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The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

Edward M. Pio Roda

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

Almost by definition, any festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are practically a staple at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which held its eighth gathering in the heart of Hollywood this past weekend. The memory of the late Debbie Reynolds, who had made several in-person appearances at TCMFF over the past eight years, was invoked through yet another screening (the festival's third) of the indisputable classic Singin' in the Rain, in which Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash back in 1952, and at a screening of Postcards from the Edge (classic status somewhat more disputable), before which Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, were remembered fondly by Todd Fisher, Reynolds's son.

Even though he wasn't represented at the festival on screen, Don Rickles, who passed away on April 6, the festival's opening day, couldn't be ignored. Rickles's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater complex, and as I made my way through the usual crush of tourists, desperadoes, and TCMFF pass holders toward my first screening on Thursday afternoon I wasn't surprised to see the little square of sidewalk devoted to Rickles surrounded by flowers, curious bystanders, and entertainment reporters trolling for soundbites, and even adorned by one fan's thoughtful memorial: a brand-new hockey puck.

The ghost that made its presence felt at almost every turn of this year's festival belonged, of course, to TCM's beloved host Robert Osborne, who died one month to the day before the launch of this year's festival. Osborne began his Hollywood career in the early 1950s as an actor; his highest-profile moments were uncredited, blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances in Psycho and Spartacus. But his heart was never in it, and at the encouragement of Lucille Ball he abandoned acting and combined his love of movies and journalism to concentrate on writing and documenting Hollywood history, eventually becoming the genial, knowledgeable, silver-haired host who won the allegiance of TCM fans worldwide.

It Had to Be Frank Sinatra Tony Rome and Lady in Cement on Blu-ray

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It Had to Be Frank Sinatra: Tony Rome and Lady in Cement on Blu-ray

20th Century Fox

It Had to Be Frank Sinatra: Tony Rome and Lady in Cement on Blu-ray

In Tony Rome and its sequel, Lady in Cement, Frank Sinatra tries to wear his boredom with the projects as a fashionably manly testament to his unimpeachable legacy as Chairman of the Board. He doesn't so much act in director Gordon Douglas's films as move through them, overseeing them, regarding his co-stars as he might have particularly irritating fans: as necessarily negotiated evils for the sake of living the life of Frank Sinatra. Even by the standards of icons, Sinatra's ego is stifling in these films, for reasons pertaining both to politics and basic aesthetics.

The political resonance of Sinatra's sleepwalking is unsubtly reactionary. Tony Rome and Lady in Cement were released in 1967 and 1968, respectively, when the counterculture was gaining brief prominence in pop culture, which is to say that Sinatra's unconquerable heteronormative white he-man shtick (which had less to do with any particular performance than with a cumulative image) might have been wearing thin. This is about the time when it was growing less acceptable to call women “broads” while slapping them on the ass, expecting only their come-hither gratitude in return. But that's precisely what Sinatra's Tony Rome, P.I. for hire, gets away with in both films, as he's defensively reasserting the old school's right to do whatever it pleases to whomever it pleases. Besides embarrassing zoom shots of women's derrieres, there are also unseemly jokes about escalating concerns over police brutality, and at the expense of men who're coded as gay and those who burn their draft cards out of protest, which predictably show no sympathy for anyone who might have a problem with how the Man operates.

Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

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Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951
Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

In spite of a subtitle that suggests a survey of German exile cinema over an 18-year period, Gerd Gemünden's new book cunningly circumnavigates the typical pitfalls of cinema historicism by turning his focus to a variety of themes, influences, and industrial forces, rather than singling out only one. While canonical films such as 1942's To Be or Not to Be and 1943's Hangmen Also Die receive chapter-length studies, so too do less exhausted works like 1934's The Black Cat, 1939's The Life of Emile Zola, and 1949's Act of Violence, each with precise and comprehensive results.

Gemünden is an excellent writer; his introduction clearly sets the terms of analysis without losing the rigor one expects from an academic text. In particular, his extensive definition of “exile” draws on the likes of theorists Theodor Adorno, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie to explain how complex self-expression can become when displaced from one's homeland—what Adorno would call the “damaged life.” Nevertheless, Said and Rushdie are more optimistic, emphasizing that while many things are lost in translation, something may also be gained. Gemünden defines this gain for German exile cinema during this period as an “in-between” state that engages the traditions of Weimar cinema, but also forms a “dark mirror of Nazi cinema.” Ultimately, this leads to one of Gemünden's larger questions: What does authorship mean in relationship to exile?

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Among the many critics who simultaneously partake in, and rise skeptical eyebrows toward, “best of” polls, the notion of the “list as snapshot” becomes a helpful negotiating metaphor. Viewing any top 10 ballot as a historically contingent event—as opposed an authoritative act of canon formation—allows critics to both enthusiastically make the case for our favorite films, while acknowledging that any act of “objectively” ranking works of art quickly bumps up against the limits of one's own knowledge, biases, and experience.

It's a useful image, but perhaps an incomplete one. If a photograph captures a given instant, it cannot account for all the previous moments that collectively created what was placed before the lens. Whittling down this list, for me, became as much about contending with my relationship to different periods in my life as it did with clarifying my feelings on the films themselves—as if the two could ever be wholly disentangled. Should I go with more classical Hollywood titles, whose early presence in my life profoundly shaped both my cinephilic tastes and childhood memories? Is it better to take a gamble on those movies that I've had less time to sit with, but whose initial seismic impact most likely ensures their permanent place in my head and heart?

Creating this fantasy Sight & Sound ballot, then, felt as much like excavation as photography, sifting through the layers of past experience, arranging the found artifacts in an attempt to convey my range of cinematic passions up to this point. It's been an inevitably frustrating, completely rewarding task—and, if it means you add a couple of these titles to your Netflix queue as a result, all the better.

15 Famous Movie Blackbirds

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15 Famous Movie Blackbirds
15 Famous Movie Blackbirds

In what's unfortunately one of the lesser films about a literary great, John Cusack wields a quill and a gun as The Raven's Edgar Allen Poe, a legend who would've skewered this thriller in one of his sharp-tongued newsprint critiques. What's perhaps best about the movie is the eerie mood that's established, a mood symbolized by the titular winged creature. Blackbirds have been harbingers of doom in many a dark tale, and otherwise added spooky style to countless filmic palettes. Even in lighter fare, they point to something sinister, be it imminent attack, loneliness, or even racism.

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence
Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” —Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)

I. Introductory

The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director's, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray's critical appeal.