TCM Classic Film Festival 2017

Old movies never held much appeal for me.  Static cameras, theater-style over-acting, scratchy black & white film … it all felt so … well … old. Don’t get me wrong … I tried.  Casablanca was fine. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t bad. Forbidden Planet clearly set the stage for Star Trek.  Our Gang (The Little Rascals) did make me laugh as a kid. I guess Bette Davis had nice eyes.  But come on … as a fifty year old white man, my date cutoff for old started when I was ten years old with Star Wars (1977.) And then on over the decades to Indiana Jones (1981,) The Avengers (2012,) The Fast and the Furious one through eight (2017) and counting … these movies are awesome.  And what about modern day indie film?  Edward Burns, Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, The Duplass Brothers? These all feel so real and alive and relevant.

But last summer something unexpected happened. I watched Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005). It was weird and low budget and pretty much incomprehensible. But I didn’t hate it.  Now, I knew that both my sons loved it. I’m sure that colored my perspective and gave me a motivation to like this movie. So I texted Sam (of this blog) and told him I thought I liked it, but wasn’t sure. He told me it was modern Film Noir and based on another incomprehensible movie, Howard Hawks’ 1946 classic The Big Sleep (which by the way existed in two very different versions decades before home video “directors cut” money grabs!)

So I watched The Big Sleep. Bogey and Bacall; beautiful blacks and rich creamy whites; Tough guys and guns and sex … I loved it! Then I watched The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946,) Double Indemnity (1944,) Gilda (1946,) The Third Man (1949,) and Sunset Blvd (1950.) And followed these with other classics from Frankenstein (1931) to Gone with the Wind (1939) and Dr. Zhivago (1964.)

I can’t tell you exactly what happened. Why did I go from finding these films annoying to not being able to get enough? Maybe it was one too many world-ending scenarios. Maybe it was spending $12.50 to see Batman V. Superman (2016.) Talk about dawn of injustice. Ugh.

So about six months and 50 classic movies in, my friend Jen emailed me a link to the TCM Classic Film Festival.  Hmmm … what could this be? The festival’s website says:

… the TCM Classic Film Festival is a place where movie lovers from around the world can gather to experience classic movies as they were meant to be experienced: on the big screen, in some of the world’s most iconic venues, with the people who made them.

Sounded pretty cool.  I talked to Jen, my wife Lisa, and Sam and we bought our passes. Next thing I knew I was sitting in a theater watching Jezebel (1938) on 35mm film and with a full house.  An hour after Bette Davis’ Julie sought redemption, I sat in another full house listening to Martin Scorsese – live and in person. He spoke about nitrate restoration before screening a nitrate print of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) on the absolutely huge screen in Hollywood’s iconic Egyptian Theater.

I thought the best part of the festival would be seeing these old films on the big screen.  That was super cool, but wasn’t the best part at all. I have always hated the 1972 movie What’s Up Doc? Madcap comedy has never been my thing.  In fact I have gone on record saying I don’t like comedies.  I like to laugh, I just don’t like films that plan to be funny.

But on Sunday afternoon I went to The Egyptian with Lisa and Jen (who both love this movie,) and sat with 700 other humans to try What’s Up Doc? yet again. In fact, I had never seen the movie all the way through. By the time our madcap crew confers under the table at the Larrabee event, I would get frustrated and quit. But sitting in community, contagious laughter infected completely. I understood why others hold it in such affection.  I still think it’s stupid, but I now also think it is genius.  Directed by Peter Bogdonovich (just a year after The Last Picture Show) this film sets the gold standard for comedic timing.  Bogdonovich himself set the stage before the movie began … he told us he wanted something light with no social value.  Something to laugh at and laugh with. For me, I could only understand what he said in community … with other people. The reason I hated this film was not because it was bad, but because I was alone.  Even a few others was not enough … I needed hundreds of people surrounding me to show the way.

Through the four day festival, I also discovered a few other things; Classic film buffs are just about the nicest group of people you will ever meet. I don’t like strangers, or crowds, and I hate lines. But I do love to talk movies. Here with these people never once did I mind the lines. In queue is where I met strangers who loved movies as much as I did. People who sit in front of their TV’s and don’t feel bad about it.

In my family growing up I was always taught to feel guilty about too much time in front of the boob tube.  My mom never understood why I would “waste my money” seeing a movie more than once. She was in her 70’s and I nearly 50 and she would still ask, “didn’t you already see that movie? Why are you spending money to see it again?  It will be on tv soon.”  Or even worse, “how many movies did you watch this week?” which was code for: Really? You spent nine hours in front of the idiot box?

Time watching movies is never a waste to me, and clearly not for my fellow festival goers.  Some people spend all day Sunday watching football, or every Friday night out at the club or all day Saturday playing golf. The amazing thing about the TCM festival was that I could share an experience and see something in a new way. Hanging with my fellow attendees gave me the chance to allow my geeky self fully out of the closet. Standing on line, I got to speak with an amazing African American woman about Mammy in Gone with the Wind; Hung out with a group of grandma’s from San Francisco discussing Hitchcock’s evolution; Debated the merits of film vs digital with a couple of guys my age from Detroit; Talked the magic of great acting with a father and daughter team while on line for The Graduate (1967.)

I got into all the shows and presentations I wanted to see, and while the experience cost more than a few pennies, it felt an entirely fair trade for my money. I have been to a number of other film festivals for new films and they are also great and have their place.  In fact, I have a film I shot premiering at Tribeca later this month.  But I know that will be a political affair with lots of networking and lots of looking across the room to find the best candidate for conversation instead of being ok with the person standing right next to me.  And in festivals featuring all new films, there exist a lot of movies I just won’t like. It’s not that the stories aren’t worthwhile, but simply that selections curated by a small group of people don’t hold the same appeal as selections curated over the last 100 years. A big benefit of TCM is that all the movies are good.  They tell me all are classic!

So I knew going in I would like the movies. What I didn’t expect was to enjoy all the other stuff so much … the presentations before each film by critics and historians and TCM staff; the discussions with filmmakers and talent like Bogdonovich, Reiner, Scorsese, Buck Henry, Leonard Malton, Edgar Wright and Lou Wagner.  Those are just the ones I saw. Ben Mankiewicz was funny and charming and set a tone that let us all feel like we were in this together … he wasn’t interviewing VIP’s on stage, but chatting with our collective friends. Everyone, celebrity or attendee, seemed normal and human and accessible, and they felt like they were there for me, because we all love the picture shows.

Ben M

Will I go again? You bet. In fact, in addition to TCM next year, I am considering attending The Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester NY.  Martin Scorsese himself told me about this festival and some other TCMFF attendees told me they were also going, so I feel like I’ll have some friends to talk to! I’m not much of a joiner and often accused of being a misanthrope.  But these film people may just give hope to me after all!

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