I emerged out of the train station and onto the roiling snake pit of Hollywood Boulevard this past Thursday afternoon with a singularity of purpose that has served well those who have learned to safely navigate this peril-ridden stretch of tourism and other desperate forms of humanity. Among the mass of logy sidewalk gawkers, shaggily costumed superheroes, and barkers hawking coupons for bus tours and free drinks at comedy clubs, the guy in the Creamsicle-colored tuxedo and matching top hat didn’t even cause me to balk as he moved toward me on the sidewalk. He certainly didn’t seem out of place, even as his lanky, six-and-a-half-foot frame towered above the stumpier heights of most everyone else bobbling down the Walk of Fame. But as we passed each other, this orangey giant suddenly offered up a loud, impassioned plea to the crowd, for no readily apparent reason, which put me at attention: “Remember Bob Hope!” Wondering if a declaration of fond tribute for, say, Mickey Rooney would have been timelier, I moved right along. No matter. There could be no doubt, if there ever was any, that the 2014 edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, headquartered as always in the very heart of the mythological realm of Hollywood, was now officially under way, a gathering of film buffs vacationing from the real world among the icons and memories of movie-studio glory, where there would be no lack of warm remembrance for Hope or Rooney or any of a hundred other stars whose images and talents would be ceaselessly evoked and reminisced upon over the next four days.
This spring, the festival took the opportunity to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies itself, the cable channel that has risen from relatively humble beginnings to become a cultural force for marketing nostalgia, to be sure, but also for film preservation and restoration, as well as for fostering an appreciation for this prevalently black-and-white world in younger, newer generations of filmgoers for whom even vibrantly colored films of the classic Hollywood era often seem too arch and distant from The Way Things Are Now to be of much interest. Despite the many ways in which narrative movies from around the world have remained recognizably the same over decades of film history, a weekend within the cultural confines of the festival, now in its fifth year, goes a long way toward underlining just why the past generations of films seem like such irresistible catnip to some, impenetrable to others. The often more emphatic, stylized acting, the more patient approach to mise-en-scène and narrative structure, the frequent playfulness and coded layering of language, and sometimes the boiled-down, no-nonsense, information-packed momentum of the classic era’s B movies—these are all signals indicating the viewer’s emergence into a strange world, a foreign country where things really are done differently.
Of course, nostalgia is hard-wired into the very idea of a festival devoted to classic films, and the fact that TCMFF has become such a solid draw as a vacation destination for thousands of folks from all around the country and the world, young and old alike, speaks volumes about the success it’s enjoyed in translating the reverence of an older generation of film appreciation into more market-friendly terms. But the festival has never been exclusively about rose-colored glances backward, whether rendered in Technicolor or in luminous shades of silver and gray and deep, rich black. The official theme of this year’s festival was “Family in the Movies: The Ties That Bind,” an umbrella which covered a subdivision of films concerned with single motherhood, with the relationship between fathers and daughters and between sisters, with aging parents and with the dysfunction that often hobbles and even destroys the stability of the family, however it’s defined—all concerns that touch modern audiences as deeply now as they ever did.
Of course, in the cool shade of the family tree as constructed by the festival’s programmers, plenty of familiar themes and situations were inevitably and expectedly explored over a wide range of movies like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Bachelor Mother (1939), Best Boy (1979), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), Eraserhead (1977), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Her Sister’s Secret (1946), I Remember Mama (1948), The Innocents (1961), Stella Dallas (1937), and even What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But within the group of films I chose to see, using no guiding principle other than favoring the rare or unknown, or even just the opportunity to see old favorites in the best possible restored light, strange juxtapositions and connections often sparked and made the festival come alive for me in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated.
And this year, after so many great successes in spotlighting a world of cinema that seems hopelessly quaint to some, but can still speak to modern audiences with surprising relevance and acuity, signs of the push-pull of commerce and art that have always been present within TCMFF were more apparent than ever. Among 2014 celebrations of the careers and enduring legacies of Quincy Jones, Alan Arkin, Maureen O’Hara, and Jerry Lewis, all of whom were present throughout the festival, and that of Charlton Heston, a two-film tribute to Richard Dreyfuss stood out maybe not like a sore thumb, but surely a problematic pinkie. The featured live interview with the star is precisely the sort of appealing attraction the festival has come to specialize in. However, and not that it’s necessarily relevant, the selected films, The Goodbye Girl, for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1977, and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), for which he was again nominated for the same award, aren’t this man’s ideas of the sort of “classics” that make for especially rewarding festival programming. For really interesting Q&A possibilities, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Inserts, The Big Fix, or even Whose Life Is It Anyway? would all have been fascinating (and attendance-challenging) choices, as perhaps another run at Close Encounters of the Third Kind would have as well. But lines for both The Goodbye Girl and Mr. Holland’s Opus seemed to confirm that there was definitely interest among the festival pass holders in honoring Dreyfuss with these movies.