2013 TCM Classic Film Festival: Dispatch #2

Film critic Danny Baldwin covers the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival for Critic Speak...The TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped up last weekend and, if I do say, it was one of the best moviegoing events I’ve ever attended. How liberating it is to enjoy a festival that isn’t populated by bloggers under pressure to break news or be the first to review a premiering film. Everybody attending TCMFF, press or civilian, is there for one primary reason: they love classic cinema. The feeling is palpable everywhere you walk around the Chinese Theatre complex. Needless to say, not one smartphone screen was inconsiderately illuminated during the shows I attended. This is what moviegoing should be but rarely is, I kept thinking to myself. I already posted brief thoughts on my first three viewings during the festival; below are further comments on the remainder, many of which I didn’t originally plan on seeing, but felt like the right choices.

"Giant" (1956) was James Dean's final film.Going into George Stevens’ “Giant,” I knew little more about the film than that it was a three-and-a-half-hour epic and it was James Dean’s final project, for which he was Oscar-nominated. As such, many elements took me by surprise, especially just how politically radical the film was for a big-budget 1956 production. Not only does “Giant”’s third act extensively critique the widespread bigotry toward Mexican-Americans in the early-‘20s era in which it is set—undoubtedly raising the issues in conjunction with the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement—but the entire film reflects a scathing attitude toward capitalism. Director Stevens and writers Fred Guilol and Ivan Moffat view the focal oil business, by which men got rich off natural resources and not hard work, in such a hostile way that “Giant” could easily be seen as an illustration of the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism.

Anyone familiar my personal political predilections knows I’m at odds with this type of anti-capitalist messaging, but in spite of the film’s economic leftism, I was still enraptured by its enormous, decades-spanning narrative. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore, probably because today’s audiences lack the required attention span. But to allow “Giant” to wash over you for three-plus hours on a huge screen, like that of Grauman’s Chinese, is something else. The movie is full of immaculate details (the performances, from Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and Dean, are particularly spot-on), but it’s equally striking for its distinctly epic presence alone. It occasionally wanders off in directions that don’t quite work—the focus on Taylor and Hudson’s children in the latter half of the film, for instance—but it’s an experience in a way that very few movies are nowadays. As a result, I didn’t really care about the film’s misguided political statement-making, because I was too busy living in the moment. “Giant” isn’t defined by its politics; they’re part of a much larger journey. I just wish the new digital restoration were better — many shots looked awfully soft, clearly sourced from a marginal print.

Frank Lovejoy and Lloyd Bridges in Cy Endfield's "Try and Get Me" (1950)Perhaps this festival brought out the leftist sympathizer in me, because I also liked “Try and Get Me” (1950), an even-bleaker-than-usual noir that condemns yellow journalism and the “guilty until not proven innocent” mob-mentality toward accused criminals in America, directed by the H.U.A.C.-indicted Cy Endfield. Political sensibilities aside, you couldn’t find a more different film from “Giant”: leanly and precisely constructed, at 85 minutes, with minimalist (but nonetheless strikingly composed and richly symbolic) black-and-white visuals. The narrative ends in the same incident that inspired Fritz Lang’s 1936 “Fury,” but embellishes on the lead-up. Fundamentally good guy Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy), desperate for money to provide for his family, agrees to work as the righthand man of psychopath Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges) as he commits robberies. But things go wrong when the duo kidnap a wealthy man for ransom, who Slocum then murders. Stop reading now if you’d like to spare yourself spoilers. The picture ends with a mob lynching the two in prison, outfitted with some on-the-nose (but still potent) commentary/narration about Americans’ penchant for demonizing individual criminals rather than focusing on the broader societal causes of crime. The perspective is brazenly one-sided, of course, but especially when taken within the context of what Endfield and other witch-hunt victims were going through at the time, it raises consideration-worthy ideas about the way we view the accused. And the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s restoration, which was presented in 35mm in conjunction with Noir City, was jaw-droppingly beautiful.

"The Desert Song" (1943) had its first public screening in more than 30 years.Perhaps I should consider the showing of 1943’s “The Desert Song” a festival highlight, too, in that I was part of the first public audience to see the film, which had been embroiled in a rights mixup, in over 30 years. But aside from its rarity and its reuse of the sets from “Casablanca,” I found little interesting about this adaptation of the Sigmund Romberg operetta (one of three films made from the source material). A mysterious Arab rebel leader, a melodramatic love affair, Nazi villains, random singing — “The Desert Song” will fit right in with other late-late-night TCM fare when it begins airing later this year (as Robert Osbourne promised when introducing the show). There are some lovely Technicolor images—and the ancient 35mm print screened was still in pretty good shape—but the meat of the film is as forgettable as the Big Mac you had last week.

The other three films I saw are so well-known (and have been so exhaustively written about) that I won’t bother with full reviews, as I wouldn’t be doing them justice anyway. But I will say, it was a treat to see Terrence Malick’s seminal “Badlands,” one of the great renegade American films of the 1970s, projected via a glorious 4K restoration on that giant Grauman’s screen; Hitchcock’s lesser-but-still-fun “The Birds” alongside a jumpy audience of 1,000; and the 1969 documentary “Salesman” with its legendary director Albert Maysles providing an introduction. I treasured every TCMFF viewing experience, and I only wish I had possessed the energy to cram in more, especially the closing night presentation of Buster Keaton’s “The General,” the final show in the pre-IMAX-ized Grauman’s, with the Alloy Orchestra doing a live score. But I’ll be back next year for more, wherever the festival is held (no telling whether the renovated Grauman’s will be able to accommodate it). Until then, I can only hope I see a new classic or two that will still be worth cherishing decades from now, as the aforementioned films are today.