Like several of its previous incarnations, year seven of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which concluded this past Sunday in the grimy, glittery heart of Hollywood, was organized around an overriding theme. But unlike such past umbrella constructs as “Family in the Movies: The Ties That Bind,” “Hollywood Style,” and “History According to Hollywood,” this year’s official theme, “Moving Pictures,” was one that was perhaps less precisely defined.
According to the official press release, TCMFF 2016 would be dedicated to exploring films “that bring us to tears, rouse us to action, inspire us, even project us to a higher plane…the big-time emotions of big screen stories, from coming-of-age pictures to terminal tearjerkers, from powerful sports dramas we feel in our bones to religious epics that elevate our spirits.” By the time the final schedule had been announced, there was even a sentimental subdivision of films centered on animals—Lassie, Come Home, Bambi, and Old Yeller among them. Of course, almost every film, whether we respond to it with warm feelings or revulsion, “moves” us in some way, emotionally or intellectually, sometimes even physically, so it seems a forgivable response if, going in, TCMFF’s announced theme seemed too broad to inspire much in the way of great expectations for an above-and-beyond level of curation.
Even so, with my festival experience well under way, the kernel of a richer TCMFF 2016 theme crystallized for me from a selection which could be classified as movie nostalgia of a different wrinkle. Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, from 1964, played in a prime-time slot on Saturday night, prefaced by an interview with the film’s still-radiant star, Anna Karina, conducted by the clearly infatuated (and somewhat ill-prepared) TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. The beautiful Rialto Pictures restoration we saw quickly illuminated Mankiewicz’s infatuation, and ours, and Godard’s—revealing this buoyant, defiant, vividly sexy film in a big, bright, most undeniable fashion. Band of Outsiders looked smashing, coursing as it does with movie love, music love, and, of course, Paris love; it’s as much a starry-eyed promotional travelogue for the City of Lights as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is for Monument Valley.
Early on, our heroes sit for an English class in which their teacher, readying them for a lesson in Romeo and Juliet, emphasizes T.S. Eliot’s observation that “Everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional” as a way of softening her students’ resistance to material that might seem musty or forbidding in any language. The quote suggests not only the teacher’s belief that new texts can reorganize tradition, but also ways in which classic texts can achieve modernity, not just through themselves, but through constant recontextualization over time. Always one to recognize a movie convention, Godard uses the classroom scene to establish his modus operandi in much the same way as hundreds of films before and since have done. The teacher even spells it out on the chalkboard: to be classic is to be modern.
As Band of Outsiders washed over me, I thought about the apparent swelling of interest in TCMFF among young people, who were noticeably out in droves at this year’s festival and coming close to matching in numbers the relatively elderly population of movie fans who might be expected to most ardently embrace the festival’s riches. If Nora Fiore, a.k.a. Nitrate Diva, a 25-year-old blogger and TCMFF enthusiast is to be believed, it’s possible that classic movie fare of the ’30s and ’40s may resonate with millennials more than anyone may have previously understood. “I think my generation responds to the subversive sides of old Hollywood, especially pre-Code films and film noir,” Fiore said in a recent L.A. Weekly piece, “Why Young People Go Nuts for the TCM Classic Film Festival,” adding that “studio-era films were often thrilling, shocking and, in some ways, ahead of where Hollywood is now.”
Even if young fans like Fiore are more niche than norm (most young people I know still have an allergic aversion to black-and-white film stock and anything that predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe), it’s hard not to take some degree of encouragement from seeing so many millennials wallowing in so much cinematic history, even if it’s primarily Hollywood-oriented. In fact, what ended up being most exciting for me at TCMFF 2016 was the realization of just how much modernity there was in that wallow, even if some of the more fascinating films in that light had to fight to be noticed over some of the more ostentatious attractions.
It’s hard to miss how movies like The Conversation (surveillance-inspired paranoia), All the President’s Men (surveillance-inspired political corruption), Ace in the Hole, and Network (prescient projections of infotainment journalism and reality TV), The Manchurian Candidate (the specter of political assassination), and A Face in the Crowd (election-year megalomania) might resonate for young and old, even if grumblings about the downbeat nature of many of the featured films could be heard in just about every queue I occupied. Yet despite those grumblings, the biggest spontaneous draw of the festival turned out to be Friday night’s screening of The Manchurian Candidate, which was attended by the film’s most memorable embodiment of evil, Angela Lansbury; twice the number that could be held by the gigantic Chinese Theater auditorium tried to get tickets and over 900 eager fans were turned away. (The effect of The Manchurian Candidate’s popularity was felt in every other auditorium Friday night; the frothy, second-tier 1955 musical My Sister Eileen, featuring Bob Fosse’s fleet, insinuating choreography and the chance to see Janet Leigh singing and dancing right into the TCM wheelhouse, played in front of only about 100 pairs of eyes, mine included.)
Otherwise, the inclusion of films like Rocky and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped fill the official “Moving Pictures” thematic bill, I suppose, as well as the criteria for what makes a “classic,” and they helped ensure full houses and enthusiastic photo ops for obviously happy audiences too. More selections like Cinema Paradiso, The Way We Were, and Children of a Lesser God, however, seemed to be pushing that “classic” definition in a less-defensible direction, an observation confirmed by some of those ’30s-obsessed youngsters who were the focus of the L.A. Weekly article. At least Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, whether or not it’s a true classic, deals exclusively in the iconography of classic ’40s film noir, so it was hard to begrudge Carl Reiner’s hilarious, genuinely odd comedy a place at the table.
As in years past, for me the true glory of TCMFF 2016 was to be found in the margins, away from heavy-rotation stalwarts like It’s a Wonderful Life or The King and I and down the rabbit hole where a multitude of unfamiliar treasures lay waiting to be discovered, to reveal a set of surprisingly modern sensibilities beneath their vintage veneer. Festival programmer and all-around good-luck charm Millie De Chirico, who introduced many of the films I attended, such as Ida Lupino’s 1949 directorial debut, Never Fear, and William Dieterle’s delirious political chamber drama/romance/post-Frankenstein sci-fi oddity Six Hours to Live from 1932, even began referring to those of us who repeatedly frequent the tiny auditorium where these lower-wattage screenings often take place as members of the Theater Four Club, and there may be no higher TCMFF honor.
It was in Theater Four where the threads of my own “classique = moderne” theme began to come into focus, made clear by the ways in which the crop of classic films I chose seemed so integrated, in style, form, and content, to current social and political issues, as well as aesthetic ones. There were moments when these films, which might seem to the casual observer museum pieces closed down by history, seemed to reach out and connect up with works they preceded on the timeline sometimes by decades, and without warning. And those sometimes startling connections began revealing themselves with my very first festival choice.