Apr 23, 2017

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017 Wrap-up: Taking it All In

Navigating a film festival is a skill, and each one has its own character. After four years of having a great time at TCM Classic Film Festival, but making all sorts of mistakes, I have finally determined the perfect formula for making the most of these four days. In essence: I have learned to relax.

When I first attended TCMFF, it was a point of pride among many to be able to binge as many movies as possible, forgetting about sleep and living on soda and popcorn. While never hardcore, I did fall into that pattern to a degree, and my body, and sanity paid a significant price. Now I have learned to skip a program block or three, sit down in a restaurant for a real meal every day and spend some time relaxing with my people. It's a huge privilege to spend a few days among so many fans of classic films, taking the time to enjoy each other's company should be a priority and this year my experience was much more enjoyable because I did that.

If I really wanted to attend a film, I showed up early, but I didn't worry excessively about getting in to anything. I went with my moods, changing my schedule to go with the rhythm of the day. Perhaps most importantly, I went into movies, events and social events with an open mind, replacing expectations with a spirit of adventure. While I had still my responsibilities as a member of the media, all of these strategies made the festival feel less like work and more like the celebration it was meant to be.

My advice to prospective festivalgoers, or those who have felt a bit steamrolled by the event: breathe, enjoy the moment and realize your own health and sanity will always be more important than seeing everything TCMFF has to offer.

The first thing I saw when I got off the shuttle bus
Robert Osborne

TCM did a great job of keeping the spirit of Robert Osborne present throughout the festival. In addition to dedicating the event to the dearly departed representative of the channel and creating a meaningful tribute in the d├ęcor of Club TCM, love for Robert O ran throughout the four days.

The festival opened with the A Tribute to Robert Osborne program, which featured guests like friend Diane Baker. Before each film the first day of the festival, there was a short video tribute to Osborne, which spotlighted how amazing this man was with all kinds of people.

Presenters also paid their respects. On the opening night of the festival, before a screening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Martin Scorsese said, "It's hard to believe that he's gone. I'd like to think he'd be proud the festival is thriving and I don't think there's any better way to celebrate it and celebrate him." Rose McGowan also paid her respects on the last night of the festival, before one of the final films of the festival, Lady in the Dark (1944), though while she was sincere, audience members were a bit confused when she asked for five seconds of silence for Robert O, and then, without pausing, went on to talk for five more minutes. Oh well, we all got the idea.

TCM plans to continue its tributes to Osborne, and many of those efforts are still in the planning stages. While the channel has never replayed film intros, it may do so with some of Robert's classic moments. There is also the possibility that some of his Private Screenings interviews will be aired again, though rights issues offer some complications. It is laudable that programmers threw caution to the wind and aired some of Osborne's best interviews for its 48 hour tribute to him, despite the fact that not everything was technically cleared. It is clear that while TCM is thinking a great deal about the practicality its tributes, ultimately love for Robert O inspires many key decisions.


My post about watching nitrate films at the festival inspired a spirited discussion on the Going to TCM Film Festival Facebook group. On one hand, there was the "Nitrate Schmitrate" crowd who saw nothing special in the experience. On the other, there were those who felt they saw something unusual in those screenings that they hadn't experienced before, something in the way light played on subjects and the luster of the images.

Perhaps most interesting of all was the input from a pair of archival film experts who claimed that the whole nitrate mania was bunk. As this is a private Facebook group, I can't share names or specific comments, but these men, who have extensive experience with many different types of formats, insisted that it was great filmmaking, not the magical effect of a certain format that moved those who enjoyed the experience. One expert in particular had a lot of interesting insight to share about his own experiences with nitrate and what he felt American Cinematheque could do to enhance the showing of nitrate films at the Egyptian Theatre.

So what to make of that? Did I adore these screenings simply because the films were made by some of the best directors in the business? Filmmakers who gather the best craftspeople around them? Is that enough to account for what so many of us enjoyed, not simply when we were looking for something special, but when the exhaustion of a day of watching films came over us and an unusual moment of beauty struck us out of the blue? Something we had never seen before.

I don't know. I've got an expert who has spend a lifetime working with film insisting nitrate had nothing to do with that experience on one side. Then there's Scorsese on the other saying: "the blacks are deeper, richer…the grey are spanning a huge spectrum…. there's a different kind of beauty to it, nitrate has a luminosity, images are lustrous. People talk about it glowing." It's hard for me to discount what I saw when in moments where I was lost in the film, these words came back to me and began to make sense.

Interesting isn't it? Experts with completely opposing opinions. Each of them certain of the truth. All I know is that I saw something remarkable in those four films that I hadn't seen before. I don't go looking for magic, and I have always been highly skeptical of the belief of any superiority of 35mm to digital. I haven't seen enough nitrate to be sure of anything, but I intend to grab any other opportunities to view the format. It only makes sense. If I had four remarkable viewing experiences, it's worth following the same road again.

Like I said, breathe...


  1. When I first arrived at TCMFF, I felt a sense of panic, as in, "Oh no! Only so many days and a zillion movies!" But I agree that the key is to relax and fully enjoy the whole experience.

    As for Nitrate, I'm still not sure I could tell the difference between a nitrate film and a non-nitrate film if I didn't know which was which ahead of time...

  2. It took me so long to stop freaking out about all the details of this festival! It's a lot to take in. I'm glad I finally learned to relax.

    I don't think there's any way I'd know I was watching a nitrate film if I wasn't informed of the fact. I'd probably just think it was a really well made film or a great print. I still haven't fully wrapped my mind around that experience, but I'd watch more nitrate since I did enjoy myself. Thanks for dropping by!