Ever since it was announced that Hollywood would host the inaugural (and ostensibly first annual) Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in April 2010, the general community of film fanatics was set to buzzing. People in the Los Angeles area, and presumably those in other major urban areas like New York and Chicago, seemed enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm also seemed to be tempered by the fact that a certain degree of exposure to revival cinema, of the classic Hollywood and foreign varieties, is a more-or-less everyday phenomenon for these film fans. Even in this age of disappearing repertory screens and evaporating posts for established film critics, we in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago can be, if we choose to be, somewhat spoiled by the opportunities we are offered every month at the venues we frequently haunt. Yes, the announcement was definitely a big deal, backed by the most compelling force in current pop culture for exposing audiences to classic films and making sure those films stay available, but many I imagine suspected that the TCM Classic Film Festival might too readily ride the straight and narrow—didn’t the prospect of seeing Casablanca and 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen yet again seem, I don’t know, kind of ordinary? And why get excited about seeing a bunch of films you can often see here in theaters, or always on DVD? Then TCM announced the full schedule, and suddenly a lot of that talk evaporated too. Suddenly the Turner Classic Movies 2010 Classic Film Festival had acquired, even for the happily jaded, a bit of cache, not to mention all the earmarks of a major event. And of course, for all the millions of people outside of those urban areas, for whom revival cinema pretty much does boil down, if it boils down at all, to the occasional showing of The Wizard of Oz, or Singin’ in the Rain or (shudder) Grease on an outdoor screen at some city-sponsored summer family-oriented gathering, the TCM festival represented not just an occasion for major geographically based cinema envy; for some it would translate into an irresistible lure as well.
Day One: Anticipating Esther
As for me, this would be my very first experience at a “real” film festival. My wife and I took in a single screening at the London Film Festival back in 1993 (we saw Julio Medem’s The Red Squirrel), and in 2006 I hightailed it to the outskirts of the Mojave Desert for the Lone Pine Film Festival. But as I hopped the Metrolink train at Universal City for the short ride into Hollywood Thursday night I juggled equal parts giddy excitement and nervous energy at the dawning realization that I was really going to be there—somehow I was lucky enough to get to participate in a gathering that could be the historic first volley in establishing a Hollywood, California, USA film festival that would capture and reflect the historic cinematic roots and riches of the city’s very heart and soul. I couldn’t possibly be jaded about the privilege of being turned loose at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue for this party of kindred spirits, and as it turned out I would have no reason to be.
But the party did start out with a bit of disappointment. Getting my press credentials for the festival at large was relatively easy, once I started throwing around names like Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door, Ed Gonzalez, and Slant Magazine, that is. (Shouting my own name would likely have resulted, as it has in the past, in a series of stubbornly unopened doors.) But once I was in, there was a further competition for the limited number of press credentials that would be issued for the festival’s opening night gala, the star-studded premiere of the sparkling new digital restoration of George Cukor’s A Star Is Born. I have never seen the movie in any form, restored or not, so I was really hoping, above and beyond the fun of being amongst all the glitterati that TCM promised would be there (all the movie stars and V.I.P.s announced for the entire four-day schedule were scheduled to walk the red carpet), that my first exposure to the film would be on the Big Chinese’s screen. Alas, I did not make the final cut for media admittance. So, as I emerged from the catacombs of the Hollywood and Highland train station and onto Hollywood Boulevard itself (which looked on this Thursday evening very much the way it usually does—bustling with tourists making their way amongst the usual throng of street performers, street dog vendors, and street survivors) it was with a tinge of melancholy that I would start out the festival by missing the biggest ticket event. (Mental note: Blu-ray comes out soon.) I passed the Grauman’s Chinese, where the stars and the lucky festival pass holders walked past a gauntlet of fans, reporters, and photographers into the theater together (nice touch, TCM), observed the plastic covering hastily constructed to guard the carpet-walkers against an expected rainstorm that never came, and for some reason Marty Feldman came to mind. I realized that if I was thinking about a Mel Brooks comedy at that particular moment instead of my own pangs of rejection, then I probably wasn’t that devastated. Suddenly buoyed, I continued on toward TCM Classic Film Festival Headquarters, otherwise known as the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the luxurious nexus of the spirit (and some say spirits) of old Hollywood.
For those who have never set foot inside, the Hollywood Roosevelt is a dark, richly woody, beautifully maintained hotel of Spanish colonial design, surrounded by palm trees that tend to block out (and ward off) the reality of Hollywood circa 2010 in favor of the vintage distilled some 70-80 years ago. It is an atmosphere to sink oneself into, and that’s just what I did. I took a peek at Club TCM, a faux nightclub constructed from the big room just off the main entrance where neon-lit palm trees surrounded the early festival crowd (none of whom got into A Star Is Born either, mind you), a crowd which skewed fairly young and hip, gathered as they were in the huge leather chairs sipping hard liquor from the open happy hour bar. The room was adorned with ever-changing projected images of one-sheets and movie stars, and at the center, anchoring a gazebo-like lounge area, was a giant screen where Gene Kelly danced amongst the raindrops as he will for all eternity, but for some reason here dubbed in French. (Was somebody just being a wise-ass, or did they just hit the wrong button on the DVD projector?) One thing I couldn’t help but notice as I grabbed a Bud Light and made my way to the main lobby, which was pure Hollywood Roosevelt leather chairs and sofas—no bright neon lights—was how many times I thought I spotted Karina Longworth, the newly appointed film editor for the L.A. Weekly. What with all the smallish, sweetly film-geeky ladies with mousy-brown hair and giant cat-eyed frames prowling around the Roosevelt on Thursday, I concluded that Karina is going to have to face the fact that she is poised to become the Madonna (in a strictly nonreligious fashion sense, of course) for a whole generation of female movie nerds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Sipping my tasty complimentary beer (beer always seems to taste better when freely bestowed), I turned my thoughts away from Judy Garland and James Mason and toward Esther Williams and Betty Garrett. My first event at the TCM Classic Film Festival would, it seemed, be a screening of Edward Buzzell’s Neptune’s Daughter (1949), according to sources one of Williams’ most well-received hits. But the kicker is, it was being screened here outdoors and poolside, amongst the Roosevelt’s multitude of chaise lounges and cabanas, and Mmes. Williams and Garrett would be in attendance. I have never been more than the most academic appreciator of Williams’ splashy (sorry) Technicolor MGM musicals, but really, what better venue or moment could there be to truly enjoy one? Thanks to the crossed wires of a TCM festival staffer, I arrived late for the lineup of pass holders to gain admittance to the pool area and, having never been near the pool at this hotel and guessing that not too many people could be crammed in around its perimeter, I figured the likelihood I would be turned away from the event was pretty high thanks to my status as caboose on this particular train. (The festival staffers would, in my experience, get their wires crossed a few more times over the weekend, but they were unfailingly polite, and what’s more, all the snafus were decidedly minor and never caused me anything more than the most insignificant of inconveniences. So salud, I say, to the hard-working TCM film festival staff!)
As I trailed into the open poolside area, I observed there must have been a couple hundred people buzzing around the edges of the pool, many more than I thought could have fit comfortably. All the seats near the screen were of course snapped up, and the only place I could find to settle in was at the corner of the pool furthest from the screen, which was barely visible to these weary eyes from that distance. But I was just glad to be inside, and so I plopped down on the nicely padded chair and made fast pals with my chaise mates, Roger and Joe, two very excited gentlemen from Atlanta who were staying at the Roosevelt. (Talk about splurging for the full experience.) We traded small talk about the festival, the places we lived, and of course our lousy position re the evening’s events. But as the lights dimmed and the spotlight landed on TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who would introduce and interview the honored guests of the evening, our attitude began to change. Mankiewicz was positioned about 10 feet from where we were sitting, and as he made his way through his genial introductory repartee I turned to Roger and said, “I think we lucked out in a big way”—the understatement of the evening, as it turned out. We heard Mankiewicz say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Esther Williams and Betty Garrett!” and a few seconds later Betty Garrett, 89, with the help of a cane and a lovely escort, and Esther Williams, 87, wheelchair-bound but lively as hell, made their way right past Roger and Joe and I in our now not-so-crummy seats.
Williams and Garrett were utterly delightful, and Mankiewicz was respectful and charming in his conversation with them as well. Both stars marveled at the gathered throng and the atmosphere of the evening. At one point Garrett apologized for the gravelly tone of her voice due to a persistent cold and scoffed when told it was “sexy.” Williams piped right up: “Honey, anytime anybody says it’s sexy, believe ’em!” As for her own singing voice, which appears unadorned alongside Ricardo Montalban’s in Neptune’s Daughter’s Oscar-winning tune “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” all the self-effacing Williams would say is, “Everybody sounds better underwater.” At the conclusion of the interview, counting the appearance of Williams and Garrett as two surprises (odd, since everyone in attendance knew they were coming), Mankiewicz announced a third which was equally no surprise, but no less charming for it. The Aqualillies, a synchronized swimming troupe decked out in a line of Esther Williams swimwear, swam-danced three routines to numbers from the MGM mermaid’s movies, and I must say it was kind of a goose-bumpy thrill to see such a performance knowing that Williams herself was watching.
The movie stars of the hour made their exit to thunderous applause and a second standing ovation (no festival goers or photographers fell in the pool, I’m sad to report). My new friends Roger and Joe unceremoniously dumped me in favor of a snappy-looking, well-built bald fella in a charcoal-gray suit who claimed to have known Esther Williams personally for the last 10 years. They listened with rapt excitement as Baldy regaled them with stories of up-close-and-personal Hollywood glamour, and at that point, as about half the crowd took their cue from the vanishing movie stars and headed back to Club TCM, I made my way from the back of the pool and up toward the screen where a DVD projection of Neptune’s Daughter had just commenced. Some technical difficulties notwithstanding (a short in a cable rendered the first five minutes of the movie a decidedly unsplendiferous and fuzzy black-and-white), the screening was in keen thematic and atmospheric sync with the rest of the evening.
And the movie itself turned out to be a perfectly frothy, delightful, and unexpectedly hilarious concoction, due largely to the inspired antics of Red Skelton. Williams actually plays a swimsuit designer being courted by colleague Keenan Wynn and playboy polo player Jose O’Rourke (“From the country of South America!”) played by Ricardo Montalban. But when clumsy masseuse Skelton assumes the polo player’s identity in order to charm Williams’s sister (Garrett), all manner of confusion and farcical foul play ensue, all of which threaten Williams and Montalban’s inevitable romance but thankfully do nothing to impede the movie’s splendid songs, riotous comedy set pieces (Skelton trying to mount a polo horse is a classic of sustained hilarity) and, of course, those one-of-a-kind moments when Esther takes a dip. The movie was so entertaining that I didn’t mind one bit having to stand under a palm tree near the bushes (so as not to block the view of those still sitting around the pool) in order to watch it. In fact, all the attendant Hollywood magic already doled out on the evening, and the lovely atmosphere of the evening breeze still wafting through the palms, seemed perfectly combined with the glorious recreation on display in Neptune’s Daughter, from the silly joy of the swimming sequences to the atmosphere of the polo grounds, hanging out with O’Rourke’s Mexican assistant, played by Mel Blanc in full Speedy Gonzalez mode, and especially the rhythmic exuberance of Xavier Cugat’s club, where Esther and Ricardo and Red and Betty and Keenan go to shake a tail feather.
I began to feel like I was in that club too, doing the mambo or whatever it is they do there, as if I’d stepped into, if not the movie itself, then at least an alternate universe poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt where old Hollywood never got old, where the movies and the parties never stopped. (The guy standing next to me for the first half of the movie was a dead ringer for John Marley in full-on Jack Woltz mode, which did nothing to dissipate that alternate Hollywood universe feeling.) Just before Esther and Ricardo began singing their Oscar-winning roundelay, the bushes I was standing near, the ones separating the pool area from the first-floor cabanas, began to rustle, and soon I was surrounded by six of those shapely Aqualillies, still in their Esther Williams swimwear. They had popped out of their cabins just to see and hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” For them it undoubtedly was, but I was warmed by their presence, just another giddy, unexpected treat to start out the festival. When the number was over they scampered back through the bushes, leaving a cozy residue which was nicely augmented by the nearby heat lamps, just enough to temper the chilled night air and encourage my already broad smile to stick around a while longer. Neptune’s Daughter poolside with Esther Williams may not have been my first choice to kick off the festival, but in what game show universe have the consolation prizes ever been this good?
At 10:00 pm, the last fizz of Neptune’s Daughter having floated off into the night air, I glided out of the Hollywood Roosevelt, all thoughts of A Star Is Born faded away. There’s just no way, I told myself, that premiere could have been nearly as much fun as what I had just experienced. Despite the testimony of several people I talked to who were there and had the time of their lives (at least three of which delighted in reporting seeing Alec Baldwin pounding down the Grauman’s Chinese snack bar menu or slipping off to the men’s room), I chose to believe that my time with Esther was, unbeknownst to most festival attendees, the way to roll, and I still believe it. Not only was it a grand time, but Neptune’s Daughter ended up laying the groundwork, as my schedule would have it, for an unintentional examination of the many forms into which the Hollywood musical could be twisted. (Well, so too would have A Star Is Born, I guess, but don’t bother me with the facts right now—I’m busy making a segue.)
Part two of said examination was Friday night’s late screening of David Butler’s Sunnyside Up (1929), one of the earliest of all Hollywood musicals, and it definitely provided an interesting contrast to the slick, shiny, and soaking-wet filmography of Esther Williams. While not exactly trafficking in realism, the movie is anchored in a distinct sense of place, of community—Sunnyside Up opens with a beautifully orchestrated tracking shot (there may even be a cut here and there, but the effect is still one of seamlessness) as the camera moves along the various levels of a New York City tenement building, setting up vivid introductions to both the central and peripheral players in the story, as well as a whole wide world of neighborhood ambience. From this bustling group emerges silent star Janet Gaynor as a young girl on the low end of the economic scale who practically wills the attention of a flirtatious playboy (played by then-popular but now relatively forgotten Charles Farrell, who starred in 12 movies with Gaynor) who hires her to provide some jealousy-based motivation for his foot-dragging fiancée. It certainly didn’t surprise me that these two would eventually end up together, for it’s not the plot that makes Sunnyside Up worth noting. What’s fascinating is that director Curtis, buoyed by terrific songs from the Broadway team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, understands instinctively that, even though her voice was quite ordinary, all that was needed was to have Gaynor (and the rest of the cast) simply turn to the camera and sing.
One character quite literally says, “There’s a song I know that perfectly expresses the way I feel,” and off she goes—this becomes the working model for the entire film. Gaynor is emotionally direct as well—“Sunnyside Up” is a song that resonated strongly with Depression-era audiences and it retains its power to affect modern audiences because of its optimistic tenor, of course, but also because there seems to be nothing separating Gaynor and the audience, least of all the artifice of film. There are other musical highlights as well, including the movie’s most notoriously oversexed production number, “Turn On the Heat,” in which a chilly arctic landscape is melted down and replaced with a tropical paradise (and a tree full of suggestively blooming bananas) all thanks to the undulating erotic energy of the singers and dancers; Gaynor again plaintively voicing the beautiful “I’m a Dreamer (Aren’t We All);” and the recurring love ballad (which could serve as a introductory anthem to the talking picture era itself) “If I Had a Talking Picture of You.” Prefiguring the high society talent show that anchors the latter part of the movie, there’s even a block party sequence where the residents of the building beat the heat by putting on a show; the sequence is so full of charm and unpolished fun (little Jackie Cooper makes a memorable appearance trying to sputter out a poem) that I wanted it to go on three or four numbers longer than it does. The print on display during the festival was restored by the Museum of Modern Art and it’s a beauty—as the movie lingered, fully confident in the spell it casts on its audience (unusual for an early musical, it runs just over two hours), I kept hoping, as I would often over the weekend during many films, that the restoration was some kind of harbinger for an impending DVD release, the miracle of modern technology literally bringing the preservation of movies home. Just as frequently, whenever I ended up attending the smallest house at the festival, as I did for Sunnyside Up (the #3 at the new Chinese multiplex upstairs in the Hollywood and Highland compound), the booming thunder of Clash of the Titans coming from one of the adjacent cinemas not engaged in the festival was always just audible enough to momentarily prompt me to trace a hasty line from the unblemished pleasures of movies out of our collective past all the way up to the cacophony of the average modern Hollywood feature. Rather than compel me to marvel at how far we’ve come, the comparison only reminded me how much the industry and audiences have lost by no longer routinely putting our trust in the embrace of a movie as sweetly endearing and innocent as this one.
Sunnyside Up concluded around 12:15 a.m., just early enough for me to catch the last train out of Hollywood. On the short journey back to Universal City where my car was parked I struck up a happy conversation with a festival worker who was headed home to North Hollywood. She told me how excited she was to be working the festival—unlike many other festivals for which she had volunteered, here she was actually getting paid. I told her a little about Esther Williams and my own sense of excitement, and after that brief train ride whenever we’d run into each other, as we did several times over the next few days, I noticed we both always seemed to be smiling. I hopped off the train around 1:00 a.m., thinking about what time I’d have to get up in order to catch the first screening on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. Then I remembered that for my daughters it was a school day, which meant that just like every school day I’d be getting up at 6:30 a.m. in order to herd them to school on time. I ran over the next day’s schedule in my head, wondering if I could really take in six movies from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. on less than five hours of sleep. But that thought didn’t last long. Just like I predicted I would, I spent the rest of the journey home trying to convince myself that this festival wasn’t just some giddy figment of my Technicolor-addled imagination, that it really was happening, and reminding myself just how lucky I was to get to be part of it.
Day Two: That Streamlined Engine Won’t Wait
A look at Friday’s scheduled screenings made me realize at a glance that the day would be full of impossible choices and that, as is true of any film festival, there’s no way to see it all. So I began the process of reconciliation with this idea fairly early on. How can one best choose between a digital presentation of King Kong (1933) on the Grauman’s Chinese screen, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) in the other large auditorium, the Chinese house #1, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in vibrant 70mm at the Egyptian? Add to that a panel discussion moderated by Anne Thompson on location shooting and you’ve got, as I suggested before, an impossible dilemma. My solution was to go for the unknown quantity, a strategy I largely stuck with over the course of the four-day festival, with one or two notable exceptions. So I traded the panel, Kong, Kirk and Lana, and Hal 9000 for a last-minute festival addition, Fred MacMurray and Marjorie Main in George Marshall’s Murder, He Says (1945), a movie many who knew my taste well had recommended to me in the past. This wild comedy was apparently a staple of late night and afternoon TV in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but I managed never to catch up with it, and it had since apparently fallen out of circulation. But a recent restoration made the movie a natural for the TCM festival, and the crowd that filled the 177-seat auditorium, many of whom were fans of the movie and clearly eager to see it again, was buzzing. I struck up a conversation with a woman named Judy from Indiana, who was seeing the film by herself while her husband was off getting into position to see Mel Brooks receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She and I talked about our favorite movies, and she told me about the screening of A Star Is Born which she, as a possessor of one of the festival’s high-end passes, was lucky enough to attend. (She ended up seated very close to, yes, Alec Baldwin.) Judy and I would have talked more had the festival programmers not insisted, as they would throughout the weekend, that the movie start on time. But I really enjoyed talking to her and for the rest of my time at the festival I tried to talk to as many strangers as I could, to get a sense of how far people were willing and able to come and participate in this event, but also to enjoy the sense of community that a large group of disparate people who all love one variety or another of classic film could manage to knit together.
The screening was introduced by Michael Schlesinger, independent producer and consultant at Sony Pictures Entertainment, who began by giving the crowd a crash course on the filmography of director George Marshall—he directed the very similarly-themed The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope and Scared Stiff (1950) starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, as well as the excellent film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake—and journeyman screenwriter Lou Breslow, touted by Schlesinger as one of those names which when you see it in the credits virtually guarantees a good time.
Schlesinger proved to be a very lively guide into the film, displaying a sharp wit as he placed Marshall’s film into its proper cultural context—the idea of murder as the subject for a comedy was not exactly prevalent in Hollywood at the time, he said, until Arsenic and Old Lace, which ran on Broadway for years and which became a hit film in 1944 for Cary Grant and Frank Capra. By the time Murder, He Says made it to screens, audiences were ready for a comedy with some pretty grisly undercurrents, one which, incredibly, Schlesinger pretty accurately described as a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 30 years before that horror classic was even made. The story involves MacMurray’s Pete Marshall, a representative of the Trotter Polling Company (“We’re like the Gallup Poll, only we’re not in as big of a hurry”) who stumbles onto the spooky lair of the Fleagles, a family of homicidal hillbillies, while searching for a missing colleague. The family is headed by Marjorie Main, in a deranged, whip-cracking dress rehearsal for a career as Ma Kettle (Main and MacMurray would reunite in The Egg and I two years later, the movie that introduced Main’s famous backwoods matriarch). She may be the picture’s Main delight, but she’s not the only one—Peter Whitney, as the Jethro-esque twins Mert and Bert, is equally inspired, as is Porter Hall as Ma Fleagle’s latest put-upon husband, and Jean Heather as poor, mentally unstable daughter Elany Fleagle, who holds the key to the movie’s mystery in her coy refusal to decode the meaning of the movie’s melodic nursery rhyme, which burrows into your head like a haunted-house version of “It’s a Small World.” (Heather previously appeared with MacMurray as Lola Dietrichson, daughter of the scheming Phyllis, in Double Indemnity.)
Schlesinger amply warned those of us in attendance, but it’s hard to believe just how hilarious Murder, He Says is, with its farcical velocity and barrage of sight gags which the movie insists on artfully restaging and then brilliantly topping, until you find yourself swept up in the breezily deadly current, gasping for breath between belly laughs and even a few genuine shivers. For sheer enjoyment and happiness, this was the biggest surprise of the festival for me, and it certainly deserves rescuing from relative obscurity to take its rightful place at the top of the heap which includes Arsenic and Old Lace, The Ghost Breakers, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, grand, giddy examples of classic Hollywood’s jones for comic jitters.
The Egyptian Theater is only a couple of blocks away from the Chinese theater complex in Hollywood, but in order to make sure I made it through all the anticipated foot traffic in time for the 3:30 screening of Imitation of Life that was scheduled there, I had to pass on both of the movies I really wanted to see in Friday’s second slot—Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (with Tony Curtis in attendance) and Raoul Walsh’s epic western The Big Trail. But again, the situation worked in favor of me seeing a movie I had never seen, so for this particular sort of dilemma it was a pretty easy solution to accept. And the movie I would see—Otto Preminger’s wide-screen adaptation of Carmen Jones (1954)—provided the third part in my brief impromptu overview of the many different permutations of the classic Hollywood musical form.
As I knew next to nothing of the film’s star, Dorothy Dandridge, I was extremely lucky that the film was introduced by film historian and scholar Donald Bogle, author of the seminal 1973 study Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films as well as the definitive biography on Dandridge, who would become the very first African-American to be nominated for the best leading actress Academy Award. Bogle proved to be an integral part of my experience with the film—the details of what Dandridge went through to secure the part, his guidance on observing the tiniest of details in her performance, and how much Carmen contrasted her own rather reserved, insecure personality enriched the tension I felt coming from her as she slipped into the skin of this most unusual of African-American characters (for her time), one with a strong sense of her own sexuality, her own place in the world, one which neither Dandridge nor Preminger invites us to moralize over even as she makes it clear she can and will manipulate the world to get what she wants.
Bogle offered plenty of insight into the production of the film, taking care to note that neither Dandridge nor costar Harry Belafonte were allowed to voice their own singing parts (the lead role of Carmen was sung by a young Marilyn Horne). But both actors were expert at lip-synching and maintaining a strong sense of their characters even though their own voices were absent, and so the movie does not ultimately suffer for this artistic choice. As for the music itself, Hammerstein retained the spirit and the letter of Bizet’s opera, and Preminger trains his wide-screen camera on an alternating series of simple tableau (all the better for soaking in the range and energy of the performers) and elaborate set pieces—the roadhouse sequence where Carmen meets boxer Husky Miller is rich with expressive tracking and other subtle camera movement. The movies Carmen Jones most superficially resembles are those of Minnelli—Preminger’s wide-screen compositions evoke the kind of lived-in yet slightly heightened environments of which Minnelli was a master, but without that director’s pictorial lyricism and sensitivity to the tension between the splashy Technicolor surfaces and the roiling undercurrent of his character’s darker emotions. Preminger provides whatever grit there is in the movie’s mise-en-scene, but his visual scheme is a bit dreary; he’s clearly inspired more by Dandridge’s fire than anything in his own gut. And Dandridge is spectacular; as Carmen, she’s a blithe, tortured beauty who is allowed to enjoy her own transgressions without the requisite hand-wringing, and you can feel the degree to which Dandridge herself must have felt freed by the opportunity to play this sexual tornado of a character.
When Carmen stands above the crowd assessing the heavyweight champion Miller as he arrives in the roadhouse to rapturous attention, she stares down at him with a mixture of desire and disdain, and Dandridge’s naturally insinuating smile takes on a further degree of fascination as the right side of her luscious mouth curls up and seems to join with a small mole on her upper lip into a leer of appropriately operatic grandeur and erotic force. It’s to some degree a trick of the lighting, but Dandridge has already laid the groundwork for that trick to work for her smoldering interpretation of Carmen, and of that scene, in ways that neither she nor her director may have been able to anticipate. Early on she describes herself in lyric to Belafonte as “a streamlined engine that won’t wait,” and Dandridge lives up to that description in every way. Ultimately, the movie seems somewhat conventional—it doesn’t quite take shadowy wing the way I hoped it would, and it might have benefited from the flights of visual fancy that a less literal-minded director would have brought to the material. But Dandridge is plenty reason enough to see Carmen Jones, and the beautiful print that shone here at the festival showcased her better than she’s been showcased in over 50 years.
The lone performer in the film who was capable enough as an actress and as a singer to navigate the musical landscape of the movie was Olga James, who played Cindy Lou, the innocent beauty spurned by Belafonte in favor of Carmen’s irresistible sexual allure. I would never have known who she was had Bogle not acknowledged her presence in the auditorium and introduced her to the crowd. As she stood up to acknowledge the appreciative applause I realized she was sitting in the row directly in front of me. She wasn’t there to be interviewed; she was there to see the film, and her presence made taking in Carmen Jones in this setting even more emotional than it might otherwise have been.
The florid directorial touches of Douglas Sirk always look better on the big screen, and this was true even when presented in a sub-par print (by TCM Classic Film Festival standards, anyway), as was the director’s brilliant Imitation of Life (1959) for its mid-Friday afternoon screening at the Egyptian Theater. Those who praise Sirk often do so with backhanded compliments or by insisting that the movies are somehow coded with irony and undercurrents whose perception is necessary in order to make sense of or otherwise justify the enjoyment of the purple passion which courses through the movies’ veins. But just because the pleasures and tensions and meanings of a movie like Imitation of Life are right there on the surface doesn’t make them less valuable, less valid, less artistically sound.
Sirk had a way of investing every ounce of credibility into the richly sensational and emotionally complex scenarios he chose to film, and I think the many dismissals of it as high-gloss soap opera are ways of not dealing with the fact that Sirk is so successful in delivering the power of other more “legitimate” forms of dramas within his own lush melodramatic spectacles. Written on the Wind, for example, is just about beyond criticism in my mind as an exploration of the chasm between haves and have-nots, and the withering internal destruction of those we’d like to imagine have no cause to be so self-hating, and that’s largely due to the way Sirk pierces his lavish, near-undulating frames, and the actors within them, with a pain that burrows underneath their surface beauty. Imitation of Life is a great movie, although maybe less so than Written on the Wind, and it is a genuine revelation to realize what kind of punch it still packs as a piece of social observation 51 years after its release. It’s hard for me to think of too many other depictions of conflict within a racial group itself that succeed on a purely dramatic level as well as the way Sirk frames and shapes the conflict between Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a hard-working mother who is proud of her racial identity, and her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who aches to pass as white and resents her mother’s refusal to back away from publicly claiming her daughter as her own. Sirk gently contrasts the friction between Annie and Sarah Jane with the virtual lack thereof between ambitious platinum-blonde actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter, a striking physical reflection of Lora embodied by Sandra Dee’s Susie. Imitation of Life was Turner’s first picture after the scandal involving the stabbing death of her lover Johnny Stompanato inflicted upon him by her real-life daughter, Cheryl Crane, so it wouldn’t have been much of a leap for audiences of the time to see through the surface happiness projected in the Turner-Dee relationship and inform it with what they knew of Turner’s tempestuous relationship with Crane.
In fact, Cheryl Crane had introduced the screening of The Bad and the Beautiful earlier in the day, and my latest acquaintance, Suzanne from Dallas, Texas, a self-proclaimed Lana worshipper who attended that screening, spotted Crane in the Egyptian courtyard mingling and signing autographs before Imitation of Life got under way. But if Crane went inside she did not stand up to acknowledge Robert Osborne when he called out to her from the stage before bringing out the afternoon’s special guests, and it’s probably a good thing too. When Juanita Moore, 94, came into the auditorium with her costar Susan Kohner to discuss the film and their lives in the ensuing years since its release, the feisty actress dished to the genial TCM host perhaps a bit more than he bargained for. After some talk about what the film had meant to Moore and whether her parts got better as a result of the response to Imitation of Life (“Nope!” she quickly responded), Osborne began asking Moore about Turner and her relationship with Crane. He asserted that Crane turned out to be a beautiful woman, Moore begged to differ, insisting that Crane was always kind of a “big” girl and, despite Osborne’s protestations, not particularly attractive. Moore also alluded to the drug problems Crane herself documented in a recent book, and when Osborne expressed a modicum of relief that Turner lived long enough to see Crane begin to straighten herself out, Moore insisted that observation was incorrect as well. As the murmurs began to ripple through the audience—I couldn’t tell if they were bemused ripples or uncomfortable ones—Osborne would begin directing questions to Kohner, who dropped out of show business after 10 films, married the well-known fashioner designer and novelist John Weitz and gave birth to Chris and Paul Weitz, both currently directors of mainstream Hollywood fare like American Pie, About a Boy, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. But the spotlight always swung back to the brutally forthright Moore, who claimed that Turner had no one to turn to during the production of the film except her and that the troubled star eventually opened up profoundly to Moore about the scandalous difficulties she had recently endured as well as Turner’s relationship with her daughter, which Moore claimed was never fully resolved before she died in 1995. Like her indefatigably spirited character on screen, Juanita Moore proved herself to be equally full of life (no imitation here), if slightly more irascible than Annie ever was. At 94, she could still cause a stir amongst the TCM faithful, who were as undoubtedly glad they came to see her as she clearly was to be there. As Moore herself self-effacingly put it, “I’m just glad to be anywhere!”
After the Imitation of Life Q&A ran understandably long, I ended up having to walk/run back to the Chinese in order to make it on time for the 6:30 p.m. screening of Elia Kazan’s well-regarded but rarely seen Wild River (1960). It turned out to be well worth the effort, even though the sprint itself proved unnecessary. The huge auditorium was packed by the time I arrived, but I had no idea that in addition to a presentation of the film itself by director Curtis Hanson, the festival programmers had built in a bit of extra time for a screening of a nine-minute short produced through The Film Foundation, one of the groups responsible for the restoration of Kazan’s film, exclusively for the TCM Classic Film Festival. Essentially a talking-heads piece that hits point-by-point the urgency of the mission toward an all-encompassing approach to film restoration and preservation, the short proved its worth by emphasizing the need for the preservation not only of major works but also minor ones as well. The well-expressed point, iterated by Martin Scorsese and a few less familiar faces, is that regardless of their relative worth as art, even the most trivial film might still serve as the creative spark for a writer or director somewhere down the line. The Film Foundation itself emphasizes the preservation of any kind of film, including newsreels, shorts, industrial films, news footage—no filmed material is deemed too insignificant for a project whose expressed intent is the preservation not only of physical film specimens but of our own cultural collective memory as well. The piece was introduced by producer and Film Foundation representative Margaret Bodde, who is one of the short’s featured talking heads. By the time I’d seen this piece another three times over the course of the weekend I’d developed a big film geek crush on Bodde, fueled not only by her passion for shepherding films to safety and preservation, but also by the fact that, well, she’s pretty cute. (Good combination!)
Less cute, but no less an authority on film preservation efforts is Hanson, who genially introduced Kazan’s movie to an audience that, it was revealed after his informal poll, was largely unfamiliar with it. (He further endeared himself to the crowd at one point by letting loose an epic Freudian slip in referring to the film as The River Wild.) Hanson made note of the film’s history and put forth some information about the restoration, which was sponsored by the Film Foundation, Fox (who owns the film), and AMPAS, and he had nothing but supportive words for Turner Classic Movies, which he proclaimed “allows time to be on the side of the artists in its backing of film preservation efforts of both high and low profile.” (Such a contrast to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Dome on the theater’s 25th anniversary, when the man introducing the movie thanked Ted Turner for the print and got roundly booed for his trouble.) Soon Hanson turned to the movie itself and made particular mention of the brilliant, ambivalent character turn by star Montgomery Clift, as a Tennessee Valley Authority agent during the Depression of the 1930s who is sent to convince stubborn matriarch Jo Van Fleet (playing 80 at a time when she was 40) to evacuate her property in order to facilitate the flooding of the river and the creation of a dam. Hanson also suggested that particular attention should be paid to Van Fleet—as if anyone with eyes could turn away from her at any time during this painfully lovely film. She has a speech during which she attempts to explain her apparently irrational stubbornness to Clift near the beginning of the film that had me literally shaking with excitement. How could a performance this rich and powerful not be routinely cited as one of the peaks in the history of screen acting?
That said, Lee Remick delivers as complex a piece of work as I’ve ever seen her produce as Van Fleet’s conflicted daughter, who sees the reason behind Clift’s position as well the emotional hooks the land has embedded in her mother’s coarsened hide. But for a filmmaker known primarily for the performances he manages to coax from his leads, including some of the most iconic performances in film history, I was particularly struck by the delicate structure and pace that Kazan navigates over the course of Wild River. The movie is urgent and demanding without ever resorting to cheap theatrics or histrionics, thanks largely to the sensitivity coaxed from the pages of Paul Osborn’s script. Kazan makes the script’s structure blossom thematically through the ways he integrates his actors and their environment, each expressing degrees of the other through his own eye and that of his brilliant cinematographer, Ellsworth Fredericks. Wild River has the feeling of flowing uninterrupted, like the water that surrounds the island which it may soon engulf, placid on the surface but for the swirling hints of the dark churning underneath. Along with Murder, He Says, Kazan’s film was the major personal discovery I made during the festival.
It had been a long time, probably not since college, since I’d seen this many movies in one day. I had now made it through four, with two still to go, and I was beginning to feel a little weary—after all, I’d been at it since 10:00 a.m. and it was now approaching 9:30 p.m. Even so, I had high hopes from the remaining two selections on my schedule, and I enjoyed talking with a couple from Fort Worth, Texas, named Miles and Jo, film fans whose revival cinemas prospects at home are practically nonexistent. We enjoyed hashing over the highs (no lows to speak of) from the festival so far, and we were all was grateful to see so many people lined up ahead and behind us to see one of the lineup’s least-known offerings, St. John Legh Clowes’s once-notorious British film noir cheapie No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948). But alas, they cannot all be diamonds, even the ones touted as the more routine and rough-hewn of gems. This movie has been preceded by a lurid reputation that, as it turned out, is far more entertaining than the movie itself, especially when presented by legendary NYC Film Forum programmer and raconteur extraordinaire Bruce Goldstein, as it was before our screening. I met up with pal Bob Westal, who was covering the festival as well, in the lobby before the show commenced. Bob had missed out on The Stunt Man, his film of choice for the evening, and since he and I had already made plans to meet up for the midnight movie later on he decided to make his way to the Chinese #3 for No Orchids.
Bob and I enjoyed immensely Goldstein’s accounts of the film’s initial reception in Britain, both by the press and by bluenoses of the government and royal variety. The movie, an all-British attempt at fashioning a gritty New York-set film noir, revolves around the kidnapping of a heiress who, however improbably, falls in love with her kidnapper, at which point the movie even more improbably begins to emphasize the reciprocally romantic angle with an increasingly treacherous lack of focus. (The parallels to the story line of the following night’s featured pre-code selection The Story of Temple Drake would extend not only to the film’s general plot elements and its roots in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, but also to the casting—B-movie tough guy Jack la Rue would play virtually the same part, that of a the gangster kidnapper/rapist, in both pictures, though to much more devastating effect in the older film.) Critic Dilys Powell, writing in The Sunday Times, said upon the release of No Orchids that it should have been rated “D for disgusting.” (A slide Goldstein showed of Powell revealed her to appear to be more stiffly laced than even that comment would suggest.) C.A. Lejeune, film critic for The Observer, was no more circumspect when he wrote that the film had “all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer.” Of course the movie did bang-up business in the U.K., and even here in the States where it was released as The Snatch (!). But although it was potent stuff next to Brief Encounter or the average Powell-Pressburger picture of the time—lots of gunplay, some at close range, and the hint of sexual innuendo—it hardly seems the stuff of the end of the British film industry, as it was so touted by one reactionary government official. Nor does it stand up in the rawness department next to any number of American films noir with which it and its makers were so clearly infatuated.
Following Goldstein in front of the curtain before the film commenced was British actor and apparent representative of the British film industry Tim Roth, who had only seen the film for the first time the night before and seemed downright speechless when pressed to speak about it. He nervously rattled on about the poor American accents, the muddy lighting, and the editing, acknowledging that it had been executed at nowhere near the clip of any equivalent routine American crime movie. But he emphasized the observation that No Orchids was created with such love for the form of American movie storytelling as it is manifested in film noir that “if you stick with it” Roth insisted it would eventually get to you. But as the movie unspooled before me, that sentiment seemed like simple wishful thinking and nothing more. No Orchids, despite its rep, never delivers even modestly on its lurid premise, and it’s too much a ragbag production—Roth’s observations about its technique and, shall we say, inconsistent acting were spot on—to bolster much storytelling energy. The movie, at a very long 104 minutes, peters out into a shapeless mess—the shorter U.S. release version would undoubtedly play if not better, then at least quicker, even though both likely run well past the story’s natural stopping point, when Miss Blandish and La Rue’s tough guy initially get together. There’s simply not much to latch onto here—director Clowes hasn’t the talent to back up the relative seriousness with which he takes his heartfelt homage, a seriousness which dampens any possibility for heightened thrills or even camp. No Orchids commits the cardinal sin of any gangster picture, American or British—it’s a bit of a bore. Robert Aldrich would get it right years later when he took the same basic premise and fashioned it into his creepy crime family dissection The Grissom Gang, complete with the requisite bullets and bathtub gin. As for me, I distracted myself by playing a mental game built around recasting the movie with the actors they most reminded me of. La Rue struck me as a George Raft type who closely resembles Jerry Orbach, and Linden Travers as Miss Blandish echoed the face and mannerisms of Miranda Richardson. For the bug-eyed headwaiter Louis (Charles Goldner) I’d go either Joe Turkel or Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Giddings. Macdonald Parke as Doc gets replaced by Richard Dysart, and Alfred Molina could shine as the Italian restaurant owner Tony. The moll La Rue stiffs for Miss Blandish, Margo (Zoe Gail) seemed like a lantern-jawed Rita Hayworth, and I’ll be darned if Hugh McDermott as a nosy reporter didn’t bring to my mind Fred MacMurray. (Or was it just that I wished I was watching Murder, He Says again?) The cast is rounded out by Lilli Molnar as Ma Grisson, gang matriarch, nothing less than a bruised-up ringer for Miriam Margoyles; Walter Crisham, whose high forehead and bug-like demeanor made me think of both Buster Keaton and Reggie Nalder; and finally, what demented cellar dwelling informant like Leslie Bradley’s Ted Bailey couldn’t just as easily have been essayed by Clint Howard? I would have much rather been engaged by the movie, but desperate times call for desperate games.
The evening came to a ceremonious close with yet another mild disappointment. Film restoration expert Mike Hyatt spoke for nearly a half hour and offered a ton of detail (perhaps too much for some who, due to the late hour, were more eager to see the film than to hear him speak) about his personally funded, agonizingly meticulous frame-by-frame restoration of Steve Sekely’s The Day of the Triffids (1962). The technician related how the original film negative was sullied in a bath of none-too-clean water, leaving millions of tiny pieces of sediment grafted to the negative which had to be picked off with unerring precision, lest the negative be permanently damaged. To undertake such a restoration project, which took over four years, is to express one’s love not only for film, but the particular film in question, and Hyatt expressed that love directly to the crowd in attendance as well. But when he finally left the front of the auditorium, the festival attendees were treated to a fabulous reclamation of a beautifully photographed film (cinematography courtesy of Ted Moore, who shot Goldfinger and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) that, sadly, seems far less than the sum of its parts.
Triffids is bifurcated into competing storylines that never gel—in one, a American military officer (Howard Keel) is hospitalized for an eye operation and doesn’t see the meteor storm that blinds the rest of Britain, leaving them helpless against the mutant plants that radiation from said meteor storm has turned into carnivorous, and quite mobile vegetation; the other (said to be cinematographer Freddie Francis’s first directorial assignment) tracks the efforts of a pair of unhappily married botanists (Kieron Moore and Janette Scott) as they try to ward off the encroaching killer flowers while trapped in a lighthouse. The effects in the film are fairly inconsistent—ominous Val Lewton-ish suggestion is too often followed by long shots of men in plant outfits plodding across the Cinemascope frame or bearing down on the helpless citizenry, none of which would be quite so problematic if the direction weren’t just as inconsistent. The film’s opening, in which a night watchman gets gobbled by one of the triffids, is a terrific exercise in shadowy dread which reinforces the pleasurable anticipation of frights to come. But overall the movie is just too meandering, slack when it needs to be snappy, indifferent when it most needs to be convincing us of the reality of impending doom. The restoration of this movie is a wonderful thing, to be sure, but it may not do much good for the reputation of Triffids itself, which hasn’t been seen theatrically in 50 years and has been left to freely coast on the happy memories of those who were terrified by it at a very young age. So it goes. By the final frames of the picture, in which the revelation of the rather simple solution to the plant problem spurred Bob and I to conjure comparisons with both H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds) and M. Night Shyamyalan (Signs), I didn’t much care that the Earth had yet again been saved, this time from aggressive, heavily pollinated plant monsters. Movie number six for the day was in the books, and despite the late hour and the relative exhaustion I was feeling, the initial giddiness that had set in the night before while poolside with Esther Williams had not dissipated. I wouldn’t make it into bed until about 4:15 a.m., and I had to be back at the Egyptian Theater at 9:00 a.m. No time to worry about the fizzle of the day’s final offerings. The next day promised much bigger and better things, and that promise would most certainly be fulfilled.
Day Three: Back of the Moon
I bypassed the train in favor of my car on Saturday, like I had the previous day, because I was sure if I stuck to my schedule that the last film, a midnight screening of The Bride of Frankenstein, would let out long past the departure time of the last train back to Universal City. So I woke up as late as I could, grabbed a quick breakfast (no time to pack a lunch like I had yesterday either) and made it to the Egyptian with about 45 seconds to spare before the introduction to the morning’s first feature, Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Of all the M. Hulot comedies, this beautiful spectacle of human behavior in the face of insistent modernization, in every possible way a giant achievement, is the only one I’ve seen, so I was conflicted as to whether or not to make it my breakfast choice. The panel on Casting Secrets was tempting, but not tempting enough, and the other films screening at that time were also ones I’d seen many times, though I must say Peter Bogdanovich introducing The Magnificent Ambersons did make me turn my head ever so slightly. And I would never begrudge anyone the opportunity to hear Nancy Olson talk about making Sunset Blvd. before a screening of that great movie, one of my personal favorites, but I saw Olson in the same capacity several years ago at the Alex Theater in Glendale, so it was in every way a program I felt I’d already fully experienced. Playtime, however, was part of the Egyptian’s 70mm series at the festival, and as I’d only ever seen it on DVD I decided that Tati’s film would be my one festival dip into the exhibition of that increasingly rare format. It was the right choice. On DVD watching Tati’s masterpiece is like being tickled by carbonation from the first appearance of two nuns walking in tandem through a quiet Parisian airport terminal, the wings of their habits flapping in harmonious choreography. But in 70mm every detail of design and performance takes on a surprising clarity, the heightened point of view of a bemused divinity delighting in the movement of his creatures.
That airport terminal is slowly besieged by visitors, all of whom seem not at all like extras but carefully modulated bit players, each with their bit of business, their point of humane reference to help make them stand out against the glistening architecture that Tati will reveal as a central characteristic of a modern Paris that is encroaching upon but still exists alongside the more romanticized historical City of Lights. Tati himself is quietly brilliant sitting among the glass walls, patiently waiting for an appointment that will never be met, and occasionally giving in to his curiosity about his mechanized surroundings. Unlike the Chaplin of Modern Times, Tati finds the glistening, slightly alien architecture and impossibly gleaming landscapes, with their scampering office workers and overly impressed American tourists in attendance, more fascinating than threatening, and he always locates a degree of elegance within even the most uproarious satirical gags. The movie’s central set piece, a wild dinner party at a bustling restaurant into which Hulot is swept, is a masterpiece of cacophony and motion for motion’s sake. You can feel the director’s touch in even the slightest of performers taking up space in the frame here, yet the sequence, full of dancing, singing, torn clothes, misidentification, impatient scurrying about and eventually the partial destruction of the restaurant itself (which, naturally, leads to the fashioning of a new and inviting space) never itself seems fussy or mechanistic. Instead, I was left in awe of how meaningfully Tati contrasts the grand scale of the scene with the manner in which it comes to feel almost intimate, which, I suppose, makes it the perfect microcosm of the larger film within which it so playfully exists.
After my morning Playtime was over, I had nearly an hour for a relatively leisurely walk back to the Chinese complex to get myself positioned for two old favorites, neither of which I had ever seen projected in anything other than 16mm. It was nice, considering how rushed was my drive into Hollywood from Glendale just a few hours before, to be able to take a deep breath amongst the Saturday throng, which was, as it usually goes in this tourist-heavy section of Los Angeles, even heavier on the weekend. I also picked up the agonizingly irresistible aroma of a couple of nearby street dog carts already grilling their delights for the lunch crowd. Street dog vendors can be found wherever foot traffic is most likely to occur in the Los Angeles area, a thought which in itself might seem improbable in this most automobile-oriented of cities. But there are plenty on foot in places like the downtown garment and jewelry districts, outside football games and other sporting events, and yes, right here on Hollywood Boulevard where the names of the greats and not-so-greats are tread upon by folks from all over the world as they snap pictures of people dressed up like familiar costumed movie characters and stare at the sidewalk, scanning the walk of fame for their favorite luminaries.
And wherever there are hungry people on foot, there is usually the tantalizing smell of a freshly grilled street dog wafting through the air, providing its own special pleasures and perhaps even replacing other less savory smells. A street dog is basically a hearty wiener of some sort—all-beef if you’re lucky, but if you’re inclined to eat one it’s probably better than you don’t know for sure—wrapped in bacon and open-air grilled right alongside a hefty pile of green peppers, red peppers and sweet onions. The dog is done to perfection and then augmented with a generous pile of those piquant veggies. The vendors tend to be pretty quick with the condiments, and if the buyer is not careful a far-too-generous slathering of mayo will be applied by rote to a so-far-flawless lunch, so a careful watch is recommended. I like to keep things simple—a noticeable but not overwhelming adornment of mustard along the length of the crest of peppers and onions is all the help this tasty creation would ever need, but there is ketchup available too, of course. The vendor may look at me with disdain if I don’t pile on the full battery of sauces, but I’m never intimidated—it’s my gastrointestinal system, damn it. Since I had no time to bring my own lunch, every moment I spent traveling between theaters on Saturday was one in which I contemplated the street dog, and believe me, when weighing these kinds of lunch choices on the run, the street dog is in every way the better of the average Oscar Meyer concession stand tube steak selection. But they are also very difficult to eat while making your way down a busy sidewalk—the street dog needs a moment or two to be savored. And despite having a few extra of t
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.
If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.
Will Win: First Man
Could Win: A Quiet Place
Should Win: First Man