May 3, 2018

TCM Classic Film Festival: Neck Deep in Cinema, Popcorn for Dinner

The second and third days of TCMFF were almost all about the movies. Of the sixteen flicks I saw during the festival, I saw eleven these two days. When I write sentences like that, I wonder how I managed it, but at the time I was completely focused on film. This is the festival is at its best, when you have so many remarkable experiences within 24 hours that any one of them could make that day special.

On Friday I’d considered going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), because I thought it would be great to see that thriller on the big screen. I am so glad I made a last minute change and saw Intruder in the Dust (1949) instead. Juano Hernandez is one of my favorite actors and this is his best performance.

Donald Bogle
The screening also gave me the opportunity to see Donald Bogle, one of my favorite biographers, for the first time. His writing on black film has expanded my knowledge and enjoyment of movies immensely and his biography of Dorothy Dandridge is one of my favorite books. He spoke a bit about Intruder in the Dust before interviewing the film’s juvenile star, Claude Jarman, Jr.

Claude Jarman, Jr.
Jarman was a great storyteller, sharing memories from the set and pointing out the significance of a few scenes of the film, which I appreciated, because it did enhance my viewing experience. Intruder in the Dust is based on a William Faulkner novel and I loved a story he shared about attending a party for the writer’s daughter at his home, where he wandered around in shorts with his typewriter, oblivious to the celebration around him.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
was one of my best schedule changes. I’ll admit that I switched partly so I could carve out some time to have a decent lunch, but it was also fabulous to see a Preston Sturges comedy in a theater for the first time. I had forgotten how giddily funny this movie is. It moves fast and takes a lot of crazy turns. You can’t waste any time trying to make sense of it all. It’s all about the laughs.

I know food pics are usually pretty gross, but I promise this was DELICIOUS
After the film, I had one of my favorite meals of the festival. I highly recommend Jinya Ramen Express, a take-out joint right next to the back doors of the Chinese Multiplex. It’s a build-your-own rice and noodle bowl place right next to loads of outdoor seating. I didn’t know what to make of all that sun, but the food was delicious.

I lingered over lunch longer than I’d expected, but I did get a chance to catch some of the Film Biographers: A Life presentation at Club TCM. TCM/Filmstruck host Alicia Malone hosted a panel of biographers including Donald Bogle, Scott Eyman, and William J. Mann. These men have written some of my favorite film books and it was exciting to see them all together. They covered some interesting territory, discussing the way the truth can be colored by context, how maintaining skepticism and good research habits is key when faced with stories that have been passed down through generations, and how emotional connection with subjects often makes them wish they could write about a happier outcome. Overall, I got a good sense of the moral struggle involved in documenting a life.

Susan King and Bob Koster
After the presentation, I made another last minute schedule change. Deanna Durbin’s first film, Three Smart Girls (1936) ended up being one of only three new-to-me films I saw at the festival. Former Los Angeles Times critic Susan King interviewed Bob Koster, son of the film’s director Henry Koster before the movie. Even that early in her film career, Durbin was wary of getting caught up in movie stardom and not being able to pursue her dream of becoming an opera star. Koster Jr. said that his father was aware of this, and convinced Durbin to make the movie because otherwise he would lose his job and be sent back to Nazi Germany and certain death. The light-hearted spin Koster put on this story was a little unsettling, especially when he said the actress never forgave him for that.

I loved Three Smart Girls. It’s basically The Parent Trap without switching siblings and summer camp. Though it covers some devastating territory, it’s funny, fast-paced and full of amusing characters. One of the highlights of the film was a very young Ray Milland looking so handsome he had the audience collectively holding its breath.  

I don’t think many people know how sharp-witted, invigorating and fun Deanna Durbin films can be. I think because of her youth and the sweetness of her singing, she has the reputation of being a sickly sweet, sentimental star, but that is not the case and this film is ample proof of that.

After a quick taco run at Baja Fresh, it was back to the Egyptian for Gene Tierney. As brutal as it can be, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is one of my favorite films, partly due to the lush, colorful look of it and a magnificent cast, but mostly because it stars one of my most adored actresses, Gene Tierney in her best performance. The Technicolor looked gorgeous on a sometimes scratchy, but mostly decent nitrate print. It was interesting to hear an audience reacting to Gene’s outrageous behavior in this film. She is not only wicked and ruthless, but quite creative in her devious deeds.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a less enthusiastically received midnight screening than The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which is saying a lot, because this is where TCMFF gets adventurous. That’s all right by me and is in fact why I love these middle-of-the–night screenings. 

The Film Geeks of San Diego have become known for bringing fun goodies to the midnight show and they topped themselves this time by handing out triangle-shaped goatees just like the one the film’s star wears.

Modeling my goatee with @thephantomasthmatic
Directed, written, produced by, and starring the eccentric character actor Timothy Carey, the film is the beacon of narcissism you would expect it to be. Objectively, it isn’t good, but I was entertained because its exploration of the life of a self-appointed deity had some amusingly, or perhaps frighteningly deep connections to current day politics. That and the fact that it was just bonkers kept me more awake than I expected to be. Sometimes it’s fun to watch crazy without having to deal with it directly. I also found several shots to be beautifully composed, thought admittedly there were many others which were grimy and lifeless. It was a mixed bag to say the least.

Romeo Carey, wearing his World's Greatest Sinner goatee
According to his son Romeo, who reluctantly answered questions at a post-screening Q&A where he bluntly said he would rather hold the spotlight and sit and talk (and being that he was quite stoned, there would likely be a lot of talking), his father made the film because he wanted to be a star. He attempted to reach that goal by courting controversy without seeming to understand that you have to make controversial things that people actually want to see if you want to be that kind of star.

John Kirk and Eddie Mueller

On Saturday it seemed delightfully inappropriate to get up bright and early to watch a film noir as sleazy as Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I gave myself time to sleep off the midnight screening and showed up to the Chinese Multiplex as late as possible in order to stay at least a bit on brand.

Noir Alley host Eddie Mueller had a brief chat with retired film archivist John Kirk about the film. Kirk forgot to pack his dress pants, but his casual shorts look was at least California-appropriate. They discussed his discovery of a sought-after ending of the film that was long thought lost. He expressed sympathy for a woman who was writing about the film at the time whose book would now be irrelevant thanks to what he found.

I almost skipped Bullitt (1968) because my schedule was full of re-watches and I wanted to see This Thing Called Love (1940), but my sentimental attachment to this film is so deep that I couldn’t miss it. When I was a kid, my dad took great delight in pointing out to me how realistic the car sounds were in the famous chase scene. Since he has done some wild driving in his time, I figured he had first-hand knowledge.

You don't sweat a number this high when the theater seats over 900
It was my longest line of the festival. I almost literally could see my hotel from my place in line, and the theater was filled with an enthusiastic crowd. Experiencing the hip music, tight action, McQueen’s inscrutable face, and yes, that amazing car chase on such a large screen was transformative. We all hollered when the chase was over. I almost high-fived my seat partner. It was an experience I needed to have.

After the screening I texted my Dad, raving about it all. He responded, “Bullitt. Wow. I can hear the exhaust music now. In the key of V8.” I should mention that in addition to cars, my dad is fond of playing jazz piano, hence the musical tone. I wish he would have been with me to see it!

Nancy Olson and Michael Feinstein

Then I hopped back in line again for Sunset Boulevard (1950), also to be shown in the Chinese Theater. Actress Nancy Olson spoke to Michael Feinstein before the screening. She is a sharp, lively and lovely 89-year-old and it was a fun interview. She talked a lot about her relationship with director Billy Wilder, who learned as much as he could about her, because he suspected her real personality was close to the role she would play in the film. He even had her wear her own clothes as they were more effective than any costume in communicating the woman she was. I also thought it was interesting that Olson pointed out that everyone in the film was an opportunist. I’d never thought of that, but it’s true, though there are differing levels of morality at play. It was the perfect setting for that kind of film and the final scene was the quintessential classic movie moment.

The wonderful Nancy Kwan
Seeing Donald Bogle interview Nancy Kwan before The World of Suzie Wong (1960) was my most eagerly anticipated TCMFF event and I was thrilled that it lived up to my expectations. Kwan is 78, looks about 60 and still possesses movie star glamour, though her persona is relaxed and approachable. She had a great talk with Bogle in which she nonchalantly described her relatively easy journey from obscurity to her first film, where she starred opposite William Holden, one of the biggest stars of the day. Finding work was less easy after that, because Hollywood did not make employing Asian actors in good roles a priority, but she nevertheless made 54 films, became an activist for her community and lived a vibrant life. You could see in her manner and bearing that she has lived well, and in an industry that can be brutal, it was great to see that she remained strong. For a woman so humble, she has a powerful presence. I was as starstruck as I was two years ago when I saw one of my other great film favorites, Anna Karina, at the festival.

Though I love the pre-code gangster flick Scarface (1932), I mostly attended the screening so I could see legendary director John Carpenter introduce the film. I thought I would have another starstruck moment, but Carpenter is so unpretentious and straightforward that I simply saw him as a knowledgeable and interesting man sharing some interesting facts before a good flick. I guess he was essentially the way I envisioned him to be.

It was during this screening that the intense schedule started to catch up with me. I dropped off for a few minutes. The gentleman a few seats behind us went much further, erupting into magnificent snores during the closing scenes of the film. He was still asleep as the theater emptied and we figured it was better that he be awakened in an empty theater instead of putting on a show for remaining audience members.

Then it was on to my second midnight flick of the festival, the screening of a restored Night of the Living Dead (1968). Director Edgar Wright had been scheduled to introduce the film, but could not make it to the States due to visa issues. Shaun of the Dead (2004) star Simon Pegg stepped in and we were all impressed with his grasp on zombie lore. I learned a lot in that five minutes!

Zombie cookies

The Film Geeks of San Diego came through again with zombie cookies (both colorized and black and white versions) and George Miller/zombie girl face masks. I always appreciate the sense of fun they bring to midnight screenings.

I found the restoration of the film astounding. It almost seemed like a different flick to me. The music was sharper, the image so clean that it practically felt like a modern movie, and I also better appreciated how remarkable Duane Jones’ performance was in this film. He managed to be an effective and admirable action star in a business casual uniform of cardigan, khakis and loafers!

One of my friends was watching the film for the first time and was disturbed to realize that the zombies were not nearly as scary as the men with guns at the end who had a license to kill without boundaries. I thought that was pretty sharp for a first impression!

Then it was time to pass out in bed, slightly hungry because dinner was popcorn.

Come back tomorrow for the last day of the festival and parting thoughts!

No comments:

Post a Comment