A Purer Cinematic Experience: TCM Festival 2014




A Purer Cinematic Experience: TCM Festival 2014 by Michael Nordine

May 15th, 2014 reset - +

CALLED “the best friend the big screen ever had on the little screen” by film professor Eddy Von Mueller, Turner Classic Movies has hosted its Classic Film Festival in Hollywood for half a decade now. It speaks to how spoiled Los Angeles cinephiles are that the four-day event doesn't register as a huge blip on the radar; classics and rarities alike screen across the city on a nightly basis, and there would appear to be little overlap between the denizens of the New Beverly and TCM attendees, many of them out-of-towners. That the festival provides an annual opportunity to re-watch perennial favorites in a theater setting may help explain why visitors comprise such a sizable portion of the audience: How Green Was My Valley probably doesn’t screen in Kansas City as often as it does here.

As a celebration devoted exclusively to repertory film, TCM Fest is arguably a purer cinematic experience than a festival that features world premieres from renowned auteurs. Questions among attendees don't pertain to whether they think a given film will be picked up by this or that distributor, but whether they just saw The Innocents for the first time ever or just the first time on the big screen (in my case, the former). The financial prospects of American Graffiti and Johnny Guitar were speculated upon and fulfilled long ago, and no one has to wonder whether Olivia de Havilland will win the Oscar after walking out of The Heiress — we already know she did. TCM diehards, many of them middle-aged or older, fly in from across the country for a weekend of old movies and Robert Osborne introductions and post-film Q&As with celebrity guests. They delight in the retelling of stories they already know, in reliving their initial experiences with movies they’ve seen dozens of times.

That passion sometimes translates into a certain pushiness that’s rarely on display at any of the city’s other major festivals. Habitually, even neurotically early, I wound up first in line for Touch of Evil, which screened in the recently renamed TCL Chinese Theatre (whose new moniker I acknowledge begrudgingly). When the line was let in some 20 minutes before show time, the man behind me made a point of rushing past me lest a single person enter the 920-seat theater first. Incidents like this aren’t big deals, but neither are they isolated. Being surrounded by swarms of people who share at least one of your major interests — especially a solitary one, like film — is a strange experience, and seeing the fervor it inspires can be discomfiting: I’m not like that, am I? you wonder. In this way, this year’s festival was most revealing as a demonstration of how little fandom differs between genres and eras. Clapping when Orson Welles first appears onscreen in Touch of Evil (which he also directed) is scarcely different from cheering for Stan Lee’s cameo in the latest Marvel movie, though teenagers going to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier at midnight are probably less likely to fall asleep afterward.

It’s true that a wealth of possibilities breeds dread, and this year’s schedule presented many a Sophie’s Choice (though not Sophie’s Choice itself). Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death conflicted with Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which was somewhat ironic, as Thelma Schoonmaker (wife of the late Powell and longtime editor for Scorsese) introduced the former. The long-since-canonized Written on the Wind played at the same time as King Vidor’s lesser-known The Stranger’s Return. This was my fourth time at TCM Fest, and each iteration has produced at least one pleasant surprise — Went the Day Well? stood out my first time; To Sir, with Love last year. Scouting the Official Pleasant Surprise has become a favorite ritual of this and other festivals, a bounty filled by The Stranger’s Return filled that bounty this year.

Unlike A Matter of Life and Death, which screened the day before and finds a man making his case to the heavens for several more decades on this mortal coil, The Stranger’s Return concerns a farmer played by Lionel Barrymore in his sunset years making preparations for the inevitable. The reappearance of his granddaughter (Miriam Hopkins), a firebrand after his own cantankerous heart, helps set him at ease among the viper’s nest of half-relatives waiting for his demise. Their warm relationship was the sweetest of the festival, and made for what might be called a good death: the rare sense that someone had accomplished everything he’d set out to and had gone out on his own terms.

Death also looms over The Innocents, albeit in a much less comforting manner. A chilling adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, it stars Deborah Kerr as a governess to two children on a secluded estate. This formula, tweaked and repeated countless times over since Jack Clayton’s film came out in 1961, has rarely been as genuinely unsettling as it is here. There are no cheap tricks or tactics, just a constant sense that something lurking just beyond the veil is about to reveal itself. The movie ended a little after 10:30 on a Friday night. Waiting in the lobby were several volunteers, one of whom seemed taken aback by the somber mood among the departing audience: “You all look like you just saw something really disturbing,” she said to no one in particular. Horror is best as a communal experience, one you immerse yourself in into without fully knowing what you’ve gotten yourself into and leave sporting the kind of expression that prompts such remarks. TCM Fest may only do this sparingly, but it does it well.

Outside, there was a different sort of horror on display: the normal goings on of Hollywood Boulevard. The Hollywood and Highland intersection may be one of the worst in the city, but it’s also one of the realest. It’s the city as tourist trap, as temporary haven for the homeless, and as unending spectacle of the most banal kind. Waiting in line for the Chinese Theatre provides an endless parade of Jack Sparrow and Joker impersonators, who break character and talk to the sign-holding evangelists less often than you might think. If the vendors get bored slingshotting light-up toys into the air and trying to catch them upon their slow descent, they do a good job of hiding it. Going home after watching all this, it’s hard not to feel like a raccoon covering its eyes and hoping that makes it invisible to predators — do these people really have to come back and do this all over again the following day?

Deciding between filling a cinematic blind spot in the timely-but-mundane setting of one’s living room on a small screen or waiting until they return to the big screen is a first-world problem endemic to L.A. moviegoers. I hold out for the latter as often as possible, a practice vindicated by TCM’s screening of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer midway through the festival. A spectacular failure at the time of its release, the film is one of many to enjoy reevaluation and reappraisal in the decades since. “What year is this from?” a security guard asked before the screening, sensing a certain anticipatory vibe among the audience. “‘77, I think,” I told him. “I gotta see this shit,” he replied. His excitement wasn’t misplaced. Sorcerer was the event of this year’s TCM Fest, a hallucinatory paean to desperate ingenuity about four men driving two trucks full of unstable dynamite across a nameless South America country to put out an oil fire. Though its crash-and-burn spirit ended up being a little too real, Sorcerer’s reputation has since risen from the ashes — with entities like TCM Fest helping to declare it the phoenix that it is.

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Michael Nordine, a Los Angeles–based film critic, is a regular contributor for LA Weekly and the Village Voice.

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