W.c. Fields (#110 of 4)

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.

Summer of ‘88: Arthur 2: On the Rocks

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Arthur 2: On the Rocks</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Arthur 2: On the Rocks</em>

The sequel to Steve Gordon's Arthur, the 1981 mini-classic that successfully resurrected the spirit of 1930s screwball comedy, wears its intentions on its sleeve. Right from the initial beats of the opening song, “Love Is My Decision,” we're prompted not so much to have a good time as to take in a life lesson. “Life is more than just good times, and parties,” Chris De Burgh seemingly admonishes in what suggests a bizarre cover of Christopher Cross's Oscar-winning hit from the first film, and the film takes its cue from that line.

Dudley Moore's original take on Arthur Bach was a charming, whimsical, and utterly unrealistic conceit: a comic creation we couldn't get enough of, and yet would have steered away from in real life. A lovable, wisecracking drunk, he was the perfect opposite of W.C. Fields—not in his propensity to drink too much, but in demeanor. Good-natured and good-humored, he didn't have a beef with anyone. Protected from everyday reality by the solid padding of his family fortune, Arthur treated the whole world as a joke, and his laughter had the wild abandon of someone with no melancholic bone in his body. Intoxication was what Arthur needed to float one foot above the ground at all times. Even though his faithful butler, Hobson (John Gielgud), served as a poised reality principle (a Jeeves to Moore's Bertie, but blunter and more irreverent), we still sided with Arthur at all times. Nobody wanted him to lose his wealth for the sake of true love for working-class Linda (Liza Minnelli). We all wanted him to have his drink and his full bottle of champagne too.

Imagining Sisyphus Happy: A Groundhog Day Retrospective

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Imagining Sisyphus Happy: A Groundhog Day Retrospective
Imagining Sisyphus Happy: A Groundhog Day Retrospective

For 16 years, Groundhog Day has been hailed as a meditation on self-redemption. But to pigeonhole it into one overarching theme would be an insult to the layered precision, and perfection, of Harold Ramis's 1993 masterpiece, which ventures into the heart of darkness and despair to ultimately emerge unharmed, but not unmarked. This story of a man doomed to relive the same day over and over again is not concerned about tomorrow. A true absurdist triumph, it cares not what the destination might be, for it knows that the pursuit of meaning is itself meaningful whether or not that pursuit is eventually rewarded. Life might very well lack purpose, and it might very well be a struggle. But that doesn't mean you have to be an asshole about it.

A shot of a blue sky (cotton-white clouds floating, lazily, across the screen) opens the film. Every few seconds the shot changes—yet it remains the same. The sky is blue, the clouds as pearly as before and still in their hazy dance, even though they are not the same as the ones from the previous shot. It is a visual metaphor that permeates the rest of the film. That it is intertwined with an otherworldly small town marching band track only adds to the positively Lynchian feel.

From the Short Stack: "Durgnat on Film"

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From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”
From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”

This month's “From the Short Stack” collection is Durgnat on Film by Raymond Durgnat (1939-2002), the Swiss-born English critic who also wrote Luis Buñuel (1967), Jean Renoir (1975), and Films and Feelings (1967). I first read Durgnat on Film as an undergraduate and still revisit that dog-eared copy. I liked him right off because he was as stimulating as any other theorist on the reading list but much more fun. He described the interplay of form and content with pizzazz. His eye was so sharp and his prose so lucid whatever the subject, he could be counted on to deliver the last word.

Analyzing Orson Welles's The Trial he wrote, “Using in some sequences an incessantly roaming camera, in others a flurry of quick cuts, Welles makes all space fidget.” Fritz Lang's American films “...have an American appearance, but are just as 'visual' as his German. He is a master of so arranging his characters in space that a kind of nameless, fatalistic suspense palpitates between them.” In the work of Sergei Eisenstein and Carl Theodor Dreyer, “...we feel not that the actor dominates the image, but that the actor is a part of a visual composition—that he has practically been hammered and planed into shape.” Durgnat was also a master of the comic 180. He backloaded academic sentences with quotable one-liners, a neat trick that made the reader more likely to remember the fact preceding the joke. (“Neorealism died, briefly, around 1953, killed partly by audiences' dislike of its drabness, partly by government dislike for its picture of an Italy where people were poor and it rained all the time.”)