It’s that time of year again! This past weekend marked the 5th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival, which has grown steadily in scope and attendance since 2010. 2014 marked an expansion into additional theater venues– including the El Capitan Theater, which had occasionally been a site for screenings in the past– leading to some difficult decisions on the behalf of most attendees (Hitchcock’s The Lodger with an orchestra or The Wizard of Oz in IMAX 3D – gah!). Moreover, this year’s festival honored the careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Charlton Heston, Quincy Jones, Jerry Lewis, and Maureen O’Hara, leading to a diverse program that featured everything from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) to Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). We’ll be offering up detailed coverage of the Festival over the coming days, beginning with Drew Morton’s breakdowns of his screening selections.
Saturday: Day Three
Given my late night escapades with Eraserhead (1977), I got a late start on Saturday and kicked off my day with Mary Poppins (1964) in the beautiful picture palace the El Capitan (now operated by Disney and recently added to the TCMFF venue list). I hadn’t seen Poppins since I was a kid and had forgotten how bloated the film is (clocking in at almost two and a half hours). Admittedly, the beloved Julie Andrews musical has some incredible sequences – most notably the hybrid of live action and animation “Day in the Park” sequence and the flawless trick photography that goes into Mary’s arrival, unpacking, and cleaning of the room with her wards – but I also found myself checking my watch frequently, perhaps because Poppins was never one of those exercises in nostalgia for me. Songwriter Richard Sherman took part in a Q&A after the screening (which was projected via a beautifully luscious DCP), but I was unable to attend because I needed to get back in line for John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941).
I was drawn to How Green Was My Valley both because Maureen O’Hara was slated to introduce the film and because – gasp – I have never seen it. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder because HGWMV beat Citizen Kane (1941) for Best Picture and – despite the insistence of friends and film studies colleagues that it’s actually a damn fine film – I’ve largely avoided it. Unfortunately, the screening was a bit of bust on both fronts. When Maureen O’Hara took the stage to introduce the film – via a short interview with TCM’s Robert Osborne – the theater was filled with electricity. Sadly, Mrs. O’Hara – who is nearly 94 years old – isn’t as mentally spry as she once was. When asked questions about her career, she’d often digress and address the confused audience’s reaction with a certain air of religious superstition (I believe she said – at several points – that the audience should not laugh because “God is listening.”). I say this not to pick on Mrs. O’Hara – as I can’t imagine I’d be much better off at that age – but because I think it’s important for the Festival to pre-screen VIPs a bit to help the guests control their public images. To his credit, Mr. Osborne handled her answers professionally and helped her save face by ending the interview soon after it had gone off the tracks. However, when talking about Mrs. O’Hara’s interview with attendees across the rest of the day, there was an expressed blend of awkwardness and sadness by those who had witnessed the unintentionally embarrassing spectacle.
As for the film, it is unclear to me why Ford’s epic is so beloved. By taking on such a large scope (both with regard to characters and time) in a short period of time, we’re left with thin characterization and a tone of melancholy loss that is never really earned. The Romanticism with which Huw Morgan remembers his upbringing seems out of place after the first twenty minutes. The valley of the title is an ugly place once it is overrun by the mining company, yet the Morgans cling onto their land and their out of touch fantasies with an incredible degree of ignorance (I kept wondering if somehow the adaptation had jumped the tracks at some point). Admittedly, as most John Ford films do, How Green Was My Valley looked stunning (Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography – when combined with the sets – fooled me) and had some good performances (young Roddy McDowall, O’Hara, and Walter Pidgeon). However, the characterization and naive leap in logic that the valley was somehow worth fighting didn’t exactly bring me to tears at the end.
After a lukewarm Saturday morning, I hit up two of my favorite films of the Festival for an evening double-bill at the Chinese Theater: Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977). The former was introduced by actor Alec Baldwin and music producer Don Was, which I found to be a fairly superficial Q&A (“Do you think if John had lived that the Beatles would have regrouped?”). Thankfully, the presentation (the world premiere of Janus’s restoration, coming soon to Criterion) looked and sounded better than ever. There are few theatrical experiences that will rank up there with this screening of A Hard Day’s Night, as fans and friends rocked in their seats and sang loud enough to overcome the phenomenal sonic presence of the Fab Four. The only way I can describe it was like a very specific drunk that can only found at the intersection of life and the cinema. My face hurt from smiling, from laughing, from basking in the glow of Lester’s incredibly energetic, funny, and shockingly insightful film (the scene where George is asked about trendsetting and marketing is incredibly pointed). If I can’t be more articulate than that, it’s because I’m both reserving myself for a review of the Criterion disc this summer and because I can’t stop thinking about the black and white glow of the screen lighting up so many smiling faces.
Finally – Sorcerer. I had been looking forward to catching Friedkin’s infamous remake of The Wages of Fear (1953) for a long time. Introduced by Friedkin, who spent the bulk of his time thanking the folks behind the new restoration which was completed after a prolonged legal dispute over the film’s distribution rights, Sorcerer looks perfectly clear, grainy, colorful, and – appropriately – dirty (these are all good things – and the transfer is newly available on a barebones Blu-Ray release!). Tossing out the anti-imperialist commentary and homoeroticism of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s original, Friedkin’s film is a minimalist experiment in form. He isn’t concerned with characterization, nor is he terribly concerned with exploring the ideological ramifications of an American oil company ripping apart Latin America with pipelines and dynamite. Instead, he wants us to focus on faces (Roy Scheider’s in particular), our breathing (which stops the minute the truck loaded with nitroglycerin starts its journey across a makeshift suspension bridge), and the work – the process – that goes into survival. Like most Friedkin films, I wouldn’t say Sorcerer is particularly deep from a philosophical standpoint (even as an Existentialist drama) but it is a rush from an aesthetic standpoint (Tangerine Dream’s score for the win!).
Sunday: Day Four
I closed out TCMFF with two films from 1939 in the Chinese Theater: a new 4k presentation of Gone with the Wind and the IMAX 3D presentation of The Wizard of Oz. Neither film boasted special guests (they were introduced by TCM regulars Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz), but I felt like I needed to cross them both off my cinephile bucket list, having never seen either one on the Big Screen.
It had been almost ten years since I watched Gone with the Wind last (I think the last time I saw it was when it came out on the 4 disc DVD set back in the mid-2000s) and I was dreading the experience watching it in a theater, as it is one of those films whose sheer length makes trips to the bathroom an endurance challenge. Moreover, I’ve never really been a fan of the film, given its fascinatingly flawed ideological messages: slavery (good!), independent women (somewhat heroic, yet bitchy!), marital rape (yes!). Yes, there are stunning images and sequences (the burning of Atlanta) that blew me away on the gigantic screen of the Chinese – but there isn’t much else going on in Gone with the Wind. If I “enjoyed” watching it, it’s only because I was fascinated by the train wreck of its politics – which made me particularly uneasy when an auditorium of almost 1,000 cheered (probably 70% of which were female) when the “mouthy” Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is carried up the stairs by her rapist husband Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
Finally, The Wizard of Oz. I’m not sure what I can add to the conversation about a beloved film that has been propped up for years, so I’ll focus primarily on the unique (IMAX 3D) presentation. Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting the post-conversion to work. I initially wrote it off as being a crass cash-in and had little desire to see it because I didn’t think such a conversion would add anything to the experience. After talking to friends and colleagues who had seen it and spoke incredibly highly of it, I looked at the experience as being a curiosity – akin to when Serge Bromberg showcased the “unintentional” 3D films of Georges Méliès. I was very quickly awed by the conversion, which added depth to the “flat” backdrops that lined the studio sets and served as matte paintings. All of a sudden, Oz became more subtly immersive. Aside from the initial gimmick of the post-conversion, the 3D was never gimmicky where the Tin Man’s axe came thrusting out of the screen, into the faces of the audience. It was tastefully done, unintrusive to the original compositions. The highest praise I can give it is that it made the film over anew without replacing it; it’s not as if this was a George Lucas enterprise that attempted to wipe every other version of the film off the face of the Earth!
Last year, I offered up a suggestion box for TCM on how to improve the experience. I don’t have much to say on that front this year. Club TCM seems to have opened up – if only because the doors to the pool and lobby give the crowd somewhere to go (although I wonder why TCM doesn’t partner with the Kodak Theater or a larger venue to put the masses) – and the issue with hit and miss prints seems to have been addressed by a higher ratio of DCPs (which I’m thankful for). The only pressing issue I would recommend brings us back to the Maureen O’Hara interview, which I’d be curious to see your thoughts on.