Let me start out by making this disclaimer. I am a film fanatic. I have been all my life. I originally wanted to be a cartoonist, but when I saw Citizen Kane, (yes really, Citizen Kane) at the age of 14, that changed my focus and love from the pencil scribble to the written word and the film frame. Today, I spend any of my non-free time devouring every film, every film book, film article, tweet, text, DVD, VHS, and Beta that I can get my hands on. Were I given the chance to go outside and get some fresh air, or hunker down in a Barcalounger and watch a Bob Hope film for the 16th time, well – you get it.
This year, TCM – the film network that is something akin to the New Testament for all us classic film fans — holds its sixth annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, March 26 – 29th. This is a blessing and a curse for us film fanatics. If you have the wherewithal to plop down a minimum of $299 for the first level “Palace Pass” that gets you access to film at the TCL Chinese and Egyptian Theaters for three of the four festival days, or break the bank with $1649 for the all inclusive mega-experience, you will be transported to movie heaven; everything from the dawn of the flickering image to the present day is amply represented. Movies will screen across more than 4 different venues plus special events that include conversations with famous stars and the people who make the movies happen, symposiums, cocktail soirees, mingling with the networks on camera talent and behind-the-scenes staff, and most importantly, opportunities to interact with like-minded film folk.
Some of us are lucky to live in Los Angeles, where we have access to the festival and venues by pure proximity; others who live further away, scrimp and save and plan their entire year around the festival, making travel arrangements the moment the dates are announced, figuring out where they’ll stay, what restaurants they’ll dine at and what other Hollywood landmarks or attractions nearby they can fit into their already impossibly bloated list of “things to do.”
For fans near and far, every crumb of information that spills from under the cracks and crevices of the mighty TCM citadel the months leading up to the Fest, be it a passing mention on a random blog, or an authentic press item mentioning some of the films considered for inclusion, becomes a vital piece of sustenance. Festival followers scramble and claw and read and re-read and dissect and disseminate everything released with the attention worthy of a constitutional amendment.
Like any sub-culture, film fans are emotional, excitable, hungry creatures; we can be obsessive, compulsive, paranoid, neurotic, psychotic, Quixotic and hyperbolic. We can be all these things at once. One thing is for sure; we are a passionate bunch. We care. A lot.
And why shouldn’t we? Our love for the moving image, for cinema and the cinematic experience has a lot to do with our love of the story; our empathy with characters and characterization; as well as the crafts-people who tell the stories. Whether we are shut-ins or “belles of the ball” in our everyday lives, we have a personal and private relationship and affinity for the art form and the popular phenomena known as movies. And we share that with each other, explicitly and implicitly.
You could probably equate a classic film fan’s passion to that of the Comic-Con attendee. These are people in love with all things fantasy and sci-fi plus a healthy serving of tech-savviness; they are a tough, opinionated lot and they hold those opinions to a higher authority and plane (perhaps a deity like Jean Luc Picard or Yoda). This means that at times they can fall into the cliché of Jeffrey “Jeff” Albertson, the Simpson’s “Comic Book Guy,’ famous for making judgmentally pretentious statements like: “Worst. (fill in the blank). Ever,” about everything. “Worst. Movie. Ever.” “Worst. Episode. Ever.” and “Worst. Smell. Ever.”
As much as we film fans may scoff at the Sci-Fi Fantasy Fan, they are our “not too distant” cousins. And like the Comic-Con attendee; we can be an insufferable lot. We are willing, nay, hungry, to debate anything and everything film related. We are so ravenous, in fact, that we can “troll” like the worst of them, and at times, for pure bragging rights and self-aggrandizement, we will bite the hand that feeds us.
Which finally brings me to the current frenzy going on outside the TCM Castle walls amongst Festival attendees as well as those who will not be coming, but love to grouse (sometimes more vociferously than those who are actually making the trip).
There’s a myriad of topics that my fellow film fanatics take exception to, but the most “controversial” of all seems to be “what” constitutes a “classic.” This is not a new point of contention. It seems as long as TCM has been programming content for broadcast, this argument of semantics has been worn out, beaten and trampled to near oblivion. But, for some reason known only to the film fan, it will not die.
The safest definition of a “classic” is any film made under the studio system, prior to 1970. Once that system started to crumble; set upon by the economy, politics, a new and younger consumer, changing mores and values; the days of the studio bosses were no more. Independent producers and artists forged new, exciting territory that ushered in a new era.
Self-named purists will go a bit further. They concur with Michael Goldburg’s definition from his tome “Classical Hollywood Cinema” that Classic Movies’ period parallels the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” which ran from 1927 to 1963, from the release of The Jazz Singer through the final death knell of studios’ monopoly ownership of the theatre chains. Still, other hardcore purity-puritans will argue it’s from 1929 (when sound was almost fully accepted) to 1950. And then there is an even more underground, over-hyped, Tea-Partyish fundamental group of enthusiasts who claim classic film covers just the movies directed by William Desmond Taylor.
So, when the 2015 TCM Film Fest schedule was released this week, it was tantamount to Martin Luther’s 95 theses being nailed to the church door. Fanatics took to Twitter, to Facebook and to all manner of social media to decry that TCM has “lost their minds.” They were “super disappointed”, the programming “uninspired” “dull,” one going so far as to say “their programming sucks. I’ve been telling them that since Year 1.” Another says the TCM programmer “got drunk and chose a film at random without much thought behind the selection.” While yet still another lamented: “if I am told it is a TCM CLASSIC Film Festival, I have every right to the expectation that the overwhelming majority of the fare be what I fully believe Mr. Robert Osborne himself would define as a classic movie.” Another is secure that “empty theatres will tell TCM all they need to know.” There are even factions that plan on having their “voices heard” at the Meet TCM Panel at the beginning of the festival, to complain about this loose definition of classic, while others fear that they won’t follow through with their resolve, and pull a “Caine Mutiny.” (These are all real quotes, btw).
Robert Osborne and all the hard-working TCM staff “know” what constitutes a “classic.” They hear you. But they also hear bigger, louder, more abundantly populated voices that represent numbers and facts. The niche classic film followers (and it is a niche group) make up a small minority of the movie-going, paying public. TCM needs to not just appease the very “boutique” tastes of our numbers, but tap into the public that may not be completely familiar with Louise Brooks, Gregg Toland or Edith Head. It takes a spoonful of sugar, children. By including such crowd pleasers as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Out of Sight, perhaps some millennial who lined up just to see that one film, sticks around and accidentally discovers Roman Holiday or The Grim Game. For folks who dig SNL and 30 Rock, having Alec Baldwin moderating a Q&A with William Friedkin means maybe they’ll stick around to see what that French Connection movie is all about.
Yes, I’m oversimplifying the situation, but on the other end of the spectrum, we film fanatics are overcomplicating it. By broadening our definitions, and opening doors wider, won’t we then be converting more people to come to the nitrate side? A classic to you may not be a classic to me.
Some of these dissenters argue that TCM strays too far from the themes they offer each year. Yes, they do. This year’s theme is “History According to Hollywood.” So how else would they be able to include a lost Harry Houdini film, or pay homage to Sophia Loren or get to see The Apartment with star Shirley Maclaine in attendance, without pushing past the labels of a theme? Grease is, personally, not to my taste, but I promise you, that screening will be overflowing with folks dressed as bobbysoxers, and greasers, singing along to “You’re the One that I Want.” And for anybody under 50 – guess what – that time period is history.
Let’s be honest, hundreds of TCM fans not even connected to social media are thrilled at the chance to get to spend four days in Wonderland. And in fact, thousands who can’t afford to make the journey live vicariously through those of us lucky enough to attend. (And let’s be honest, some of the loudest complainers are folks who gain access without paying. We know who we are.)
Interestingly, after all the complaining and hand-wringing, one brave, lone voice on social media pointed out that the number of films in the festival that pre-date 1960 is still in the majority. So the purists are still getting their “pure classic” fix.
I personally don’t label “only films from 1927 to 1970” as classics. 1974’s Earthquake is a classic disaster movie, just as that year’s Lenny offers a classic performance by Dustin Hoffman (who will be in attendance, thankyouverymuch)! On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an underappreciated James Bond classic.
If we demand TCM limit its definitions, would we have been able to dance in the aisles last year at the 50th anniversary screening of A Hard Day’s Night, or revel in the live appearance of Mel Brooks for Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, or hear the late great Albert Maysles re-live the Altamont disaster for Gimme Shelter, or shrink in our seats at the midnight screening of Eraserhead? What other film festival even covers all these titles, and yet still offers up hand cranked movies?
I ask: why not allow the idea of TCM considering more contemporary films as modern classics? You might curl your upper lip at the AMC model, and no one–least of all me–wants TCM to turn into the next AMC. But the fact is: AMC was the 8th most watched cable network in 2013, whereas TCM didn’t crack the top 10. While, thankfully, TCM remains uncut and commercial free, eking its revenues off giants like HBO and Showtime, the fact remains: it needs to survive. And if that means a tithe, a benign ‘tip of the hat’ to air some newer films in order to attract a larger viewing audience, then so be it.
So I ask you, my classic film fanatic brethren: can’t we all just view along? Can’t we rejoice instead of criticize the four days of unbridled movie going, fellowship and memories that the TCM Film Festival fosters? Can’t we rally behind TCM, and show their parent company and all the folks who work tirelessly to bring our favorite films into our homes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that we support and love them? There’s no denying debate is healthy, and constructive criticism is necessary and helpful. And TCM constantly offers opportunities for outreach and for dialogue. But biting the hand that feeds you gives you nothing, except no more food, and quite possibly, no hand.
I say” Long live classic film! Long Live TCM! And long live all you film fanatics that I call family.” Let’s make this year the Best. Festival. Ever.