When you can honestly say that Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which I thoroughly enjoyed as a kick-start to this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, is, after nine movies the low point, well, I guess that means that we’re having a pretty damn good time so far, kids.
Yesterday, the first full day of movie-going at this fourth annual smorgasbord of filmed delights and enthusiastic appreciation, was a true marathon of blissful proportions. Not unlike Burt Lancaster swimming his way home through the pools of his moneyed Connecticut neighbors, I made my way through one cool blast of invigorating cinema after another, each different than the one before or after, sharing only the wonderful transporting qualities only an authentically great movie (or an authentically great movie experience) can convey. And very much unlike Burt Lancaster, I was left not shattered by the inexorable intrusions of a repressed reality, but instead heightened by the light those movies shone on the reality I was already familiar with and, of course, the special reality I never knew until they showed me.
Once again, here I am, trying to bang out a few thoughts before hopping the train back to Hollywood, after having packed my lunch and dinner for the day—boy, those chicken salad sandwiches and bananas tasted good, especially when I knew I wasn’t spending $13 for a popcorn and soda as a distraction from nutrition just to fill up gut space. And there are more of them on the menu today. Fewer movies today, but that’s okay—the schedule as I see it looks unbeatable, and that’s coming after what I was treated to on Friday. I feel rested, on four hours sleep, and ready for more.
Of course, I’ll offer up plenty more once the festival has hit my rear view mirror, once again for the good folks at Slant magazine and The House Next Door, but until I get to that let me just give you a taste of what I tasted yesterday as I flew from auditorium to auditorium powered by caffeine and a blast of pure movie love.
The day started at 9:00 a.m. with The Swimmer, the very curious and daring and agonizing movie Lancaster, screenwriter Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (who eventually left the project) fashioned from the template of a John Cheever story about a man whose tortured past is gradually revealed as he makes his way home across a Connecticut forest by way of his neighbor’s swimming pools. The movie casts a very skeptical satiric eye toward the consumerist obsessions of the upper middle class of the 1960’s—director Allison Anders, who introduced the screening and interviewed Marge Champion, who appears briefly in the film, imagined it as an imagined alternative version of what might eventually happen to Mad Men’s Don Draper. But it’s also implicitly critical of what one might presume to be the younger generation’s pie-eyed perspectives about the blissful harmony of nature and man, points of view expressed by Lancaster’s Ned Merrill who, as it becomes increasingly clear, is far more unhinged than we might expect one as fit and established as Lancaster could ever be. It’s a spectacular, unsettling movie whose troubled production history never smears the considerable achievement of what made it to the screen.
I followed my swim with a trip of a different kind, this one courtesy of Roberto Rossellini and his Voyage to Italy (1954), the English-language version of which has been lovingly restored and made its debut at TCM Fest yesterday. Rossellini’s drama of marital discord is a strange bird-- tied to the director’s own neorealist tendencies, it’s a cross-breeding of melodrama and travelogue, as a married couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) acknowledges the boredom at the center of their relationship while on vacation in Northern and Southern Italy and go about finding ways to spend time apart while confronting the realities of the country and its culture on their own individual terms. The movie was largely improvised by Rossellini and his actors—Bergman reveled in the process while Sanders, perhaps predictably, bristled—and the friction derived from that working method adds immeasurably to the movie’s sense of beauty spoiled, or at the very least squandered and misunderstood. Voyage to Italy has one of the bleakest “upbeat” conclusions to any romantic drama I’ve ever seen—swept up in the religious fervor of a local parade populated by villagers appealing the healing powers of a silent saint, Bergman and Sanders, indifferent throughout the film and eventually at each other’s throats, forge an understanding and recommit to their love. But in the context of the surrounding pleas for divine intercession gone unheard, I sensed Rossellini didn’t believe in his couple’s chances any more than he did that an old man begging for healing at the feet of a statue while believers swarm around him would suddenly be able to throw down his crutches and walk.
Next, I went from the streets of Napoli to those of Paris and the still wild American West of the early 20th century for Leo McCarey’s uproarious comedy Ruggles of Red Gap (1939) which proves, if there are any who still don’t believe, the great comedic talents of Charles Laughton. His Ruggles is a British butler in Paris whose services are gambled away in a poker game by his employer (the delightfully somnambulant Roland Young). Ruggles finds himself following his new employers (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland) to relatively rugged Washington State where he discovers, through various hilarious embarrassments and uncomfortable predicaments, how to live life more or less on his own terms. I hadn’t seen the movie in close to 40 years, and it turns out to be a much sweeter, more even tempered and less unruly comedy than I remembered—maybe exposure to years of sarcastic Mr. Belvedere-isms colored my memories of it. It’s also, of course, a marvelous showcase for Laughton, whose natural tendency to go big is tempered here. His Ruggles feels that his own body is not entirely his own, so much of what he communicates comes through a slight turn of the lips, or most importantly through his eyes, which are forever animated with horror and, eventually, love. Laughton’s peepers roll magnificently in Ruggles of Red Gap, and in McCarey, the man who brought Laurel and Hardy together on screen, he found a director who was sympathetic to the tradition of silent comedy that the great grand actor accesses with such delight here.
Okay, four movies, all great and grand surprises of their own, still left to talk about from Friday. But I’ve gotta get on the train back to Hollywood. Incredibly, in less than two hours I’ll be watching Deliverance with John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight, unless I’m late, of course. On more rest tomorrow morning, I’ll try to catch up all the way. Right now, it’s back into the bliss.