Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Nothing But A Dream

The TCM Classic Film Festival should not be interrupted by a fire alarm. When you attend it you should be ensconced in some sort of filmgoing bubble that keeps the outside world away. That’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, a fire alarm going off is exactly what happened on opening night during the final minutes of ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO being screened in a rare 35mm print and no one wanted to leave. There wasn’t much we could do, however, but fortunately thanks to some fine organization by the staff we did make it back inside to see the end and all was well. But even this festival isn’t perfect as was also proven by the two screenings of the pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS up in the 177-seat theater #4 which both times over the weekend filled up faster than anyone could have suspected (why the frenzy for DOUBLE HARNESS and not one of the other pre-codes? Don’t ask me--it actually airs on TCM on May 27 so I'll be watching). Even TCM’s Charlie Tabesh issued a mea culpa on Twitter about this but, hey, nobody’s perfect. The festival officially kicked off on Thursday, April 28 and I’m proud to say my team won Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivial contest—I’d like to think my input on a few answers was what pushed us over the top and I’ll stick with that. The big red carpet opening of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN began across the street as the opening night party kicked off in the Roosevelt and gradually people began to make it over to the first films in the Chinese 6. The weekend had begun.
As usual, some of the most memorable selections for me over the next few days were films I hadn’t seen before—the 1964 ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO with director Larry Peerce in person talking about making this genuinely powerful low-budget look at interracial marriage several years before GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Gina Lollobrigida made several appearances through the weekend including before my first ever viewing of Carol Reed’s TRAPEZE—an imperfect print with faded color but containing CinemaScope imagery that was nevertheless jaw-dropping on the huge Egyptian screen. The premiere of a restored version of the micro-budget and completely unknown PRIVATE PROPERTY which I highly recommend. Shot in only five days, it’s Warren Oates’ first film but also a sexually taut, effective slow burn of a thriller with some genuinely evocative cinematography and it seems like a case where a small cult for it could easily build over the next few years. Plus there was Jack Cardiff’s 1959 HOLIDAY IN SPAIN aka SCENT OF MYSTERY shown at the Cinerama Dome in the one-time-only gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. It’s essentially a Cinerama-type travelogue through Spain starring Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre in a very light, bare bones chase plot with the gimmick of various scents such as perfume, flowers, tobacco, garlic, etc. wafting through the air. There really isn’t very much to say about it as a film (produced by Mike Todd, Jr. and if you know who he was married to you can guess who makes a surprise appearance at the end) but I doubt I’ll get another chance to experience Smell-O-Vision anytime soon. Maybe that’s for the best but I’m still glad I went. I particularly liked the garlic scent, actually.
And there were the films I’d already seen and chose to revisit for the pure pleasure of it—John Garfield’s final film HE RAN ALL THE WAY playing to a packed house at the Egyptian, for one. Director John Berry’s son Dennis was there to discuss his father’s life and how his family fled the country via Canada for France after Berry was named before HUAC. It’s very much a blacklist film what with the involvement of Garfield, Berry as well as Dalton Trumbo among the writers and such paranoia informs everything about it. Those extra layers give sympathy to the two-bit crook played by John Garfield while adding depth to this fairly grimy DESPERATE HOURS knockoff as it reaches its final moments. 101 year-old Norman Lloyd, also in the film, was there as well and waved to the crowd who gave him a rousing ovation. The restored version of Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS also played with Anna Karina in attendance to discuss how she first came to work with the director she later married and Alec Baldwin interviewed Angela Lansbury at the Chinese before Frankenheimer’s forever brilliant THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. On Saturday, also playing to a packed house at the Chinese, was Carl Reiner’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID followed by an hour-long discussion with actress/author/TCM host Illeana Douglas and 94-year-old Reiner about his legendary career, ranging from his beginnings to the film we had just seen. It was a true highlight of the weekend, with Douglas once again proving herself as one of the best interviewers among the regular TCM faces and Reiner was in top form. No one there will ever forget his story about asking George Burns about his sex life during the making of OH, GOD!, that’s for sure. Plus there were multiple talks with Elliott Gould including a career discussion with Baldwin and another one before a 35mm screening of THE LONG GOODBYE which, of course, I’ll gladly see any time. Life seems to change faster than I want these days and THE LONG GOODBYE seems to change with me but it still gives me joy like few other films in my life so I have no problem with saying that it’s probably my favorite (or at least close to it) right now.
As for one that I was particularly looking forward to, the premiere of the digital restoration of the Marx Brothers’ HORSE FEATHERS may have been slightly disappointing in how it didn’t seem any different from the way it’s looked my entire life, complete with the flaw of missing frames in some shots. There also was no additional footage despite the occasional rumors of longer overseas versions from various sources through the years. I’m never going to complain about the chance to see HORSE FEATHERS again but when someone asked me about the restoration afterwards there wasn’t much to say since the film is essentially the same—maybe those extra pieces are just gone forever. This aside, the biggest disappointments of the festival were my own choices of what not to see since at times there’s almost too much to choose from, such as the screening of VOICES OF LIGHT: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with live orchestra which I heard raves about afterward as well as a few other 35mm screenings that most likely aren’t very common. But these decisions have to be made at TCMFF and, like I said, nobody’s perfect.
There have also been some grumblings online about the number of 35mm screenings at this year’s festival which were considerably fewer than in the past and, unless I’m mistaken, only two houses actually projected that way this time around. By this point even I have to be aware that this is the way it is (the main Chinese, for one, is no longer equipped to screen 35mm) and it’s very clear the DCP format is what the studios have gotten behind. Plus it also makes sense if we’re going to be able to see certain films like the reconstruction of PRIVATE PROPERTY which is not only worthy of being screened at this festival but it also looked impeccable in its presentation. I’m still going to hold out hope that the festival won’t turn its back on 35mm too much—it’s such a part of the pre-codes and other such older titles that largely get relegated to theater #4 in the Chinese 6-- this year, they also included Ida Lupino’s NEVER FEAR introduced by Illeana Douglas, possibly the one connection at the festival to her excellent Trailblazing Women series which aired on the network last fall. I imagine part of it is trying to find the balance between the classic oldies with sparkling new DCPs that often (but not always) draw big crowds to the main Chinese theater and the deeper cuts that the hardcore fans often seek out. Some of my best experiences over the past several years at this festival have involved films that I’d barely even heard of before entering the theater and those can often be the ones mainly found on 35mm—certainly here in L.A. we just got the annual Noir Festival which this year was entirely 35mm as well as Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema runs 35 every single night, both serving as reminds that such prints are out there in the world--for an extensive discussion of these matters and others at the festival, including the marginalization of such titles in favor of new films screened digitally at the Chinese to half-filled houses, check out this lengthy podcast with Miguel Rodriguez and Will McKinley. I fully get that there has to be a balance but it seemed that this year, maybe because projecting 35mm is becoming that much more of a specialized concept, the balance seemed slightly off.
Of course, in addition to the issue of film vs. digital there’s the daze of it all, the people you see only briefly between the screenings you race down the street to get to on time. And every now and then you decide to see a film for no reason other than the simple pleasure of what it is. Going with Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON for my final film of the festival on Sunday night wasn’t something I needed to do plus it unfortunately was one of those not being shown in 35mm but it seemed the right note to end the weekend on. Long maybe a second choice to the likes of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN on the rankings of MGM musicals I can’t tell if the reputation of THE BAND WAGON has been growing over the years or if I just find myself watching a little more each time it comes on and it’s somehow been gaining for me as I settle further into myself.
Well, you know what THE BAND WAGON is, at least I assume you do (the friend I was with had surprisingly never seen it before)—his screen career over, song & dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) returns to New York to do a show with old playwright friends Lester & Lily Marton (Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray) to be directed by egomaniac Broadway powerhouse Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and co-starring ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). Instead of the light musical that’s already been written, Cordova has a much more ambitious idea in mind to do an update of Faust and even though it isn’t what Tony wants he joins in with the gang, even getting close to Gabrielle after their initial meetings prove rather icy. But when disaster looms after the first preview everyone scrambles together to do what they do best, the sort of thing that made Tony a star in the first place. With story and screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it’s easy to compare THE BAND WAGON with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the equivalent for Gene Kelly that this one is for Astaire — a behind the scenes look at show business where everyone comes together to salvage a potential disaster, a romance where of course the two leads can’t stand each other at first, a climactic set piece with only the slimmest connection to the story at hand and ultimately the whole thing is a pretty much a cheerful excuse for a bunch of songs. SINGIN’ has long been the one anointed by the world maybe because its musical numbers, including the title song, are a little catchier, the whole thing is a little bit cheerier. On the other hand THE BAND WAGON, as breezy and uncomplicated as it ultimately is, feels slightly more adult through Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor eye, offering an impeccable ambiance that resonates each time I see it again. In an odd way, it tells me more about pursuing what you want to do for the pure love of it and the camaraderie that comes out of doing it for the right reasons. And it’s set it the most perfect idea of a New York theater world imaginable, the sort of perfection that I suppose you’re only going to get at the MGM lot in Culver City.
It’s all an idealized adult world, of course, a New York that it’s hard not to wish was the one really there when we arrive on the train at Grand Central. Of course, cross-country trains don’t even come in to Grand Central anymore and if they did Ava Gardner wouldn’t be on any of them. But the New York here is one that’s bustling, busy, ambitious and full of life, it’s that fantasy of where we want to be. Not to mention how the story is ultimately about limitations, about finding the joy in what we love while also trying to figure out how we still fit into the world. Tony Hunter is facing a dead end in life and he seems accepting of being out of the movie business. He’s not depressed about it but self-deprecating in an endearing way and I always like the bit where, after his train has just pulled in, asks the porter if he could make up his berth for the night before he pauses for one more moment, waiting to head back out into the cruel world. Sometimes we all feel that way, that we’d rather avoid it out there while singing “I’ll go that way by myself all alone in a crowd…” with some small speck of hope still deep down. And when Astaire does that here it’s a lovely moment, almost the most offhand musical number I’ve ever seen and speaks to a quiet pull that the film has beyond the most elaborate numbers.
Along with her introduction, Illeana Douglas discussed the film with special guest Susan Stroman (director of both the stage and film musical of THE PRODUCERS along with many other theater credits) each speaking of their love for it while Stroman talked about how some of her own career including one particular frantic rewrite on a show could very easily have been made up of scenes from the film. No surprise considering all the people involved, the details feel like they come from people who’ve been there and who love every piece of madness of it as if there’s nothing better than going several night without sleep while putting a show together. The nuts and bolts we see of it getting made is appropriately larger than life but never feels too exaggerated. Even as the show is falling apart it feels like the most tension comes from a brief spat between married couple Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray—I imagine it’s not the first fight the two characters have ever had nor will it be the last but even that is presumably taken care of by his visit to that ‘We Never Close’ bar next door--I still dream of visiting that place which I’d imagine would be swankier than the real world equivalent.
There’s a spirit of total enthusiasm the whole way through, it wants to love everyone onscreen and I imagine another film would push to make Jeffrey Cordova even more of a satirical lampoon if not an outright bad guy. But here it simply feels like a gentle tweaking of someone else in the arts who’s just been carried away in the wrong direction, as he puts it—he may be an egomaniac, but a well-meaning egomaniac. Any change of heart Cordova has when the show crashes in previews is mostly silent and he makes Tony the leader as if he’s remembering what it is to have fun in this world again. There’s no Lina Lamont-type bad guy and the closest it has to an adversary is wet blanket choreographer Paul Byrd played by James Mitchell, who it’s easy enough to forget he’s even in the film (Mitchell appears in the DVD extras sounding a little bitter about the whole experience and it really isn’t much of a part). The whole thing is so cheerful and everyone seems so upbeat about getting things right that when Astaire angrily makes a mess of his hotel suite I almost don’t buy that he, or the character, would act that way. Still, he talks about being cooped up doing their show and that frustration is what leads Astaire and Charisse out into the real world, or at least the MGM soundstage version of the real world, silently joining together in this fantasy Central Park, working out their problems in dance with nothing needing to be said beyond every single movement they make together as “Dancing in the Dark” plays. Damn, that’s cinema.
The film also breaks down my own prejudice to the usual MGM product from the golden age where everything seems deliberately just right and a too-perfect aesthetic always floats in the air. But the Minnelli style it all seems like perfection in how he always knows how to frame things through shots that go on for an eternity and you can’t imagine them flowing otherwise. As he visualizes his world, the artificiality to the elegance feels totally genuine. When two leads break each other up at the impending disaster of their show the bit may very well have been rehearsed multiple times down to the gesture but the looseness is almost surprising and totally human. The songs are what matter, of course, with the boisterous “A Shine On Your Shoes” and “That’s Entertainment” numbers along with the or the ultra-simple and elegant “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan” in its elegance among my favorites all of which got rousing ovations from the crowd (even I have my limits of course—let’s just say you may like the “Triplets” number better than I do) The thrill and sheer pleasure of those songs almost meant that much more on this particular night as a reminder that this was all almost over—we’ll be forced back into the real world soon enough anyway, let’s just enjoy this for a little while longer.
The climactic “Girl Hunt” ballet is particularly inventive, more thematically complicated that the equivalent number in SINGIN’ and a little more fun as well—of course, they both share Cyd Charisse and each seems to be a subtle recapitulation of the film’s themes but the Girl Hunt goes deeper, looking at what art is to each person who creates it all in the guise of a particularly sharp Mickey Spillane parody. “Broadway Melody” in SINGIN’ ends with Gene Kelly alone but in this number at the end of THE BAND WAGON, a film with the earlier number “By Myself “which is meant to be at once wistful and hopeful, has Astaire walking off with his fantasy girl, the two of them perfect together. But the fantasy goes further than that in the ‘real world’ ending which makes it not just about the romance but everyone around Astaire in the final shot who has been part of putting this show together, all finally as one. You have to be who you are. That’s the best you there is.
It all feels like a high point of the entire history of Arthur Freed musicals at the studio from everyone in front of the camera including the charm of Astaire, the glacial sophistication of Charisse, the complaining of the great Oscar Levant and also behind it including Minnelli, the work of Comden & Green and of course choreographer Michael Kidd. Not being the biggest expert on the history of MGM musicals I imagine it also may have been made at just the right time—if made just a year later it probably would have been made in CinemaScope (as BRIGADOON, Minnelli’s next musical, was) a format which might have overwhelmed the intimate goals of the story, forcing it into the too-big Jeffrey Cordova style. If made a few years later it also might have had to contend with budgets being cut as musicals declined and television gained on the movies. The magic might have been lost. Even MGM didn’t last forever, after all. But the final shot of THE BAND WAGON betrays none of this, simply saying that even if lots of things have changed, even if they’re not as simple as they were when Fred Astaire was a star in the 30s, there’s always going to be a place for this sort of elegance, this sort of enjoyment, this sort of, well, entertainment. In her introduction at the final night of the festival, Illeana Douglas (so good throughout the weekend and clearly such a favorite of everyone that hopefully this means a larger role for her on TCM in the future) stated the one word that comes to mind when she thinks of THE BAND WAGON is ‘Joy’. That sounds about right.
I’ll admit, I was in a frame of mind through some of the weekend that was slightly off. Maybe part of it is that pressure of wanting to have the best time possible, worried about what’s being missed, while at the same time knowing that it’s the best weekend I’m going to have all year. Maybe that’s one reason I went for THE BAND WAGON to close it out. I needed that reminder of why I was there in the first place. With all of these thoughts swirling through my head the emotion I felt after the screening of THE LONG GOODBYE made me tweet that maybe it was the only happy ending in the history of the movies. A slightly flip thought, obviously, but if you approach me to debate it late at night I might be up for the challenge. Having said that, it’s fair to point out that THE BAND WAGON, with every ounce of joy that it truly projects, is the rare exception to that nonsense rule I just made up. After the closing night party at the Roosevelt I went down the street with some people to In-n-Out Burger to end things. And we got to hang out and talk about movies. With no rush to get anywhere. With no interruptions. Joy. I miss some of those people already and wish I could have spent even more time with them over the weekend. But eventually it all had to end so I could get some sleep--there was a Billy Wilder double bill the next night at the New Beverly to get to, in 35mm of course. So until next year. For now, it all continues.

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