TCM Classic Film Festival 2016: Part One, by David Bax

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I stumbled out of the gate here at my first time covering the TCM Classic Film Festival, now in its seventh year. Poor timing and planning on my part led to my being unable to see any movies on opening night. My fortunes soon changed, though, as I kicked off the second evening with what may be the single greatest moviegoing experience of my life. More on that later, though. First, I just want to remark on what an impressive and heartwarming event this festival is. One might assume that a festival devoted exclusively to older films, many of them largely unheard of and some of them not even American, would have trouble making its mark in a city with a reputation for superficiality and flavors of the month. The fact that those are unfair and untrue representations of Los Angeles is best left for another day but the truth is that the area around Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave. is perhaps the most garish and commercial in the city. To see it taken over by this massively successful project, complete with a legion of hardcore movie geeks and posters everywhere of classic movies, frankly gives me hope for humanity.

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Now, on to that life-changing, transformative experience I mentioned earlier. Conductor Dr. Mark Sumner led an orchestra, including a choir, in a performance of composer Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, a piece intended to be performed in time with a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. And that’s exactly what happened Friday evening at the Egyptian Theatre, to glorious results. In the interest of full disclosure, I’d never seen this vital, beautiful film before. Einhorn’s music had me tearing up during the overture but I was in no way prepared for what was to come. Dreyer’s film, even at almost 90 years old, is still only one of a few works that can be described as pure cinema. Add to that my being personally affected by its very Catholic portrayal of suffering and death–represented by blood and skull imagery–as being the necessary threshold to transcendence and you’ve got a film that is quickly nearing the top of my all-time favorite list. From a cinema standpoint, Passion stands out as being almost completely devoid of establishing shots. This is a film of close-ups unmoored by conventional film language that grounds it in a physical space. It becomes about the juxtaposition of disconnected imagery used to tell a story and impart emotions and idea. With Einhorn’s accompaniment, these pieces lift and spin heavenward on the voices of the choir. I’ve never seen or felt anything quite like it.

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I followed that up with a much lighter film, 1955’s My Sister Eileen, directed by Richard Quine. A musical with Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon (top-billed regardless of his relatively minor role) and others, it’s notable for a couple of reasons. The main one is that it’s Bob Fosse’s first Hollywood choreography credit. Beyond that, though, it’s a fascinating and sometimes troubling look at gender and sex politics in flux years before the hippies and free love. Leigh and Betty Garrett play Eileen and Ruth Sherwood, respectively, two young ladies who have come to New York City to make a go of careers in acting and writing (again, respectively). They move into a cheap garden apartment in the Village and things immediately become interesting when they meet Dick York’s Wreck and his fiancee Helen (Lucy Marlow), an unmarried couple who live together, with Helen as the breadwinner and Wreck doing the domestic work. Ruth and Eileen are accepting–a concise illustration of how big city living can make a person more liberal just through proximity to folks of other stripes–but they never seem to adjust their own morals. They are happy to have bohemian trappings even if their own values are strictly conventional. What I mean to say is that they want love and marriage above all else. They’ll have to fight to hold on to these ideals, though, as the men in their lives–even the potential love interests–constantly behave like aggressive creeps. The movie doesn’t exactly condone these men but it’s uncomfortably comfortable with them nonetheless. A few clicks in another direction and this movie is a feminist social issue drama. Still, the acting, singing, dancing and technical presentation of all of the above are spot on and delightful.

That’s how I started my TCM Classic Film Festival. Stay tuned for more updates!

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1 Response

  1. Yonah Paley says:

    Glad you got to finally see Passion of Joan of Arc. A wonderful, wonderful film that stands the test of time.

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