TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: Even As Nitrate Packs ‘Em In, The Audience Remains the Highlight

2017 TCM Classic Film Festival“It eliminates the middle men,” Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski said of the experience of watching a nitrate print before a sold-out crowd about to take in Powell and Pressburger’s towering “Black Narcissus” in the format at last weekend’s TCM Classic Film Festival. The idea being that an original nitrate print collapses the distance between the viewer and the original artifact, whereas a digital restoration necessitates an intermediary, often making critical decisions about the way a film should look and sound. Which is not a knock on those intermediaries, who play a vital role in preserving the past (and Pogorzelski himself is one of them), but rather an observation of the unique viewing opportunity that nitrate prints offer.

The Technicolor-shot "Black Narcissus" was a natural choice for a nitrate presentation.
The Technicolor-shot “Black Narcissus” was a natural fit for a nitrate presentation.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—yes, they do more than just hand out second-fiddle golden statuettes—the Egyptian Theatre booth was recently equipped with the ability (read: ventilation and fireproofing) required to project nitrate, and the TCM festival programmers hopped at the chance. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), “Laura,” and “Lady in the Dark” were also shown at this year’s festival, but it was the Technicolor “Narcissus,” which Pogorzelski described as “one of the best prints I’ve ever seen” (and I agree was drop-dead gorgeous in its range of color and contrast), that generated the most buzz of all. At a festival where Q&A star-power often attracts the largest crowds, it was heartening to see the Egyptian packed to the rafters—I literally couldn’t score a balcony seat 45 minutes in advance—for a show where the main draw was vintage celluloid.

Pogorzelski’s comments also got me thinking about the objective of the festival. Was each screening, as the archivist posited of the “Black Narcissus” print, to experience the same film that audiences originally experienced? Certainly, gaining insight into the original exhibition context is part of why I go to see these movies—many of which regularly appear on TCM’s cable channel—on the big screen with crowds, rather than in the comfort of my living room. But I enjoy the festival as much, if not more, for its celebratory atmosphere – for the sheer energy of the film fanatics who attend and cheer the decades-old films and stars and technicians with more gusto than megaplex audiences will for “The Fate of the Furious” this weekend.

Always among the most enthusiastically received shows at the festival are the silent film comedies, of which there are usually one or two. Last year, we were treated to Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” accompanied by a postmodern DJ score from “Breaking Bad” music supervisor Golubic, performed poolside at the Roosevelt – which did away with any pretense of reproduction and crafted a contemporary tribute to Lloyd’s comedic timing and iconography. This year, the venerable Alloy Orchestra performed one of their somewhat more traditional accompaniments in the intimate setting of Chinese multiplex House #1.

The Alloy Orchestra
The Alloy Orchestra

Normally, when the Alloy plays (as with last year’s show of “Steamboat Bill Jr.”), it’s in the larger Egyptian Theatre or Grauman’s Chinese, which while upgraded to feature state-of-the-art theater bells-and-whistles, maintain some illusion of the past through their storied histories. But in a stadium-seated shoebox built in 2001, the silent comedy experience took on new meaning. Physically closer to the music and with fellow festivalgoers’ presence more noticeable sans a massive 75-foot screen towering over us, the text itself took precedence over the “experiential” value. This was less razzle-dazzle and more of a communal appreciation of Lloyd’s craft itself – which, while a bit less infectious in “Speedy” than in the earlier and more iconic “The Freshman” and “Safety Last!”, nonetheless attains technical transcendence during a sequence in which Lloyd’s fledgling cab driver frenetically navigates the streets of New York in transporting Babe Ruth (playing himself) to Yankee Stadium, drawing gasps and cackles alike from this TCM audience.

Fewer people attended “Saturday Night Fever” in the 1,000-seat Grauman’s Chinese than did “Speedy” in the tinier “Chinette,” but you wouldn’t have known it from the thunderous “Woos!” echoing in the halls of the historic palace throughout the film. I was born 12 years after the craze of this movie swept the nation, and I had long procrastinated on seeing it, so I never quite understood what made it so special. But, boy, did this screening provide insight, as I’ve rarely heard so many 50+-year-old women cheer on a motion picture (“Sex and the City” and “50 Shades of Grey” were perhaps the only shows I can remember eclipsing this one in that regard).

On a more serious note, it was remarkable to think about how a movie as sweaty, naturalistic, and lived-in as “Saturday Night Fever” could once become such a widespread blockbuster phenomenon. Not only did the movie provide women plenty of those “Woo!” moments in its day, it has enough substance to it that I now understand why it was critic Gene Siskel’s favorite film of all time. (My friend reminded me after the show that Siskel purchased one of Travolta’s white suits at auction.) Protagonist Tony Manero’s bedroom contains a poster for “Rocky,” which, scrappy as it may be by Hollywood standards, positively seems like a blue collar fantasy compared to “Saturday Night Fever,” even without the Bee Gees soundtrack. And yet, people saw “SNF” in droves, responding to its realism in a way I’m afraid the masses are incapable of in today’s Marvel generation.

Director John Badham and star Donna Pescow in conversation before "Saturday Night Fever."
Director John Badham and star Donna Pescow in conversation before “Saturday Night Fever.”

Hopefully, the tide will swing back and a movie with this kind of urban earthiness will become a popcorn hit of the same level. But for now, I’m content “Saturday Night Fever” itself feels brand new. In the Q&A, director John Badham noted that the movie has never looked and sounded as good as it does in this fresh 4K restoration from Paramount, as it was originally released in the infancy of stereo sound and the labwork/projection were frequently bungled (including at the premiere in this very theater). That’s the flipside to Pogorzelski’s musings at “Black Narcissus,” immediately followed “Saturday Night Fever”: not all source formats were as glorious as nitrate.

Occasionally, the TCM crowd’s retrospective enthusiasm will strike me as more perplexing than infectious. Such was the case with a midnight show of spoof film “The Kentucky Fried Movie” (I should mention that, despite my usual tendency to pick some of the most dramatic films offered, the festival theme this year was actually “Make ‘Em Laugh”). When the beloved comedy director Edgar Wright introduced the movie by noting its seminal influence on him despite being critically trounced upon its 1977 release, I was ready for a riot. Turns out, “Fried Movie” filmmakers John Landis, the Zuckers, and Jim Abrahams laughed at their own jokes from 40 years ago more during the Q&A with Wright than I did during the entire film, and I found myself agreeing with Lawrence Van Gelder’s New York Times pan that Wright gleefully read from.

The Zuckers would go onto make some truly awful spoofs (in addition to a few funny ones), and “The Kentucky Fried Movie” today strikes me as no different than their soul-crushing “Scary Movie 3.” The only upside to staying awake for this Midnight screening, costing me my planned morning date with Douglas Sirk’s “Lured” the next day, was that I got to see my beloved Rialto Theatre (a South Pasadena icon) featured in one of the sketches. The place sure looked more vibrant in 1977 than it does playing its current dilapidated self in the recent “La La Land.”

Significantly quieter, but no less palpable in its transfixed state, was the audience response to Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” which unlike “The Kentucky Fried Movie” still feels timeless 46 years later. Perhaps it’s that the black-and-white sheen glistens in exactly the same way, even pumped out of a digital projector, or perhaps it’s that the construct of the inescapable American small town in decline has once again sprung to the forefront of our national conscience in the Trump era. Critics and historians (including TCM introduction maven Illeana Douglas) frequently cite Roger Ebert’s observation that “The Last Picture Show” is above all “an evocation of a mood,” which is absolutely right, but I would also posit that it’s more accurately a confrontation of a mood. That is to say, the mood of “The Last Picture Show”—the longing, the yearning, the heartbreak of this desolate Americana—is always with us, but we largely live our lives trying to suppress it.

Peter Bogdanovich with the TCM team before the screening of "The Last Picture Show."
Peter Bogdanovich, looking spry as ever at age 77, with the TCM team before the screening of “The Last Picture Show.”

“The Last Picture Show” endures in that it doesn’t merely try to portray this mood in order to take pity on rural America—as so many liberal New York filmmakers like Bogdanovich have done in less enduring films—but rather to subtly explore how it lives in all of us, even if the source of the mood isn’t where we geographically reside, but other circumstances we have created for ourselves. In his introductory remarks, Bogdanovich comically labeled the audience “crazy” for waking up to watch a film at 12:15. You’d be forgiven for assuming that a coastal elite voicing such a sentiment would be incapable of understanding the challenges of a people whose workday is almost over by early afternoon, but in his Wellsian navigation of the viscerality of woe and complacency, Bogdanovich does so without a hint of scorn or condescension.

Eddie Muller holding court at Club TCM.
Eddie Muller holding court at Club TCM.

Also among the regular highlights of TCM Fest: the presentations of Eddie Muller, the maestro behind the Noir City film festivals, the Film Noir Foundation, and TCM’s Sunday Noir Alley programming block. It seems that more and more festivalgoers are becoming Muller fans as the years go by, as the last time he showed a Cy Endfield film (“Try and Get Me” in 2013), it was in one of the smallest Chinette auditoriums, while this year’s show of “The Underworld Story” was well-attended in the comparably gigantic Egyptian. Endfield is really only a household (er, cinephile household) name for “Zulu,” in large part due to his unfortunate exodus from America after being blacklisted, but Muller is ever determined to bring him roaring back into the noir discussion. “The Underworld Story” isn’t a masterwork like “Try and Get Me”—it’s missing the same social zeal even though it was made in the same year—but it is a nifty little thriller with some smart commentary on the dangers of yellow journalism even at the local level. Here’s hoping a restored Blu-Ray hits shelves soon, following in the footsteps of the newly struck 35mm print that was screened here.

“Hell is for Heroes” was probably the most sparsely attended show at the otherwise packed festival, given that Bob Newhart was unable to attend as planned, following the death of his dear friend Don Rickles. But the few of us who did turn out for the Don Siegel WWII nail-biter were riveted, and TCM fixture Ben Makiewicz relayed some great stories Newhart shared with him over the phone the prior week – one of which revolved around the comic’s attempts to get killed off in the movie, realizing he could make more money doing stand-up at the time than by continuing to shoot. Thankfully, Siegel forced him to stick around, and despite the tonal disconnect of his rather comedic role with the very visceral film (which Makiewicz feels must have been an inspiration for Steven Spielberg in making “Saving Private Ryan”), Newhart is part of what makes the movie so distinctive within the genre. Another one of its key distinctions is, no matter how long principal photography may have been, it runs just 90 minutes – when was the last time you saw a WWII movie that was shy of two hours? Economy really works for “Hell is for Heroes,” which rattles away at your nerves every second of the way – and will stay with you long after.

Perhaps my favorite experience of this year’s festival, however, was finally seeing a much longer WWII epic, David Lean’s legendary “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” on the gloriously gigantic Grauman’s Chinese screen. I’ve got nothing to say about the movie that hasn’t already been said, but sometimes, one of the greatest pleasures of cinephilia is seeing an old favorite in a truly spectacular context. Even without Alex Trebek’s gloriously bizarre introduction (which included the phrase “great womanizer”) simply seeing this opus on as large a canvas as possible, with an audience fully invested in its patient rhythms would have been the highlight of my movie-going year. Never have Nicholson’s obsession and Clipton’s final line struck me as transcendently as they did at this screening – and ultimately, that’s the special feeling we long for when we go to the movies.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: there’s no better festival in America. And with the memory of Robert Osborne pulsing through this year’s edition at every turn, never have classic film fans felt as connected to one another. I’ll see you back next year.