2018 Film Essays

A Community in the Dark: Dispatches from the TCM Classic Film Festival

“We stand together and reinforce the extraordinary value of this art form. And by ‘we,’ I mean all of us who love cinema and who learn about it as we watch and re-watch these precious films.” — Martin Scorsese

On April 25, 2018, glasses were raised in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Ballroom in honor of cinema, of cineastes and the film festival they call home: the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF).

“May the ninth be divine,” one programmer said, saluting the crowd. “Hear, hear!” came the response as media mingled with the hosts and programming staff of TCM. How many cable channels can create this level of devotion and excitement? Then again, how many cable channels are like TCM? And since 2010, a cable channel unlike any other has beckoned devotees to Hollywood every spring for a film festival unlike any other. Over 80 films are screened across seven venues, each with a special introduction and many with a Q&A from those who had a hand or two in the picture. The rooms are dark, the screens luminescent; the discoveries are many, and the conversations are even better. These aren’t just your average moviegoers; they are, as Scorsese calls them, popular historians — those who are “spreading the word to invite more people in and enlarge the culture. And to share.”

(Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for TCM)

“And nobody — nobody — has done more to keep that cultural heritage of classic films alive and thriving than our inaugural recipient, Martin Scorsese,” TCMFF master of ceremonies Ben Mankiewicz told a packed house at this year’s opening night gala.

The award given to Scorsese bears the name of another synonymous with cinema: Robert Osborne. Like Scorsese, Osborne’s passion for cinema was palpable. His career began as a contract actor for Lucille Ball’s Desilu Studios before he turned his attention to journalism, primarily for The Hollywood Reporter. Osborne penned 50 Golden Years of Oscars in 1978 — with the most recent incarnation, 85 Years of the Oscars, published in 2013 — and went on to host movie programs on various TV channels. Then, on April 14, 1994, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) network launched with Osborne as the primetime host. Ever since, movie lovers have always had a home.

Few have devoted their lives so passionately to the cinema and the cinematic culture as did Osborne. And from his first introduction on TCM, Gone With the Wind, to his death in 2017, Osborne took the movies seriously and encouraged others to do the same.

“He was reassuring, dignified, intelligent; he knew every side of movie history,” Scorsese said in his acceptance speech. “For me, he was more than a host; he took on a role of a popular historian: the people who lovingly restore all the lore, all the treasures and recite it to anyone who expresses even a little bit of interest in it.”

Taking that cue, Scorsese went on to discuss the work that his organization, The Film Foundation, has done, including restoring and preserving more than 800 films.

“The most important thing about this foundation was that it raised the level of consciousness of those in control of the studios,” Scorsese said. “It’s beyond who owns the film; it’s about our cultural heritage.”

But, as Scorsese pointed out, that cultural heritage is “always under threat, and the threat keeps changing.”

“There’s the devaluation of cinema itself,” Scorsese said. “It can all be summed up with the word that’s being used now: content. All the images are lumped together. You’ve got an Allan Dwan picture, you’ve got a TV episode, newsreels, how-to-video, you’ve got a Super Bowl commercial, you’ve got Lawrence of Arabia, and they’re all the same… the great 20th-century art form, the American art form, is reduced to content.”

“So, how do we counter that?” Scorsese continued. “Go. See things. Take people with you. Take young people with you. Because when you do this, when you show up, when you buy the tickets, it really makes an impact on the people who own the films and it may motivate them to treat cinema with the care and respect deserving of the great art form that it is. So, no complacency; nobody else is going to do it for us. And it could all go away. Ultimately, it’s up to us, the ones who love cinema: you and me.”

And with that, the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival started with a bang.

(Photo: TCM)

Following Scorsese’s speech, Mankiewicz invited Mel Brooks to the stage to introduce the night’s film: The Producers, celebrating its 50thanniversary. As evident by the chairs on stage, Brooks was present for the usual TCMFF pre-screening Q&A, but whatever plan Mankiewicz had in mind quickly went out the window as Brooks neither took a seat nor a breath, working the stage like a carnival baker scrambling for quarters.

Even at 91, Brooks can tell a story with the best of them, recalling tales about casting Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Dustin Hoffman, almost, for the part of Franz Liebkind (the role went, gloriously, to Kenneth Mars after Hoffman was cast in The Graduate). Mankiewicz also reminded the audience that Brooks’ one and only Oscar came for penning The Producers’ script, launching him into a story: after Brooks won the award, he called Stanley Kubrick and apologized that his film beat out 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(Photo: Michael J. Casey)

Powerful Words: “The Page on Screen” was the governing theme of this year’s TCMFF, and as Noir Alley host Eddie Muller said, “It is overdue that TCM honor these writers.”

This proclamation was no more evident than at Muller’s introduction for The Set-Up, a 1949 noir about a washed-up boxer (Robert Ryan) who isn’t told he’s supposed to throw the fight.

Muller went on to explain that his father, a boxing journalist, once wrote alongside Art Cohn, the sportswriter who turned Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem, The Set-Up, into the taut and masterfully observant 72-minute film. Though March’s poem follows the racial discrimination of a black boxer denied a chance at the middleweight crown, Cohn changed the race of the character at the behest of studio boss Howard Hughes. Muller took this opportunity to reclaim the true nature of the poem and welcomed Malcolm Mays to the stage, where the L.A.-based actor, musician and filmmaker provided a recitation of the poem with as much urgency and texture as the film itself.

(Photo: TCM)

Muller’s invitation to Mays provided more than a simple nod to the film’s origins and changes; it provided context to the work — the type of context that makes the TCMFF much more than a collection of great movies. These introductions, along with the scores of Q&As taking place, enrich and enlighten the viewing experience. But that context wasn’t simply reserved for the writers; many technicians and artisans present were also welcomed into the spotlight.

At the “An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women in Animation” panel, author Mindy Johnson walked the audience through the history of American animation, specifically focusing on the contributions women have made in the field. Sadly, these contributions are often overlooked (primarily the ink and paint department of the Walt Disney Studios ) in favor of their male counterparts — mostly the animators that moviegoers still associate with those iconic characters.

Following Johnson’s comprehensive presentation, she invited Kathy Zielinski, Jane Baer, Tina Price, Lorna Cook, Brenda Chapman, Gretchen Albrecht, Amy Smeed and Bonnie Arnold to the stage where each one spoke briefly about their career. Also present was Ruthie Tompson, who began her career at Disney by working in the ink and paint department on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Tompson remained at Disney until her retirement in 1975; later this July, she will turn 108.

(Photo: Michael J. Casey)

Bringing together Scorsese’s remarks, Mays’ performance and Johnson’s presentation, one begins to see what it is that TCMFF provides, and why so many — 28,000 according to last year’s numbers — flock to the festival: community.

During this year’s Meet TCM panel, where festival-goers are encouraged to ask TCM executives and programmers what’s on their mind, one woman asked if TCM created an audience of classic movie lovers or found one. Senior programming director Charles Tabesh thinks both are true, pointing out that while the channel may have found an audience, it — along with the festival and their streaming service, FilmStruck — is helping to create a new generation of cineastes and “people who really care.” The films are already there, TCM merely curates what’s available and adds context. But what makes everything run is the community — they are the ones who participate, support and ultimately protect these works of art.

Which brings me back to Scorsese’s opening night remarks and the notion that the true champions of cinema, the Robert Osbornes of the world, don’t hold anyone out — they invite everyone in.

“Some make you feel like you are outside the gates of Xanadu, in Citizen Kane,” Scorsese said with a chuckle. “You hear Bernard Herrmann’s music, and you see the sign, ‘No Trespassing’ — it’s a matter of expertise, it’s over your head and that sort of thing.

“And then there are the others that just look at [classic movies] ironically or nostalgically. But irony and nostalgia aren’t enough.”

What matters is curiosity; the desire to know more about the history of the art form, the people who made it and the conditions under which they worked. In this regard, a 1954 3D genre picture (say, The Creature From the Black Lagoon) carries the same significance as a low-budget independent that begat a new horror genre (The Night of the Living Dead), or a tale of a minor league catcher on his way out and a pitcher on his way up (Bull Durham). Or an Italian movie about how the movies remember the American West (Once Upon a Time in the West). Or a silly movie where girls in giant pretzel outfits parade around singing “Springtime for Hitler” (The Producers). All belong to the same cinematic community, the one that beckons the faithful back to Hollywood each spring for the TCM Classic Film Fest. There, all those beautiful people in the dark sit together searching for what Scorsese describes as “that common image, that common idea in time and in motion, shot by shot.”

Michael J. Casey (@michaeljcinema) covers cinema and beer for Boulder Weekly with bylines at HopCulture.com, 5280.com and TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog. He lives in Colorado with his wife and cat.

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