can’t begin to tell you how lost I was in these magnificent pictures, seeing them as they were originally intended. It made me fall even more in love with cinema, which I thought was impossible. The War Room may have been the most moving film I’d seen at the festival, but the memories and feeling I got from these 105 minutes will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)
Time to come back down to earth and finish my epic day with one last film. After breathing into a paper bag for a few minutes, I composed myself enough to partake in one my favorite cinematic rights of passage: A Midnite Movie! But this isn’t just some B-movie thrown together at the last minute. This is TCM Underground at work. At a TCMFF a couple of years ago, I had seen the Tingler (1959) at the Egyptian Theatre, which was an experience. I knew that was truly unique to the movie, but TCM Underground never lets me down. Tonight’s movie was a long-lost (or more accurately, buried) movie from Saturday Night Live writer and short movie director Tom Schiler. Never officially released theatrically or on home media, this was a legendary movie in cult circles and a must-see for anyone who loves underground movies. I was in. The movie stars Zach Galligan as a reluctant musician-turned-artist who decides to take a drawing test at Port Authority (it’s the only entry to New York City) and fails poorly. After befriending a hobo who in turn…
Here’s the thing:
I love movies more than you can imagine. They are sacred works of art – each one – and deserve a proper viewing with full commitment on the part of the viewer. But this was my SEVENTH program in ONE DAY and I was really tired. In all honesty, I started to drift in and out at around the halfway point. At one point I woke up and Bill Murray was a bus conductor and after closing my eyes again I awoke to find out they made it to the Moon via the bus… Bottom line: I should have arranged to give this movie the respect it deserves and watched it from beginning to end. That didn’t happen, and now I’m really kicking myself because – as I mentioned – this movie is not available anywhere. TCM aired it a couple of months prior to this screening but not since, and a couple of links to the digital version online have been unsuccessful. Oh, well. Nothing lasts forever. Forget that last remark.
Day 4: Sunday:
OK, Saturday was pretty hectic and I didn’t get much sleep but the festival’s last day’s schedule seemed to be lighter, so I will be able to relax a little more for venue travel time.
Two cups of coffee today.
Nightmare Alley (1947)
As I remarked on my Twitter account – Sunday mornings should always start with Noir. This was an interesting tale of a “Carny Assistant” (nominee for worst job ever) who falls for his alcoholic mentalist boss’ wife. The assistant is played by… Tyrone Power? Sounds like odd casting but it worked. Power is great as the clever yet ultimately naive guy trying to get ahead in this two-bit world. The film was dark and very gruesome at points which made it all the more unique to me. Of course there are standard film noir twists and turns within the story, but I think it’s the performances that ultimately carry this movie.
Before you jump to conclusions, YES, I have seen Psycho before. But seeing it again gave me an interesting opportunity. I hadn’t been to the TCL Chinese Theatre since its renovation and I wanted to see how it was remodeled. Also, quite frankly, there weren’t many movies showing that would work with my schedule, so this was it. I was pleasantly surprised with the new layout. It was still large, still grand. This just had such a nice flow to it. The previous layout of seating was very flat and always seemed difficult to view. After sitting in my plush stadium I noticed the massive screen in front of me. Seriously. Huge. I knew this would be an interesting experience. As the movie opened and the iconic Bernard Hermann score started I noticed something: this is a digital projection. I’m sitting in possibly the most historic movie theatre in the world, watching what many feel is the greatest horror/thriller of all time, and I’m forced to watch it like this? A few scenes come and go and I start to realize something that shocked me – this was an amazing and crystal clear presentation. Anyone who knows me understands that I would never prefer a 4K mastered movie over a film print. But this was truly beautiful. It felt like a new movie. I actually felt like I was experiencing the movie the same way movie-goers did when they first saw it, albeit in a ridiculous resolution. It was great to reconnect with this classic after many years. It’s still fresh in many ways and simply put: Hitchcock truly was the master of suspense. Also, I saw Edgar Wright in the men’s room. He’s my height or shorter, so that was cool.
Some of the movies at the festival have interesting trivia beforehand or brief introductions by film scholars, crew members or stars. This had a magic demonstration to open. I can tell you right now, that magic show was more memorable than the movie itself. Don’t get me wrong, the chemistry between Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis was strong and I was very impressed to learn that Tony Curtis learned all of the illusions and escaping techniques used in the film. That was it. The movie kept plodding along and ultimately ended abruptly, proving that its main focus was to tell its condensed life-story of Harry Houdini in as little time as possible. Meh.
Too Late For Tears (1949) [again]
Much to my excitement, I found out that all the poor souls who missed the initial screening of this long-awaited restoration would be rewarded with a last-minute encore showing before the close of the festival. Feeling a smug sense of redemption, I grabbed my luggage, checked out of my hotel and left for one final screening before I had to depart. This was going to be amazing. As soon as the movie started I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and also relief. Relief that the venue-running was done. Relief that I could soon sleep a full night. Relief that I could eat an actual meal AND use the rest room if I so desired. This was it. My last movie. It had all the makings of a great Noir, too. A crazy plot driven by crime and cynicism. A femme fatale. DAN DURYEA! This was going to be epic.
Then my phone rang. It was the airport shuttle waiting for me.
I tried. I guess I was playing with fire by watching any of it, knowing that I could’ve missed my red-eye home. It was too good to resist. I’ve since tried to view the rest of the restored version to no avail. The closest I came was recording it when TCM had their Summer of Darkness series, but the audio wasn’t syncing properly… I won’t bore you that. I will say that this was the best year of TCMFF that I have attended. It brought me closer to movies as a medium and showed me that – as film, disc, streaming, or digitally projected – as long as there is something to be shown or told, it’s worth watching. At least once.