TCM Fest part 4- Manners and Purpose, by Scott Nye
Now I should preface this by saying that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was my only encounter with any troublesome audience members. In my preview piece, I praised TCM Fest audiences as the most respectful, loving, and enthusiastic I sit with all year, and that held true every other time. They pay a lot of money to be there, are intent on getting a return on that investment, and recognize the importance of the event to their fellow attendees. A tremendous sense of community is fostered while waiting in lines (which we typically stand in for a good half hour, and in many instances well over an hour, per show), so the people in the auditorium are sometimes those with whom you’ve just conversed. Even if they’re not, there’s a common sense of purpose, of meaning, and of respect that pervades the auditorium.
It has been no small topic amongst cinephiles that the average audience will contain a handful of people who care not for the enjoyment of those around them if it interferes with their desire to talk, use a cell phone, or, in one recent incident (at a press screening no less), whip out a lighter. Even when on supposed Holy Grounds like a rare screening of Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, I am slowly learning to never be surprised by the selfishness of audiences. And, yes, even my beloved TCM Film Festival is not immune to such characters, who spend upwards of $1000 to see films as they were meant to be seen only to ruin the experience for those who have shelled out same. Such as when they, say, talk at full volume all through the film despite me asking them three times to please stop.
TCM put on quite a show for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that went a long way towards compensating for the rotten experience the couple behind me insisted upon. They held the screening in the magnificent Grauman’s Chinese, and even though it was projected digitally, it still looked marvelous. It’s not what one might call an auteurist masterpiece or anything, but as such reveals a sort of standardized mode of shooting pictures in 1954. CinemaScope was a very new format at the time, and represented Hollywood’s one lasting invention in their cavalcade of gimmicks designed to give TV a run for its money. The entire premise of the enterprise is that movies weren’t nearly big enough, and given what was to come, it seems like they had a point. Since its advent in the early ‘50s, CinemaScope really did made the movies bigger and bigger and bigger through the ‘60s, before having the total opposite effect of shrinking the picture. Nowadays, major films are increasingly shot for television, and the black bars on the top and bottom of your screen feel more like they’re restricting the image than freeing it.
But in 1954, ‘Scope wasn’t a limitation; it was like blowing the doors off. Even a journeyman like Richard Fleischer, whose works are more commercial curiosities than genuine classics (his forthcoming work would include Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, Soylent Green, and Conan the Destroyer), was reflexively composing his images for the big screen, capturing whole scenes in a single shot that easily accommodated all the principal players. The result might not be as snappy as The Hunger Games, but it’s a hell of a lot more impressive; not for his “restraint” or any nonsense, but because it’s inherently cinematic. It takes for granted the cinema.
Unfortunately, being a product of 1954 is not always such a positive. When you get to the part in which Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre hoot and howl as native islanders (who are, of course, quite a bit more dark-skinned than our protagonists) are electrified by James Mason’s boat, actively inviting the film’s target (young) audience to join them, the film doesn’t exactly maintain its raucous energy. In another scene, Captain Nemo (Mason) and his crew go hunting, an act for which Fleischer and company have no small admiration as they haul a giant turtle from its habitat. Now, I’m not one to poo-poo hunting as it directly relates to survival (Nemo gotta eat), but it’s pretty hard to imagine a modern blockbuster presenting this material the same way, particularly in showing the turtle struggle as it does.
But in other ways, very little has changed in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking. It is, then as now, defined by patches of rousing entertainment and spectacle amidst mind-numbing boredom, a collection of characters that sound really exciting on paper, and a brief flirtations with the possibility of larger, universal themes. I will say the whole affair would’ve been a lot more enjoyable had I not been compelled to ask the couple behind me three times to stop talking at full volume, and particularly if they had actually ceased after any of those requests.
Before the show, Kirk Douglas came out to say “hi,” answer some questions from Ben Mankiewicz, and sing part of the song he sang in the film (which was about as great as the film got, which I don’t mean as a slight). Mankiewicz’s questions leaned heavily on Douglas’ involvement on busting up the blacklist (before it referred to a list of mediocre screenplays that studios were readying for production, the “blacklist” referred to various creative types denied employment in Hollywood due to real or alleged associations with the Communist Party), which has nothing at all to do with 20,000 Leagues, but was probably nice to hear about for those who weren’t at last year’s showing of Spartacus, when they talked about the exact same thing. Even for those of us who were, it was fun to hear Douglas sing, and what can I say? He can still command a room like few others.
The next night, I wandered into Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 film The Black Cat. Like 20,000 Leagues, this was not a terribly good film, and it was not made terribly better by the crowd that had arrived largely to see the son and daughter, respectively, of Bela Legosi and Boris Karloff speak before the film. As mentioned in a previous column, I don’t find these children-of-the-stars talks to be terribly informative or interesting. They know exactly what they were brought in to do (tell fawning stories of growin’-up-monster!), and the crowd eats it up. But knowing what kind of parent either of these men were isn’t even tangentially related to our appreciation of their work. It’s a curiosity, a sideshow that’s too often treated as the main event, as evidenced by the dozen or so people who left right after the Q&A ended, passively denying those turned away from the packed house the opportunity to see a film that those granted entry didn’t even want to.
Which honestly may have been just as well. The Black Cat reeks of an attempt on Universal’s part to cash in on two of their biggest stars by ensuring they appear together onscreen as often as possible while never giving them very much to do. Casting Karloff as a mad Satanist scientist (in roughly that order) makes for some pretty wonderful moments, but Legosi as a kindly old man is only sort of funny in a meta sense. Hard as he tries to endear himself, he’s just a naturally creepy man.
When I was waiting in line for one film or another, I had a conversation with a woman who came all the way from Chicago to attend the festival. She was exceedingly pleasant, and it’s easy to get along with someone who was as astonished as I that the screening of the not-on-DVD The Macomber Affair was not more enthusiastically attended. She talked about how, going to college in Washington, D.C. in the ‘70s, she would go to the AFI Theater every chance she got to see double-features of classic films, and how attending TCM Fest reminded her of those days, when seeing movies on the big screen really was the only way to see movies. She talked about the TCM Fest community that springs up because we all spend so much time waiting in lines, talking to strangers, and the whole festival is held in a very concentrated area. Sooner or later, the conversation turned to the festival’s chief appeal, because after all, one can see a fair number of great films in Chicago. “It’s really all about the panels,” she said. “Getting to hear these people talk. You can see the movies anytime.” I politely disagreed, the doors opened, and we went our separate ways.