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The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

Any film festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts.

The 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival
Photo: Edward M. Pio Roda

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.

Osborne had missed the previous two years at TCMFF due to illness and his presence on the channel had greatly diminished, so the announcement of his death came as no great surprise, and just as it should be, TCMFF 2017 was dedicated to his memory and achievements long before the festival’s first frames ever found their way from projector to screen. The very first event of TCMFF 2017 was “Remembering Robert,” a presentation in one of the festival’s biggest multiplex theaters attended by TCM VIPs and celebrity guests and open to all pass holders. Each feature shown on Thursday was also preceded by a short film highlighting Osborne’s talent as an interviewer, but probably more importantly his easygoing relationship with not only superstar guests like Mel Brooks, Eva Marie Saint, Peter O’Toole and, of course, Debbie Reynolds, but also with the considerably lower-wattage TCM fans who always seemed as eager to see him in person as they were any of the other stars usually found on parade at the festival.

Inevitably, some of the spotlight shone on Osborne and his profound influence as the face and spirit of TCM ended up illuminating questions, not so much about the channel, but the direction in which the film festival seems to be headed. In many ways, Osborne—the well-read, informed, semi-erudite and very enthusiastic proponent of all things classic movies—was the perfect distillation of the channel’s audience; he was the ultimate TCM fan, conversant in every aspect of Hollywood lore and rumor and achievement, and yet also in a somehow youthful awe of it all.

It would be imprudent and probably ill-informed to suggest that Osborne had a direct, ongoing influence in programming either the channel or the festival, despite his public image as overlord of a classic movie empire. But certainly Osborne’s diminished presence at TCMFF over the past few years has coincided with the festival’s increased proclivity, undoubtedly inspired at least in part by the understandable need to generate revenue—to feature films that, shall we say, push the outer limits of the definition of the essential term “classic,” or to overly rely on familiar, oft-seen selections that emphasize a classic film aesthetic which Osborne undoubtedly would have approved but which tend to crowd out the rarities and obscure items from the vault that have always been catnip to the more serious cinephiles in attendance.

In comparison to past themes such as “History in the Movies,” “Moving Pictures,” and “Hollywood Style,” the nexus of this year’s festival, “Comedy in the Movies,” seemed unusually broad, and according to festival managing director Genevieve McGillicuddy, that’s apparently at least in part by design. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, she suggested that festival themes must be considered “broad enough to encompass a lot of films, but specific enough to inform who we bring in, in terms of guests.” What’s disturbing about that comment is the acknowledgment of the degree to which festival programmers, particularly this year, seemed to have been guided not as much by whether or not the films were worthy of a showcase in such a setting, but instead by who could be lured out to present and talk about their films.

If that’s true, it goes a long way toward explaining why TCMFF 2017 featured such vintage “classics” as The Jerk, The Princess Bride, High Anxiety, Broadcast News, Top Secret!, Best in Show, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Saturday Night Fever, and The China Syndrome, and with all of their very high-profile creators in attendance. (Bonnie and Clyde also played this year, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were both absent; no doubt the fiasco that capped this year’s Oscars soured them on public appearances for a while.) If this sort of celebrity trolling is indeed the direction that TCMFF is headed, then it seems reasonable to fear that future festivals might likely be even more dependent, given the ever-decreasing availability of stars and filmmakers from a more genuine era of classic movies, on showcasing more current fare to the exclusion of exploring the rich nooks and crannies of Hollywood history.

Even when addressing that history, however, this year’s edition of TCMFF seemed to come up short of imagination. It seems fairly clear that movies like Arsenic and Old Lace, Born Yesterday, Casablanca, The Graduate, The Great Dictator, Harold and Maude, Jezebel, The Last Picture Show, Rear Window, Red River, Some Like It Hot, and Unfaithfully Yours have a rightful place at any festival which claims classic movie history as its statement purpose. But at the risk of sounding like a spoiled churl, when those none-too-difficult-to-see films are combined on a slate with a roster of popular, in-age-only classics like The Jerk and The China Syndrome, that adds up to a lot of screens which could have been dedicated to less-familiar or less-available films which might also be better qualified as classics. Every one of the movies cited immediately above were directed by filmmakers who all have less well-traveled selections in their respective oeuvres which could have been showcased, and in fact Alfred Hitchcock and Hal Ashby were both more satisfyingly represented in the festival by harder-to-see titles: a luminous nitrate print of 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, superior to the 1956 remake, and 1970’s The Landlord, probably Ashby’s best film and a genuine classic if there ever was one.

Probably the most illuminating thread in TCMFF 2017’s “Comedy in the Movies” theme was not the more predictable selection of films chosen to fulfill it, but the peripheral consideration of what exactly makes a person laugh. I certainly didn’t consciously schedule my own festival experience along TCMFF’s thematic lines, yet the issue of laughter, emanating from the belly as well as the brain, kept bubbling to the surface, and sometimes from unexpected places. Much to my happy surprise, my opening-night selection, the 1941 romantic farce Love Crazy, was an actual laff riot. The film’s setup is typical screwball: An escalating series of improbable misunderstandings leads a couple to break up on their fourth wedding anniversary, all of which inspires Steve Ireland (William Powell) to have himself declared legally insane and eventually pass himself off as his own sister in order to maneuver Susan Ireland (Myrna Loy) back into his graces.

Director Jack Conway and writers William Ludwig, David Hertz, and Charles Lederer display an endearing affinity for sophisticated people falling on their asses in Love Crazy, which suited me just fine. And speaking of being suited just fine, who could have guessed that Powell would make such a grand and dowdy old maid? I’ll go on record with the belief that Powell did drag better and more convincingly than anyone I’ve ever seen, and that includes Dustin Hoffman. (Powell gets bonus points for not having learned hard lessons about becoming a better man by putting on a dress too.) The film also goes a long way toward demonstrating the chemistry between Powell and Loy, both sexual and platonic, which kept them together on screen over the course of 14 movies. Perhaps unexpectedly, Love Crazy is one of their best.

Naturally, TCMFF provides an excellent opportunity to catch classic comedies with appreciative audiences. So this year I lined up for W.C. Fields and the beloved duo of Laurel and Hardy. At only 29 minutes, 1932’s The Music Box is Laurel and Hardy’s masterpiece, a beautiful display of slapstick tension built around the boys’ inept, Sisyphean attempts to push a piano up a ridiculously steep flight of stairs. To the delight of the audience, Stan and Ollie’s difficulties don’t stop once they manage to reach the top, and the film’s reception here in front of a big crowd made me wish I could have been there in 1932 when people were discovering it for the first time. The Music Box, no surprise, turned out to be a hard act to follow. The Laurel and Hardy feature which came next, 1937’s Way Out West, runs twice as long, and I’d estimate it overstays its welcome by about a half hour. By about midway through, despite the occasional chortle, I felt deflated by Way Out West, and the audience around me seemed ready for the revivifying effects of a Starbucks run too.

Fields, on the other hand, stayed customarily strong and weird over the course of another opening short, the relatively primitive yet hilarious The Barber Shop, from 1933, and the comedian’s great late-period, near-indescribable marvel Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, from 1941. (Fields himself worried that the title would be reduced on a marquee to “W.C. Fields: Sucker!”) When people talk about the oddest films ever released by a major studio (and people fluttering around the lobby of the TCMFF do tend to talk about such things, believe me), if they fail to mention Sucker, then you can safely assume that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. This is a very strange, fitfully hilarious production, one which seems made to satisfy Fields himself and no one else, and fortunately in that regard it fails miserably; the TCMFF audience was in its proverbial stitches. (Sucker also features the greatest Zasu Pitts crack ever committed to celluloid, and if you haven’t seen the film, don’t expect me to give it away.)

One way that the thematically inclined TCMFF programmers were admirably sly was in scheduling John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, dubbed an “Essential” under the rubric of the official festival calendar, to be followed immediately, if one so chose, by the director’s fabulous high-wire act from 1953, Beat the Devil, listed by TCMFF as a “movie spoof.” I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon countless times, and had it not been for the relative paucity of juicy choices in the other Friday-morning time slots I might have decided on seeing something else. But as it turned out, experiencing the 1941 film with a packed house who knew every line, every story beat, every raised eyebrow among its stellar cast far better than I did, only magnified just how delightful, how straight-faced funny it really is.

One might think there’d at least be a measure of nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor to be mined from recognizing the familiar iconography of the hard-boiled detective film noir for which The Maltese Falcon laid much of the foundation. But thankfully, the audience responded with appreciative laughter, not with the sort of annoying knowingness that signals “Yeah, I’m aware of all these signature detective drama tropes.” To be in an audience beside itself with happiness when Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tosses off the line about having stolen back Wilmer Cook’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) guns from the crippled newsie who first grabbed them off Wilmer is to experience an audience delighting in a lightning-only-strikes-once sort of moment in film history, when everyone from director to stars to the bittest of bit players was firing on all cylinders. (It was a particular delight of mine to hear someone on the way out invoking the names Nick Danger and Rocky Rococo, centerpieces of the Firesign Theatre’s brilliant Maltese Falcon-derived parody “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” which made TCMFF’s inclusion of the Huston classic in such close proximity to the comedy umbrella even more satisfying.)

I was perhaps even less prepared for Beat the Devil. Like most of its initial audience, when I’d first seen it I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what Huston and company were up to. The director tossed out the film’s original script, which was based on a relatively serious book about a group of con artists trying to secure a North African uranium mine, and brought Truman Capote on to rewrite it, which resulted in a scramble to feed actors new lines every day as the film’s plot became more ramshackle unpredictable. The screening was prefaced by an interview conducted by historian Cari Beauchamp with Beat the Devil’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, who one might think had one of the more thankless jobs in film history on that particular set. But the way Allen told it, working on the production was a considerable amount of fun, at least enough to counterbalance what must have been a very high exasperation level inspired by Capote and Huston’s constant tinkering and revising of the film’s structure and dialogue.

Seen again with a more sophisticated eye, Beat the Devil’s level of perfection turns out to be sublimely amusing, another singular bolt of Huston lightning; everything from Humphrey Bogart’s frazzled charm to Jennifer Jones’s straight-faced tall tales, to Gina Lollobrigida’s delivery of tea for two, to the relentlessly sharp wit of Capote’s dialogue and Huston’s supremely confident direction, which may have been borne from precisely the opposite emotional impulse, gives this improbable lark true wings.

Those Huston films, especially seen back-to-back as I saw them this past weekend, go a long way toward indicating just how elusive the comic impulse can be, and just how unexpected it can be when it explodes. But whether or not they were traditional comedies, The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil both had comic awareness. When a “sophisticated” audience bumps up against something from another era whose intentions or execution bristles too roughly against their sensibilities, or seems on the surface too silly or misguidedly earnest to invite anything but laughter, the screening can turn into an unwelcome hootfest. Such as it was, at least for a while, at the TCMFF 2017 midnight screening of John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz.

Say what you will about Zardoz, and you will (and you should, as long as it’s something more substantial than “Awesome!” or “Whaafuck?!”), but this singular film is one sprung from the mind of a true visionary director, no matter our conclusions about that specific vision. Whenever I hear of a corporate drone who’s coughed up another dour superhero fantasy acclaimed as “visionary,” I imagine that vision being programmed in a boardroom at the behest of the keepers of the lowest-common denominators and in fear of legions of fanboys who don’t cotton to coloring outside of the lines. But Boorman, who conceived, wrote, produced, and directed Zardoz flush from the success of Deliverance, when he could have done any number of other projects to secure his commercial and artistic future, sustained the production of one of the more original, deeply felt, and genuinely hallucinatory science-fiction allegories ever to make it to the screen bearing the imprimatur of a major studio. In the annals of odd studio releases, it deserves a place right alongside Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

Sean Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, one of a cadre of assassins murdering the population of Brutals in the name of a strange sub-deity called Zardoz, whose rock-carved visage floats over the hills and moors, vomiting weapons and ammunition to be used in the slaughter. Zed is somehow smuggled inside Zardoz, where he murders a man who claims to be Zardoz, found perched precariously at the mouth of the giant figure, and is subsequently transported into a realm, a vortex, populated by immortals, an elitist group of scientists and sensualists who have separated themselves from the society of Zardoz’s victims into what can only be described as a pastel-flavored religious commune. That commune is governed by the Tabernacle, an omnipotent, disembodied voice dedicated to sustaining the maintenance of life for these chosen, whose rare transgressions from the imposed idyll are punished by a measure of aging which, if enough infractions pile up, will result in debilitation and dementia, but never death.

Against the resistance of Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) and to the encouragement of May (Sara Kestleman), the immortal commune’s two arresting poles of rapacious, visionary (there’s that word again) pleasure, Zed slowly accrues awareness of his origins and of the past world, supplied by May and her minions. Zed slowly begins to approach a sort of godhead himself, one that might even replace the Tabernacle as the Immortals, grown weary of endless, unchallenged existence, mount an attempt to regain mortality, to kill God, to be able to once again experience life under the one thing that seems to give it meaning, the surety of termination.

That’s a lot to expect guffaw-ready, possibly chemically enhanced hipster audiences to digest, especially after a day filled with as many as six other films seen previous to it. Of course, when a director gives himself fully to the images and ideas cluttering his head, the result is usually not one that’s going to speak to great swaths of moviegoers who’d prefer the film to have more Gordon flash than existential philosophizing. And when Boorman drapes his hero in what looks essentially like a red diaper for the duration (and at one point, a wedding gown) and spins out phantasmagorical sequences draped in as much vintage early-‘70s futurism as Zardoz sports, he runs the risk of looking like a fool. But for the patient viewer, Zardoz is also a film of ravishing beauty—and some of those images, particularly of the great Zardoz head floating across the Irish landscapes where the production was filmed, shoot straight beyond silliness and into the rarified realm of the sublime.

Zardoz doesn’t play by many recognizable rules, of narrative, of visual discipline, but even for the younger, presumably smart audience that it drew at TCMFF there’s apparently only a couple of ways to respond to something like it—derision, confusion, boredom, or some numb cocktail consisting of all of the above. The surprisingly large crowd, prepped by TCM’s invaluable programmer/host Millie Di Chirico and her peppy introduction/warning, giggled and hooted right out of the gate. But as I was secretly hoping, they didn’t end up having the stamina to turn the film into TCMFF’s very own episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and eventually, about a half hour in, the superiority-tinged laughs and gasps subsided as the audience gave in either to the effects of that numbing cocktail or, like I did, the strange buzzing in the brain caused by exposure to a genuine original.

The usual proclamations of “What the fuck was that?!” and “Worst movie I ever saw!” could be heard on the way out of the auditorium, but I left elated, as if my mental receptors had been seduced into opening at just the right frequency and taking in Boorman’s spectacular folly, letting it seed my brain and grow into what it would. And seeing it in such a beautiful DCP presentation on a big, big screen was a treat that unsuspecting audiences, or perhaps even suspecting ones looking for the next 2001-style head trip, shouldn’t take for granted. Zardoz is a head trip all right, and the mental terrain it traverses and transforms certainly isn’t without the frustrations and jarring transitions to accompany the beauteous revelation of a true journey. But when the whole thing is over there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve come back from an allegorical somewhere which surely has inquisitive intellectual precedent, yet at the same time feels like uncharted, idiosyncratic territory as far as the movies are concerned.

Zardoz certainly is as atypical a film as I’ve ever considered to be a personal TCMFF highlight, and maybe it has no more business being in a festival devoted to “classics” than The Jerk or The China Syndrome do. But it’s the sensibility that would get Zardoz into TCMFF at all which needs to be sustained, alongside a re-emphasis on showcasing not just the tried and true, but also the unique, the unusual, the disreputable, the dismissed, the less-celebrated, so that TCMFF can continue to be a festival which truly believes all these disparate elements of Hollywood antiquity deserve a place alongside, for example, Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain. We’ll never know if he would, but I’d like to think that Robert Osborne, currently presiding over his own eternal film festival, just might agree.

The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 6—9.

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