At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival’s programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I’d registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year’s fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.
The organizing principle of last year’s festival had been, I thought, a mite too broad (“Comedy in the Movies”), but the announcement that this year’s TCMFF would be dedicated largely to the theme “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen” seemed to hold much more promise. In addition to familiar categorizations like “Discoveries,” “Essentials,” and “Festival Tributes,” programmers had devised several interesting subheadings within which to organize or thematically justify their selections.
Under the rubric “The Writer’s Block,” for example, TCMFF 2018 was ready to dish up selections like The Lost Weekend and The Story of G.I. Joe. In a reversal of an old standard, “Screen to Stage” would highlight selections that had begun life as screen sensations and then moved on to Broadway, such as Sunset Boulevard, The Phantom of the Opera, and the festival’s opening-night selection, the world premiere of a 4K digital restoration of Mel Brooks’s The Producers (there was no room for School of Rock, apparently).
And perhaps the most relevant thematic tie between the golden age of Hollywood and our tinfoil present, “The Power of the Press” would highlight the opportunity to see the greatest newspaper comedy ever made, Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, itself based on the greatest newspaper play ever written, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. But that’s not all, folks. In the same TCMFF category, you could find Blessed Event, a snappy, rarely screened pre-code take on the influence, for good and bad, of a gossip columnist played by Lee Tracy (and purportedly based on Walter Winchell), and Sam Fuller’s impassioned Park Row, which chronicles an editor’s fight against corruption in the press along New York’s Newspaper Row in the 1880s.
Further self-explanatory subdivisions under the “Powerful Words” umbrella included “Christie’s Mysteries,” “The Poet’s Corner,” and “Shakespeare in the Dark,” as well as a slate of special presentations and a second year of classics shown on vibrant, yet volatile, nitrate film stock (including John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven, which won an Oscar for Leon Shamroy’s color cinematography). And they all seemed to guarantee that a lot of eyes would be popping, either from excitement or exhaustion, once the lights finally went out after the conclusion of the four days of TCMFF 2018.
As is probably apparent, and is as usual for TCMFF, that overriding theme, focusing on the creation of the words which provide the structure and the inspiration for the movies’ hopefully memorable imagery, functioned largely as a sturdy clothesline on which to hang all manner of classic movie laundry rather than as a pathway toward a necessarily more coherent understanding of the writerly craft. Yet the festival’s one attempt to directly address that craft in its original programming, Saturday afternoon’s film-clip compendium of B-movie comebacks, quips, and machine-gun jargon entitled “Crackin’ Wise,” was an intermittently entertaining but ultimately tepid affair.
Assembled from the voluminous Paramount Archives by the studio’s head archivist, Andrea Kalas, the presentation provided some history on the lesser-known veterans of vaudeville, pulp novels, and radio plays behind the studio’s B movies, but also on some better-known writers such as Nathaniel West. And some of the clips provided saucy examples of what gave audiences pleasure when these largely unmemorable titles ended up anchored to double features on their way down the road to relative obscurity. The ironic problem with “Crackin’ Wise,” beside its monotonous one-after-the-other clip format, is that the pool from which Kalas drew apparently just isn’t as wise as advertised; the surprisingly dreary level of the writing sampled in the program inadvertently exposed the reality that sometimes cranking out scripts for relatively uninspired pictures was (and is) just a job.
Though there were gems spread throughout the 90-minute program, the ratio of snappy retorts to less-than-inspired exchanges, often delivered by minor actors in oft-forgotten vehicles, wasn’t favorable. And the sudden appearance by a Paramount production like Ace in the Hole, written by one of the most celebrated wits in Hollywood history, raises the bar to an impossible level of comparison. In the shadow of Billy Wilder, the jig is so up for the other smart guys that it rightly bolts for the exit and the nearest smoke-filled saloon.
One of the best examples of hard-boiled, comeback-rich dialogue at this year’s festival, the impossibly entertaining The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, wouldn’t have fit into the limited format of “Crackin’ Wise,” as Joseph Sargent’s subway thriller was a United Artists release from 1974. Nonetheless, it’s loaded with juicy exchanges that illustrate Kalas’s point far better than most of the clips she programmed, spotlighting screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade, Skin Game) and the actors who find his delightfully profane dialogue spilling out of their mouths at the top of their respective games.
Perhaps the peakiest peak in a film full of ’em: Walter Matthau’s transit cop, pleading for cooperation from the spectacularly apoplectic Dick O’Neill as the head of transit operations, protests that all he cares about is saving lives. O’Neill’s machine-gun response is one for the NYC branch of the Comeback Hall of Fame: “Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents—to live forever?” As if that weren’t enough, Bruce Goldstein, lifelong Manhattanite and director of repertory programming at the city’s famed Film Forum, introduced The Taking of Pelham One Two Three at TCMFF with a lively presentation which honored the film’s unprecedented geographical veracity, culminating with Goldstein’s proclamation that the film feels like one made for New Yorkers, given its refusal to act as a tour guide for the city’s familiar landmarks. In fact, Goldstein thinks it’s the best New York City movie ever made. How’s that for crackin’ wise?
Fortunately, TCMFF 2018 did offer various opportunities to celebrate talented, perhaps less zingy writer-directors such as Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career); James Ivory (Maurice); Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer); Melvin van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a salute which makes me happy even though my mind remains boggled that it ever managed to happen); and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), whose gem-laden career bears an inordinate degree of dedication to making sports movies the way Hollywood doesn’t like to make ’em—raunchy, unpredictable, often melancholy—and then proving that audiences would come to see them anyway.
One filmmaker who couldn’t be in attendance was highlighted with a feature so strong and bracing you could practically feel the one-two punches smashing against your torso and smell the cigar smoke from his ever-present stogie wafting down the back of your neck. Sam Fuller, who died in 1997, would have been thrilled with the festival showcase afforded his favorite film, 1952’s Park Row. Fuller’s urgency isn’t an empty exercise designed to get an audience’s collective pulse racing. His own experiences as a newspaper copy boy, coupled with his passion for the primacy and importance of the fourth estate, inform this gloriously claustrophobic, booze-soaked, relentlessly forceful tale of how one (fictional) editor, played by Gene Evans, a veteran of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, flies in the face of corruption and illegal influence, and against the baser instincts of a rival publisher once his boss (Mary Welch), in the pursuit of journalistic standards to honor the statues of Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin which anchor Park Row itself.
Another writer-director who was himself, like Fuller, at the forefront of a particularly important moment in the history of American independent film, John Sayles, used his time introducing Park Row to eloquently characterize the film, in one of the overall best, most informed, beautifully delivered speaker presentations I’ve ever seen at TCMFF, as “Citizen Kane printed on butcher paper.” You could almost hear Fuller chuckle with approval.
The film then blasted out of the gate before its own opening credits with words meant to evoke the 120-point boldface type of the era’s most grave, life-and-death headlines, imposed over a crawl of newspaper banners: “THESE ARE THE NAMES OF 1,772 DAILY NEWSPAPERS IN THE UNITED STATES. ONE OF THE IS THE PAPER YOU READ. ALL OF THEM ARE THE STARS OF THIS STORY.” Then a brief pause while the banners continued to roll, followed in even bigger typeface by a legend which crawled up along with the background to fill the frame: “DEDICATED TO AMERICAN JOURNALISM.”
Fuller, of course, could have had no idea in 1952 the chill those words would deliver to audiences almost 70 years later, but their insistence, their implied defiance, along with Fuller’s conviction and pulp power as a director, ensured that Park Row would emerge from a festival filled with delights and landmarks from the past as perhaps that festival’s most urgent ambassador to the future. On the same Saturday night as Michelle Wolf’s controversial appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where she was roundly criticized by multiple members of the D.C. press for speaking truth to power in a manner completely unfamiliar to them, I’m exceedingly glad that the director’s wife, Christa Fuller, was in the TCMFF auditorium to see for herself just how well the movie was received by modern eyes and ears, how vital its undercurrent of journalistic vigilance remains.
Of course, one of the primary benefits of casting a net as wide as “Powerful Words” is that whether it’s designated in the program or not, the entire festival, for those who choose to make the acknowledgement and frame it as such, could become a celebration not only of the writer’s craft, but of their art as well. Under such circumstances, who could resist receiving the snappy, naturally vibrant, and expressive composition of the choice words, thoughts, ideas, and commentary given to some of the most fascinating actors in cinema history and our collective lexicon of memory? Movies like His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Right Stuff, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Ox-bow Incident, The Sea Wolf, and Stage Door tend to shine even brighter on screen with a little prompting to pay extra-close attention not just to the stars, but to the craftsmen fine-tuning and the craft of putting such suggestive, fine-tuned words into the stars’ mouths.
Even so, one of the festival’s genuine, if lower-key highlights, which lent focus to its literary origins as well as to its filmmakers, was Intruder in the Dust, an unexpected masterpiece—certainly unexpected by me—directed by Clarence Brown. The film is a neorealist-influenced adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel from the previous year, about a dominant and unquestioned white (Southern) social structure and mob psychology in the face of a murder, apparently perpetrated by a black man, who refuses to give away his dignity even in the face of his own imminent and unjustified death.
The Friday-morning screening was contextualized and introduced by author and historian Donald Bogle (Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films) and his guest, Claude Jarman Jr., the film’s lead, who also starred in Brown’s The Yearling two years earlier. According to Bogle, Brown and screenwriter Ben Maddow drew extensively upon Faulkner’s input, leading the great man of American letters to concede that Intruder in the Dust was indeed “a pretty good movie.” With all due respect, it’s considerably more than that and deserves a much higher profile in film history than it currently occupies. I certainly think my own first exposure to it here was as profound a revelation as I’ve ever had at TCMFF. (If you can get your hands on a copy, read Pauline Kael’s typically well-considered assessment of the film, published in her second collection of notes and reviews, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in 1968.)
And speaking of contextualizing, for me one of the more fruitful aspects of considering the powerful movie words showcased at this year’s TCMFF came from thinking about the connections to spoken word which exist for some films not especially renowned for their language. Bard fans at TCMFF 2018 who demanded fealty (more or less) to the master’s verse had options: Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet were all featured over the weekend. However, the anchor selection of TCMFF’s “Shakespeare in the Dark” series, Akira Kurosawa’s enthralling, Noh-influenced take on Macbeth entitled Throne of Blood, retains the signposts of Shakespeare’s plotting but little, if any, of his literary poetry. (The familiar refrains of “Out, damned spot!” and “Is this a dagger I see before me?” go unheard here.) One of the many remarkable and unlikely characteristics of Kurosawa’s film is just how much of Shakespeare—the “plot,” yes, but also Shakespeare’s thematic attitudes toward destiny versus ambition—seems to be infused not just into the Japanese dialogue which replaces the familiar words, but also into its design, its almost imperceptible, near-ambient rhythms, the often somnolent, hallucinatory quality of which have little relation to the pulse-quickening grandeur of such films as Seven Samurai or Yojimbo.
Similarly, seeing the 4K digital restoration of Sergio Leone’s uncut Once Upon a Time in the West, rendered fully majestic on the giant screen at the TCL Chinese Theater, was to be reminded just how much Leone and co-screenwriter Sergio Donati—working from a story cooked up by Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci—were able to communicate without words, instead relying on the director’s alchemical conversance with images and awareness of how those images and landscapes resonate, down through history, of course, but also down through movie history.
The film is Leone’s great expressive, near-nonverbal summation of a grand tradition of mythology and, of course, the act of mythmaking itself. Those actors—Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, all of them—have the luxury of existing as monuments as grand as any in the valley named after them, which Leone of course uses to connect to the legacy of John Ford and others, but also as icons of flesh and blood, ones who subconsciously inform their own mythology even as they live it. Near the three-quarter mark of this overwhelming film, Harmonica (Bronson) observes of Frank (Fonda), a ruthless murderer and land grabber, that he’s not, like Ferzetti’s Morton, a businessman after all. “Just a man,” Frank intones by way of confirmation, and after a slow beat Harmonica fills in the blank: “An ancient race.” Three simple words to crystallize, with simultaneous import and the offhandedness of an undeniable truth, a key entryway into the way Leone imagines his world, and ours.
And finally, my closing-night selection, National Lampoon’s Animal House, is hardly a film anyone is likely to equate with even the lowliest achievements of Shakespeare, or Kurosawa, or Leone, though it probably is better than Leone’s first feature, The Colossus of Rhodes. (When Animal House was first released, it quickly became the most popular movie comedy of all time, based on ticket sales, and held that distinction well into the ‘80s, though it’s hard to believe anyone imagined it would ever be feted by any film festival with the word “classic” in its title. The word “Budweiser,” maybe.) Yet the members of the cast reunion assembled for this 40th-anniversary screening were quick to acknowledge the specific quality of the comic observations about college life within the Animal House screenplay, and that screenplay’s journey from its first, forbiddingly raunchy incarnation to its final form, held dear by connoisseurs of outsider slob comedy everywhere.
There were also many choice observations offered by director John Landis, actors Bruce McGill, Tim Matheson, Mark Metcalf, and others about just how rooted the film’s appeal is in the quotable lines and situations concocted by the screenwriters: Second City alum Harold Ramis and National Lampoon veterans Doug Kenney and Chris Miller. For all the food fights, Jell-O slurping, and John Belushi’s dancing eyebrows, turns out maybe the words aren’t such futile and stupid gestures after all, even in the worst house on campus.
Once could say the same for TCMFF 2018, which honored its theme with the sort of vital programming that’s been a hallmark of the cable channel from which it originates. As I headed home, I realized the fatigue with which I started the weekend was gone, having been replaced by renewed hopes and a strong desire to see what TCMFF will have in store for its 10th year.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 26—29.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture
The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.
“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.
But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?
Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.
In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.
Will Win: Green Book
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed