And so we come to the last day of TCMFF 2016. I was already feeling it on Saturday, and of course Saturday’s events and pace and the least sleep yet went a long way toward creating a detour from my still excited but increasingly weary mind and my mouth, which began to fight back when mind tried to communicate with my similarly addled friends. For me the last day is always a mixture of melancholy and near-relief, because as much as I would love to continue on for a few more days in wonderland, the flesh is weak—mine is, anyway. One of my suite mates is in his late 40s, the other in his early 30s, and the latter was still asleep when we left in the morning but came in hours after we had collapsed, and then he posted his daily recap (we’re talking Danny Reid, of Pre-Code.com, and if you’re familiar with his incredible site and his online zine The Pre-Code Companion you know he has boundless energy).
But it’s Sunday, the sands in the hourglass are running out, and there are still so many movies to see, so many friends to visit with on line, and I was determined to squeeze the last drops out of the joys of the festival. So though I stayed in bed till 7 and skipped the shower, I still made it out the door by 8 to get in line once more behind the intrepid CineMava at Chinese 1 for one of my favorite Douglas Sirk films, All that Heaven Allows (1955). This film, about an attractive widow who falls in love with a handsome younger man who isn’t part of her country-club social scene, is a rare example of a movie about a woman finding her voice, learning to live for the first time as an independent person. I had never seen it in a theater, and the prospect of seeing Sirk’s legendary use of color, a central means of storytelling for the former painter, on that beautiful big screen at least managed to light a pilot light under my weary behind. The moment the number was in my hot little hand (tucked safely in the sleeve of my pass) I dashed downstairs toward Starbucks, hoping to once again get something/anything (great name for a record, in’t it?) to at least partially charge my flagging battery. I walked as briskly as I could from the multiplex lobby down the stairs to the plaza facing Hollywood Blvd, took a hard left to Starbucks, and recoiled like Elmer Fudd at the long line. Checked my watch: If I wasn’t paying for my banana bread in five minutes, I would have to split empty-handed. There would be no food for me until the little sandwich shop on Level 3 just a few yards from the multiplex lobby opened. The shop didn’t seem to have a name, but I largely subsisted on their tasty, quickly prepared, affordable BLTs on croissants for the three full days of the festival, and I just want to say: Thank you, little shop, for your fine little sammies. I love you.
Miraculously I did get to the front in time, calling out in alarm to the barista “No—don’t warm it! No time,” and made it triumphantly back upstairs with my cold banana bread a few minutes before they admitted us to the theater.
This was in Chinese 1, the largest house at the multiplex, where I would spend my entire last day. I expected a sell-out, but I wasn’t the only one moving (and thinking) at half speed, and I bet some people just couldn’t force themselves to move fast enough to get there. Which was a shame, because Allison Anders gave a fine introduction:
And because as always, seeing a film I think I know pretty well on a big screen for the first time is revelatory.
A meditation on classic film in the age of iPhone viewing: One obstacle (among many) in trying to present classic movies to younger audiences so that there’s even a remote chance they will catch the bug is home viewing. If you want to turn someone on to 20th-century painting you might take them to the best museum in the area to see real paintings, sculpture, photography, actual works of art. Someone very keen might be able to fall in love with an artist from prints in a book, but a lot of people who might be able to enjoy art when they see it for reals are to be forgiven if the power of a piece doesn’t capture them in a print that distorts the colors, a fraction of the size of the original painting. You would not show them your postage stamps depicting Picasso’s massive “Guernica” and say, “See? Isn’t it powerful?”
This is what we’re up against! Classic films were made to be shown on screens, big screens. When we see them at home, the movies we love are a fraction of the size they were created to be, even with a home theater setup. Watching All that Heaven Allows as it was made to be seen didn’t just *look* better than on a Blu-Ray, but Jane Wyman’s face, giant and looming in close-up, conveys a great deal more emotion than small Jane, whose head isn’t even life-sized on my 47-inch screen.
So if you’re trying to pique some young innocent’s interest in the joys of old films, wait for a screening. Take them to see City Lights or The Navigator or Duck Soup or Double Indemnity in a theater. Or The Wizard of Oz, or Paths of Glory. Or Snow White—Disney’s radical innovation, his determination to evoke emotion from animated drawings, would have failed utterly if he had created it for a 21-inch screen.
I sat way down front and center, in the fourth row, so I could record Anders’ introduction, and then stayed in that seat for the movie. CineMava was right behind me, and her friend Jeff sat next to me. We all chatted companionably until the event began. As the film started I settled down into my seat contented, thrilled to be spending the next hour and a half drinking in one of my favorite movies.
And then it began. A few seats to my left was a woman, alone. Almost as soon as the movie started she began talking back to the characters on the screen, responding with derision or indignation. I had never seen anything like it at the festival before (though I heard some pretty amazing tales of inappropriate audience reactions from friends, but none of these had happened at the festival. I tried to ignore her, but she continued to talk loudly to the movie. Perhaps she didn’t understand that she wasn’t watching at home, I thought, doing my best not to let it distract me. But it was working my last nerve. Finally I shushed her—not a militant but a definite “shush,” though it had no effect. Then, in one of the movie’s central dramatic scenes, I heard a commotion and looked up to find a guy walking toward me in my row, pointing a flashlight at the floor under our feet, saying loudly, “Have you seen a water bottle?” “Go away!” I hissed. and a minute later he did, but I don’t think I did it.
This was during the Christmas/television scene, and I missed the punchline. So irritating…but with the disturbance over, the challenge was to move on, get back into the movie. Still, note to self: Get a look at the broad to your left when the lights come up so you can make sure not to sit near her ever again. But when I turned her way, she had already vanished.
Church, Gentle Reader, we were at church! You do not talk at church, unless it is that kind of church. And Douglas Sirk Church is not that kind of church.
Anyway, we spilled back into the lobby, now in the full hubbub of multiple screenings, audiences exiting theaters, lines queueing for the next shows. The Kid was next up in Chinese 1, and while it wasn’t on my original schedule, I decided that seeing a pristine restoration on that big screen was too good to pass up. Serge Bromberg introduced, and I always love listening to him. His passion alone sweeps you along, and his background on the restoration is always informative. So back in I went, basically to the same seat I had just vacated.
In addition to the scale factor, there’s the restoration factor—all previous prints of The Kid were struck from inferior source materials, and this new restoration has incredible textures. Bromberg noted Edna Purviance’s velvet hat, which is now obviously velvet; you couldn’t see that before. It was fantastic.
If you love film books and memorabilia, Larry Edmunds Book Shop is the real deal—floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with titles as well as lobby cards, stills, and and more. It was the first time I ever made it there, though it’s only a couple blocks from the main venues of TCMFF. “I really ought to look around, they may have something I haven’t found on Amazon, or have a cheaper copy,” I thought, swaying on my feet. Ten seconds established that I couldn’t even focus to read the titles, much less make executive decisions about buying anything. So I paid for <em>Into the Dark</em> (the Vieira book) and called an Uber.
When I got back to the hotel Mike had just finished a break, including a dip in the pool, and he was headed out to another screening. He recommended a few minutes in the pool to “brighten me up” (my paraphrase, quoting from Philadelphia Story), then he dashed off. My dilemma: Should I pull myself together and stagger back down the hill to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at 4:45, again in the Chinese 1? I was afraid if I did I’d be completely done for by 6:45 and unable to go to my chosen festival ender, The Band Wagon (also in Chinese 1). But after 10 minutes in the not-too-cool water under a clear blue sky I felt revived, and down the hill I went, astonished at my own resilience.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had not been on my original planned schedule. I own it and have seen it a number of times, though never in a theater. It is among my favorite Fords, but I try to mix it up at the festival and see a few favorites and as many new-to-me movies as possible, with a few interviews and presentations thrown in for variety. But now, as the sands in the hourglass continued to fall, as the clock moved inexorably toward the end, I knew in my gut that this screening was exactly where I wanted to be.
Back into Chinese 1, back to that same stretch where I had sat for the day’s previous screenings. This one was more crowded, with a retiree couple from Florida (their first festival) to my right and a grizzled festival veteran and blogger to my left. Keith Carradine did a thoughtful introduction, and the opening titles rolled. Church, the evening service—the color was so saturated and the scale, oh Momma! We all know how beautiful Monument Valley is in these films, but I only knew it from reading about it until now. It occurred to me that the horses onscreen were not that much smaller than actual horses, whereas on my TV they are about six inches tall. My row kept gasping at the shots, every one painterly and beautifully composed. This was probably my gateway John Wayne movie, having grown up knowing him only as his older self, a Vietnam War supporter, sort of a bombastic caricature of his younger self. Captain Nathan Brittles was one of Wayne’s favorite roles. It was also one of my gateway westerns, a genre I resisted for most of my life, probably because I’m from Dallas and everybody thought we were all cowboys or crazy-rich (and just plain crazy) like the Ewings.
I had some simplistic idea that westerns were all the same: pro-violence, about good and evil in the least nuanced way possible. So when I finally saw Stagecoach 20 or so years ago, probably because supposedly Welles screened it over and over to teach himself about filmmaking, I was surprised: the respectable characters were douches (except for Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer) and the louche ones, the alcoholic doctor, the prostitute, and the escaped-con murderer—were just people trying to get by.
Anyway, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at the Chinese 1 was a religious experience, and I’m not kidding. At least once at every festival I have some sort of epiphany, the same one really. In a moment of ecstasy it strikes me to the core of my being, like being born again, how much I love movies and how this passion is central to my being. They bring meaning and joy to my life—not just watching them but thinking, reading, writing, talking, tweeting about them, planning to see them… I love music and books and art and food and dogs and babies and mountains, but movies? That’s it. They are where I live, the center of my life, the grace of my heart. And there is nothing better than feeling that powerfully coursing through my exhausted self in a theater filled with other people who feel the same way.
You know, church.
When the ending credits rolled, I stood up, even more wobbly, and once again went into the bustling lobby to get a number for The Band Wagon. Mike was there, and we had a drink at the bar and went down to the big candy store to order custom-designed candy bars before getting back in line. By now I was hanging on by sheer will. We sat in my new home, row four (or was it five?), center at Chinese 1, and watched Illeana Douglas interview Broadway director/choreographer Susan Stroman. Some of it was interesting, but I had so little left attention-wise that I kind of wished they’d wrap it up and start the movie. Here’s the interview:
The Bandwagon is one of my very favorite movies, I should say it’s in the top tier among my many favorite movies, and if someone forced me to pick a favorite musical from MGM it would be this one rather than Singin’ in the Rain, though it’s a very close second. I love them both, but having grown up at the theater where my mom accompanied shows, going to rehearsals and seeing the shows as many times as possible, gives The Bandwagon and its theatrical milieu a huge edge for me. Add to that the stylized New York setting, and this one just speaks to me a little more personally than the greatness that is Singin’ in the Rain.
Another thing to know if you’re considering coming to next year’s TCMFF: It’s not a waste of time to see your oft-watched favorites. Seeing them in optimum conditions, at theaters full of people who love them as much as you do, is unforgettable. Being a classic movie lover, whether a casual one or a total geek (raises hand), can be pretty lonely. There are a lot of wonderful things about TCMFF, and one of the greatest is us—our joy at sharing our joy. A bartender poolside at The Roosevelt told me she loves serving us because we’re different from industry folks (though she hastened to add that there’s nothing wrong with them, of course)—we’re just so happy to be there. Those of you who live in big cities with lots of cultural events (I used to be one of you!) can be jaded because you have so many opportunities to see fantastic art, but for the rest of us, it’s three and a half days of every year when we can totally geek out with each other, and if that’s not cool enough for you, well, that’s just too bad.
I know The Bandwagon by heart, every line, every shot. Or so I thought, but once again the Scale Factor kicked in, and I was able to see stuff that had never been clear before, like the faces of the chorus in the hotel room scene after the show’s disastrous premiere. I could clearly see what they were wearing. They were distinct individuals, they didn’t fade into the background as they do on my decent-sized TV. And best of all, I spotted a Minnelli in-joke I had never before seen. If you’re a Bad and the Beautiful fan you may remember that one of the movies they make in the film is The Proud Land. BATB is from 1952, Bandwagon from 1953, both directed by Minnelli. And there in the Times Square scene in the first few minutes of Bandwagon is a marquee, and what is it advertising? The Proud Land! And again, in the Girl Hunt Ballet, when Rod Riley is walking around to his own voiceover narration, there are some posters on the fence, one of which is advertising The Proud Land. Ha! Hollywood in-jokes—spotting them makes you feel so…insider-y. You know, that’s entertainment!
Well, I hated to see it end, but it was around 9 and people were heading for the closing night party at the Roosevelt. Neither Mike nor I had any partying in us but we were starving, so we headed to the 24-hour cafe off the lobby. Danny found us there and I headed into the party with him to look for Joel Williams, one of my #TCMParty tweeps who I hadn’t managed to meet all week (along with Paula Guthat and a few others), but Joel, easy to spot in his trademark Hawiian shirts, had moved elsewhere and after about three minutes I went back to eat and think about packing and checking out the next morning. The food was good, much better than I remembered from a few years ago, and I will put the joint back in rotation as a possible food source next year.
We did our post-mortem. I told Mike how much more fun the festival was with a friend and asked if he would consider doing it again, and he said he just might. We didn’t have much to say, having spent the past few days hanging out together and going to a lot of the same movies, but it was companionable, and the Caesar salad and grilled cheese were exactly what I needed, greens being the second-most elusive food group at the festival after protein.
It amazed me that so many people still had enough juice to party. Course I’m not a partier at the best of times, but I had exactly enough energy left to pay the check and walk very slowly up Orange to the hotel one last time.
Mike was leaving at 5:30am for LAX, so he crashed, I halfheartedly started packing and drifted off to sleep around 1. I dimly remember Mike coming in and giving me a hug as he headed back to Seattle, and then it was Monday morning and the festival was really over. Danny and I said our goodbyes and he left for his hostel.
I was hanging around L.A. for another week and would be staying in North Hollywood at a friend’s house, but on Monday morning all I felt was physical exhaustion, a wee bit of melancholy that the festival was over, and regret that as badly as I needed rest I couldn’t get into Darnelle’s until 4. Then I got a PM on Twitter: Aurora and Ann Marie were going to have lunch at Musso & Frank’s; could I join them? What a great opportunity to actually spend an hour with two virtual friends, plus have one more cardiac-inducing meal at that legendary eaterie! Turns out M&F’s is closed Mondays, so we met a block away at Loteria grill, which had very tasty food. I had jammed everything into my suitcases and dashed over to Budget on Highland to pick up the car, then brought it back to the hotel to pick up the bags, and then I drove the few blocks to the restaurant.
Gentle Reader, imagine Hollywood Boulevard on an ordinary Monday morning, business as usual. The costume-clad superheroes are out (as always), music blares from boomboxes and storefronts, the tourists amble along…but something was different. Everything was different. Since I had checked in on Wednesday afternoon the whole area had pulsated with our excitement and energy, the living thing that is the festival. And now, 12 hours later, it was like the circus had left town, Poof! I could see the TCMFF offices on the second floor of the Roosevelt, staffers hugging goodbye until next year, and the banners for the festival were still hanging from the street lights. But the thousands who had thronged the boulevard, the venues, the Roosevelt lobby and Club TCM and the poolside, the restaurants and bars along that strip, all had been returned to their normal, post-festival selves. It was like someone had pulled the plug.
So much fun doing my TCMFF post-mortem with Aurora and Ann Marie! Maybe next year I’ll manage to do a little sightseeing with them or other festival friends. We finished lunch and went our separate ways. Ann Marie was suddenly feeling the full weight of her fatigue and needed a lie-down, and I needed to head for the Valley to visit an old friend before heading for Darnelle’s and horizontality. We said our goodbyes and parted, till next year.
Assuming I make it in 2017, and I hope I will, it will be my fifth TCMFF. Things are changing; we’ve been discovered, even by the jaded Angelenos. On opening day LA Weekly ran a story on how the festival is a thing, a really cool thing that is different from all those other L.A. film events that go on every day of the year, and interviewing some younger classic movie fans (including Danny) about what they want (which turns out not to be more recent films), so…are you listening, TCM? I met a lot of first-time festival attendees, and that’s great, but the whole thing felt marginally less personal, more mainstream. Things change, that’s the way of the world. TCMFF is still the only event of its kind, and even if things continue to change, I figure I’ve got at least one more festival in me.
See you in line…