As always, the TCM Classic Film Festival did not disappoint on any level this year, be it the quality of the prints (whether archival celluloid or shiny new digital restorations), the quality and diversity of the guests (famous, knowledgeable, and often both rolled into one), the operation of the festival (seldom did a presentation start even a minute late), or the enthusiasm of the audiences (unrivaled). I have been attending the festival for three years now, and I’ve grown accustomed to the stellar nature of this production.
I only wish I could have attended more films. Last year, I managed to take in 11 of them, despite the fact that the festival comes at one of the busiest times of the semester for a graduate student and TA. This year, I was not so lucky, as I had a student film of my own to shoot. Instead of relishing hand-cranked projections of seminal silent films on Saturday night—the highlight of the festival—I was coordinating with L.A.P.D. on shutting down a street in Eagle Rock for a lavish tracking shot. Still, I consider it a blessing that I was able to get a good slice of the festival over five films and several guest speakers. Next year, finished with the Master’s program, I will hopefully be able to rally for my goal of 20 films in four days. I know a good number of TCMFF attendees who have been able to manage that tally, sacrificing regular meals and sleep in the pursuit of cinema glory. For now, here’s a recap of what I managed to see in 2015.
I had not seen John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” before the festival, even though I should have made a point of doing so before Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” given Ford’s major influence on the latter filmmaker’s work. But it proved to be the filmic highlight of my TCMFF 2015 experience. I would say that it’s amazing what an eye for craftsmanship Ford had developed by 1939, when he made both “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “Stagecoach,” but it’s also not a surprise given that he had made upwards of fifty films by that point, even though they really mark the start of the portion of his filmography that remains widely seen today. The crispness of the cutting and the plain beauty of the compositions in “Young Mr. Lincoln” is just awe-inducing, and Ford’s willingness to break the 180-degree line on a few select occasions also produces a sense of cinematic grammar that took even myself, a fan, by surprise.
Then there’s the sense of character intimacy. While Ford’s westerns and war films have unparalleled intimacy for their genres, this rendering of a youthful Honest Abe as a great man worthy of reverence is largely dependent on its core understanding of his human vulnerability. For all of the talk of Daniel Day Lewis’ authenticity of Lincoln as President, starting with his voice, this fictionalized account finds Henry Fonda doing a take on him that proves illuminating in its own right, more about the defining traits of his character than his executive duties. This provides an even better window into Abe’s legacy. Speaking before the film, Henry’s son, Peter Fonda, shared the amazing tidbit that Henry was a registered Republican due to the respect for Lincoln he developed when making this film — no small feat given the family’s well-known association with liberal causes. As a proud Republican myself, I suppose I have John Ford to thank for that.
If “Young Mr. Lincoln” was the filmic highlight of my festival experience, then “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was definitely the experiential highlight. As I wrote in my preview piece, TCMFF is never better than when they present a silent film (particularly a silent comedy) with live orchestra accompaniment. They took it to the next level with Maestro Carl Davis conducting a meticulously assembled score for the new restoration of the Buster Keaton classic. Even if you take the fact that this was the World Premiere of the new score out of the equation, the quality of the live musicianship on display was transfixing. I’ll admit: it was difficult not to just watch the musicians as they rolled right along with Keaton on the riverboat. But what a visual restoration, commissioned by the Cohen Media Collection, this is! After years of watching OK-to-decent DVD copies of the movie, the added resolution on the big screen was a true revelation. And nothing beats watching silent comedy with an audience of over 500 people – the experience provides added effectiveness for and insight into Keaton’s comedic timing and nuanced physicality. I thought that seeing “Safety Last!” in the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles with live accompaniment as part of the LA Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats program couldn’t be topped as far as this kind of presentation goes, but I think the folks at TCMFF were able to do it!
In addition to celebrating writers, directors, and actors, TCM Classic Film Festival has admirably made a special point of singling out at least one editor to focus on each year. Last year, I swooned over my favorite working editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, as she presented her late husband Michael Powell’s “A Matter of Life and Death.” This year, I got to do the same for my runner-up favorite, Anne V. Coates. While I was sad to miss Coates speaking before “Lawrence of Arabia,” I relished the opportunity to listen to her prior to one of my favorite Steven Soderbergh films, “Out of Sight.” While Soderbergh has since taken to editing on his own, his collaborations with Coates—this film and “Erin Brockovich”—are among his best.
When TCM approached Coates and asked her which films she might want to show, she chose “Lawrence” and “Out of Sight” because she felt they showed off two different styles, one vintage and one more contemporary. And indeed, “Out of Sight” is much more sped up with almost certainly more cuts in its two-hour running time than “Lawrence” has in its near-four hour running time. And Coates does both styles equally well—you won’t find a better edited piece of film than the love scene towards the end of “Out of Sight.” I especially appreciated Coates’ review of her enduring career, from her first gig working for John Ford (!) on “Young Cassidy” (he wasn’t particularly hands-on at that point) to her recent work on, yes, “Fifty Shades of Grey” (she only handled the director’s rough cut, she says, and shared her critique that she felt the film didn’t get “naughty enough”). And, of course, seeing “Out of Sight” on the big screen was a delight, but you didn’t need this Soderbergh fanboy to tell you that.
I also managed to catch William K. Howard’s out-of-print 1931 comedy “Don’t Bet on Women” and the closing-night presentation of “Marriage Italian Style” with Sophia Loren in person, two polar-opposite experiences that highlight the diversity of the programming at TCMFF. I didn’t find the former quite as charming as some of my colleagues—it was selected for an encore showing on Sunday due to its success with the Friday audience—but as with “The Desert Song” from 2013’s festival, it’s always great to be able to see an overlooked older film that hasn’t made it out of the vault in a while. TCM struck a new 35m print specifically to show at the festival — that’s dedication! As for “Marriage Italian Style,” the film itself—which is quite good in its generation-spanning narrative and for its showcase of Vittorio De Sica in “glammed up mode,” which is to say, not very glammed up—seemed like an afterthought. All eyes were on the legendary Sophia Loren’s appearance before the film, her ability to transfix the entirety of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. That’s star power that might not have a contemporary equivalent. The standing ovation was long and thunderous, and many who were flying out that night made a point of staying just long enough to see Loren in the flesh, darting for LAX as soon as the interview was over. More room for me during the feature!
That concludes my report from the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. See you next year, when I hope to be able to catch double, triple, even quadruple the number of movies I was able to see this time around!