Scene Invasion: 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival
I’m sitting in the TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theater for the closing night of the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, and the crowd is very unhappy with longtime Turner Classic Movies host and event emcee Robert Osborne. But it’s got nothing to do with Osborne (twinkly as ever) or with the festival (excellent as usual) or with that night’s screening of Buster Keaton’s most celebrated film, The General (movie magic in its purest form).
No, these classic film aficionados are upset because Osborne has just informed us of the historic theater’s impending renovation, which will turn the movie palace that opened in 1927 into one of the biggest IMAX theaters in the country. To this crowd, the news is more than just a disappointing step towards the crass commercialization of yet another Old Hollywood landmark – it’s an affront to their identity as participants in the preservation of cinematic history.
The idea that the iconic structure will soon be catering to tourists willing to be gouged to see the latest action blockbuster in its largest and loudest form is too much to bear. It’s also a harsh reminder of the economic vagaries of the entertainment industry. The festival guide mentions that The General – a movie that’s listed on the National Film Registry and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made – was a financial failure when it was released in 1926. Though it’s hard to believe now, there was a time when even Keaton’s masterpiece was maligned for its failure to make a buck. And so it goes with the Chinese Theater.
TCM Fest weekend is unusual in the way it inverts the youth-obsessed paradigm of its home in the heart of Hollywood. In this topsy-turvy environment, age becomes an asset. It makes rock stars of the geriatric actors, directors, writers, and technicians who come to reminisce about their roles in making these enduring films. It’s a place where the standing ovations last a bit longer, affording the guests of honor the extra time they need to stroll their way onstage.
I am conspicuously young among this crowd and, even though I’m a repeat customer, it takes me a while to get in the right mindset. My festival starts with George Stevens’ 1956 Texan epic Giant, about the rising and falling fortunes of a wealthy cattle ranching family headed by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, a film that feels as lengthy as its 200-plus minute runtime promises. Giant‘s humongous canvas invites a story that’s told almost exclusively in broad strokes, with every plot development tediously spelled out in the most obvious terms. Its saving grace – besides its well-meaning proto-feminist and anti-racism subplots – is James Dean’s mesmerizing performance in his final screen role as Hudson’s ranch hand-turned-rival. Dean somehow manages to fit his appropriately giant presence into a typically blustery blockbuster of the era while simultaneously exposing the seams that would drive the format out of fashion almost a decade later.
Subtitled films are something a rarity at this festival, but The Seventh Seal, the haunting allegory of spiritual crisis from Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, is as indicative of the forces chipping away at the Hollywood studio system as Dean’s dazzling and discomfiting Method spectacle. All of which would make it an unorthodox choice for TCM Fest, except that one of these year’s themes is a salute to venerable Swedish actor Max Von Sydow.
The affable Von Sydow’s polite answers to questions about working with Bergman in a pre-screening Q&A pale in comparison to the experience of the film, which uses a then-novel conceit involving Von Sydow’s pious knight bargaining with the personification of Death to let him accomplish one more good deed in his plague-ridden homeland. Bergman stocks the film with a gallery of memorable characters who represent the many different facets of human nature – ranging from cruelty and lust to compassion and grace – all taking part in an unflinching passion play that strongly evokes memento mori, the inevitability of death. As a macabre chaser to the festival’s Hollywood razzle-dazzle, The Seventh Seal argues well for TCM’s steadily expanding definition of “essential” cinema.
A day later, I’m joined by considerably more younger faces for the TCM equivalent of fan service: It Happened One Night, a Frank Capra screwball comedy that was famously the first movie to sweep the five “major” Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). This is the sweet spot of TCM Fest. Clark Gable. Claudette Colbert. Quickstep banter in a battle of the sexes that’s really more like a battle of the classes.
In fact, I’m surprised at how much money matters in this movie, originally released in the middle of the Great Depression, when we’re usually told that Hollywood doubled down on escapist fare. Of course, bumping into a wealthy heiress on a night bus to New York and falling madly in love with her comes with a significant dose of fantasy. But it’s not without a certain plausibility that stems from its stars’ on-screen chemistry and a guarded cynicism about love that’s been a hallmark of the greatest romantic comedies since well before Harrys were meeting Sallys.
Let’s return to the Chinese Theater and Buster Keaton. The murmuring crowd is disarmed by One Week, a short that whets the audience’s appetite for Keaton’s daring brand of physical comedy. It doubles as an introduction for the Alloy Orchestra, an instrumental trio that plays live accompaniment to silent film classics. Even before the movies talked, sound was as important to the medium as sight.
Then The General begins and the room is transported; for the next 75 minutes, it is 1927. Keaton has just invented – or at least is the first to perfect – the action comedy (The General is excellent from start-to-finish, but its two bravura train chase sequences are a masterclass in pacing and directing an action scene). The house band cues our emotions and tosses in a few Foley effects for good measure.
I’m as proud a historian as the next film buff, but when the curtain closes and the lights come up, I don’t join the throng of people snapping selfies in the emptying theatre. The reality is this: the Chinese Theater will still be around next year, even if has new stadium seats. And we need not take a stand against IMAX – there are filmmakers today who are capable of using the technology as masterfully as Keaton used the tools of his era. But we mustn’t forget what was felt in this moment. Whether one approaches it as a gateway to an imagined cinematic past or a living reminder of a very real history, TCM Fest is as essential as the movies it celebrates.