Thursday, April 13, 2017

When is a classic not a classic?

Long-time readers may remember I’ve talked movies before. More in a general/historical/personal than critical context, but recent events have made me itchy to talk about them—or, at the very least, give my account of a recent experience.

All at the risk of mansplaining, I fear, but those are the risks.

I’m willing to take them.

Those of you who have followed my other blog know that I recently completed an epic 
seven weeks performing in New York (those of you who haven’t read it will find it here). After that trip, I flew home, spent twelve hours in Pacifica, and then drove down to Los Angeles for the TCM Classic Film Festival.

The Festival began in 2010 and I’ve been to all eight (so far). It’s basically an opportunity for fans of old movies (and that definition is flexible, as is that of “classic”) to binge-watch them in the conditions in which they were intended to be seen: on a big screen, surrounded by hundreds of others.

When it works, it’s great; even when it doesn’t work so well, it’s great. Each year, I’ve seen 18 movies in just over three days. (The Festival begins with a gala screening Thursday night, continues all day Friday and Saturday, and ends Sunday around 10:00 or 11:00.) People don’t believe me when I tell them how exhausting it is to sit in a theatre and watch movies, but it is. Honest.

I’ve been reading a lot of recaps and breakdowns of this year’s Festival, and wanted to add my own two cents. While I always have a great time, I felt this year was the least of them so far, and I want to explore why, and even (toward the end) get a little into the reception of the gender and racial politics of movies of the Studio Era—dangerous ground for an old white guy, I admit, but I’ll risk it in the service of trying to begin a conversation—and hopefully be exposed to opposing views.

When TCM first came along, I was actually glad that I didn’t have cable—and, when I did get cable, that I didn’t get TCM. My reasoning was that, if I was able to watch it, I would do nothing else. That assumption turned out to be pretty true. Once I did get it, it became my go-to station. Most of the programs on my DVR are from TCM, and it’s the first thing I check when I turn on the TV. (Except when they show Westerns—a genre I’ve never really responded to—or most war movies or fare of dubious quality, such as the current Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. That film may be many things, but “classic” is not among them.)

 No. Just no.

Every year, when the dates for the Festival are announced (usually in November for an April Festival), there’s a mad rush for hotel reservations. The Festival is in Hollywood itself, in that it's one of the few locales in the country (if not the only one) that is able to host it, given the need for multiple screens in big theatres that are relatively adjacent. There are few of those that are convenient to one another left in major cities—certainly not New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Even Los Angeles itself, with its host of movie palaces on Broadway, wouldn’t work, given the overall lack of nearby hotel rooms. “Hollywood,” as seedy as it’s become, still has some residual glamour, and offers theatres (the Chinese, the Egyptian, the Cinerama Dome, and even the El Capitan [when Disney consents to its use, as it did for two years]) with state-of-the-art presentation capability.

 How would you not want to see a movie here?

The flagship hotel of the Festival is the Hollywood Roosevelt, which is more or less across the street from the Chinese, but too expensive for my tastes (I think it runs about $400 a night, even at the Festival rate). I stay at a small apartment house-turned-hotel just in back of the Chinese, whose main advantages are location (it’s less than a five-minute walk to Hollywood Boulevard), price, and its kitchenettes. The first year of the festival (I’m going to stop capitalizing it), I was surprised to find that there were no food options that were remotely healthy. It was all the typical movie theatre fare of overprice popcorn, candy, and soda. I soon realized that, having a kitchen, I could pre-buy sandwich fixings and make food in advance, saving me money and allowing me to eat something that wasn’t just salt, fat, and/or sugar.

 A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to stay there

Once the dates are announced, the wait begins to find out what films will be showing. In the first years, opening night was a big musical—A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music—but the last two years have featured dramas: All the President’s Men and In the Heat of the Night. A few more are announced over the next few months, usually saluting guests or restorations or rediscoveries, until, finally, a couple of weeks before opening night, the entire schedule is released, usually to the distress of ticket-holders who now have to choose between two or three films they absolutely cannot miss, all in the same time slot.

Every year, until now, I’ve faced those Hobson’s* choices; what can I not miss? While there are always things I’ve seen before and will see again, I’ve learned over the years to choose things I’ve never seen before. (Of course, it’s also easier for me because I saw so many old movies in revival house in the 70s and 80s.) There are things I won’t miss, even if I’ve seen them—I was not about to miss King Kong in the Chinese, where it had premiered 80 years earlier, or Shall We Dance, an Astaire/Rogers musical that is my desert-island movie, or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 70 mm at the Cinerama Dome, where I saw it in 1963 (after spilling a glass of milk on my sister at the long-gone Ship's restaurant across the street)—but I really try to see new things or things I haven’t seen on a big screen.

 "He just went sailin' on out there!"

This year, though, there was only one real tough decision (and it turns out that I made the right choice); the majority of the films were bland, dull, or really stretching my definition of “classic.”

But I’ll deal with that in the next installment.

*Happy, Lee?

1 comment:

  1. A great beginning, want to hear more.

    But you are not allowed to trivialize a "Sophie's Choice" in reference to choosing movies. Just not. Allowed.