From my comfortable perch back at my friend’s house in North Hollywood, the intensity, mad dashes, glorious experiences, and occasional frustrations of TCMFF 2016 seem rather remote, Gentle Reader, but at this time a little over one week ago I was watching Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid wrap up before Carl Reiner’s interview with Illeana Douglas.
But let’s back up a bit to Friday night, as we made our exhausted, satisfied, thrilled way from the Egyptian, where The Passion of Joan of Arc had blown the whole place away, toward our hotel on Franklin Ave., one block above Hollywood Blvd. A lot of the festival happens at either The Chinese (formerly Grauman’s Chinese) or in the Chinese Multiplex in the adjoining Highland Mall. I love that the Highland Mall incorporates scenic elements from Intolerance, including these giant elephants poking the sky.
In the few days of the festival we trod our path between hotel and venues many times, and Friday night we walked past the very long line of attendees snaking through the mall hoping to see Angela Lansbury interviewed before The Manchurian Candidate. It was already after 9, the event was scheduled for 9:30, but nobody was moving, so the screening was going to start late—turned out it didn’t get going until 10, and as we passed the yawning folks in the queue I congratulated myself for having done the 7:15 Joan of Arc instead. I could not have stayed awake through the movie, and I would have started Saturday that much more exhausted. Conserving energy and knowing your limits are key to making the most of the festival.
Even so, I only managed about 5 hours of sleep before the alarm sounded at 6:30. Here’s how festival screenings work: An hour before, numbers are given out to people in line. There are two lines, one for all levels of passes except the Spotlight Pass, the really pricey one, which I get because it guarantees me access to the screenings—Spotlighters, as I learned other passholders call us, often with some hostility, are admitted before the other passholders. Which breeds some resentment, and I get that. Apparently some Spotlighters also behave badly or have entitlement issues, which further alienate them from other passholders. Unlike Spotlighters who make use of their privilege to saunter into line just before we’re let into the theater, I am usually right in front of the line to wait for numbers 90 minutes or more before the screening. This year my frequent line companion was Theresa Brown, aka Cinemaven, whose witty commentaries on all kinds of movies can be found at her website (Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch), and if you aren’t already reading them, do yourself a favor and start. Theresa was No.1 to my No.2 at least four times, and it gave us a chance to get to know each other that we wouldn’t get any other time at the festival.
But Saturday morning was not a Theresa line—Mike and I decided to go to Ron Hutchinson’s 90 Years of Vitaphone program at the Egyptian, which is the venue furthest from the hotel and hardest for me to manage these days. We got there at 8, waited for our numbers, then ran over to Starbucks to get something/anything to eat (Festival Rule #1: Always eat when you get the chance). I got a coffeecake and some milk (protein, the hardest food group to get at TCMFF) to go so we could get back to the line before they started letting people in. Big crowd for Vitaphone and Ron, and you know if a ton of people are willing to stagger out at 8am, an event has serious buzz.
Ron had agreed to an interview weeks before the festival, but what I learned this year is that all interviews need to be done before the festival begins, or they just will not happen. Ron and I tried without success to hook up at several points in the whirl, and when the smoke clears and I get caught up at home we will speak about the 25th anniversary of his vital preservation/restoration endeavor, The Vitaphone Project, and the 90th anniversary of Vitaphone.
Ron’s presentation was a brief one followed by several of the shorts that have been restored because Vitaphone Project collectors have provided the missing soundtracks for the films. We were enchanted by Baby Rose Marie, who most of us older kids remember from The Dick Van Dyke Show but don’t know as the fine little chanteuse she was at perhaps 7. She croons, she growls, she gets bluesy without being creepily hypersexual. I loved her. I also loved the vaudeville act Shaw and Lee, “The Beau Brummels” (not be be confused with a ’60s band of the same name), whose patter and presentation were dry, sophisticated and awfully funny. A lot of the material wasn’t dated; it could still be performed today. Then there was a female impressionist, Little Miss Everybody, who did Mae West and others, and a lovely short of George Burns’ and Gracie Allen’s vaudeville act, which ended with them dancing a little soft-shoe. Gracie was always captivating, but seeing her so young, so pretty, and so very graceful as she danced, I felt I was seeing her as Burns did when he fell in love with her. It was worth the early morning scramble, I’m so glad we didn’t miss it.
But we sure did scoot out of their as if our very butts was on fire, because we had decided to brave the line for Carl Reiner/Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid over at the Chinese, which started at 12:15, and we figured we’d best show up 2 hours early to snag a good spot in line. We were right. It was rather warm and of course the California sun was insanely bright—I was glad for my sunscreen and hat.
After we got our line numbers for DMDWP we ran over to the Roosevelt lobby where Illeana Douglas was doing a signing for her book, I Blame Dennis Hopper. Mike bought a copy, which she graciously signed, and then she took a photo with us. The guests and hosts at the festival are like that. They’re all under the gun in several ways at these events, but they are unflappable and reliably pleasant. It’s one of the best things about TCMFF, and it sets the tone for most of our interactions with each other (though there are exceptions, of which more later).
We had a cold drink, sat and collected ourselves for a few minutes, then dashed back across the street to the DMDWP line…
We had good spots in line and got seated where I like to be, on the aisle, not too near the front, where I could record Reiner’s interview after the movie. I had only seen the film once before, and that was back when I only knew some of the films that are so cleverly used in DMDWP, whereas now I know all of them. Also, like everything else at TCMFF, seeing a good print on a proper huge screen is revelatory. Like The Conversation, DMDWP has aged very well and we laughed like idiots.
Here’s the interview, Pts.1-4. We weren’t close enough for good video, but the audio is fine.
When Reiner/Douglas were wrapping up we gathered our things and sprinted/hobbled back across the street to the Roosevelt, this time to Club TCM, where I was determined to see Elliott Gould’s interview at 4.
Gould won my heart when I first saw The Long Goodbye in 1973 at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. I was 14 or 15, and Altman’s film, whose reputation has steadily grown in the past few decades, was not commercially or critically successful on its initial release, but I was nuts about it. The Long Goodbye was my backhanded introduction to Raymond Chandler (in that Altman’s treatment of Chandler’s novel was typically idiosyncratic and personal, part of what puzzled critics and audiences at the time), and it led me to Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Jim Thompon, and other hard-boiled pulp writers of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The film’s rueful mood, heartbroken and lost, and Gould’s lost, emotionally bruised Marlowe appealed to me enormously, though I see why it bugged people for whom Marlowe was Bogart or Montgomery—Altman/Gould were doing something very different, and it pissed off a lot of viewers. That’s what I love about Altman, and Gould for that matter. The ’70s were such an exciting decade for transgressive Hollywood movies. I didn’t see the film in a theater again until three years ago in a Parisian rep cinema, and I fell even more in love with it. Gould was to introduce the TCMFF screening an hour after the interview, and my original plan for the festival was to see that as well.
Club TCM has presentations and interviews all day through the festival. I have seen Max von Sydow and Quincy Jones interviewed in past years, and this was my big event there for 2016. There’s a bar toward the back, banquettes along the back wall and along the walls up front, and rows of rather small, uncomfortable chairs in front of the low stage as well as a screen kind of high on the wall above it. When we got there at 2:45 it wasn’t yet crowded, though people were starting to trickle in. The incredible Serge Bromberg, French preservationist/restorer and archivist extraordinaire, was accompanying a Chaplin clip on the piano.
I was maneuvering toward the front so that if people left after Bromberg we’d maybe get decent seats for Gould. He was extremely charming—mature, modest, and wise. He spoke of his childhood in New York and training as a dancer, which was news to me, and when Alec Baldwin, who is posting the interview on his podcast, brought up California Split, another of Gould’s collaborations with Robert Altman, Gould said the part came easily to him because he was of gambling at the time. I didn’t record it because it will be available elsewhere but mostly because I couldn’t see, even from the fourth row. The chairs were not staggered, so I spent the hour looking at the back of ex-child star Ted Donaldson’s head. On opening night Donaldson had introduced A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which he costarred, and under better circumstances I would have spoken to him at the Gould interview. If I did not apparently lack the selfie gene, I would have taken a photo with him. But lack it I do, and that is why there are a total of three photos of me at the festival, all taken by other people. Still, it turns out that I did get a photo of Donaldson, albeit the back of his head. It also happens to be the only halfway decent one I got of Gould (stress on the halfway):
So Gould was fabulous and I am thrilled to have seen (or mostly heard) him, but aside from not being able to see through the head of a not-very-tall actor, my other complaint relates to the interviewer. I get that since Baldwin was using this for his podcast and he is Alec Baldwin, he used a fair amount of air time to talk about his career. Which would not be uninteresting under the right circumstances. But since it was perhaps my only opportunity to see Gould interviewed, I would have preferred maximum Gould and minimum Baldwin (if such a thing exists). A comparatively minor quibble. The interview was fabulous and I urge you to seek it out. Baldwin’s podcast is called “Here’s the Thing,” and it airs on NPR outlets but has not been posted at this writing.
Now I had to make a painful choice: If we dashed to the Egyptian for The Long Goodbye at 6:15, we wouldn’t be out in time for Anna Karina and Band of Outsiders at 9:15 at the Chinese Multiplex. Plus, we had been running around like a crazy person since 8am after two nights of 5 hours sleep. So I sadly let go of The Long Goodbye, and suddenly we had time to go back to the hotel and change, charge devices (this has taken over our lives, right?), and run back to get our numbers for Karina, then sprint to Sadie’s for dinner before going back to get in line for Band of Outsiders.
You see that previous paragraph? This is TCMFF in a nutshell. If you love classic movies I encourage you to come to the festival, but do your research, wear comfortable shoes, carry sunscreen and protein bars, and get some strategies for eating and occasionally sleeping. It’s fabulous but not for the faint of heart. There are plenty of disabled attendees, including folks in wheelchairs, so don’t let that stop you. But just know that to get the most out of it you need to be thoughtful and intentional, and that you will inevitably miss stuff you swore to see come hell or high water. You’ll just have to make peace with that and not let it interfere with your appreciation and wonder at what you do get to see.
Dinner at Sadie’s, as always, hit the spot, and after fortifying ourselves with hangar steak and dirty martinis (decent but not as good as the sublime ones at Musso & Frank’s), we were ready for a little nouvelle vague.
Anna Karina is a goddess. Now in her 70s, she is still effortlessly chic and utterly captivating. Her appearance at the festival was one of the most exciting for me, because she doesn’t spend much time in the states and this felt like an extraordinary opportunity to see her perhaps the only one I’ll ever get. I had expected a proper 30-minute interview—after all, her work with Godard alone would supply hours of conversation, and that’s only a fraction of her long and varied career. But it turned out to be only a 10-minute introduction to Criterion’s gorgeous restoration of Band of Outsiders (1964). Here’s the film’s most famous scene:
I could watch it on a loop for ages.
The interview itself was disappointing. I like Ben Mankiewicz a lot, but he seemed out of his comfort zone. He was flustered. He had a crush on Karina (as who among us does not—what’s not to love?), and instead of sticking to her experience making the film and falling in love with Godard, he mooned around for a couple minutes rhapsodizing about her French accent and how adorable she is. And she is, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered in a half-hour interview, but in such a brief conversation with a star who doesn’t normally appear at screenings, I hated to lose even a moment of her smoky voice and beautiful English, telling us how it was 52 years ago , when Godard made her and the two other principals go to a club each night after shooting wrapped for the day to study dance with a professional—none of them knew how to dance. As you can see from the clip of them doing The Madison, that hour a day for three weeks paid off. She is utterly delightful, so fresh, natural and lovely.
I did get footage of the too-brief interview, though, and here it is:
Here’s another issue I heard about a lot at the festival: People going in for the interview, then leaving before the screening. It happened at Band of Outsiders, at Manchurian Candidate, and at Double Harness, the surprise hot ticket of the festival. Here’s the thing about it—whoever gets in to a hot screening might deny somebody else admission, somebody who had waited on line for quite a while and who wanted to actually see the movie. But those people have already dispersed when these folks leave before the movie. I would like to see TCM address this, perhaps by doing as many interviews as possible at the end of the movies instead of the beginning. It just ain’t right for people to wait hours, not get in, and others to go in for a few minutes and then leave. TCM, are you listening?
The movie was fabulous. Early Godard always makes me giddy, I fall in love with him every time, his personal blend of poetry, brutality, parody, cynicism, romanticism, and comedy. Karina’s performance as Odile, the very romantic, not very bright young woman at the center of the film’s triangle, is glorious. Odile is so intent on finding love with creep and wannabe gangster Artur (last name Rimbaud, I think, a joke that probably sailed above most of the audience’s heads), she is blind to his contempt for her, to the obvious fact that his only use for her is to gain access to the stolen money hidden in her aunt’s house. That, and to get laid, but that’s lagniappe.
I was fading through the film but stayed awake, and once again, for the third night, we wended our way back through our now-familiar route from the Multiplex up Orange Avenue to our hotel, so quiet and peaceful just a block from the clamor of the festival.
I love that block on Orange, my little promenade between home and festival, but somehow I had never noticed this building, which Mike pointed out, that could be a set for Alphaville (1965), another Godard favorite:
And so ended Saturday, or rather it ended around 3am when I finally fell into sleep, already feeling the tug of the last day before me, as well as my flagging energy.
Sunday began three and a half hours later at 6:30 (again), when I dragged my sorry ass out of that comfortable bed and headed out for my early show at the Multiplex, Douglas Sirk’s glorious romantic melodrama All that Heaven Allows (1955), introduced by director Allison Anders. And that is where my final wrap-up will begin.