Adam begins his TCM Film Festival proper with the first full day and a three-year-long jinx he’s made peace with.
It’s official. It’s become a thing.
The first film of the Festival is always missed. Happened in 2016. Happened in 2017. Now, it’s happened in 2018. Not a huge deal, with any Film Festival you have to roll with the punches when it comes to the any of the reasons you miss a screening; running late, traffic, the dreaded “to capacity” notice. No sense in getting upset and frustrated. Call it an exercise in Zen and the art of Film Festival going, at least I do.
This year as every year, I program my festival with a balance of “Never Seen” and “Want to see on the Big Screen”. Part of the fun of TCM Film Festival is the discoveries. Every year it seems that the discoveries are as important as the re-watches, probably more so. Many of the discoveries have become personal favorites. Finding films like King of Hearts and When you’re in Love have become personal favorites of mine. This year started off with a seeing something I had not seen before.
My Brilliant Career
What a perfect way to begin the festival! Gillian Armstrong spoke before the film with Ileana Douglas. They discussed the process leading to Armstrong directing the movie, casting a then 17-year-old Judy Davis, and the unexpected success of the film in Australia and abroad, where it played at Cannes in competition. Armstrong was a thoughtful speaker and genuinely delighted by the rousing applause she received when she was first announced.
The film in a word is… well brilliant! Armstrong’s debut feature is a quiet thoughtful story of one young woman’s defiance of societal norms in Australia of the 1890’s. Sybylla (Davis) is judged by her “odd” looks and willful spirit. Her family wants her to marry, which she refuses wanting to be a writer and live independently. My Brilliant Career is not a screaming angry film but rather a film that is soft, delicate and understanding. There is never a moment in which the story and characters feel anything less than truthful without the need for bombast.
The photography by Don McAlpine is nothing short of stunning but never subjected itself to cheap Perfume Ad aesthetics. Davis is startlingly good as Sybylla, the actress proving the 40 years of amazing performances started the moment she appeared on the screen. The same can be said about Sam Neill in an early supporting performance as Harry Beecham, Sybylla’s possible paramour. Armstrong and screenwriter Eleanor Witcombe (adapting a novel by Miles Franklin) are constantly subverting your expectations of what this type of film can be.
My Brilliant Career is nothing short of a classic. By refusing to play up to the notions of a classic Hollywood ending the film becomes something more substantive, meditative. The film opts for an ending that may not be traditional but is as happy and beautiful an ending in cinema. The film will be on Film Struck in the next few month and possibly the Criterion Collection as its newly restored 4K transfer was done with the aid of Janus Films (who Criterion is a division of).
How to Marry a Millionaire
After My Brilliant Career, it was off to watch this 1950’s Technicolor Cinemascope Pop comedic confection. Yes, it was time to check off one of the last Marilyn Monroe and William Powell films that I have not seen.
One of the greatest joys of attending the TCM Film Festival is seeing films as intended; with a large audience on the biggest screen possible. If you are going to see a film like How to Marry a Millionaire, you want to see it with a TCM Festival Crowd. The film worked like a well-oiled machine for both myself and the audience. Director Jean Negulesco and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald know how to use the 2.40 aspect ratio for maximum effect.
How to Marry a Millionaire is the sort of pastel stylish comedies that truly don’t exist anymore. Even the plot seems like something that could have only been done in the 1950s. Three women played by Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and Lauren Becall concoct a scheme to attract rich men into relationships and eventually, as the title indicates, Marry. The story is more much innocent and good-hearted than the plot would have you think.
The film is a showcase for Grable, Monroe, Becall at their skills and prowess as performers. Sixty plus years on and the film still managed to make the entire audience laugh out loud consistently through its breezy 95-minute running time. Becall, in particular, is a revelation as her comic timing is so good she almost steals the entire movie as Schatze from Grable and Monroe. Is it overstated that Monroe has always been an underrated comedic performer? Here she shines as Pola, the woman that refuses to wear her glasses much to the comedic delight to all. Grable as the aptly named Loco Dempsey (the film has some amazing names). The actress shows just how great she was at both the physical performer and the aerobatic wordsmith delivering some of the best one-liners. As Loco she never makes the most arched or pun-laden aside seem anything more than a beautifully timed punch-line designed to murder. The only critique of the film is the lack of William Powell. His role amounts to all of the 10-minutes of screen time. One would have hoped that they would have found a way to add more Powell because more Powell is never a bad thing.
Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song
After Millionaire it was time to get into the criminal underworld of cinema. The perfect one-two gut punch of what is possible in genre filmmaking.
Both Melvin and Mario Van Peebles were on hand at the Hollywood Egyptian to discuss Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song with Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Melvin at his advanced age, he’s 85 years old, only said a few key things. Luckily enough Mario who was on-set for the film (he plays Sweetback as a child) and directed about his father making his seminal film. Mario was able to freely speak the film’s production and cultural influence on cinema as a whole. How the film seeped into the work of Spike Lee, his own work, and Music Videos.
Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song is as dangerous, artful, Gonzo, and relevant today as it was 45 years ago. The film with its avant-garde style almost feels like a music video. How Van Peebles takes the lack of a big budget as fertile grounds to experiment is even bolder now. The story of a Black Man on the run for saving a Revolutionary, in Van Peebles hands, becomes Dante’s Inferno. The journey into hell with Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) is tracked by law enforcement hunting him. They push him further and further away from his homes into the depths of the sewers and eventually the mounts of California. The film remains as powerful and as prescient today as it did in 1972. It is unfortunate as Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song should be a document of our history, not a rallying cry that is as current as it was upon initial release. The film still retains all of its power and bite even now.
After the Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song screening, it was a race to make it to the packed screening of the John Boorman classic. I did not see the introduction, as I sat the film literally began.
Point Blank is every bit of the genius crime thriller it thinks it is. The film strides in on bravado, style, and confidence. This stylish adaptation of the oft-adapted Don Westlake book The Hunter tells the story of Walker (Lee Marvin) looking for revenge for the double-cross his wife (Sharon Acker), and best friend (John Vernon) pull on him. Boorman has stripped the story to its barest essentials. Even at a brisk 91-minutes, the film feels weightier than most films double its length. Marvin is perfectly cast as the sociopathic Walker. The star’s unchanging visage allows Boorman to create a non-linear narrative that adds weight to those stares into the abyss. The movie’s impressive cast excels in their roles; Vernon and Acker are good but its Angie Dickinson as Chris, Walker’s ex-sister-in-law who owns the screen. Part of the beauty is Dickinson as Chris is allowed to be as upset and annoyed by Walker’s interference in her life as she would be if this really happened. That tension and interplay between Marvin and Dickinson is the broken unrepairable soul of the film. There have been many imitators (including what feels like 9,000 remakes) of Boorman’s film and style but none compare to the stark original.