Tag Archives: Cinema Shame

High Fiving: 2019 TCM Film Festival Preview

And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with the time that Will McKinley and I ducked down the back stairwell after a movie in the Chinese Multiplex and uncovered the employees’ pot smoking hideaway.

The 2019 TCM Film Festival schedule fell into our laps Tuesday morning, which meant that whomever wasn’t filling out their NCAA brackets was now consumed with festival mapping and weighty decisions about whether to see The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Mogambo on Thursday night.

So a quick recap for those stumbling onto this post without backstory. Each spring for the past nine years, TCM has hosted a four-day film festival in Hollywood. The movies start at 9:00am and run until 2:00am. If love classic film, this is your Super Bowl. If you aim for mass consumption, you could see 20-21 movies during your stay.

#ProTip: I stress this every year — don’t aim for mass consumption. This is an overall experience that doesn’t begin and end with moviewatching. TCM offers other programming and special events that you may not want to miss. Maybe you need a break for real food — or a drink with a friend you only see once a year. Seeing movies is the point, but also remember to breathe. 

And now let’s engage in that yearly tradition of sharing our observations and festival-going plans. By all means share your own — I’m told these conversations help first-timers navigate what tends to be an overwhelming experience.

Three Quick Observations About the 2019 TCM Film Festival Schedule:

They’re playing some of my all-time favorites, but they’re playing them opposite movies I haven’t and would love to see for the first time at TCMFF. Raiders of the Lost Ark played during my first festival (a repeat!) so skipping that in favor of Sunrise:A Song of Two Humans doesn’t weigh on my conscience. Elsewhere I’ll be missing Kind Hearts and Coronets, featuring perhaps my favorite Alec Guinness performance, to see Tarzan and His Mate because where else would I ever make the effort to see this movie… or I could just default to Kind Hearts. Never a wrong decision.

I can again see a movie in every slot and not watch something I’ve already seen. It’s a nice problem to have. It’s less nice when four of those unseen films play at the same time, which happens Saturday afternoon when my love of Working Girl will come to blows with four movies I’ve never seen.

All in all, I’m less enthusiastic about this schedule than past years. This won’t hinder my experience. The last time I felt merely whelmed by a TCM Film Festival schedule I wound up having one of my best overall collection of first-time watches. There’s the rub. You can’t get too excited about the stuff you haven’t seen until you see it. #Logic

Also, the Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 has gone AWOL. Theater 4 has been the source of much consternation among festival-goers because of the limited capacity, and TCM’s tendency to stick the ferociously attended pre-code films in it. It became such a source of rage-fueled moviewatching that I created this design for a button that I never actually made:

tcm film festival theatre 4
Rest in Power, Multiplex Theater 4.

And now on with the show.

My 2019 TCM Film Festival Preview:

tcm film festival 2019

I will again be passing out #Bond_age_ and Cinema Shame buttons throughout the festival. I have new 2019 TCM Film Festival varieties of each. Come get yours. If you need help tracking me down, the following guide will help you pinpoint my position at any given point during the festival. I’ll also be Tweeting regularly from my @007hertzrumble account. 

TCM branded the 2019 TCM Film Festival “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies.” While there are a few more romance and romantic comedies on the schedule, it’s not exactly a hard and fast rule — plus, can’t you fall in love with a movie from any genre at the movies? This year also marks the 10th year of the TCMFF. Pardon me while I post the obligatory:

I arrive in Los Angeles about 1pm on Thursday, which gives me a little bit of time to grab food, get to the hotel, and hopefully sneak in an on-location 2019 TCM Film Festival @CinemaShame special with Jessica Pickens before programming begins at 6:30pm.

Before you jump headfirst into TCM Film Festivaling, let’s go over a few choice pieces of advice for every new attendee:

Drink lots of water. Buy bottles of the stuff at CVS or Trader Joe’s and keep them handy. You’re going to be eating more than your share of salty food. Plus hydration keeps disease at bay…

…and speaking of disease, build up your immune system before arriving. Lots of sleep. All the Vitamin C you can manage. Travel, lots of people with weird regional diseases, lack of sleep, irregular sustenance require a fully-operational immune system. You do not want to come down with something on Day 2.

Eat food when you have the opportunity. Especially breakfast. You can bring food into the theater. Go directly to your movie queue and wait for your numbered voucher. Once you have that, you’re free to leave. If you’re in a hurry, toss a burrito or a sandwich into your bag and return to your queue. They load the theaters 30 minutes prior to showtime. Once you’re seated, break out that meal and finish before the film rolls. Do not be a hero.

Bring a portable phone charger. Even if you’re not on social media and burning through your battery at every break, you’ll still want to make sure you can communicate with other people at the festival. Things like “Save me a seat!” or “Where are you in line?” or “What are you seeing at 7?” will be oft-repeated. I use this one — it’s a small brick, but it charges multiple devices at once… and fast. Plug it in at the beginning of the movie and you’ll have a fully charged phone by the time you leave.

Embrace the social aspects of the TCMFF. Some of it may seem daunting. The mass of people, the constant go-go mentality. Here more than anywhere else you’re among friends. Talk to the people in line next to you — because you will be in lines. Collect the pins and buttons. Compare schedules. Talk about your favorite festival experiences. I love the movies, but I come back every year because of the people. 

Get on with it, already, bub.

Thursday, April 11

2019 tcm film festival thursday

“O” denotes unseen. Check = seen it. 

6:45pm – Night World (1932) – Chinese Multiplex 6

2019 tcm film festival night world

Let’s take another opportunity to mourn the disappearance of the Chinese Multiplex 4 from the 2019 TCM Film Festival circuit because Night World would have definitely played in Theater 4.

The 2019 TCM Film Festival kicks off the entire shebang with a doozy of a Catch-22. The effervescent Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953), Bogart and Bacall in Dark Passage (1947) or the lesser known Night World featuring Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, and Lew Ayres. I’m opting for the movie I haven’t seen (as I tend to do) but kicking off your festival experience with either of the other choices wouldn’t be wrong choice.

#ProTip: So many variables come into play when choosing a film to see at any given time slot. Have you seen it? Is it rare or unavailable on home video? Is it being shown on film or digital? Who’s speaking before the film? Unseen. Shown on film. Guest speakers. This is the trifecta of TCM Film Festival essentials. 

9:30pm – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – Chinese Multiplex 1

2019 tcm film festival umbrellas

Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) on a Nitrate print. John Ford’s Mogambo (1953) in 35mm? I adore Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but it’s being shown on DCP. At least I can rule out Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941) because that movie gives off so many “Let’s Sell War Bonds” vibes. It’s most definitely not among my favorite of Howard Hawks’ films. While my first inclination is to default to Catherine Deneuve on the big screen, I could just as easily wind up at Mogambo because it checks all my TCMFF boxes.

Fun fact: TCMFF plans are meant to be broken.

Sleep.

Friday, April 12

“O” denotes unseen. Check = seen it. “X” means No, Just No. 

It’s lovely when a TCMFF schedule gives me easier choices by eradicating options I would never entertain. Goodbye High Society (1956) and The Sound of Music (1965).

9:00am – Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) – Chinese Multi 1

2019 TCM Film Festival merrily

It’s almost sacrilegious, but I don’t really care for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). It’s not even the best adaptation of James M. Cain’s source material. That honor belongs to Visconti’s Ossessione (1943).  I haven’t seen The Clock (1945), but my thoughts about Judy Garland’s non-musical screen presence get me in trouble so they’ll remain unsaid. That leaves me with some more delightful pre-coding starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Merrily We Go To Hell has been on my radar for some time. It’s DCP but we can’t hit the trifecta every time.

11:15am – Out of Africa (1985) – Chinese Multi 1

2019 TCM Film Festival out of africa

Cinema Shame confession: I have not seen Out of Africa. I’ve claimed for many years that I’ll get around to it. (I really wasn’t going to get around to it.) Being on the big screen at TCMFF, however, proves to be a game changer. While Sleeping Beauty would surely look magnificent on the Egyptian screen, and Love in the Afternoon‘s super charming — I own both on Blu-ray. Only the special Republic Serials presentation might dissuade me from the 161-minute Out of Africa.

3:00pm – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans – Chinese Multi 1

2019 TCM Film Festival Sunrise

The Cinema Shame rolls on with a film that’s been on my Shame Statement for the past two years, F.W. Murnau’s supposed masterpiece Sunrise. It’s a good thing I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the El Capitan during my first festival experience or I’d be tempted to ignore the unseen Sunrise and A Patch of Blue Broadway Danny Rose shouldn’t be overlooked at Post 43. It’s a wonderful (and probably underseen) Woody Allen film with tremendous central performances.

5:30pm – Vanity Street (1932) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 TCM Film Festival vanity street

My wife has been actively lobbying for me to see Steel Magnolias (1989) on her behalf (and it would fit my #Watch1989 year quite well) — but, well, no. I’ll be happy to watch it with you at home some other time, love. Had I been covering the festival for Action-A-Go-Go as planned, I’d have been locked into seeing Escape From Alcatraz again. Then there’s Truffaut’s Day for Night. It’s a difficult slot to nail down. I don’t know anything about Vanity Street other than unseen, pre-code, and 35mm. Plus opting for the 67-minute film also allows me to pad my movie totals by catching dinner and an extra flick…

7:30pm – Open Secret (1948) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 TCM Film Festival open secret

A movie that was once thought lost (save for a few unfortunate public domain prints) until UCLA recently found a source and restored the film. A rarely seen thriller from the 1940’s sounds like the kind of thing that fits squarely in the TCM Film Festival wheelhouse.

9:30pm – Desert Hearts (1985) – Post 43

2019 TCM Film Festival desert hearts

While I might have opted for Do the Right Thing (1989) on the big screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Open Secret lets out just as the Spike Lee joint gets going. With the director and stars of Desert Hearts appearing in a post-film conversation, this is the moment I should choose to embrace one of the films I haven’t seen. Desert Heart trumps Goodbye, Mr. Chips because the talent’s quite literally in the house. If Winchester ’73 were playing at another time you would have found me front and center.

Midnight – Santo vs. The Evil Brain – Chinese Multi 1

2019 TCM Film Festival santo

And back to the Chinese Multi for some crimefighting masked Mexican wrestler action. A midnight I never thought I’d see happen. One of the tremendous surprises of the 2019 TCM Film Festival. It’s no SH! The Octopus, but it’s a damn fine consolation prize. I haven’t seen this specific Santo film — though I’ve seen quite a few.

Sleep.

Saturday, April 13

2019 TCM Film Festival Saturday

Generally speaking every TCM Film Festival Saturday can sit and spin. This Saturday is no exception.

9:15am – When Worlds Collide (1951) – Chinese Multi 1

2019 tcm film festival when worlds collide

I’m back in my favorite venue this TCMFF. Chinese Multi 1 houses the minor classic Sci-Fi epic When Worlds Collide. It’s also the title of a righteous Powerman 5000 track. I’m not going to cast shade on any of the other films during this block either — From Here to Eternity should ONLY be seen on the big screen, Double Wedding  is firmly in the middle of the non-Thin Man Powell and Loys, and All Through the Night is a nifty Bogart thriller that most probably haven’t seen.

And then the rest of the day becomes an interminable battle against the unseen versus the known and loved commodities.

11:45am – Tarzan and His Mate (1934) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 tcm film festival tarzan

Sigh. I love Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. Upon last calculation it resided at #52. But Gena Rowlands introduces John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (unseen) at the Egyptian and this one, Tarzan and His Mate, plays on 35mm. I honestly have no idea where I’m headed during this block. My head says Tarzan because it’s unknown, but my heart’s screaming Kind Hearts… and if I don’t see A Woman Under the Influence at the Egyptian, I might not even see the inside of that theater this festival, which is inconceivable considering I rented space there the last two years.

2:45pm – Love Affair (1939) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 tcm film festival love affair

I love Irene Dunne. I adore her. I would light candles and create shrines for her if I knew how one even went about creating a legitimate shrine. My experience in shrines dervies from Jobu in Major League. Probably not the best influence, especially regarding the chicken sacrifices. I know I promised everybody I’d be there to support the festival’s screening of Working Girl, but what am I supposed to do here? I live for the party scene with Harrison Ford drinking exotic umbrella-clad drinks.

I haven’t seen Love Affair and it’s something I need to make right. Meanwhile I’m just flat out ignoring A Raisin in the Sun, which I’d love to see, and the Tom Mix Double Western Feature would surely be a good time.

Love Affair also has the timing of getting out earlier to allow for the acquisition of food and the option to catch anything at all during the next block.

5:15pm – Blood Money (1933) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 tcm film festival blood money

…assuming I actually choose this path. Once again we’re faced with beloved commodities in the form of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nashville and Wuthering Heights versus two films from the 1930’s that I never knew existed until this week.

7:30pm – Life Begins at 40 (1935) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 tcm film festival life begins at 40

Part of me is still wondering if I can hoof it over to the TCL Chinese Theater for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at 6:15pm since Blood Money falls just shy of the 60-minute mark. At the very least It Happened Here (1964) starts at 6:30pm  at the Egyptian. This is where the games begin and it’ll all depend on how much I want to run my ass down Hollywood Boulevard at 6pm on a Saturday. Life Begins at 40 and Will Rogers just represent the convenient option.

Fun fact: I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do in the heat of the moment!

9:45pm – Escape from New York (1981) – Chinese Multi 1

2019 tcm film festival escape from new york

Even though it’s the bloody “Special Edition,” I’d still love to see Star Wars on the screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet would be swoon-worthy, and Waterloo Bridge is a fine pre-code melodrama… but Kurt Russell and John Carpenter are going to be present before a screening of Escape from New York, so all the rest is just background noise. I’m actually in line for this one as I type.

Midnight – The Student Nurses (1970) – Chinese Multi 6

2019 tcm film festival student nurses

Love-ins, acid trips, Mexican radicals, secret abortions, and naughty nurses. Thank you, Roger Corman. Stephanie Rothman’s The Student Nurses provides a measure of exploitation that the TCMFF hasn’t seen, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Sleep.

#FunFact: I was looking over my picks for the 2018 TCMFF and it’s like I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I ignored every planned movie on 2018’s Friday except for Sweet Sweetback and The Exorcist. You should probably not listen to anything I say except the parts about keeping your options open!

Sunday, April 14

2019 TCM Film Festival Sunday

Unfortunately this is the bittersweet portion of our program when I again announce that in order to catch the sensible non-stop back to Pittsburgh, I’ll need to leave the festival sometime just before 1pm. I’ll miss out on some terrific offerings, but turning 9 hours of travel time into a single 5-hour flight always seems like the right play. One of these years I’ll get to stay for the Closing Party… in the meantime, let’s send the 2019 TCM Film Festival out with one more Cinema Shame viewing.

9:00am – Hello, Dolly! (1969) – TCL Chinese Theatre

2019 tcm film festival hello dolly!

Mad Love, Holiday and The Defiant Ones are all great options. If you haven’t seen Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Holiday, I’d make that a priority of your festival. Instead, I’m turning to Barbara Streisand and the big, boisterous, silver screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly! (In no small part because of the role it plays in Wall*E.)

So that’s it. I might consider popping into the discussion prior to The Robe (1953) for one final nugget before heading back to LAX for my flight home.

#ProTip: Don’t kill yourself getting home. My first two years, I took the red-eye and that form of transportation should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. You’re already sleep deprived and generally not ready to go back to public life. Stay the extra night if you can afford it. Lodging, as you may have noticed, is very expensive. With two kids under 10, I need to return to regular life first thing on Monday morning. Taking the red-eye means I’m a miserable human for at least another day. Probably two. 

Read my previews of past TCM Film Festivals for more info — I tried not to be too redundant!

2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018

Also be sure to check out these 2018 TCM Film Festival previews and hot tips from other fellow festival attendees!

Aurora’s Gin Joint (@citizenscreen)
Cinema Crossroads (@julsrich)
Joel’s Classic Film Passion (@joelrwilliams1)
Journeys in Classic Film (@journeys_film)
Pre-Code.com (@precodedotcom)
The Way We Watch (@NikkiLM4)
Outspoken and Freckled (@IrishJayhawk66)
Blog of the Darned (@ChrisSturhann)

 

 

 

80’s Flashback: The Lost Boys

Paul: Garlic don’t work boys.
Edgar Frog: Then try it with holy water deadbreath! 

the lost boys poster

The Lost Boys Elevator Pitch

One of the Coreys moves into fictional Santa Carla, California, which he soon learns has a vampire infestation. When his brother goes half vampire, Corey teams up with Corey and some other kid to break the curse. Lost Boys!

The Shame-Maker

Despite my love for all things 1980’s, I’d never seen Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys in its entirety. Chalk up another omission to the “I saw part of it on TV one day and… eh…” category. The Lost Boys also owns the distinction of being a film directed by Joel Schumacher, who, whether he knows it or not, has become my nemesis.

The feud began in 1990 (Flatliners), escalated in 1997 (Batman & Robin) and became a legitimate blood feud in 1998 (8mm) with many smaller transgressions in between.

I called a truce just long enough to face my Cinema Shame and order up The Lost Boys on Netflix DVD.

The 1987 Boys

If I had to pick the most 80’s year of the 1980’s, I would without hesitation choose 1987. If I were to pick the most 1987 movie from the year 1987, I might just pick The Lost Boys.

Joel Schumacher first worked in the fashion industry and broke into Hollywood as a costume designer. After writing a few successful screenplays he made his directorial debut on The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). Schumacher directs like a fashion designer with foregrounded flash and spectacle and maybe something going on behind, but maybe not. Most likely not, but that’s irrelevant because LOOK AT THE FABULOUS LAPELS ON HIS LEATHER JACKET.

The Lost Boys Nostalgia

The Lost Boys looks and feels like a music video. A motorcycle chase scored my Lou Gramm’s (Foreigner) “Lost in the Shadows” gives the film its backbone. Elsewhere on the soundtrack find such clear-eyed aural vampire analogies like Echo and the Bunnymen’s “People are Strange” and Roger Daltrey’s version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” These are not subtle cues.

the lost boys 1987

In turn, more narrative beats hit you through musical montage and wardrobe rather than dialogue and action. Schumacher ladles on superficial visceral thrills in place of downtime. The result is film as pop-culture. As a kinetic riff on 1987 popular culture, The Lost Boys would have felt hyper-stylized in the moment. Removed from the era of its manufacture, the film now feels reflective of our late 80’s nostalgia.

This is how we now remember 1987 — a compression of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” leather, bitchin’ power rock anthems, INXS, a little bit of neon, sunglasses, the Coreys, Hawaiian shirts as a fashion statement. Even the vampire mythology feels rooted in 1987. Pre-Anne Rice and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Lost Boys Flashback Verdict

None of these things prevents The Lost Boys from being a good movie. On the contrary, these jolts of processed pop culture nostalgia seem to have some of the most adamant fans. They stand out precisely for the reasons highlighted above.

Due to my pre-disposed negativity for Joel Schumacher I watched The Lost Boys and yelled BINGO! after seeing all my favorite Joel Schumacher flourishes grace the screen before the half-hour mark. As a director, Schumacher’s a magician, a practitioner of misdirection, and The Lost Boys probably remains his crowning achievement. But instead of smoke and mirrors, he’s using rock anthems and Kiefer Sutherland.

If you loved The Lost Boys back in 1987, I’d wager that you’re still very much attached to the film. As a lover of all things 80’s, I understand the allure completely; it hits you like a 10-ton blob of hair gel.

Having viewed this film for the first time as a 40-year old manchild, the tone’s far more childish than I’d anticipated. Safe scares for prepubuscent horror-fans-in-training with Jason Patric as your James Dean rebelling with a cause, an excellent cause by the name 1987’s Jami Gertz. Light on vampire gore, but high on humor, mild tension and beautiful people.

jami gertz the lost boys

There are worse reason to love a movie — but understand that presentation in The Lost Boys is everything and if you peek behind the gloss, it’s mostly undead.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

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

 

 

 

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

The Crimson Pirate: Swashbuckler Shame

crimson pirate

Swashbuckler Shame: The Crimson Pirate

For the Cinema Shame prompt for March, we settled on Swashbucklers and Pirate movies. Because Maarrrrrggch, obviously. Also, I’ve had the genre on my mind lately after introducing my daughters to Errol Flynn last month. While I’ve spent significant time with Errol, the genre outside of his contribution remained somewhat hazy. I’ve decided to entertain more plundering and pillaging in addition to the standard allotment swashing and buckling.

While I placed The Black Pirate (1928) on my Shame Statement for year, I inexplicably elected to watch The Crimson Pirate (1952) to satisfy the Maarrrrrgggch requirement. Burt Lancaster and early 1950’s Technicolor sounded rather essential, and I was still trying to wrangle a copy of The Black Pirate from the Pittsburgh public library system.

the crimson pirate

Having not done my homework on the film beforehand, I was struck by the “directed by Richard Siodmak” credit straightaway. Siodmak, known primarily for his B-movie and film noir output in the 1940’s, seemed an odd choice for a color-splashed Caribbean adventure film.

In his autobiography, Christopher Lee (who appears in The Crimson Pirate in a minor, thankless roll of one-note stoicism) said that Siodmak had been given a solemn script by screenwriter Waldo Salt, but that after reading the material the director refashioned the script into a comedy. The film’s producers may have feared association with Salt’s rumored communist ties, and though I’ve read nothing in my brief searches to suggest that the producers intervened in Siodmak’s creative process it seems likely that they also a hand in the rewrite and tonal shift.

Perhaps too long constrained by the grayscale genre limitations in Film Noir, Siodmak embraced the opportunity to direct this sprawling light adventure film with his The Killers star Burt Lancaster. While Lancaster fares well outside his comfort zone — 100-watt charisma plays, no matter the genre — a defter directorial touch might have better expedited the sluggish middle bits.

the crimson pirate

The film wastes no time in presenting itself as a lark, introducing itself with a Bye Bye Birdie-style sequence (or rather Bye Bye Birdie borrowed the Crimson Pirate opening) with Burt Lancaster introducing the film while swinging back and forth between ship masts, bare-chested and grinning ear to ear.

Siodmak’s film moves along at a steady clip, mixing elaborate slapstick choreography with double crossing and a side of swashbuckling. Casual glancers would presume the film to be a 1950’s MGM-brand musical based on costuming. color and boisterous puffery.

the crimson pirate

Burt Lancaster plays Captain Vallo, a famous scourge of the seven seas known as, of course, the Crimson Pirate. He and his crew capture a frigate belonging to the King carrying Baron Gruda, a special envoy on his way to crush a rebellion on the island of Cobra. Vallo suggests selling the frigate’s weapon’s cash to the rebel leader El Libre. Gruda humbly suggests there would be more money to be made by capturing El Libre and selling him to the King.

Vallo and his lieutenant, Ojo (Nick Cravat), meet the island’s rebels, lead by Pablo (Noel Purcell) and Consuelo (Eva Bartok), and learn that El Libre has been imprisoned on the island of San Pero. Thus begins the symphony of double- and triple-crossing that features prison breaks, Lancaster in drag, a crackpot scientist, mutiny and a bit of the old swordplay. The finale predicts the bloated epic comedies that graced the early 1960s.

the crimson pirate

Even when The Crimson Pirate sags in the middle as it navigates the hypeconvolute narrative, Lancaster and Nick Cravat anchor the film with infectious enthusiasm, preventing it from floating away entirely on its own hot air. (This makes more sense when you see the hot air balloon climax.) Lancaster even tried to resurrect the character for a sequel in the 1970’s.

The bookending spectacle set pieces, showcases for the athleticism of Lancaster and his circus-partner and career-long trainer Cravat, make for an entertaining matinee spectacle. The Technicolor-tailored costume design and screaming blue Caribbean landscape call for a Blu-ray treatment even though the material feels undercooked.

Entertaining spectacle. Lancaster essential. Technicolor beauty. Fun but non-essential piracy. The kind gentlefolk at Warner Archive saw fit to release this Technicolor marvel on DVD, and I thank them for that.