Category Archives: 30Hz Cinema

The 30Hz movie-related ramblings

First Watch Club: May 2018

I don’t normally talk about theatrical releases in this space, but I feel forced to mention that I saw Solo: A Star Wars Story twice in the theater. In a fair world, it would totally have a spot on this list. I’m already calling it violently underappreciated and if you want to have some actual fun in the movie theater in 2018, you should go. You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan. In fact, if you don’t have any preconceptions about what this movie is *supposed* to be, you might even enjoy it even more. Ehrenreich and Glover give referential performances, but they each inject much of their own personality, and I’m excited to see how their frenemance blossoms in the planned future Solo films.

In the absence of Solo, what you will notice about my May 2018 First Watch list is that it features three musicals. Spoiler alert: the next Cinema Shame podcast will feature a conversation with Jessica Pickens about classic Hollywood musicals. I watched a lot of musicals last month. It just so happened that three of them made the list alongside another future Cinema Shame podcast spoiler.

First-Watch Cinema Club: May 2018

#5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954)

seven brides for seven brothersKnowingly(?) cringe-y sexual politics scattered throughout a colorful, imaginative 19th century wife-grabbing musical romcom. Elaborate dance choreography and inventive depth of staging make this a memorable classic Cinemascope musical. Still — hard not to question how the movie played the lady stealing with such a straight face.

Jane Powell carves her own slice of female empowerment in a movie about “just needing a man.” It’s a wonderful performance. I also can’t stress enough how this wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea, but there’s something totally charming about the relationship between Keel’s woodsman and Powell’s love-struck cook.

This movie proved to me that Stanley Donen really was a wizard. Now’s the perfect time to pick this one up for a first time viewing since Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was just released on a Warner Archive Blu-ray and it’s a wide margin better than the DVD.

#4. Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

footlight paradeBusby Berkeley out the wazoo. Elaborate, mass kaleidoscopic choreography scattered throughout a passable showbiz tale that provides the venue for Jimmy Cagney to do some hoofing in a not-so-vaguely racist grand finale.

I oversimplify.

The end of this film is a 40-minute four-course feast for the eyes and ears. Joan Blondell and Cagney needed 200 movies together. They’re positively combustive on the same screen. Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee round out the impressive cast.

I dare you to watch this and not feel conflicted about having “Shanghai Lil” being stuck in your head for three days.

Footlight Parade is available on a 4-movie Busby Berkeley TCM DVD Collection. 

#3. Fantomas (Louis Feuillade, 1913-1914)

fantomasRather than treat the Fantomas films as separate entries, I’ll tackle them all individually, but as one continuous serial, as it was intended.

Fantomas I: In the Shadow of the Guillotine

Stoic, early silent narrative camera can’t quite keep up with Feuillade’s ideal pacing and style. It’s something akin to the silent film equivalent of the cart before the horse. The narrative techniques have yet to develop the necessary language to match Feuillade’s ambition.

Solid opening Fantomas entry suggests room to grow as Feuillade pushes the language of narrative film in interesting ways. Excellent introduction and establishment of Fantomas as a legendary evil mastermind.

Fantomas II: Juve Against Fantomas

Fantomas #2 gives us a far stronger inspector/nemesis relationship by foregrounding Inspector Juve rather than Fantomas’ machinations. More engaging start to finish with a better cinematic pace. Narrative polish that feels way ahead of its time for 1913. Feuillade’s made huge strides between these first two episodes.

Fantomas III: The Dead Man Who Killed

This one gets dark. Fantomas wears skin gloves made from a dead man to leave false fingerprints and truly becomes the twisted evil worthy of a serial detective story. Feuillade weaves multiple narratives and establishes a larger Fantomas network of villainy. Plus a twist ending. Top notch serialized silent entertainment.

Fantomas IV: Fantomas Against Fantomas

In the realm of the image, this fourth Fantomas left a potent legacy. The bloodstained wall where Fantomas entombed one of his victims must have left scars on unsuspecting 1914 viewers. Very Edgar Allan Poe. Dual pit traps abruptly ends the episode with a haunting final message.

Ultimately falls short of the narrative admiration earned in Part III, but still incredibly advanced and layered. Feuillade has proven himself influential in nearly every genre that would form during these early days of cinema. He is horror, suspense, spy and police procedural. They all owe something to Fantomas.

Fantomas V: The False Magistrate

I don’t even know what to think about early silent cinema anymore. I once believed that the pre-1920’s era consisted largely of whimsical vignettes and static-shot mugging as filmmakers worked on ironing out the techniques that would guide narrative cinema through the 1920’s.

It’s generally not too difficult to keep up with a silent film what with our brains already trained to navigate rapid editing and layered narrative. The nature of the production itself — the title cards and deliberate miming — gives the viewer ample time to process the on-screen events. Don’t get me wrong, I adore great silent cinema, but misdirection was rarely a strength. The False Magistrate weaves such a complex tale of crossing and double-crossing and red herrings that I had to rewatch multiple segments because I couldn’t believe what Feuillade accomplished in a film from 1914. (For the record, some of them didn’t quite add up… specifically as the motivations of our heroes are concerned.) Still, I’ve never seen anything like it from this era.

Some of the Fantomas V becomes bogged down in text and letter reading — and much of that became necessary to detail Fantomas’ complex web of lies and intrigue with a number of segments missing from the print. Ultimately that makes this film hard to rate as a standalone entry. I’ll tell you one thing though — you’ve never seen anything like what Feuillade does to the man stuck in the bell tower.

The final confrontation doesn’t disappoint, and the aftermath is a solid kick in teeth, re-establishing Fantomas as the greatest criminal mastermind of all time. Essential viewing for film fans interested in the roots of all narrative filmmaking.

Fantomas is available on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray. 

#2. Broadway Melody 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940)

Astaire’s good, you know, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Eleanor Powell. I didn’t miss Ginger when the two of them appeared on-screen together. She seems to bring more elegance out Fred, whereas Ginger harnesses some playfulness.

My first exposure to Eleanor Powell, somehow. I discussed how she mesmerized me in the Cinema Shame podcast, but maybe it bears repeating. She’s a revelation and I wish the Astaire/Powell coupling had born more fruits, but Broadway Melody of 1940 offers a tantalizing morsel of what could have been a long and fruitful partnership. Though the two of them might have danced the other into the ground due to their perfectionist natures.

Broadway Melody of 1940 appears on Warner Archive DVD.

#1. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)

As a huge fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s French crime films and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, it’s inconceivable that I’d not bothered to watch Rififi until Kerry Fristoe (@echidnabot)  swapped me some Cinema Shame during the May prompt.

Dassin escaped his Hollywood blacklist by traveling to France to make films where sane individuals didn’t care about such things as attending meetings related to communist activity in the 1930s. Rififi serves as a potent response to the unfortunate hand he’d been dealt. The film’s grim, disillusioned tone feels angry, perhaps even fatalist. What it does so well, however, is establish characters of both likable and unlikeable qualities and eventually depict individual revelations of their true selves. Charm and charisma turn into cowardice and malice. A face-value cretin becomes the film’s lone representation of altruism.

The legendary 32-minute silent heist scene has the power to change cinematic frames of reference. There’s a reason that Rififi has been billed as the greatest bank heist in cinema history. Dassin’s girtty city noir lived up to the hype.

Rififi is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.

 

First Watch Club: April 2018

I’m behind schedule. Ideally this post drops the first week of the new month. The TCM Film Festival happened, and I had to write some features to put food on the table. And if I’m being honest I still have some of that writing to do but I’m avoiding it so I’m on here writing posts for free.  You know how it goes.

Speaking of TCMFF, this month’s First Watch Club will not include ANY films I viewed for the first time at the festival. (I already covered them here.) Instead, these five picks are going to come straight from the garden variety home viewings from April of 2018. The benefit here is that you’ll get another edition of First Watch Club in only a couple of weeks. Huzzah!

First-Watch Cinema Club: April 2018

#5. Remote Control (Jeff Lieberman, 1988)

remote controlIf you’re a child of the video store-era, Remote Control will carry extra resonance. This is Lieberman’s indie-film commentary on 1950’s sci-fi by way of 1980’s kitsch. Intriguing Videodrome/TerrorVision ideas tossed about without a lot of cohesion.

Kevin Dillon’s an interesting actor but I’ve always found him best as part of an ensemble.  Deborah Goodrich might be the best thing going for for the film — which is generally true for just about any film in which Deborah Goodrich appears. Jennifer Tilly gets offed in the first 15, which is a mistake. Obviously. Because if you cast a Tilly — any Tilly — you need to keep that Tilly around for the duration.

Nostalgia for 1988 rental shops will ferry this into the hearts of a specific generation, but others might be nonplussed. Of course, I belong to this particular generation so Remote Control scratched a whole bunch of those 80’s itches.

Remote Control is available on Blu-ray directly from Jeff Lieberman.

#4. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

asphalt jungleThere are certain films, based on the time they were made and the nature of the narrative, in which our anti-heroes cannot and will not survive. We know this from the beginning based on extratextual information. Yet, still we cling to the hope that just this once our good-natured bad guy (Sterling Hayden in this instance) gets away, undermining the system, shaking the oppressive “bad guys must be punished” production code stipulation to the core.

Soderbergh feels Asphalt Jungle in his loins when he directs a heist movie. It feels as if the film has infiltrated and transformed his DNA. He recognizes how much the audience wants that catharsis, despite the good-people-doing-bad-things conflict of interest, and because of the era in which he directs, he’s allowed to make that movie. Huston must punish his evildoers in the name of righteousness. So it goes.

I can love Asphalt Jungle and I can still wish for hope.

The Asphalt Jungle is available on Criterion Blu-ray. 

#3. The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926)

black pirateFairbanks doing what he does best.

The most impressive part about The Black Pirate is that these pirates are true, merciless big screen monsters. The brutality is always just off-screen, but the aftermath leaves no doubt as to what just occurred. This sets the film apart from most of these early swashbucklers, hell, really any swashbuckler.

Take the following scene for example: a captured privateer swallows a ring to keep it from the pirate captain — the captain has his musclebound heavy “fetch” it by slicing the man open. The heavy returns covered in 2-strip Technicolor red and cleaning his knife.

I’m coming around to this notion that this Fairbanks fellow was a true entertainer. I’m just a century behind the curve. After also recently viewing The Mark of Zorro (1920) for the first time, the big Fairbanks picture is finally falling into place.

The Black Pirate was released on a now out of print (and crazy expensive) Kino Blu-ray but can still be purchased on Kino DVD. 

#2. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)

Haunting melodrama, supernatural romance — Wuthering Heights turned out to be much more accessible and entertaining than the novel that I can’t seem to finish.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon make you feel their pain in your bones. The house becomes an omniscient third party to their labored relationship. The set design and cinematography set the mood, everything else falls into place around it. Olivier’s furrowed brow and Oberon’s eyes.

Thanks to Kristen Lopez for adding this to my original Cinema Shame list. Without her recommendation I likely never would have made the effort — I mean have you read (or tried to read) the book?

Wuthering Heights is available in HD on Amazon Prime Video. 

#1. California Typewriter (Doug Nichol, 2016)

california typewriter

Passion-filled documentary about the contemporary place of the typewriter and the struggle to keep the dream alive. This film resonated all over this typewriter believer.

I don’t often love a documentary. I’m fairly entertained and solidly informed. California Typewriter, however, moved me as a document to disappearing technology that has been deemed outmoded. I firmly believe that our lives would be richer if we still used typewriters on a daily basis.

I use a typewriter to compose first drafts of articles and stories for the same reasons that Tom Hanks, Sam Shepherd, and David McCullough discuss in this film. Shortly before viewing this film, I learned that all three of my known typewriter repairmen in Pittsburgh had retired within the past two years.

You don’t have to be a typewriter nut to appreciate the message in this film. You just need to be a human that’s lived long enough to see how Digital Age technology has shaped our lives, for better and for worse.

California Typewriter is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Once Upon a Time in the West: Cinema Shame

Cinema Shame: Once Upon a Time in the West

Scratching an entry off my 2018 Shame Statement that also qualifies for the April Shame Prompt.

Seeing as how the April prompt concerned movies screened at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood April 26th-29th, I had a distinct advantage of attending the festival. So any movie I hadn’t already seen fulfilled the requirement. This year I first-watched 10 movies at TCMFF, but it seems only logical that I grapple (finally) with Once Upon a Time in the West — a movie I’ve owned on both DVD and Blu-ray for at least 10 years, but never watched.

There’s nothing easy about committing to a 175-minute movie. I even considered missing out on the chance to see Once Upon a Time in the West at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Which is pure insanity.  I blame “festival brain” which clouds rational thought. I should love everything about this movie. I just needed to place my posterior in the seat. So I did, at 9:15 am on Sunday with a big bag of popcorn and my Ray-Bans obscuring the sleep deprivation in my eyes.

At Once Upon a Time in the West at 9:15am on 4 1/2 hours sleep and feeling hungover without any alcohol..

From the opening minutes on the IMAX screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre, the sweeping vistas and vintage Leone closeups made me feel like I was experiencing the most cinematic thing ever committed to film.

The film’s opening is a nearly wordless 15-minute sequence in which three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock) do nothing more than wait for the arrival of another character on a train platform in a remote frontier station. Before you express your disinterest, would you believe me if I told you it was my favorite 15 minutes of movie I’ve seen in recent memory?

John Sayles introduced Once Upon a Time in the West as one would ride a horse.

It is of course, for you Western fans, a reference to the opening of High Noon — where three malcontents similarly await a train’s arrival. John Sayles, in his introduction to our screening of Once Upon a Time in the West, described how Sergio Leone, Dario Argento an Bernardo Bertolucci cobbled the narrative out of bits and pieces of their favorite classic Westerns. In doing so, these three Italian auteurs may have made the final stand in the classic Western era. What more needed to be said after Once Upon a Time in the West?

The most remarkable aspect? In creating this tapestry, they’ve so masterfully woven the story and influences together that the viewer stops looking for the connective tissue and just basks in atmosphere and spectacle.

Leone reportedly wanted Once Upon a Time in the West to be a metatextual conclusion to the Dollars Trilogy. He’d wanted to cast Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the gunmen in this opening sequence. When Eastwood declined, Leone scrapped the notion and cast the veteran Western actors Elam, Strode and Mulock instead. Losing perhaps his connection to Dollars, but extending his reach further into the history of the genre, recalling films beyond his own.

Leone increases the tension through the use of sound (and the absence of) and anticipation. A squeaky door. A windmill in need of some oil. Ambient cooing of a bird in cage. Footsteps. Spurs on a wooden floor. The gunmen idle, awaiting that train that will carry their unknown target. Elam tracks a fly buzzing over his face. Strode stands beneath a drip and collects water in his hat. Mulock cracks his knuckles. Each action contributes to Leone’s isolated soundscape, meticulously crafted through post-production foley recording.

The audience brings their own expectations into the scene. The audience assumes that the men anticipate the arrival of Charles Bronson’s character, and the longer we wait the greater the anticipated payoff.

The train arrives just under 10 minutes into the film. The door to a freight car opens, causing Elam to flinch. An attendant tosses out a single box and then the train begins to depart.

The gunmen gather on the craggy platform, facing away from the train. Finally we hear a new sound — the first hints of a Morricone score — a harmonica. The ne’er-do-wells pause. Elam’s expressive eyes rise in acknowledgment of the music.

A distant figure appears on the far side of the tracks as the train vacates the station. Perspective dwarfs the shadowy figure in the background, but the specter of Bronson — the on-screen persona and the legend built by 12 minutes of anticipation — looms large.

once upon a time in the west bronson

I won’t spoil it for you when I say that the hero survives the first scene of a 3-hour film. Bronson dispatches the gunmen — in a classic Leone showdown — and then the movie begins.

once upon a time in the west

If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I’m absolutely gushing. I could go on like this describing two or three more sequences from this film that similarly stir my cockles.

Once Upon a Time in the West depicts three conflicts that take place in and around the fictional town of Flagstone. There’s a financial tycoon Morton hires a cold-blooded blue-eyed assassin Frank (Henry Fonda) to eliminate the McBain family standing in the way of a potentially valuable piece of property — a narrative that’s become complicated by the arrival of a New Orleans prostitute (Claudia Cardinale) who claims to be McBain’s wife. Frank frames local bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the McBain family massacre.

henry fonda once upon a time in the west

Meanwhile, a mysterious outsider, the Bronson character (later dubbed Harmonica by Cheyenne) tracks Frank — with eyes on an uncertain vendetta to be paid. Harmonica and Cheyenne become unusual allies against Morton and perhaps reluctant defenders of McBain’s widow.

John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers, a film that’s also felt throughout Once Upon a Time in the West.

John Ford ectoplasm oozes all over this film — but we’re seeing John Ford through a disillusioned gaze. A look back at the old West filled with decay and lacking the proper delineation between hero and villain. There’s plenty of villain, but Leone dispatches the notion of a pure hero. Even the heroes in Once Upon a Time in the West are part scoundrel. They’ve taken on the role of hero because their interests align with the moral right as perceived by the audience.

Despite the 176-minute runtime, Once Upon a Time in the West never feels aimless. Leone allows the audience to dwell on the hardened faces of his characters just as he embraces the beauty and desolation of the natural landscape. Every frame feels pointed towards their inevitable fate — a fate that echoes that of the American old west and the Western genre. Assimilation or elimination by the progress brought about by industrialization and the spread of civilization.

In cinematic terms, the audience’s interest in the genre declined with the rise of the blockbuster. Galaxies far, far away opened up with the help of increasingly elaborate special effects.

The Western genre met a kind of end as the 1960’s came to a close. Once Upon a Time in the West represented a master’s final volley, the last word on the matter. In many ways the genre represented a uniquely American romanticism about the wide open spaces, a limitless potential — but also the dark underbelly that went along with it. A blank canvas for starkly moral fables about good and evil. After Once Upon a Time in the West, westerns began to more fully embrace the “anti-Western” trend that had been growing since the early 1950’s.

After the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the 1970’s saw a wave of Western Revisionism and uninhibited creative freedoms in films like Little Big Man, El Topo, McCabe & Mrs. Miller before the genre rode off into the sunset almost entirely at the start of the 80’s.

el topo (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy revisionist Western El Topo (1970)

If this is the end of the Western genre proper, I can’t imagine a more fitting conclusion. After Once Upon a Time in the West there really wasn’t much more to say. Or at the very least it feels that way.

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate
April Prompt: Once Upon a Time in the West

 

 

 

2018 TCM Film Festival Recap

2018 TCM Film Festival Recap: The Year I Cut Out Dozens of Kyra Zombie Heads and Drank Warm Chardonnay

Past recaps: 2015 / 2016 / 2017

Cinerama Dome 2018 TCM Film Festival
Hamlet skull gracing the enveloping screen at the Cinerama Dome before GRAND PRIX.

I tend to catalog my TCM Film Festival experiences by the music that sang me to sleep each evening as flickering images of movies danced in my head. This festival definitely had a piano jazz vibe going for it, so naturally I featured Bill Evans and Bud Powell in heavy rotation. I encourage you to play the following record while reading this recap so you can put yourself in the proper mood.

2018 felt like a whirlwind tour. Much more so than in past years, and I set the tone for the entire festival when I scheduled a recording of an episode of the Cinema Shame podcast with Raquel Stecher and Jessica Pickens on the afternoon of the first day.

I landed in Los Angeles about noon and made it over to my hotel a little after 2pm.  I checked my suitcase, tossed my computer and microphone into my backpack and rushed over for the recording.

Podcast recording managed (and mostly intelligible) but you can be the judge (hint: subscribe to Cinema Shame on iTunes or Stitcher), I headed back to the Loews, finally checked into my room and showered off the 5-hour flight. Without further adieu I joined the chaos on Hollywood Boulevard (once again forgetting to navigate the sections that had been roped off for the big red carpet event) to retrieve my festival badge from the Roosevelt Hotel.

The historic Roosevelt Hotel — the center of all TCM Film Festival happenings.

Seeing as how I had press credentials this year, I was able to snag a free cup of lukewarm carafe coffee and a bottle of Evian (oooh la la) from the press room along with my welcome back containing a big book and a bottle of TCM Chardonnay. With that extra tonnage added to my satchel, I wandered back downstairs to lazily mingle in the lobby.

Alas. ’twas not to be.

While in the lobby, I noticed the big social media board. Tweets and Instagrams tagged with #TCMFF find their way onto the board. I noticed three or four featured tweets mentioning people already lining up for Finishing School (1934) at 7:00pm. I checked the time. Only 4:15pm. Pre-code. Multiplex Theatre 4 Thunderdome in full effect. No rest for weary same-day travelers/podcasters.

I arrived at the Finishing School queue at around 4:45pm, after a quick stop in Baja Fresh for some sustenance. (My first and only burrito of the festival — a miracle in an of itself.) My festival had officially begun. By the time I found my seat, I regretted the lack of a power nap, but I at least had my burrito.

Commence conditioning.

TCM Film Festival

Each year I’ve written a “letter” about my TCMFF experience. It began as an email to friends and family while waiting for my delayed red eye in Los Angeles and it continued as a means to briefly describing my experience to anyone who cared to read it.

The Yearly TCMFF Letter

Dear So and Sos:

This year I attended my fourth Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. They’ve grown no less rewarding. Some festivals are better than others, but all of them have their own flavor and their own individual vibe. As much as the movies, it’s a time to congregate with friends. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to know so many like-minded movie fanatics during these last four years. In many ways, it feels like prime time for movie fans. Back home in our respective hamlets, we’re all “the movie people.” At TCMFF, I’m humbled by the knowledge of my fellow attendees. In certain respects it feels very much like a return to film school — just on a self-study program. 

I’m still pushing for a built-in cocktail hour so we can all hang out (and not at the expense of any particular movie). We all go for the movies, but we keep coming back for the camaraderie and conversation. 

As I’m ever grateful to my wife for purchasing that first pass for me as a Christmas present in 2015, I hope she shares some of my enthusiasm (and not just tolerance) as the reason I’m able to return to Hollywood every spring. Maybe one day I’ll convince her to come out with me. Maybe. For anyone looking to attend their first festival — be careful — that first taste is addicting.

And to my father-in-law, Andy, who could not attend this year’s festival — your company was very much missed. And I’m quite sure you would have really enjoyed TCM’s 2018 offerings. Hopefully you’ll make it back out in 2019. I’ll save you a seat. 

Until next year…. 

The “Bond_age_ Guy” will return in 2019.

2018 TCM Film Festival Recap and Vital Statistics

I stuck largely to my original TCMFF 2018 plan. I deviated on a couple of occasions due to unforeseen circumstances and timing issues. I also chose a more leisurely festival experience compared to prior years. I didn’t stalk any celebrities this year (see 2016 and Gould, Elliott). I partook of some bloody undead cookies, got a Mark Hamill “like” on my Tweet about tracking down his brand new star on the Walk of Fame, and received a tour of the projection room at The Egyptian. (Thanks for the introductions, Deborah!)

2018 TCM Film Festival Final Tally: 14.2

*denotes never before seen

Finishing School (1934)* – 35mm
Throne of Blood (1957) – 35mm
Grand Prix (1966)* – Cinerama
The Set-Up (1949)* – 35mm
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)* – 35mm
The Exorcist (1973)
The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)*
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)*
Bullitt (1968)
Girls About Town (1931)* – 35mm
Show People (1928)* – 35mm
Scarface (1932)*
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)*
(part of) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – 35mm

Had I not chosen the earlier non-stop flight home, I would have theoretically also seen:

This Thing Called Love (1940)* or Hamlet (1948)
A Star is Born (1937)* or The Phantom of the Opera (1925)*

Unnecessary Vitals:

1,438 minutes of movie
10 first time watches
9 B&W, 5.2 color
By decade – 1920’s: 1 / 1930’s: 3 / 1940’s: 2 / 1950’s: 1 / 1960’s: 5 / 1970’s: 2.2
6.2 movies on film, 8 movies on DCP or digital
3 bags of popcorn

Most Memorable Festival Experience:

grand prix tcm film festival 2018

Grand Prix (1966) at the Cinerama Dome

Like 2016, the Cinerama Dome again boasts my favorite TCMFF event. There’s something about the venue. Maybe it’s the spectacle. Maybe it’s the Intermissions. Maybe it’s just the fact that you’re watching a movie with hundreds of people who blocked off an entire morning for a certain kind of experience, forsaking multiple movies for a little jaunt over to the Cinerama Dome.

That said, I’ve become so fond of the Cinerama Dome, I made it my iPhone lock screen.

cinerama dome iphone wallpaper

Frankenheimer’s Formula One racing scenes enveloped the audience with boneshaking rumble and sickness-inducing car-mounted camerawork. This was an experience that just could not be duplicated elsewhere. I’m glad I made the last minute schedule adjustment, bypassing Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), two films I can watch at home without much lost in translation.

Grand Prix is available on Blu-ray from Warner Brothers.

Favorite New to Me Movies:

#1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once upon a time in the west tcm film festival 2018

If we’re talking scope and scale, I don’t know of a bigger Western than Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. Project that onto the IMAX screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre and you’ve got an experience you won’t see anywhere else. I’ve had Once Upon a Time in the West on my Cinema Shame list for years now. I’ve never been so happy I waited (unintentionally) to see a movie for the first time.

Imagine Bronson close-up coming at you in IMAX, four stories large.

charles bronson once upon a time in the west tcm film festival 2018

Once Upon a Time in the West is available on Blu-ray from Paramount.

#2. Scarface (1932)

scarface 2018 tcm film festival

The winner of The Big Lebowski and Jeff Bridges vs. Scarface and John Carpenter battle. But not necessarily by choice. Due to a fire alarm incident in my prior film (Show People at the Egyptian), I exited the theater 15 minutes late — which made it impossible to make it over to the TCL Chinese Theatre in five minutes for the start of The Big Lebowski. Howard Hawks’ gangster classic began 15 minutes later and thus my decision was made. John Carpenter strode into the venue like a rock star, spoke about the film’s “X” motif, made a feisty comment about Ann Dvorak, and then the Master of Horror exited stage right. 3 minutes and 20 seconds of John Carpenter.

John Carpenter 2018 TCM Film Festival
John Carpenter introduces Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) at the 2018 TCM Film Festival.

Scarface is available on DVD from Universal. It is also available as a bonus feature on the De Palma Scarface (1983) Blu-ray.

#3. Show People (1928)

show people 2018 tcm film festival

And speaking of the movie that made me late for seeing the Dude… Show People proved to be a delight that made the delay worthwhile. I’m not particularly well versed in Marion Davies. I’ve seen more movies featuring characters based on Marion Davies than I’ve seen Marion Davies movies. King Vidor’s Show People showcased Davies’ uncanny comedic abilities — one would have thought that the “ponce-y” face that became an overworked gag through the latter half of this film would have grown stale. It should have grown stale, but Marion Davies does so much with such a little tic that it always landed. More Marion Davies silent comedies, please.

Show People comes to us on DVD from the fine people at Warner Archive.

4. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident 2018 TCM Film Festival

The best part of waking up is a lynching in your cup. And all this time you thought it might have been Folgers. (For the record, Folgers is a reason not to get out of bed in the morning.) Gripping dissection of the mob-mentality justice system and how the rule of law, innocence until proven guilty, provides the foundation for a civilized society. Wellman’s stoic drama hammers its point home with a gut-punch ending. Peter Fonda has rarely been better than he is here. The way he straddles moral conscience with minor scoundrel distills the best of his on-screen persona. A beautifully shot film with an equally astute sense of tone.

Kino Lorber has released The Ox-Bow Incident on Blu-ray.

#5. The Set-Up (1949)

the set-up 2018 tcm film festival

Tarantino must have assimilated this film into the DNA of Pulp Fiction’s boxing segment — the difference is that Bruce Willis takes the money and refuses to go down. The look, the chiaroscuro, the narrative. Robert Ryan gives a desperate performance as the boxer who doesn’t know he was supposed to throw a fight. Wise keeps the film clipping along in real time, and Audrey Totter makes something of a character that could have been a throwaway bit of feminine angst. Other than an unintentionally funny line from Totter at the end (not her fault) The Set-Up maintains consistent tension from start to finish, and Wise does a tremendous job of showcasing the men who box rather than just a boxing match.

The Set-Up is available on DVD from Turner Home Entertainment.

Most Forgettable Movie:

 

finishing school 2018 tcm film festival

Finishing School (1934)

Not that it was a poor film, just that a year from now this is probably the movie that’ll disappear from my memory. A pretty rote pre-code affair with a nice central performance from Francis Dee. Beulah Bondi’s headmistress villain (as scripted) might be a little over the top. Ginger Rogers slides into the background too early. I definitely liked this more than the midnight show of The World’s Greatest Sinner, but being perfectly “fine” becomes this film’s major bugaboo.

2018 TCM Film Festival Memorable Moments

Night of the Living Dead @ midnight

Sunday morning Once Upon a Time in the West @ TCL Chinese Theatre

Tour of the Egyptian projection room

Show People @ the Egyptian (with Leonard Maltin)

Kellee Pratt perspective points out Leonard Maltin and his wife sitting behind us before Show People.

The Exorcist with William Friedkin at the TCL Chinese Theatre

Friedkin prowled the stage for an hour before the film and his theatrics did not disappoint.

William Friedkin left Ben Mankiewicz verklempt on more than one occasion during his introduction of The Exorcist.

Melvin and Mario Van Peebles introducing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Read my entire piece on Melvin Van Peebles and Sweet Sweetback at ActionAGoGo.

Mark Hamill liked my Tweet (only semi-#TCMFF related)

People! (Unfortunately I was super lax in the selfie department this year.)

Advice for Future Attendees from a 4thTimer – revised and edited from last year’s recap:

  1. If any of this sounds #amazing to you – make every effort to attend the TCMFF. It requires you to plan ahead and commit to the trip long before you actually get anywhere near L.A. But you won’t regret any of it. You will only regret never giving it a shot. Warning: it’s addicting. You’ll want to go back because FOMO is real and it is painful.
  2. Prioritize events you’ll never see or experience anywhere else. This includes movies shown on film, rarely screened gems, presentations, talks from famous people who knew other famous people.
  3. Participate in social media. Get to know the people who attend so that you’ll already have a cast list of friends to save you a seat when you’re running late for a screening. As I’ve said before, you’ll go for the movies, but you’ll come back for the people. You also never know when that person you’ve been talking to on social media will pop up in the seat next to you or in the pre-film theater queue.
  4. Bring a portable charger for your phone. You will need your phone for connecting with other moviegoers who are in lines ahead of you. The TCM Schedule App helps immensely and updates you with announcements and cancellations. You will need all the extra juice you can get. Don’t rely on being near a charging station. Bring the charger. Charge during the movie. Never run out of juice. You’ll also be popular among those who don’t bring portable chargers.
  5. Eat breakfast every day. I don’t care when you went to sleep the night before. Get up. Shower. Eat breakfast.
  6. Experience the festival at your frequency. If you want to maximize your movie return on value, by all means hit up every slot and every available talk. You won’t regret it. You also won’t regret earmarking some movies to watch later on when you get home and having a leisurely morning or getting a real sit-down meal. If you know you can’t survive the midnights, don’t force yourself. TCMFF is both a sprint and a marathon.
Hydrate, caffeinate and just enjoy your surroundings — even the shaggy pair of Wookies wandering around Hollywood Blvd.

Oh, and one more thing… the Theater 4 Thunderome lives! While I didn’t get shut out of Theater 4 this year, I know many people who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

tcm film festival theater 4

Stop Making Sense: Cinema Shame

Cinema Shame: Stop Making Sense

Scratching another entry off my 2018 Shame Statement.

I love experiencing live music — there’s so much more revealed about the band and the eccentricities of the music than what can be conveyed through a studio recording. A recording mutes personality, often diluting aural idiosyncrasy in favor of glossy palatability.

Concert films, meanwhile, have never been much more than a filmed concert for me. A concert on film is nice, but it’s not like you’re actually experiencing the live show. You’re watching a recording, just as you’re listening to a recording on an album. The music’s not too loud. The beer’s not too warm. The cat on the couch next to you is far less annoying than the drunken malaprop that’s singing all the wrong words to your favorite songs and invading your space.

So what I’m saying is that there’s benefit to a filmed concert — accessibility, convenience — but I’ve never seen a concert film that struck me as pure cinema. Until now.

But push this meditation on “the concert film” aside to consider why it’s absurd that I’ve never before watched Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.

The damning evidence. My most spun vinyl record:

talking heads - stop making sense

If we’re gauging my musical tastes and allegiances based on the lists every music fan makes, Talking Heads would also appear in my Top 10 albums (Remain in Light), Top 5 favorite bands/artists, and log at least 3 or 4 tracks in my Top 100 favorite songs.

Hence my shame.

At some point I arbitrarily decided to wait to see Stop Making Sense until I could see it on the big screen. I made this determination because of my aforementioned thoughts on concert films. I wanted to feel present at the original venue. Unfortunately my repertory migrations never allowed such a thing to happen. Finally, I broke down and popped in the Blu-ray disc. The time had come to break the seal.

stop making sense title

After the credits (I have always loved this font) David Byrne steps up to the microphone. At best he saunters. All we see are his white sneakers and the cuff of the pants from his now famous grey suit. He sets a boombox down next to the microphone stand, presses play and starts strumming a low-key rendition of “Psycho Killer” along with the music emanating from the tape deck.

The boombox cannot, of course, project sound throughout a concert venue in this fashion. In this instance, it’s a Roland TR-808 drum machine, spilling through the venue’s speakers. The drum machine rat-a-tat echoes like gunshots — Byrne staggers. He envisioned this as an echo of the ending to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as Jean-Paul Belmondo has been ambushed by gunfire.

This is a visual cue, seemingly a comment on the nature of pre-recorded music in an new age — one marked by a shift towards consumerism and ownership. Even the music at a Talking Heads concert comes pre-recorded these days. My concerns about the cinematic nature of Stop Making Sense disappear.

Here’s the opening of the film:

Within the last few years, I’ve come to prefer to this version of “Psycho Killer” to the studio recording. The down-tempo pace and David Byrne’s foregrounded vocals over acoustic rhythm guitar and the drum machine change our emotional response. I’ve always admired Talking Heads’ ability to craft mid-tempo pop music. Songs that feel faster and more accessible than they really are. This highlights that phenomenon by taking arguably the band’s widely recognized track and rendering it a completely different beast. A minimal and more deliberate “Psycho Killer” feels like a dirge rather than a ditty.

As this opening set continues, more members of the band join Byrne on stage. First Tina Weymouth on “Heaven” then Christ Frantz on “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and finally Jerry Harrison on “Found a Job.” As the band grows, so too does the additional equipment and musicians that appear on stage.

The band finally reaches maximum capacity when it launches into “Burning Down the House.” (The original 1985 home video release has the band performing “Cities” first, however.) It’s a cathartic moment, a build to a euphoric release both for the listener and the band. After the incomplete band migrates through stripped down versions of the tracklist, everyone on stage lets loose in the complete ensemble. Wait for David Byrne to unleash fury during the extended finale and outtro.

Demme’s influence on the film becomes apparent during this sequence as well. He’s not focused on the music. Each band member’s personality becomes the most important aspect of the film. We all know “Burning Down the House” — and the music becomes something more like a score to a Jonathan Demme movie about a band called Talking Heads rather than our single reason for watching.

Not only is this the best seat in the house; you’re the only viewer. You are omniscient, standing on stage and witnessing musical genius at play through a macro lens. You might not care about Talking Heads’ music, but I find it hard to believe you could watch this film and not respect David Byrne’s and the band’s cerebral ability to command a stage. He’s some unique brand of buttoned-down mania.

Byrne’s wardrobe also provides a glimpse into his mental acuity when it comes to music and performance. His “big suit” grows larger as the concert progresses. The suit become an icon for the film — and even appeared on the movie poster. Eventually he comes back on stage engulfed by the suit. His comically tiny-looking head sticking out through the engorged jacket. He doesn’t call attention to the changes, he’s just shrinking as the concert rolls along.

david byrne's suit stop making sene

Byrne later explained his methodology: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.” He said he was inspired by Japanese theater — Noh, Kabuki and Banraku — when creating the costume. The manipulation of audience response through artificiality.

I’ve watched dozens of films as a result of this Cinema Shame exercise and I’ve ultimately loved a great many of them. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, however, just became the first film I can’t comprehend not having in my life. It’s almost like I hadn’t even really heard the soundtrack. The film’s opening and the gradual gathering of bandmates gives extra context to the sparse compositions that begin the album. I’ve heard so much more in the music now that I’ve seen the concert film.

That is something I never thought I’d say.

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate