Helen: I always like to think I live for love. What else is there? Food?
Sea of Love (1989)
At some point during my ongoing #Watch1989 marathon, I polled Twitter for some suggestions. I received many wonderful ideas — one, however, stood out due to the presentation. I wish I’d taken better notes so I could give specific credit to those who stepped forward and whispered Sea of Love, like it was a dirty, dirty, oh so dirty little secret.
I’d always been conscious of Sea of Love without knowing much about it. Al Pacino. Ellen Barkin. I could also describe the poster. Pacino pointing his gun forward like he’d been startled by the sudden arrival of a wayward James Bond gun barrel. As he turns to seize his moment, he realizes he’d mistaken the gun barrel for the space between necks of almost smooching silhouettes. Then his gun jams, and he just makes “pew pew” sounds to salvage the moment. This is where I show you exactly how all of this plays out on a two-dimensional poster. Zoom in on the look on his face. I nailed it.
It wasn’t the actual recommendation that teased me. It was the guilt behind the recommendation. I’d seen that guilt before in the eyes of moviewatchers with whom I’ve discussed the secret pleasures of Jade (1995). I queued up Sea of Love on Netflix DVD and awaited sexy times in my mailbox starring Al Pacino and perhaps the most captivating and least appreciated actress of the era, Ellen Barkin.
How Sea of Love slipped through the cracks
Released the week before Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, the two prowled the same adult-thriller audience. Both succeeded moderately, but neither left a lasting impression.
I rented Black Rain as soon as it hit video. Black Rain popped up as a rainy day movie at baseball camp. Someone gave me a Black Rain DVD. Naturally, I picked up the Blu-ray. I wasn’t Black Rain obsessed, but it was as if Black Rain was obsessed with me. Michael Douglas and his dead-eyed gaze watching from behind the bushes in my backyard. Meanwhile, Sea of Love just seemed like a lukewarm trifle, a jilted lover, the movie that lost out to the more aggressive suitor.
Based on trailers for the film, Sea of Love just looked like every other barely scandalous Hollywood thriller. For comparison’s sake, let’s watch the trailers for both Black Rain and Sea of Love. You tell me which one you’d rather watch just based on the trailer.
Sea of Love:
Black Rain or Sea of Love
Some of you probably picked Sea of Love. Congratulations on your ability to see through ham-fisted September studio marketing. Neon veins coursing through a dark and gritty Tokyo in the Black Rain trailer made me a believer. It might sound like I’m suddenly anti-Black Rain. I enjoy the movie for what it is, but those slightly guilty suggestions that brought Sea of Love to my attention understood something about the film — even if they didn’t articulate it in words.
The Appeal of Mainstream Sexy Times
Based on a screenplay by novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money), Sea of Love marks Al Pacino’s first film in four years after the disasterfest that was Revolution (1985). Despite solid scripting, plotting, and entertaining performances from Pacino and vampy Ellen Barkin, fans are often hesitant to admit their affection, like the film belongs to some kind of cultish and unsavory underbelly of mainstream cinema.
Becker’s serial-killer thriller knowingly plays with Film Noir conventions and conscripts them into a thoroughly modern genre film that also touches on existential loneliness and mid-life crises. John Goodman co-stars as Pacino’s investigative partner and provides some welcome comic relief. It might feel like a guilty pleasure, but Sea of Love joins a storied tradition of steamy 1980s R-rated potboilers born out of the subtext and embers of Film Noir.
There’s a major difference, however, between Sea of Love and something like Body Heat. Body Heat, for all its deliciously sweaty double-crossing (and Ted Danson) wears its Noir convention as proudly as Noel Coward wore ascots. Price’s script dares to transplant and update the formula to foreground modern anxieties and uniquely late-20th-century ennui.
Al Pacino’s Frank Keller appears on screen already in the middle of an existential midlife crisis. The killer finds his/her prey through the singles ads in the paper. While the technology of finding love through a print publication dates the film, the mechanics behind the narrative device easily translate to online dating. Looking for love while simultaneously hunting a killer provides a powerful playground for emotional fragility and cocksure swagger from both leads. Al Pacino’s not the only scene hungry thespian in this movie (and I’m not referencing Sam Jackson’s boisterous 20-second appearance).
The Ellen Barkin Factor
Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (and scores of other classic Noir), at once obsessed with cash money and Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, Frank’s blinded by his desire for connection, for this intervention into his ordinary New York life. Midway between greenhorn and retirement. Divorced. Lonely. Not only is his police detective fallible, but he’s often downright unlikable. He wallows, drinks, picks fights with Richard Jenkins, and makes late-night phone calls to his ex-wife seeking emotional affirmation.
In one of his last pre-Scent of a Woman roles, Pacino contains the eruptions that plague many of his later performances. He’s terrific, but like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Sea of Love hinges entirely on the guile of its female lead. The viewer must see what Frank sees in Ellen Barkin’s Helen — a potentially deadly femme fatale with the power to heal a mid-life crisis with a torrid affair. It’s not just that she’s sex in designer heels, she also has to be a grounded single mother and career woman. We have to expect her guilt and hope for her innocence.
If you doubt the power of prime Ellen Barkin, pair Sea of Love with Mary Lambert’s unfairly maligned Siesta (1987) — only available on a region-free Italian release. While Kathleen Turner received higher profile roles in better movies, Ellen Barkin toiled on the fringe of superstardom. It’s unfortunate that many of Barkin’s films just didn’t deserve her.
Al Pacino gets the clammy, “Who Me?” spotlight on the poster, but Ellen Barkin sells this movie. Ellen Barkin is sex and fragility; she’s a dominatrix living with her mother and doing her best to exist in a cinematic world that doesn’t know how to put a label on her.
Sea of Love Verdict
Harold Becker made a few standout films in his career (Malice and The Black Marble, for example), so the “discovery” that Sea of Love proved to be a competent and knowing manipulation of the genre shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.
The way Price’s script inserts elements of the romantic comedy into a drama about an apparent serial killer makes for a movie that constantly puts he viewer on uneasy territory… until it lets everyone off the hook in the final moments. I’ve read nothing about the production, but I’ve seen enough of these “movie things” to recognize the telltale signs of studio intervention. Between an atonal final scene to an easy-bake ending, Sea of Love does all the heavy lifting but lacks the conviction to follow through on the promise of something more daring, something that would have catapulted the film into genre royalty.
Don’t let any of that dissuade you. Despite last-minute whodunnit stumbles, the Sea of Love serves up a delicious dish. It’s sexy, but not scandalous. Tense with a side of nail-biting and naturally funny when it needs to break tension. I just wish it had dared to be great instead of aiming for a higher test-screening CinemaScore.
As one of the biggest surprises of my #Watch1989 series, I’ll point you in the direction of the other surprising pleasure for a wild double feature. It’s not a perfect pairing, but I wouldn’t mind indulging in fun the double of Sea of Love and Gleaming the Cube. Give it a chance. You’ll come around.
For the last few months I’ve been writing and researching a topic near and dear to my heart. The year of 1989 looms large in my moviegoing history and I wanted to put this year into intense focus in a longer format. I began working on this book called, tentatively, The Summer of 1989: The Last, Greatest Hollywood Summer in March and I’m just getting to the chapters on individual movies. The following post contains a portion of what I’m calling “The Preamble.” The opening chapters that set the 1989 stage, focusing on the state of the industry and discuss some of the films that don’t technically fall under the auspices of “Summer” but certainly inform the movies to come.
If you have comments, I’d love to hear them. I’ve spent enough time in the echo chamber. I just needed to poke my head out for a spell and test the air. Please enjoy this small section (that probably won’t exist in the manuscript in any form quite like this because early drafts!) while I wait for responses from publishers and agents regarding my manuscript prospectus. The fun part!
The Importance of Being Jack: Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) places Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker on unstable moral ground. They’re each branded at different times social outcasts or saviors of Gotham through the news media, and the film itself is about the manipulation of public opinion through the press. (Even typing that sentence in 2019 made me wince due to our current state of political affairs.) Likewise, the film’s narrative provides a playground for intertwined character arcs. The Joker presides over Batman’s origin story just as Batman presides over the Joker’s transformation at the creation of his permanent, toxic grin.
Gotham City Always Brings a Smile to My Face
Since the Joker’s on everyone’s mind with the buzz concerning the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker later this year, it seems the perfect time to reflect upon the iteration of the Joker that brought the character back into the cinematic consciousness. First, however, it’s entirely relevant to trace back the origin of the Joker.
Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and (maybe?) Jerry Robinson, the Joker made his debut in the debut issue of Batman on April 25th, 1940 (about a year after Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27). The team had originally killed off the character in that very same issue, but a last minute editorial “intervention” allowed the Joker to survive the issue and ultimately become Batman’s archenemy.
The criminal mastermind first appeared as a psychopath with a sadistic sense of humor – the relative levels of depravity dictated by didactic cultural trends and authoritative censorship of the moment. Most generally, the Joker, with his bleached skin, green hair, red lips and preference for chaos over order serves as Batman’s aesthetic and moral antithesis.
The source of the character’s iconic visage predates even his first comic appearance by twelve years. Robinson fed Bill Finger scattered ideas about his personality. Finger took these notes and for his first concept sketch of the joker drew from a picture of Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s silent masterpiece The Man Who Laughs (1928) — a movie I plugged on Netflix’s Inside the Envelope earlier this year.
Like the Joker, Gwynplaine has become disfigured with a permanent grin. He becomes a freak show in a traveling carnival. Unlike Victor Hugo’s source novel, Leni’s film allows for a happy ending and a measure of solace for its tortured protagonist. Not so for our Joker – who from the earliest stages of creation had been earmarked to become Batman’s Moriarty. (It should be noted that Finger, Kane and Robinson disagreed about who actually played a hand in the character creation. Finger and Kane say Robinson had nothing to do with it beyond bringing in a Joker playing card. Robinson meanwhile gives himself a full one-third credit.)
The Town Needs an Enema
Considered a dormant property through the 1970’s the notion of a Batman movie gained traction after the success of Superman (1978). Producers Michael Uslan, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters and Peter Gruber pitched the project around Hollywood until Warner Bros. decided to accept the film on its production slate in the early 1980’s.
A 1983 script by Tom Mankiewicz floated around for a number of years (with filmmakers like Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante attached at various points), but Warner Bros. eventually attempted to woo to a hot young director by the name of Tim Burton, fresh off his first success Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Burton contacted screenwriter and comic-fan Sam Hamm to write a screenplay. Hamm dispensed with the origin stories that had been a focus of earlier drafts and used flashbacks to help “unlock the mystery” of the Batman.
After Beetlejuice became a surprise box office success, Warner Bros. finally put up Tim Burton’s bat signal. It was producer Jon Peters who suggested Michael Keaton for the role of Bruce Wayne (despite public skepticism from his partners), having seen the comedic actor’s nuanced dramatic performance in Clean and Sober. With WB blessing the Keaton casting decision, Burton officially agreed to direct the film.
Haven’t You Ever Heard of the Healing Power of Laughter?
Casting the comic Keaton (best known for films like Beetlejuice, Johnny Dangerously and Mr. Mom) coupled with a director best known for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure caused protests and widespread panic that the movie would reflect the campy 1960’s TV series. The next step, publicly casting the Joker, had to assuage premature and unfounded concerns about the film’s tonal direction. Jack Nicholson had been the first choice of producer Michael Uslan and Bob Kane (acting in an advisory role) since they first tried to pull the project together in 1980.
Tim Burton wanted to cast Brad Dourif, but the actor’s name carried no cachet. Other actors like Robin Williams dropped their own names into the contest, but “Jack” remained everyone’s first choice. Nicholson finally acquiesced but made a number of specific demands in his contract, including top billing, the number of hours he would work each day, the number of weeks he’d be willing to shoot, and days he’d need off to attend Los Angeles Lakers home games.
Costume designers took a number of cues from Cesar Romero’s wardrobe in the Batman TV series just as Nicholson borrowed mannerisms from Romero’s flamboyant histrionics. Despite the similarities, Nicholson’s Joker became a creation distinctly “Jack.” It would be easy to trace Nicholson’s “Clown Prince of Crime” back through his own roles in films like The Shining and The Witches of Eastwick.
Here was a legendary acting icon taking hold of a comic book villain and molding it into something new and cinematic. Romero had owned the small screen 21 years prior, but Jack commanded the big one. For many (like myself) it was their first chance to see a live action Batman, and The Joker immediately became the greatest on-screen villain since Darth Vader. Manic and unpredictable, Jack’s Joker portrayed a brand of nihilism that felt dark and dangerous but oddly relevant in that some of his “crazy” actually made sense.
The Pen is Truly Mightier Than the Sword
Tim Burton populated his Gotham City with moral grey. Neither was the Batman wholly altruistic (as was the case in Adam West’s incorruptible incarnation) nor the Joker purely, soullessly evil. Just like advance, pre-release buzz on the film, the war between Batman and the Joker played out in the public sphere. The enemies waged a cerebral war of information rather than a physical struggle.
In keeping with the notion of Batman and the Joker being two sides of the same coin, the characters shared nearly identical screen time. Bruce Wayne/Batman appeared on screen for 32:30 while the Joker clocked in at 32:15. Burton made the Joker a primary character — and rightfully so. The audience couldn’t focus on anything else but Nicholson and his purple suit and bleached face makeup.
The Joker’s nihilism played into the film’s narrative construction as well. Take for example the scene in which the Joker and his goon’s deface the Gotham City Art Museum. I particularly enjoy this scene because it almost entirely serves the development of the Joker’s character. Set to Prince’s “Party Man,” Nicholson defaces the paintings with a swath of paint and a comedic malice. He’s destroying priceless works of art for his and the viewer’s own entertainment. Burton gives The Joker the best lines, the best scenes and the best asides.
None of this, of course, should suggest a deficiency of Michael Keaton’s Batman. By nature the reclusive Bruce Wayne would stand back, observe and protect. The Joker steals the spotlight while Batman hides in the neighboring shadows. Such little confrontation actually takes place in Tim Burton’s Batman that it’s misleading to consider it an action movie at all — a construction that would surely confound modern superhero aficionados visiting Batman (1989) for the first time.
Never Rub Another Man’s Rhubarb
Tim Burton created a superhero character study that wowed a generation of moviegoers. For many including myself, Batman remains an iconic, untouchable piece of their childhood. I walked out of the Plaza 2 in Kalamazoo, MI a changed 10yo human. It became a landmark moviegoing experience, the black letters on the while marquee emblazoned on my brain.
That summer of 1989 came to define the ultimate moviegoing summer, in no small part because of my immediate affection for Batman. I can pinpoint the day and date that I became a proper cinephile, thirsting for more and more cinematic exposure. I began a quest to watch every Michael Keaton and every Jack Nicholson film. I’d dub rental tapes and a log them chronologically on a divided shelf. The left side for Michael Keaton, the right for Jack. There’s no other explanation for my affection for The Squeeze (1987).
I wouldn’t learn about the troubled behind-the-scenes production or the disastrous studio distrust of Tim Burton until much later. For many years I’d imagined a perfectly honed vision, a delicate balance of comic mania and brooding malaise. But in many ways that more recent realization almost deepens my fascination with the film — how so many incompatible voices could stumble into something so iconic.
The only thing that maybe the producers had a handle on seemed to be the casting — despite clamorous dismay, they followed through on Michael Keaton and snagged their big fish in Jack Nicholson. After that everything just fell into place, more or less, despite Tim Burton’s skepticism and the studio’s meddling.
A bookish, bespectacled Michael Caine watches a girl enter the house next door, doe-eyed. An intertitle, as if drawn by Jimi Hendrix’s cover artist, appears on screen. “The Girl He Worships From Afar.” He’s called back to the bedside of his gasping grandfather Masterman Finsbury (John Mills) who says, “I believe the time has come… at last…” before falling limp. Michael Caine solemnly draws the sheet over his grandfather’s face. A moment later the man frantically throws the sheet away.
Masterman: “Not so fast! You’re a very quick man with the sheet, Michael!”
Michael: “You see, sir… I thought…”
Masterman: “Death cannot be assumed simply because signs of light are not present. Hasn’t that medical school taught you how to take a pulse?”
Michael: “We have touched on it, sir, but mostly we cut up things.”
The Wrong Box, The Bleakest, Blackest of 60’s Comedies
So introduces two major players in perhaps the most bleak and British of all 1960’s bleak and British comedies. The Wrong Box concerns the last two remaining brothers (John Mills and Ralph Richardson) in a family tontine and the various plots by their would-be heirs to come into extreme wealth.
Tontine: n. – an annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund, the shares increasing as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income.
Written by Larry Gelbart (Tootsie and the M*A*S*H TV series) and Burt Shevelove (his only feature screenwriting credit) and based on an 1889 satirical novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and his son-in-law Lloyd Osborne, The Wrong Box stuffs itself full of Victorian anti-manners. British humor is best served when it explores the latent eccentricities of our dark and mangled human nature, and The Wrong Box lays bare our character foibles and exploits the human condition for giggles. Oh the hilarity of the misplaced mutilated body in a barrel gag! Murder plots! Making light of the tottering and impossible old and senile butler! High-speed horse-drawn hearse chases!
Act One: Kill 18 Characters
The film prefaces its narrative with a properly droll sequence depicting the unfortunate deaths of the brothers’ family members, a callback to Ealing Studio’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). 18 relatives are dispatched by careless queens, unstable mountain peaks, and charging rhinos.
At the stoic center of a large ensemble cast (including scene-stealers Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Peter Sellers), resides Michael Caine. Coming off a three-film run of Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966), Caine already feels bigger than the role. This owes partly to our conception of a proper prime Michael Caine vehicle, but also because of the timing of the film. He’d likely not have taken on the role of Michael Finsbury, the naïve and lovelorn straight man in landscape of eccentric and inept grifters, had Alfie (released only two months prior) elevated his status as a bankable star before the filming of The Wrong Box.
His grandfather, Masterman Finsbury, yells after him, “Nothing will upset me more than not winning the tontine and leaving you with a mountain of debts and a doubtful future as an idiot in a profession of rogues and charlatans. So go and get (my brother Joseph) and tell him I died!”
The families of each remaining brother are torn between forcibly keeping them alive or knocking them off to ease the burden of dealing with the tottering fools, but of course pretending they’re still alive to dupe the other family into conceding the tontine. Consider The Wrong Box a proto-Weekend at Bernie’s, except surreal, British, and much darker.
Morris (Cook) and John (Moore) believe their uncle Joseph (Ralph Richardson) has died and prop up a corpse to perpetuate the belief that Joseph’s indeed alive and kicking. Meanwhile, Michael (Caine) has falsely reported the death of Masterman, causing a chain reaction of erroneous judgment. The Wrong Box blissfully devolves into anarchic slapstick and chase sequences as the twisty narrative unfolds and the characters grow more desperate.
The Wrong Box Origins
Director Bryan Forbes (The Stepford Wives) clearly found inspiration in style and substance from the great Ealing comedies of the 1940’s, chiefly the aforementioned Kind Hearts and Coronets. The “otherwise decent people doing horrible things” genre boasts a grand (especially English) tradition, and The Wrong Box updates that formula for the 1960’s by tenuously straddling the line between good taste and outright offense. Because it’s all said with a stiff upper lip and a fine British accent, it’s hard to find fault even when the movie wanders into questionable moral territory.
So why would I bring up The Wrong Box in a Michael Caine-centric blogathon if he merely played a dim straight man to his comic co-stars? We’d have to go back a little bit to look at the tradition of the double act comedy routine. The double act, or comedy duo, which later manifested as Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, and Laurel and Hardy, began in the late 19th century in British music halls and American vaudeville.
In these bawdy performance venues, the acts employed the straight man to repeat the comic lines for those that didn’t hear jokes the first time around. As the language evolved, the dynamic shifted, and the straight man set up jokes for the comic to deliver a punch line. While the comic often gets the showiest lines or gags (consider Abbott and Costello), the straight man can sometimes blend into the background.
Burns and Allen, for example, swapped roles, making Gracie Allen the comic once her stage personality blossomed. It’s easy to forget that George Burns was actually the cigar-chomping straight man of that duo. Gracie delivered all the punch lines.
The British form of the comic duo – even more so than the American – relied on comic timing and glib entendre. The roles of “comic” and “straight man” became blurred and often interchangeable. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore innovated by doing away with the set-up and punch altogether and weaving discourse through their routine. Cook and Moore had risen to popularity as half of the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. Their TV show Not Only… But Also had also begun a year before The Wrong Box, their big screen debut. Their immediate on-screen chemistry resulted in steady work through the end of the 1960’s in Bedazzled (1967), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969).
The Importance of Being Michael Caine
In The Wrong Box, it’s Michael Caine’s job to anchor the film with a relatively steady moral compass (except for the bit about wooing his supposed first cousin) and a consistent, subtle (relatively speaking) comic tone. He is the mannered totter upon which the movie’s lunacy teeters. Without his steady, even performance, the farce would have become a manic, punch line competition between his more comedically trained co-stars. That’s not to suggest that Michael Caine couldn’t hold his own among proper comedians. He undoubtedly proved his comic versatility as the straight man to Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the comic to Ben Kingsley’s straight man in Without a Clue.
“Thank you for the tea and cakes,” he says, plainly, to his beloved cousin Julia (Nanette Newman) after an afternoon rendezvous, “I shall devour them throughout my dissection class.” As he’s leaving her house, he unwittingly helps receive a box the audience knows to contain a corpse. So it goes in The Wrong Box. Many of the best single lines in the film occur between Caine and Newman as they’re allowed to play roles dressed with proper British formality. Just wait for Julia Finsbury’s description of her parents’ untimely demise.
The pulse of Michael Caine’s performance can best be displayed in this exchange with Peter Cook’s Morris.
Morris Finbury: I know you are a medical student, cousin, so I need hardly remind you that blood is thicker than water.
Michael Finsbury: Yes. Five times as, I believe.
His abhorrent family schemes and plots all around him to take the tontine. Even when confronted with that malfeasance he still responds clinically and rationally. Morris wants to invoke an unwritten clause regarding the bonds of family and the dim Michael recites medical facts – the straight man can still deliver the straightest lines and still get the big laughs though gifted timing and charisma – two aspects of Michael Caine’s performances that have never been in doubt.
The Wrong Box Final Thoughts
It would also be an unforgivable sin not to mention John Barry’s score (his third of five collaborations with director Bryan Forbes). Barry, like Caine, dresses the film with elegant tradition but nimbly shifts into wistful romance or rollicking adventure when the situation demands. In “Tontine Box is Put On Hearse,” you’ll note echoes of Barry’s “007 Theme,” the James Bond action theme first used in From Russia With Love (1963).
Somehow the manic, bleak, hilarious film holds together despite the breakneck speed of a runaway, horse-drawn hearse. So jammed with quick verbal jabs and sight gags, two viewings of The Wrong Box might not even be enough to understand the hows and whys of this miracle execution.
First up, the music that soothed the savage beast (me) that returned to his room at 2am wired but exhausted and considering how little sleep one needs to function. This year I kept Weyes Blood’s gorgeous new album, Titanic Rising, at the ready for the 2019 TCM Film Festival. If you feel like branching into all of my areas of writing, I penned a review for the record on Spill Magazine.
This is also fitting because my favorite track on the album is titled, appropriately, “Movies.”
Once again a scheduled Cinema Shame podcast recording with Jessica Pickens (@hollywoodcomet) afforded me the opportunity to get out of my Lyft at the Roosevelt, fail to check in at The Roosevelt, and then haul my recording equipment all over Hollywood Boulevard with a Baja Fresh stop sandwiched (burrittoed?) in the middle. Sustenance!
The brief podcast recording in the bag (hint: subscribe to Cinema Shame on iTunes, Stitcher, or Spotify), I returned to the hotel to officially occupy my room. Alas, ’twas not to be. The room was still not yet ready and I spent much of the next hour hanging out in the Roosevelt lobby with @p2wy and @Priscilla_MR21 and staring at the Social Media monitor wondering if we could make meta performance art. Maybe next year, everybody.
I was loathe to leave the lobby because I still held out hope for a shower and wardrobe change after my 5-hour flight. Time wore on and the social media board told me with regularity that more and more people were lining up for my first film selection Night World. (Here’s a reminder of all my pre-TCMFF picks.)
Finally, I abandoned the Roosevelt lobby and made my way over to the Multiplex where I stood in line for a few minutes before I grew restless and headed over to The Egyptian with @middparent. At the very least I could do some walking to stretch the legs and hopefully see some familiar faces in line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of course I did — and I ended up talking to @AlanHait for a solid fifteen minutes. A solid fifteen that wasn’t really in line with the whole get back to Night World scenario. The enthusiasm for the Marilyn Monroe / Jane Russell musical overwhelmed me and how could I deny the bombshells my first slot of my 2019 TCM Film Festival. And what a way to christen 2019.
No post-flight shower. No power nap. Just a coupon for a free Roosevelt breakfast and a cocktail for the inconvenience. Commence conditioning.
So my fifth Turner Classic Movies Film Festival has come and gone. Every year they seem shorter. A far too brief immersion in classic film, a four-day window when my affection for old movies becomes commonplace and not a landmine topic with everyday Joes and Janes. (Have you tried discussing how George O’Brien would have made a great 1929 Don Draper outside TCMFF?) Too much longer, however, and would this Spring oasis lose its luster?
Another year, another festival without a cocktail break or Sh! The Octopus (1937) as a midnight screening. Seriously, Turner Classic Movies folk, there’s no more perfect midnight screening than Sh! The Octopus. Many dozens of people would attest.
I must once again thank my wife who purchased my first ticket to the TCM Film Festival back in 2015, thus opening Pandora’s Box. She still sends me off to L.A. with a mostly genuine smile. While I’ll never convince her to join me for the festival, one of these years she might make the trip. My father-in-law once again chose not to attend, but I still missed his intermittent companionship.
Knowing I’ll be shipping off to Rochester, NY in a couple weeks for the Nitrate Picture Show makes the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival goodbye slightly less bittersweet. Even so, NPS feels like a methadone clinic after the TCMFF addiction.
Until next year…
The #Bond_age_ Guy will return in 2020. XOXO
2019 TCM Film Festival Final Tally: 16
*denotes never before seen
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
Merrily We Go To Hell (1932)*
Out of Africa (1985)*
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)*
Vanity Street (1932)*
Open Secret (1948)*
Road House (1948)*
Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961)*
When Worlds Collide (1951)*
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)*
The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926)*
Blood Money (1933)*
Escape from New York (1981)
The Student Nurses (1970)*
Mad Love (1935)
And had I not left early to catch the non-stop mid-afternoon flight back to Pittsburgh, I also would have seen…
Night World (1932)* in the TBA slot
Cold Turkey (1971)*
A Woman of Affairs (1928)*
The Dolly Sisters (1945)*
1290 minutes of movie
12 first-time watches
6 color / 10 B&W
By decade: 1920’s – 2 / 1930’s – 5 / 1940’s – 3 / 1950’s – 2 / 1960’s – 1 / 1970’s – 1 / 1980’s – 2
9 movies on 35mm film (2 on Nitrate) / 7 on DCP
1 bag of popcorn
4 ramen bowls
Most Memorable 2019 TCM Film Festival Festival Experience:
Tarzan and His Mate Nude Swimming / “Tarzan Yell” Sound Effects Presentation
Even though I knew the film contained a scene featuring nudity, I wasn’t quite prepared for how *much* nudity occurs during the infamous swimming scene in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) takes a nude dip with Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), and I expected a flash of flesh before submersion. That’s not the scene at all. In what must surely be one of the most ribaldrous scenes in all of pre-code Hollywood (during which there was great amounts of ribaldry), the nudity takes place beneath the water — and suffice to say it’s not a quick flash before a cut away. The scene features every inch of Maureen O’Sullivan’s swim-double (Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim) in a nude underwater ballet with fellow olympian Johnny Weissmuller. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, sure. The water’s rather dark and cloaks the important bits in unfortunate shadow. Shadows not included. The skin (and the face-value absurdities of the Tarzan production itself) received a warm welcome from the TCM Film Festival crowd thoroughly enhancing the shared viewing experience.
Before the presentation sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron discussed Tarzan’s technical achievements — including the inhuman composition of the famous yell. Check out my video of the presentation below:
F.W. Murnau’s “one wild night” movie. Lovely and sinister at the same time. And then it’s just lovely. And then it’s sinister. I won’t spoil where it finally lands, but Sunrise boasts remarkable production values for a story about two peasants falling in love again in the shadow of a half-hearted murder attempt.
Shocked by how much I enjoyed Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa. A beautifully simple movie about intricate, complicated humans. It’s also a meditation on our own impermanence and the connectivity between people and places. I had no interest in watching this, but I walked away enraptured. A true #CinemaShame. I would like to understand why people now hate this film. That Best Picture win can and often becomes a curse. If you wait long enough, the backlash will fuel expectations leading to a surprisingly excellent viewing experience.
Last minute change of plans found me scurrying off to visit the newest TCM Film Festival venue, Post 43, to view at least one of the two Tom Mix silent westerns. Timing dictated that I return to the Multiplex before the end of the second half of the double feature to get in line for Blood Money, which would undoubtedly be a hot ticket. I’d seen some Tom Mix shorts, but never a feature. The Great K & A Train Robbery proved to be a wonderful blend of practical stunts and humor. I can see why some have likened Tom Mix to a proto-Jackie Chan. Plus, you can’t beat a live score by the great and powerful Ben Model.
I’ve never seen a bad movie at the TCM Film Festival, but there always seems to be one that slips to the back of my mind before the flight home.
Vanity Street (1932)
This dirty little pre-code depression-era noir depicts a gruff police detective rescuing a down-on-her-luck lady who chucked a brick through a pharmacy window so she’d go to prison and finally get regular meals. She winds up with a job as a dancer at the follies and falls in with the wrong crowd (after Mr. Police Dick spurns her advances). Suddenly she’s taking the blame for a murder she didn’t commit and Mr. Police Dick can’t figure where his allegiances lie. Helen Chandler’s a strong screen presence and Charles Bickford plays an amalgam of every hard-boiled undercover cop that ever walked the silver screen. Moderately competent B-Picture with base pleasures to spare. Nifty but overall rather routine.
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell joined TCM host Dave Karger for a chat before the 2019 TCM Film Festival screening of Escape from New York (1981) — my can’t miss event of the festival.
During the conversation, Kurt Russell discussed the origin of Snake’s eyepatch. It was his idea, although he didn’t consider the depth perception problems that would present on set. Kurt wanted to play Snake Plissken one more time and made Escape from L.A. happen because “he wasn’t getting any younger.”
The artwork in my room at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Someone tell me what this is about.
This picture in my room at the Roosevelt Hotel perplexed me. I looked at it every morning before I left. If this is a particularly important car, it’s lost on me. And the more I thought about it the more obsessed I became, rifling through all of the TV series and movies in my brain. I’m still stumped.
Bill Hader introducing the wonderfully weird Mad Love (1935).
Not to be confused with the also excellent 1946 Peter Lorre hand-horror film The Beast with Five Fingers. If I’m being honest, I’m wishing we had a double feature.
“Wow, you guys are the hardcore nerds.” —Bill Hader addressing the 9am crowd, eager for Peter Lorre’s classic hand-horror flick, Mad Love (1935).
On Conan, Bill Hader describes an incident in the Egyptian bathroom, which feels rather on brand for TCMFF.
Midnight Madness with Beth and Miguel @ Santo vs. the Evil Brain!
Advice for Future Attendees from a 5th Timer – revised and edited from last year’s recap:
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 Hollywood. 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.
This past year the dates for the festival were announced in September of 2018. Passes went on sale during November and many tiers sold out. You’ll want to arrange for lodging as soon as the dates are hit the streets. If you want a room as the Roosevelt, book within minutes (seriously). Now that I’ve stayed at the Roosevelt, I must say I prefer the Loews Hollywood, which is attached to the Multiplex, making those 2am walks back incredibly convenient. Many attendees pick up Airbnb accommodations as there are plenty of nearby options!
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.
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. This year I happened to line up behind @SinatrasRatPack at the Egyptian, a fellow with which I’ve been chatting on Twitter for years.
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 Film Festival Schedule App helps immensely and updates you with announcements and cancellations. (The app knows everything.) 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.
Eat breakfast every day. I don’t care when you went to sleep the night before. Get up. Shower. Eat breakfast. “Mid-afternoon you” will appreciate the small sleep sacrifice.
Experience the festival at your frequency and speed. 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.
As far as food goes, the ultimate option is the Ramen bar outside the Multiplex. It’s quick and convenient when you’re running in and out of the Multiplex all day. In four days I had four Ramen bowls so I feel qualified to say these things. It’s also not heavy. Those burrito meals put you straight to slumberland.
That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about the 2019 TCM Film Festival. Oh, one final thing before I put a cap on this year’s festivities. Nikki — aka @NikkiLM4 — puts on a good show (and her basement studio is impressively adorned) but I’m still not convinced she and I attended the same festival. This is where I’d place my annual cocktail picture with #FlatRaquelTCMFF — had Nikki or Flat Raquel actually been at the TCMFF. Instead I’ll just wave goodbye.
See you at the 2020 TCM Film Festival.
A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick