Friday, April 30, 2010
Two Kinds Of People In The World
Within the past week I unfortunately had to deal with some serious computer issues so there were some stress-filled days. It’s all taken care of now and luckily everything worked out fine but it still slowed me down quite a bit and I was unable to finish a few pieces like I had planned. There will be more to come but for now here are a few thoughts on a recent event that took place here in L.A.
In case you follow this sort of thing, the very first TCM Classic Film Festival was recently held in the heart of Hollywood, garnering a fair amount of press coverage as well as huge crowds. That’s very nice to hear, and I’m grateful to have TCM at home these days but since the whole thing was, shall we say, fairly pricey—several hundred for passes, $20 for single tickets—and I’m still a man without employment I didn’t spend much time there. I don’t think that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way about the prices but judging by the large numbers of people who apparently came from out of town to attend it could be said that the festival wasn’t really designed for people who live in L.A. anyway. I doubt another year will pass before the likes of IN A LONELY PLACE shows somewhere in this town and I’ve been fortunate to see people who appeared like Tony Curtis and Martin Landau speak at various screenings in the past but people who don’t live here don’t get quite so many opportunities.
That said, I’m a little jealous of anyone who got to see SABOTEUR with Norman Lloyd present. But fortunately the amount of choices we have to see films projected in theaters lately here in L.A. is fairly wide-ranging on any given weekend, even the one when the festival was going on. On that particular Friday night I drove out to Santa Monica to see an American Cinematheque screening of Alan Rudolph’s hard-to-see WELCOME TO L.A. and I also went to the Saturday midnight screening of TERROR IN THE AISLES (Really, why are NIGHTHAWKS and THE SILENT PARTNER in there?) but that obviously wasn’t TCM related either. And events were also happening elsewhere--a few thousand miles away in Illinois at the exact same time was the annual Ebertfest with certain panels that looked pretty amazing. And none of this even takes into account the wide amount of non-repertory film festivals being held these days. But as far as the TCM festival up in Hollywood goes I couldn’t help but notice that at least one person I know who sees movies practically every day and is always at the New Bev didn’t attend at all to the best of my knowledge, I’m guessing mostly because of the high ticket prices. Maybe there’s a tinge of jealousy, but it just makes me think that this whole show was really for the tourists with the money to spend more than it was for the true believers down in the trenches in this town who will go to the Silent Movie to see some little known thriller from the 70s or LACMA to see the Jean Renoir series or Joe Dante's Movie Orgy at the New Beverly or to the Egyptian to see some small noir that hasn’t played theaters for fifty years. If you were at that WHISTLER double bill several weeks back or at the WELCOME TO L.A. screening you’re probably ok in my book.
But points to TCM for this festival which seemed extremely well-organized when I was there and it was exactly what it promised to be—a tribute to the love of film. Maybe what I’m also dwelling on is how some of the press coverage like a haphazardly researched post on the Los Angeles Times website seemed to treat the large crowds as some sort of surprise, an anomaly, a shock that people actually wanted to see films in black & white that weren’t in 3D. Interestingly, I got word from the New Beverly that when they showed GONE WITH THE WIND beginning on the Sunday of the festival was that it packed the place just like the over-three-hour LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS did when I saw it there last December, to just name a few titles. The regular midnight shows there have been drawing good crowds, last year’s temporary announcement that LACMA would be ending their film series sparked a virtual uproar and the recent Cinematheque noir fest at the Egyptian packed the place regularly with well over 100 people being turned away on opening night. It’s not getting much coverage in the Times but something seems to have clicked with people, like there’s suddenly something in the air that has led to a desire to see films in the theater, at least here in Los Angeles. We’ve got both locations of the Cinematheque, the New Beverly, LACMA, the Silent Movie, the Nuart, the Billy Wilder Theater and others so it really is a wonderful time in this town for that. The article claims that it took these old films and made them fresh. Maybe it did, but they’re certainly not the first around here to do that, unless you weren’t paying attention. It also suggests a sort of traveling TCM festival to with titles—including recent ones, which seems to totally miss the point—screened digitally, something that doesn’t bother to take into account how that the vast majority of the festival was very deliberately not done in some scam-artist digital projection format like is the case so much these days. With a few key exceptions—and I only heard good things about the digital projections—most of the films shown by TCM were in fact on 35 mm as they should be, as well as 70m in a few cases. This is something that the people who traveled from afar, the ones who were actually paying those prices that I didn’t, care about and deserve. I’m a member of the American Cinematheque but when the Egyptian showed some titles on digital a few months back I heard a number of people out there saying “Well, I would have gone if it wasn’t digital…” These are films. We need to see them on celluloid, with the flicker of the projection there as it should be and presented in the best way possible, something which is possible if attempted otherwise what’s the point? It brings to mind New Beverly owner Quentin Tarantino’s recent comment about how he’ll “burn the place down” before allowing digital projection to be the norm there, but the specifics of this issue apparently allude the Los Angeles Times, which only seems interested in how new and shiny things like digital can be, particularly if they’re in 3D.
So the festival seems to have been a success with a return next year already announced and I’m glad for that, even if I did feel a little excluded from all the fun. Maybe I’ll be in better financial shape next year. As it was, the only time I decided to break my self-imposed rule and not spend any money on this thing was on the Sunday morning of the festival. That was the occasion of the Grauman’s Chinese screening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY with none other than the 94 year-old Eli Wallach in person. When I thought about it for ten seconds I realized that there was no way I was going to miss this if I could help it. And can you blame me? As far as I’m concerned for that one day, for those few hours, the Chinese was a cathedral. And a crowded one too, filled with people very excited to give Eli Wallach what turned out to be several standing ovations during his appearance. His sitdown with TCM host Robert Osbourne before the film covered various points of his career including the film we were about to see (“I didn’t know I was going to be The Ugly”), turning down the role in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY that won Sinatra the Oscar, working on THE MISFITS with Marilyn Monroe and reuniting with Clint Eastwood decades later for a cameo in MYSTIC RIVER. Ninety-four years old (“When I die, I’ll stop,” as he put it) he’s already been seen in Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER this year and this autumn he’ll be in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS. There’s no other way to put it—the combination of hearing Eli Wallach speak before us to be shortly followed by the legendary shriek of the Ennio Morricone theme moments later brought tears to my eyes from the beauty of all this, from being in the legendary actor’s presence and seeing this brilliant film in this wonderful place. It was really just a taste I got of this festival but in this case it turned out to be all I really needed.
The print screened of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY at the Chinese seemed to come from the film’s 2003 restoration which restored nineteen minutes to the running time so, not new, it did bear it’s share of scratches at points but so what. I’ve watched this version numerous times on DVD and never grow tired of it with that massive screen putting the spotlight on all those huge Techniscope close-ups with a particular reminder of how cool it can be to watch Lee Van Cleef move through the frame with that angular face of his. There’s very little I can add to everything that’s been written about this film that Quentin Tarantino has called “the best film ever made” and right now I’m not sure that he’s wrong. Even running three hours in the restored cut the film doesn’t have a single dull moment--I may think that the restored grotto scene where Tuco recruits his old friends feels slightly out of place but I'm going to complain about more Tuco? And for all the visual mastery it’s easy to forget how well the story is laid out with several of the additions—such as Angel Eyes’ considerate treatment of the confederate soldier—adding considerable depth to this tale of these three bandits making their way through the civil war in search of the gold, floating above it all but each one pausing at different times to reveal how aware they are of this madness, of so many men wasted so badly. And I found myself wondering about the backstory of these three guys who each seem to know, or at least be aware of each other. Tuco even knows that Blondie knows Angel Eyes when he points him out. It may simply be a storytelling shortcut but it also implies a rich history of this universe around them. Clint is so cool. Van Cleef is too. And it can probably never be overstated how important the feisty humanity that Eli Wallach brings to the nasty Tuco really is. In the end, maybe all I need to say that I can now die having seen and heard the “Ecstasy of Gold” sequence of Eli Wallach running around that enormous cemetery at Grauman’s Chinese.
Yes, the Chinese, which hasn’t been one of the hotter spots in town lately, hurt by possible mismanagement by Mann Theatres, the white elephant nature of the Hollywood & Highland complex, not to mention how most of the good bookings have gone to the nearby Arclight lately. A few months back THE BOOK OF ELI ran in the main theater for nine weeks, something I doubt was very profitable. Since I hadn’t seen it I went one lazy afternoon in the middle of that ninth week out of curiosity as well as to see if I’d be the only one there. As it turns out, I wasn’t—there were two other people there. But while watching a movie in that massive, empty palace was enjoyable, there’s no doubt about that but it does feel like there’s a valuable resource being lost in that theater these days and whatever my other feelings about all this it was wonderful to once again be part of a packed audience at that place which represents an important piece of Hollywood history and used right can be a truly magical place.
Just over an hour into THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY those heavenly voices of Ennio Morricone’s music gradually appear on the soundtrack as that fateful stagecoach makes its appearance for Blondie and Tuco to find. It plays as a form of divine intervention, sent from the Gods, just as this film with this score playing in this place plays like that to me. As long as celluloid still flickers through a projector this feeling will hopefully still be possible. I look forward to the second TCM festival, which I hopefully will get to spend more time at than the first, but more than that I look forward to the next year of seeing films at my favorite haunts around this city, the ones that are always there. At times like this when I sometimes feel like I’m drifting I need those places more and more to show me films that I love and films that I have yet to discover, never being certain when I’ll once again stumble across a hidden treasure. I’m very fortunate to have them nearby.