Saturday, June 15, 2019
More Without A Voice
Maybe Jean-Pierre Léaud in DAY FOR NIGHT has the right idea. Look in the newspaper, pick a movie, go to the theater and grab a sandwich if there’s time. What else do you really need? I mean, you’re in France in the early 70s and you want to go to restaurants? You go to the movies. Makes perfect sense. It sounds like a fantasy, especially since Jacqueline Bisset is going to be turning up soon, and it can be a nice fantasy right now to imagine that films really do matter, all films, that they matter just as much as air, water, food, the better to enrich us and our lives. It would be nice to believe that more people felt this way but we all know it’s not the case and, in fairness, there are plenty of other things to worry about right now. But for a few days each year we can pretend. Too much time has already passed since this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival which was held way back on April 11-14, 2019 but it even seemed to go by too fast when it was actually happening. Not long ago I was listening to an episode of the podcast Drinking While Talking hosted by my friend Jill Blake (one of the greatest people I’m lucky to know) along with Wade Sheeler (he seems like a good guy too, just don’t know him as well) where they discussed this year’s festival and I got melancholy over it all once again. Several quick interviews were played with people waiting on line for various screenings, a reminder that Jill even started to get me and the delightful Anne Hockens on tape at one of them before told to get in line but we never got back to it later so I don’t appear. The weekend just kept moving. Everyone scatters off, living different versions of these films mattering for a few glorious days.
For this year’s festival I was a TCM Ambassador and I’ll proudly continue to be one if necessary, telling people how great all this is, trying to convince them to see a Dorothy Arzner, Jacques Demy or John Carpenter or explaining that NASHVILLE is one of the best films of the 70s even if I didn’t actually make it to that screening that included what sounded like an eventful discussion with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and stars Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley and Jeff Goldblum. You can’t get to everything, after all, and the rest of the weekend is about meeting up with the other people there in between those films, often in passing, the ones who went where you didn’t. This year’s festival theme was “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies” which played as loose as the theme always does but I suppose you could find the link to love in just about any film playing whether it was directed by Douglas Sirk or if it involved escaping from a place like New York or Alcatraz. I mean, if Snake Plissken doesn’t have something to do with love of cinema I don’t know what does.
The opening night red carpet gala, which like always I didn’t attend (that was when I was upstairs in the Chinese 6 seeing the terrific pre-code NIGHT WORLD), was centered around the 30th anniversary of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and putting aside that I saw that film on opening day for crying out loud so I refuse to admit it can possibly be that old I suppose it qualifies. The evening also included a special tribute to founder Ted Turner to mark what was not only the 10th TCM festival but also the very week of the network’s 25th anniversary itself. One thing you get reminded of right away while there is that people really do care about TCM and the fact that they do is maybe an answer of how much films can still matter these days. It’s a question that can be asked right now especially in the wake of the end of Filmstruck late last year and frankly I’m still not entirely over what happened but the outrage that came out of it counts as a partial answer to the question. You just need to find the people who care about the films, all films, to give that answer.
The basic structure of the festival is familiar enough now—following a few Wednesday get-togethers, Thursday begins slowly at the Hollywood Roosevelt with a few events like Meet TCM and Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivia contest, which was maybe harder than ever this year (my team didn’t win but I don’t think we embarrassed ourselves). Then as the red carpet event begins at the Chinese on the other side of Hollywood Boulevard it’s like someone pulls the trigger on a starters’ pistol and the objective is to see as many films as you can over the next few days until you’re close to passing out, or at least until you forget about even grabbing the occasional sandwich. But there were some modifications this time, particularly how the infamous theater #4 in the Chinese 6 multiplex which has become a festival running gag by this point due to how fast the pre-codes fill up in there went unused by the festival this year, it would seem due to the shifting up the street to the Hollywood Post 43 of the American Legion. This left only two houses in the Chinese 6 used, the 448 seat theater #1 and the smaller theater #6 at 266 but that one seemed to take over for the #4 with a good amount of the pre-codes taking its place in there so the fever continued. It seems clear that as long as the festival is around with higher profile and relatively newer titles downstairs playing in the main TCL Chinese theater, the (hopefully) 35mm drug of choice for many hard core fans of the more obscure films are still going to fill the houses upstairs. At times the lines still aren’t always entirely under control, seemingly one of the quirks of how it’s all organized, but ultimately you have to plan for the weekend you want to know how to pace yourself within the footprint of the Chinese, Egyptian and Roosevelt to find the movies that matter to you.
And, as always, it’s the best time of the year as well as the most intense, getting to meet up with friends at the various gatherings the night before, getting to meet new ones, getting to spend a few days in the bubble where maybe the biggest worry is a pre-code filling up one of the theaters and in just about every film the audience applauds an appearance by a familiar character actor in a bit part. So here are a few thoughts about some of the films and experiences. It’s not everything I saw but these are a few that mattered.
MERRILY WE GO TO HELL
Friday morning began with this 1932 pre-code directed by Dorothy Arzner. Hard drinking reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) meets and marries beautiful heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney against her father’s wishes which leads to her finding out just how much the booze means to him even when his writing ambitions start to pay off, along with an early appearance by Cary Grant, and all in 78 minutes. One of the glories of seeing these pre-codes is being reminded just how much plot could be squeezed into these brief running times (the 1932 pre-code NIGHT WORLD, also at this year’s festival, came in at a mere 58 minutes) as well as the sinful vibe found in them, raising the toast of the title as the next drink goes down, along with the marvel of both Fredric March and the luminous Sylvia Sidney, this was also likely the best of all the films I saw for the first time this year. Along with the mini-Arzner festival the New Beverly played in May, discovering the work of this director who deserves to be ranked among the greats has been a glorious eye-opener.
DAY FOR NIGHT
The fresh air of a Truffaut film is such a tonic and in some ways this pragmatic love letter to making movies is one of his very best with a sense of humanity to it all shines through, of the limitations of making a movie, of the camaraderie, of the compromises that are made but how you keep plugging along for the love of it, for the life of it. Maybe I don’t believe that anything in the world we actually live in is ever so consistently collegial as it is here, let alone filmmaking in the 70s, but it’s still nice to dream. The film was not only introduced by Eddie Muller, who recounted how he was forever changed after seeing it as a teenager, but we also got the astonishing Jacqueline Bisset in person to discuss it with him.
And she was a delight, everything you’d want her to be, going past the allotted time she had to talk not only about making the film but also the classic film-adjacent subjects of working with George Cukor on his final film RICH AND FAMOUS as well as memories of John Huston who she worked with several times. She even did her impression of that director and I still don’t know what could be better than that. Bisset mentioned that she always felt somewhat distant from Jean-Pierre Léaud while making the film which fits with his character as well, always in his own head asking others the eternal question of are women magic while everyone else is simply trying to get on with their work to make a good movie. The actress stayed around after to watch the film which is about the craft and job of work while the dream nature of film stays fittingly in dreams. It’s the sort of film where you want to grow up into the world of adults that it offers us, one where movies are always playing, often in our dreams, and what they represent to how we move through life.
My one nitrate screening of this year’s festival. The nitrate prints screened at the Egyptian since the theater had the projection booth retro-fitted to do so a few years back have regularly turned up in the evening slot and the party vibe in the air on Friday night went perfectly with this film, not one of the most revolutionary of the genre or even the darkest but a hugely enjoyable one regardless. I’ve seen 1948’s ROAD HOUSE (no relation to the Swayze, for the record) before but it’s so much fun. Directed by Jean Negulesco, it’s possible it stands apart from other films noir due to its slightly different, vaguely TWIN PEAKS vibe and how the film transcends its fairly simple story mostly through that mood along with the complexities of its characters. It’s not the generic city of so many noirs and though maybe lead Cornel Wilde isn’t particularly memorable, there’s still that bowling alley and small town feel along with the growing fury of Richard Widmark and the wisecracking Celeste Holm left stranded on the outskirts of scenes to spar with the other actors as her character gets repeatedly dismissed. But most of all there’s the low key world weariness of Ida Lupino and the way she talk-sings “One More For the Road” in a way that defines the term sultry–Holm gets the legendary line, “She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard!” when it’s clear no one in the place knows what to make of what’s just happened and it’s Lupino who, in the way the film loves and supports her, becomes a true icon by the end, playing a character who seemed like a possible femme fatale at the start but wasn’t one at all, merely a woman who is intelligent and alluring yet also someone who is trying to make their way through the world. She also gets the final moment which acknowledges her independence as well as how this was much more than a simple story of a woman caught between two men, a reminder of the power the actress had when she was onscreen and what it represented.
A non-THIN MAN romp starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, it’s also one of their most crazily enjoyable, taking the farce to truly bonkers heights. When introducing the film at its Saturday 9 AM screening at the Egyptian, Illeana Douglas (who, as she proves every year, is still one of the best, and most underused, of all TCM hosts) asked if anyone knew how many films Powell and Loy made together when the entire packed house shouted “Fourteen!” This was the place for that. The film was utterly ridiculous and yet it worked, playing as totally effortless no matter how much it amped up the zaniness, earning the laughter that seemed to grow throughout the film and became one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire festival for me.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE
It’s not that I have any particular interest in or knowledge of Tarzan movies but this turned out to be the first time I’d ever seen one of the festival’s yearly presentations featuring Craig Barron and legendary sound designer Ben Burtt where the two men offer demonstrations of how effects and sound design in various classic films were pulled off (they also appeared for a TCL Chinese screening of RAIDERS which I’m sure was amazing). With this TARZAN sequel they took this opportunity to break down how the pre-code pulled off some of its then-revolutionary sound and effects work, but most fascinating was Burtt talking about his years-long fascination with trying to figure out the sources of the famous Tarzan yell. This was the fourth in the series (the Maltin book says it’s cited by series buffs as the best of all) and is most interesting for both its pre-code vibe of the colonial look at Africa along with all of the elements that would most likely not have been included if the film had been made just a few short years later including a particularly surprising (for 1934, for now, for whenever) nude swim featuring the leads, or at least their doubles. Running a full 105 minutes (looking it up, apparently there have been multiple versions over the years), the film gets as much mileage as it can out of all that effects footage featuring the animals so it maybe goes on too long but that in itself at least was a reminder that in Hollywood some things have never changed.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
As in, “The all-holy ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK”. Sometimes a film turns up on the schedule that you’re determined to get to and for me this was one of those. With director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell appearing it wasn’t even a question and they delivered in their appearance before the film with both men in high spirits, both having a blast for the packed Saturday night house as Russell expressed his gratitude to the director for transforming his career and I was particularly intrigued by his descriptions of the surprising perils that wearing an eyepatch turned out to present. Sometimes a screening at TCM is like a religious service, bowing to the cinematic beauty of it all but this one was like the rock concert of the festival. You could ask if ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK , now 38 years old, belongs at TCM which could be answered by saying the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Lee Van Cleef are in the cast but you could also just say that that it’s ESCAPE FROM goddamn NEW YORK. The film is so much about the craft that John Carpenter brings to it which is highlighted in the all new 4K restoration that was screened so more than ever what stood out to me was the mood, the frame, what it means to simply observe this film.
It’s the ultra-coolness of Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, those gestures that Frank Doubleday as “Romero” makes in the corner of the frame, the way it pauses for Lee Van Cleef to stare out at the island of Manhattan to consider the situation, the kineticism of the legendary score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth and, maybe most of all in how it stays with us, the way Snake studies Donald Pleasance’s President during their final moment together. It may not be the masterpiece that the following year’s THE THING is but it offers a scrappiness to every scene that transcends whatever the basics of the plot points ever are, the sparseness of the frame combined with that low budget horror movie vibe always hanging in the air to catch the danger felt in this Manhattan. The movie may not do much with the concept of ‘New York’ but in presenting this barely futuristic, comic strip hellscape the film keeps moving all the way to its darkly comic end, a rock n’ roll fuck you that when watched right now feels like it means more than ever.
One strong cup of coffee for so early on Sunday morning, that’s for sure. It was another packed house, this time for a film that I’d wanted to see for years but had never gotten around to. Shot by legendary cinematographer Gegg Toland, I’ve mostly been aware of MAD LOVE due to Pauline Kael speculating that since it was an influence on the look of CITIZEN KANE based on the similarity of old Charles Foster Kane in that film to Peter Lorre here. Even if not the case the film is twisted in a way that I never think of 30s MGM movies as being with comic strip imagery that barely seems part of the decade it was made in at all. For those others who haven’t seen it, Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon who transplants hands onto the body of an acclaimed pianist mutilated in a train crash without telling him they once belonged to a mad killer recently executed. And it does all this in less than 70 minutes, another wonderful running time I wish we got more of. The early screening was introduced by Bill Hader who joked about his love of the film’s trailer (Peter Lorre, relaxing at home, answers the phone and tells an admirer about his new movie), a little bit on the career of director Karl Freund and in the process became responsible for what was likely the first ever TCM Festival intro to reference Eric Red’s BODY PARTS (was that me cheering loudly for that one? Could be and I really should see that film again). Lorre’s first American film, MAD LOVE contains the ornateness of 30s MGM movies around the edges but it’s twisted in a totally unique way. There will never be anyone else quite like Peter Lorre.
For the last movie of the festival I finally made it up Highland to the American Legion’s Hollywood Post 43, a neat building which includes an art deco bar in the basement that dates back to the days of prohibition, which apparently I’ve driven by countless times over the years and never knew contained a theater which has recently undergone a multi-million dollar renovation. Because of the setting BUCK PRIVATES was an ideal choice for that final slot, not just because of the military storyline but getting to see Abbott & Costello plus the Andrews Sisters made the end of the festival a true case of going out on a high note. Plus for me there was the nostalgia factor as well thanks to the memories of seeing Abbott and Costello films on WPIX in New York long ago. I’m more interested in the musical numbers now in addition to the comedy but at a certain point I realized that I barely remembered anything past the hour mark, maybe because I rarely made it to the end back in those days or maybe the propaganda angle means that there’s no real ending to the film anyway (I guess that ending came in the sequel BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME six years later but that one didn’t have the Andrews Sisters). Just that we will go off to war and the American way of life will go on even if Lou is never going to win at craps. So there wasn’t really an ending. If only the TCM Festival didn’t end either. But at this point it had to and all that was left was the big, packed closing night party back down at the Roosevelt which featured a big toast to the channel's 25th anniversary.
Sure, there was also the pre-code NIGHT WORLD which I mentioned before starring Boris Karloff as a nightclub owner with lots of fun and shooting and drinking and Busby Berkeley choreography along with daughter Sara speaking before the movie about her father. And MY FAVORITE WIFE. And Sirk’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. And ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT with Bogart battling Nazis in New York. Plus a few that I passed on in favor of other choices but why be depressed about any of this—I also still haven’t done a midnight show at the festival after all these years but I’m sure they’re lots of fun. And weeks later it once again seems like one of those wonderful dreams. While I was up the street seeing BUCK PRIVATES the closing nitrate screening at the Egyptian was THE DOLLY SISTERS while the main Chinese theater closed it out with GONE WITH THE WIND, the first film ever shown on TCM exactly 25 years ago and it was playing on the channel at that very moment. The point is for those few days it’s wonderful even though we can’t live in the fantasy forever and the world isn’t going to follow along with that anyway. But at least we get that weekend. At a certain point in DAY FOR NIGHT the director played by Truffaut himself talks about how the film is starting to come together with a life of its own and that’s what the festival is when you’re there, in the middle of all those people. Film is life and as Truffaut himself reminds us in DAY FOR NIGHT, Cinema is king. We just have to remember that.