Saturday, May 25, 2013

TCM CLASSIC MOVIE FESTIVAL 2013 DAY 2: CHRONICLES OF DELIVERANCE AND DEATH



Well, that was a bit longer of a layoff between posts than I intended or anticipated, but I’m still here, folks. Let’s do Day Two!

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I have decided that Friday, April 26, spent bumping around from auditorium to auditorium and throughout  the greater lobby area of the Chinese multiplex for the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival, was probably the single greatest day dedicated to watching movies that I’ve ever spent in my not-so-illustrious 53 years on this planet. Seven movies in a span of approximately 17 hours, with no breaks other than the time it took to get in and out of lines leading into the theaters and the restrooms. (I packed lunch and dinner.) The Swimmer, Voyage to Italy, Ruggles of Red Gap, I Am Suzanne!, It Always Rains on Sunday, Hondo and Plan Nine From Outer Space, all great in their own special ways. So what to do for an encore?

Well, one thing was for certain—there would be nowhere near the amount of cinema consumed on Saturday as there had been the previous day. After I said my bleary-eyed post-Ed Wood good-byes to Richard and Ariel, I trudged through the front door of my humble Glendale manse at around 3:00 a.m., but I didn’t actually get to sleep until about 3:30. As I tumbled gracelessly down the rabbit hole toward some desperately needed shuteye, I calculated my simple plan—I would set the alarm for around 9:00 a.m., thus skipping the festival of Bugs Bunny cartoons scheduled to celebrate the iconic character’s 75th birthday which began around 9:30 a.m., and instead make my way back to the Chinese complex in time for the Deliverance screening which started around 11:45 a.m. I figured I could get by on somewhere in the neighborhood of six hours of sleep and still have enough in the tank to get me through the four movies I had on the docket for the day.

But my dazed and confused body had other ideas. Without any electronic prompting from my clock, my eyes popped open promptly at 6:30 a.m., after two whole 90-minute sleep cycles. I was wide awake, exhausted but unable to keep my head from stirring about the movies of the past day and the ones yet to come. When it became clear, after a few minutes of tossing and turning, that I wasn’t going to get any more sleep, I decided to get up and start writing up what I’d seen of the festival so far. After logging part one of my post on Friday’s adventure, I hightailed it to the train station and hopped the one stop into Hollywood. This day would be slower, more measured, but still filled with the promise of transcending whatever physical reservations I had in favor of another brilliant experience.


Once I arrived, with some considerable excitement I settled into my spot toward the front of the Chinese #1, the big centerpiece auditorium (477 seats) within the Chinese multiplex, in anticipation of seeing Deliverance on the big screen for the first time since 1973, when I was a 13-year-old high school freshman. I was already fairly movie savvy at that age, and I’d heard talk about the movie circulating since its release—by the time it made it to our hometown theater the Academy Awards for 1972 had already passed, so word of the grueling nightmares that awaited its four weekend adventurers (and those who bought tickets to see it) had trickled down even to the most isolated corners of Southern Oregon. But even if I knew (more or less) what to expect, my dad, who barely paid attention to the movies, wouldn’t have known Deliverance from Up the Creek. So when I cleverly appealed to his taste for the outdoors and casually suggested that maybe we could go see that new canoeing movie (I needed that accompanied adult to circumvent the “R” rating), he glanced at the tiny ad on the local movie calendar, which conveniently showed only the name of the movie, pictures of the actors looming over a silhouette of three men paddling their boat, and an ominous tag line (“Where does the camping trip end… and the nightmare begin?”), and agreed to take me to see it. Success!


But I did not count on my mom’s interest. Unexpectedly, she decided to tag along, and I ended up sitting between the two of them for the entire movie. As the attack on Ned Beatty and Jon Voight began, I realized I may have miscalculated the situation, and my own comfort level, somewhat. The scene was much more frightening than I anticipated, so much so that upon viewing the movie later as an adult I realized that even at 13 I didn’t fully comprehend what was really going on, even to the point of blocking out some of the more graphic details and suggestions that were right there on screen. And I distinctly remember being aware of my mom staring daggers at me during that scene and at several points afterward, telegraphing just how much trouble I was in for when the lights finally did come up. (Curiously, I have very little memory of my dad’s reaction to the scene.)

Deliverance has, in the years since that fateful night, loomed large in my own personal movie mythology, for that experience with my parents but also because the movie has remained such a powerful and difficult experience all on its own. And I certainly never would have guessed that 40 years after my first somewhat traumatic experience with the movie I would be seeing it again in the presence of four of the men who helped make it. But here I was, in a packed house, the lights dimmed to darkness, watching the silhouetted figures of Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Burt Reynolds and director John Boorman being guided to the stage where, once the lights came up again, they would be interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz as an introduction to this morning’s beautiful DCP presentation of the movie. When the TCM Classic Film Festival schedule was first announced, only Jon Voight had been lined up to participate in the screening. But as Reynolds, Boorman and Beatty were eventually announced buzz surrounding the appearance began to build, and by the time the panel began the big auditorium was packed. Had they known they would be presenting what amounted to a Deliverance reunion, the programmers might have opted for the 1,100 seats of the big Chinese auditorium instead. (If only Ronny Cox, Vilmos Zsigmond and perhaps even Billy Redden could have been there!)


It’s hard to overstate my delight in seeing these actors and this director gathered together on the same stage to celebrate this movie. Boorman, 80, seemed to these eyes as vital and engaged as he did when I saw him introduce Hope and Glory at a UCLA screening 25 or so years ago, and even though his production has tailed off since 2006 he seemed ready to go, quite enjoying revisiting what must have been a grueling physical experience in attempting to exact visual poetry to match or at least stand beside the language of James Dickey’s novel while on such a logistically challenging shoot. With all respect given to Boorman, Voight assumed the role of √©minence grise on the panel, offering a few anecdotes to lead off the discussion (moderated by Ben Mankiewicz) before more or less ceding the spotlight to his costars.

Reynolds was delightful in what for him amounted to a somewhat stately repose, his casual wit and charm slowed somewhat by age but not dimmed in terms of pure zing—he still has the power to evoke all those star-making, wattage-sustaining appearances on the couch next to Johnny Carson. He still, near the end of a long career balanced by box-office stardom and eventual audience indifference, seemed in awe of the fact that he was cast at all in Deliverance, a vote of confidence from Boorman which still resonates for him today. “I may have been in 90 movies,” the actor intoned as the panel came to a close, “but I feel like I’ve really only been in one film.” If the line seemed a little honed and polished from use since the 40th anniversary celebrations of this movie began a year or so ago, it was also marked by sincerity, something not always in ample supply among the many arched eyebrows that have marked Reynolds’ long career.

But by far the most amusing was Beatty. At first he seemed to regard the comments of his fellow actors with a kind of gruff mask of stone-faced patience, the kind a beleaguered grandparent might put on in the face of misbehaving children before the inevitable furious eruption.  But when Mankiewicz finally swung the spotlight in his direction, Beatty seized the stage with a theatrical flurry of grumpiness that was a marvel to behold, mock dressing-down the “Hollywood Boulevard crowd” packing the auditorium and simultaneously winking at the two-ton elephant in the room. (“I know why you’re all here!”) The TCM host finally worked up the gumption to ask Beatty about the experience of this being his first movie, the scene being its nightmare centerpiece, and Beatty recalled Boorman worrying over how he felt about playing a scene of such heinous victimization. “Well, it’s acting, isn’t it?” Beatty recalled responding, thus dispelling the trauma viewers of Deliverance have for four decades imagined the actor must have suffered as a result of such on-screen degradation.


The movie itself remains uniquely powerful, one of the most brilliant exercises in foreboding and sustained, indefinable dread I think I’ve ever seen, as well as a savvy and damning dissection of the codes of macho authority so often celebrated without examination in American action thrillers. As I alluded earlier, Boorman finds a way into Dickey’s book by not allowing its specifically literary pleasures to haunt the film in absentia, by infusing even its most placid imagery of water, nature, and nature defiled with the suggestion of the fury and fear present when all hell rises to the surface and sets its own inexplicable course. And speaking of surfaces, I’d always thought Pauline Kael was probably right when, in her review of Carrie, she suggested that by staging the interrupted nightmare that ends the 1976 film Brian De Palma had managed to pull off the sort of cinematic boo-job that Boorman muffed at the end of Deliverance. 

But after seeing the movie here, it struck me that while the juxtaposition of the hand rising to the glassy surface of the river with Voight’s Drew lurching up out of bed, away from (but never far enough away from) the horrible memories of his experience, doesn’t have the adrenalized shock of De Palma’s sequence, what Boorman does hardly qualifies as a mistake. Rather than use the hard cut from dream to reality, in Deliverance Boorman employs an appropriately more fluid, fairly rapid lap dissolve to shift between images. The final effect then is not the gasping leap out of the nightmare, but rather something more reflective of the ineffable disorientation one feels, even when awakened with a start, in the transition from a horror-filled dream back into a reality where the horror insists on lingering. It’s a transition that seems well-tailored to the wide-screen nightmare Ed and Bobby and Lewis, and the audience, have just survived.


I left the Deliverance screened elated, but also exhausted, a feeling which in the moment I put down to the experience of seeing this grueling movie under such ideal circumstances. But as I settled in with my friend and fellow film critic Doug Cummings (whose own account of the 2013 TCM Film festival can be found here) for Nicholas Ray’s debut feature, They Live By Night (1948), it was becoming clear to me that the creeping weariness I was beginning to feel was probably more a symptom of the previous day’s blissful endurance test than a holdover of empathy for those ill-fated weekend warriors headed down the Cahulawassee River. The screening was introduced by the “czar of noir,” Eddie Muller (left), who also introduced the previous day’s highlight It Always Rains on Sunday, and who brought out the director’s widow, Susan Ray (right), for a brief and fascinating discussion of Ray’s working methods, his vision for realizing Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us as a movie, and even Ray’s eventual movement, at the end of his career, toward the avant-garde with We Can’t Go Home Again, a movie that couldn’t have seemed more formally different than the Hollywood classic we were about to watch.

Of course, the most obvious connection between these two career bookends, They Live by Night and We Can't Go Home Again, is their concern for the marginalized in the societies they conjure, whether that society be the hard-scrabble environment of crime and survival in Depression-era Mississippi or the conclave of creative neuroses at the center of Ray’s experimental film started in cooperation with his students in the film department of SUNY Binghamton in 1976. (Ray was still working on the movie at the time of his death; the most complete version of the film premiered at the Lincoln Center in 2011, primarily as a result of the efforts of the Nicholas Ray Foundation, headed by Susan Ray.) 

But they also share a fascination for formal innovation. Ray scrambled the screen in WCGHA with multiplied images and radically manipulated fields of vision, montages of generational unrest and long, rambling, apparently improvised character interludes. The sort of innovation he introduced in They Live by Night is the kind that viewers of contemporary films take for granted but should be apparent to anyone used to the common visual language of film as it was perceived in 1948. The movie was the first to employ an extended helicopter shot (it opens the film and follows the car which carries the three gangsters—Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen—along the road to their various dates with destiny). And it was also sensitive to the subtleties of aural and visual textures in ways audiences were not entirely used to, as a means to enhance the ill-fated relationship between Granger’s Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie as they set out on the run from the law and the inevitable. Ray’s biographer, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote in 1993 that “Only Welles similarly tried to define acoustic and even verbal textures as much as the visual,” and it seems clear watching this movie today that the influence of Welles and Citizen Kane, which came out only seven years prior, was a welcome, if also inescapable influence.

I only wish I had been better prepared to see it. I enjoyed it immensely, of course, but midway through I also began feeling the pull of my eyelids, and I suspect that hovering twilight, which I never actually succumbed to, tempered and dulled my receptors to the full effect of what this moving drama had to offer. The one thing that I can’t put down to lack of rest was the insistent echo of Robert Altman, whose own brilliant adaptation of Anderson’s Thieves Like Us was released in 1974. Having seen it a dozen or so times, I’m much more familiar with Altman’s version, which traded Granger and O’Donnell’s Bowie and Keechie for those of Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall. Its particular rhythms and images, and even its sonic particulars, kept intruding (not entirely unpleasantly) with my experience of Ray’s movie. Had I been more fully rested I might not have been so susceptible to this kind of reverie, but in a strange way I don’t really regret it. It only pointed up to me the possible value of one day comparing the films more directly, tracing Ray’s achievements and his influences on Altman as well as the ways Altman’s movie manages to strike out on its own individual path despite the remarkable allegiance both directors offer toward Anderson’s basic outline.

I said good-bye to Doug and stumbled off toward the Egyptian Theater for the rest of the evening, where I would see Max Von Sydow in person before a screening of The Seventh Seal and then Ann Blyth, Hollywood’s biggest nightmare daughter, introduce Mildred Pierce.  The journey out of and away from the central Chinese multiplex would be the first (and only) time I would leave the friendly confines of that bustling area, what I’ve come to think of as the Grand Central Station of the Turner Classic Film Festival, over the course of the entire weekend. I never even made it over to the “Big Chinese” this year, which is in itself a particular shame, since immediately after the festival closed that storied auditorium was shut down to the general public so that an interior remodeling of the Hollywood landmark could commence— after having its traditional seating and dimensions gutted, sometime later this year arguably the most famous movie theater in the world still in operation will reopen as a gigantic IMAX venue. As it turns out, the last movie I will have ever seen in that grand and familiar setting, where so much of Hollywood history played out over the course of its 86-year history, was Rio Bravo, in the presence of Angie Dickinson, on the final afternoon of last year’s TCM festival.


The window between the end of Nicholas Ray and the beginning of Ingmar Bergman was open plenty wide enough to make the jaunt to the Egyptian less urgent than it might have otherwise been, which is one of the main reasons why I decided on this part of my weekend schedule. There were plenty of temptations at the Egyptian and elsewhere in the festival offerings, but often the time between films was only a half hour or 45 minutes, making the projected journey between screenings a little more harrowing than I preferred. (Sometimes even just going from upstairs to downstairs within the Chinese multiplex from one showing to the next was cutting it close in terms of line placement and getting a decent seat, especially if I was headed toward one of the smaller auditoriums.)  But since the space between They Live by Night and The Seventh Seal was unusually generous, I made my way east down Hollywood Boulevard, buzzing in between the usual Saturday evening jungle of humanity. I was actually able to breathe some fresh air (all things being relative, especially in Hollywood) and take what amounted to an evening stroll toward what surely would be another memorable evening.

As I did, I started thinking about past years here at the Turner Classic Film Festival-- the excitement and gratitude I felt over even being able to attend the festival’s inaugural year, drinking in the atmosphere of being surrounded by so much Hollywood history, and the appreciation of Hollywood history, and how I felt like I could never possibly become jaded about the privilege of being a part of it all. Despite my idealistic enthusiasm, it’s inevitable that in subsequent years the first blush of that particularly sweet-smelling rose would have worn off somewhat—when your first experience with a festival starts off with watching a synchronized swimming display poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in the presence of Esther Williams and Betty Garrett, followed by a screening of Neptune’s Daughter amongst the cabanas and palm trees of this most luxurious (and, again, storied) of filmland locations, a certain amount of downhill grade should be expected. Of course each year has been packed with once-in-a-lifetime moments that I wouldn’t have traded for anything, either in the moment or looking back now. And by the time last year’s festival rolled around, I still wondered how anyone could possibly arch an eyebrow at this party, even though one of the year’s signature tributes, to producer Robert Evans, accounted for screenings of genuinely great movies like The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, but also allowed for the imprimatur of “classic” to be bestowed upon white elephants like Love Story and Black Sunday, the movie I ended up finishing the festival off with last year.

Plenty of grumbling could also be overheard from local cinephiles, first-time attendees as well as veterans, about the pass-oriented system adopted by TCM, which meant that some of these writers, who were used to their press credentials getting them to the front of whatever line they might happen to find themselves in, ended up standing outside in the rain (literally, at one point), audibly complaining about how they would never attend the festival again. (In the parlance of our times, whatever, dudes.)

Deep in the heart of Year Four, I found myself thinking about where the TCM Festival might go next. It’s obviously a festival which is largely oriented toward out-of-town folks who buy a pass not only for the festival but as part of the whole Hollywood experience, whatever that is these days, so of course the programming, especially in the bigger venues, is going to tilt toward the standard classic movie fare that is guaranteed to satisfy fans of the TCM channel from all over the world who have ponied up thousands of dollars in passes, travel and hotel fare just to be here. You don’t have to have a finely tuned sensibility to detect the pull of commerce for the folks at Turner, and there have been times, especially over the last couple of years, when I’ve looked around and wondered about the experience of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and that of one of the channel’s recently initiated Classic Cruises and how the two might be converging.

But then I meet folks like Millie De Chirico, a programmer for the channel (she heads up the “TCM Underground” schedule seen on Saturday nights) who is one of many TCM representatives who introduce each and every one of the screenings, and my faith is renewed. Folks like De Chirico are legion at the channel, thank God, and they’re the ones in there keeping up the connections with people like historian Kevin Brownlow, Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein and MoMA film archivist/preservationist Katie Trainor, all of whom have been directly connected to some of the greatest and most fascinating moments I’ve had here over the past four seasons. They are in there shepherding the influences and curating a schedule that isn’t completely dominated by the sorts of movies that pop up on Everyman’s list of great Hollywood classics. And they’re the reason why I was able to have the kind of day I had here Friday at the festival, a day packed with treasures of the more off-the-beaten-path variety, treasures oriented toward the more adventurous festival-goer, who’d rather take a chance on something unfamiliar to balance out the undeniable pleasures of yielding to the embrace of the inviting arms of nostalgia.

Residents of Los Angeles have a bad reputation for being ignorant or dismissive of film culture, which is why new and exciting movies from outside the mainstream tend to have a hard time finding screens and screen time here—a phenomenon that is not exactly exclusive to Los Angeles, by the way. But many of those who take advantage of (and may take for granted) the myriad repertory and special screenings available in Los Angeles every week, who would revel in some of the great opportunities to see the rarities and restorations that so often are a part of this festival’s programming, may not be able to afford festival passes that would allow them to see the sort of screenings that sometimes go unnoticed by the throng crushing their way in to see Casablanca. (And these are usually the screenings that end up in smaller auditoriums that fill up much quicker—stand-by tickets for these shows are tough to come by.)  

Doug Cummings has a suggestion that I think is a good one—a festival pass, good for three, or maybe five movies—as a gesture toward the city around which the festival revolves, which would allow interested locals easier, more affordable access to some of the more rarified gems on the schedule. Then when these screenings get some buzz going around the festival and end up selling out, which they sometimes do, they can be reprogrammed into one of the Sunday slots always reserved for pictures that end up being more attractive to people than anyone could have anticipated.

The other thing that I sensed was different about this year is that for the first time I kept to myself much more than in years past, an observation that undoubtedly says much more about me than anything going on at the festival. Much of the pleasure I’ve had from festivals past was derived from meeting people who I’d engaged in conversation while in line—I’ve met a lot of people at the festival this way, and I’ve enjoyed seeing them again in subsequent years. Last year too seemed to be a great occasion for meeting friends in real life with whom I’d only ever enjoyed a “virtual” Internet connection with before, through our enthusiastic adventures in film writing-- a strange phenomenon, to be sure, and one which I suspect will only become more common. I don’t mean to suggest that I was in any way a grumbling hermit this year—the great movie-appreciating friends I’ve been lucky enough to meet here and elsewhere who make the TCM Fest a touchstone of their year spent a lot of time with me, especially on Friday, and the experience of those movies simply wouldn’t have been as vivid without them.

However, and maybe this was just my bad luck, this year while parked in line I ended up overhearing a lot of conversations that didn’t exactly make me want to jump in and participate—for some reason the topic of comparing RVs and RV road trips seemed to be in the air. But that potential roundtable was scintillating compared to the one I overheard between a mother and her two daughters, in their late 20s probably, Mom relating the story of talking to some guy at the festival who apparently got a bit too caught up in the subject. “He started going on about this one guy in some old movie he liked,” the elder complained to the younger. “Who was he talking about?” asked one of the girls, and Mom could only sigh. “Oh, I don’t know. But he just wouldn’t shut up, and I just kept thinking, ‘God, it’s only a movie!’” That’s a phrase—“It’s only a movie”—I would never have expected to hear uttered by anyone at this festival, or any film festival, really, and I privately mourned for those who couldn’t get into screenings because these women’s asses were taking up seats instead. Couldn’t they have gone on the cruise instead?

So I was standing in line in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theater awaiting admittance to the screening of The Seventh Seal, my nose in a book (the festival atmosphere inspired me to again pick up Theodore Roszak’s Flicker), the air thick with talk of exciting moments from the weekend so far and, of course, gas mileage comparisons between a stock Winnebago and the fully decked-out Fleetwood Expedition. There happened to be a trivia contest being held as part of the general and inescapable busy-ness dominating the shaded area outside the theater—a VW bus with its rear hatch popped open had a TV monitor dropped into the seat space, a monitor which was, for some reason, showing clips from The Producers, not among this year’s line-up (although Mel Brooks was in the building on Friday night with The Twelve Chairs), and every available flat place upon which to park one’s tuchis was taken up by folks hunched over laptops. The trivia host, seriously miked for maximum projection, read some of the easier questions from the TCM Classic Movie Trivia book, throwing the contest open to whoever amongst us in line, or among those just milling about, could raise their hands first. I tried to get my hand up in time to answer one-- “A River Runs Through It won an Oscar in what category?”-- and one of the host’s assistants pointed at me. But before I could respond, the host spotted someone else who eagerly shouted, “Best Cinematography! Philippe Rousselot!” So it was not me who picked up whatever DVD box set was being let go for that question.

The questions continued. However, humbled as I had been, I decided to just keep my profile low and quietly make my way in to see Max Von Sydow, the live 2013 version as well as the black-and-white 1957 issue. Just as I rounded one of the several hairpin turns in the line near the front entrance the host shouted out another poser straight out of the book— “The 1997 movie The Brave starring Marlon Brando was the directorial debut of what popular actor?” The crowd, which had been picking up prizes left and right on questions relating to Humphrey Bogart and Richard Zanuck and which city was the setting for The Sting, offered no response apart from one guy who shouted, “Al Pacino!” After a few more seconds of silence, I could not resist. “Johnny Depp!” I blurted out, half-embarrassed that this truly trivial nugget would have so easily bubbled up to the magma-like surface of my brain. The next few seconds were a blur. All I remember is some guy tossing my prize toward me—a fleece picnic blanket neatly embossed with the TCM logo!— pointing a camera at me, telling me to hold my prize up and smile. Then there was a bright flash, and the next thing I knew I was watching Ben Mankiewicz sputter his way through an on-stage interview with Max Von Sydow before an adoring throng.


Mankiewicz actually comported himself nicely, his customary wise-assery tamped down somewhat in the presence of an actor for whom he clearly held quite a reserve of respect and regard. Von Sydow seemed genuinely humbled, nonplussed even, that the turnout to see him before a screening of the great Ingmar Bergman classic which essentially thrust him onto the world stage would be so large—the Egyptian seats just over 600, and the place looked, from my vantage point about halfway down, just behind the auditorium’s exit ramp on the right, pretty much full. Before bringing out the esteemed actor, Mankiewicz introduced a montage clip of Von Sydow’s work, one which would have been very much at home on the channel itself (and may have actually aired on it, for all I know). It did seem a telling bit of information, and certainly an explanation for things to come, that for all the clips of the Bergman films he was a part of, as well as Hannah and Her Sisters, Three Days of the Condor, Minority Report, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Greatest Story Ever Told, apart from the applause heard for The Exorcist by far the loudest and most enthusiastic crowd response came when the crowd caught a glimpse of Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon and, to my astonishment and, I suppose,  delight, the actor’s appearance as the evil Brewmeister Smith in Strange Brew. (Strange, indeed!)


After Von Sydow had accepted the bounteous applause offered him, the men onstage settled into conversation mode and the actor related numerous anecdotes about Bergman, Sydney Pollock, George Stevens and Woody Allen with equal vigor and humor. In fact, it was the humor that seemed to throw Mankiewicz. He had no trouble accepting that Von Sydow was down with a good laugh—he was responding well to the host’s relaxed, informal approach, after all—but when Von Sydow related that Bergman was in life, and even on the set, a very funny guy, well, that was an idea that Mankiewicz just couldn’t wrap his head around. It flummoxed him so much that he returned, flabbergasted, to the notion a couple of times before the interview concluded, unable to process how the man who had given the world psychological puzzle boxes like Persona or grueling relationships dramas like Scenes from a Marriage could possibly enjoy a guffaw or two. (The Strange Case of Woody Allen, a director renowned for comedy who has made some of the most resolutely humorless movies ever exposed to celluloid and whose lifestyle seems defined by anhedonia, unfortunately never came up as a rejoinder.) 

I only wish that as many people who came to see Von Sydow had actually stayed to see the movie being celebrated. In true contrast to his bleak Scandinavian reputation there was evidence of Bergman’s sense of humor in the world-famous film that would follow, but as soon as the interview was over and the preparations to fire up the projectors began, I’d betI saw at least 50-60 humans headed for the exits. So much for the international language of cinema, at least at the TCM Classic Film Festival on a Saturday night.  


The Seventh Seal itself seems to successfully stand outside the debate (the indifference?) regarding Ingmar Bergman’s relevance to a new generation of cinephiles—or to the old ones, for that matter. Maybe it’s because the movie itself which seems to represent to so many people the whole of the Bergman experience (and for a lot of folks it probably is the whole of their Bergman experience). Or maybe it’s because the iconography of the movie, particularly the image of Death playing Chess with Von Sydow’s Antonius Block, is so ingrained in our visual language, has been parodied so thoroughly that it seems to have come out the other end of Satire with a clean slate. But going into the Egyptian it seemed hardly possible any longer that one could actually watch The Seventh Seal, penetrate the hard veneer of perceived wisdom and familiarity about it and experience it with anything like freshness. Yet one of the most striking things about seeing the movie again—I’d never seen it on anything but 16mm, so the jump to the big screen at the Egyptian was tossing a bone in the air and having it end up a vast ship floating in space—was how vivid it was in its theatricality.


Of course Bergman’s roots in theater are well known, and many of his films, great and small, reflect those roots. But I have to confess I’d never ruminated much on The Seventh Seal as anything but a distinctly cinematic creation, for whatever reason that might be. Yet what in essence could be more theatrical than an existential confrontation between a soldier of God who revolts against the very mission he’s been sent on, who directly confronts the delivery system unto the very void he’s come to realize awaits man at the end of life? The core rejection of logic by faith obsesses Block in the absence of a fear-created god (“I want knowledge, not belief”), yet the paradox of the movie is found in the odd exhilaration the movie’s haunted final images leave you with. Bergman accesses that exhilaration because of the almost subliminal ways he finds in The Seventh Seal to interweave the two narrative-based arts. The movie closes on a dance with death that Block accepts, participates in, a dance which none of us can escape. It sends you out of the theater similarly entranced, wondering how the sort of mastery of the medium Bergman evidences here could have ever fallen out of favor.

As I headed up the stairs and out the door to find my place in line for Mildred Pierce, I wasn’t too surprised to see that the line for my level of badge extended back and forth along the hairpins and out to the street. Even factoring in the hundred or so VIPs already in line with priority seating ahead of us, that meant only about 250 seats out of 600 had been claimed. No problem. Even though I was exhausted by this point, still only operating on about three hours of sleep, I marched to the end of the courtyard and proceeded to get in line. But the person at the end of the line ahead of me quickly informed me that this was not the end of the line. In actuality, the line broke at that point, only to be restarted westward at the corner of Hollywood and Seward, where it extended for almost a full city block down toward Leland Way, which passes directly behind the Egyptian Theater. I let my mind boggle a little bit as I walked along the sidewalk, which was bustling with pass-holders raring to see Ann Blyth in person. (I doubted there would be many walkouts at this screening once the celebrities left the stage.)

When I finally got to my place at the end of this long, snaking line, I was given a number in the high 300s, and I could feel what little wind was left in me slowly leaking away. By the time that VIP line was accommodated, it would probably have had been augmented by another 100 or so people, which would mean that I was right on the border of getting in or not getting in where I stood. And it would take another 45 minutes or so before the line started moving toward the theater and we would find out just how many of us would fit in this cavernous, beautifully restored palace. It didn’t take me long to decide that I was just too tired to waste that much time on a chance.

So I hopped out of line, bade farewell to Ann Blyth and jumped on the next train headed back to Universal City. By 10:30 I was back home and stretched out on the couch, where my wife and kids were thrilling to The Hobbit, a movie I had absolutely no trouble tuning out on my way toward a deep and restful sleep. Mildred Pierce would always be there in one form or another. If I was to make the most of the last day of the 2013 TCM Classic Movie Festival tomorrow, I’d need more than three hours of sleep. And around the time I formulated that thought, I slipped away.

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The Deliverance  panel videos and many, many more highlights of the TCM Festival can be seen on the TCM Classic Film Festival Web site in their great video gallery.

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Coming next: The report on the concluding day of this year's TCM Film Festival.

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2 comments:

Doug Cummings said...

Thanks for the shoutouts, Dennis. And what an impressively comprehensive and detailed summary! Your suggestion of programming some of the more rare films that would attract local cinephiles in the Sunday slots is a very good one.

mike schlesinger said...

I've often said that the TCM Festival is not for "people like us," which I defined to Ben when he interviewed me on-air as "jaded, big-city types." And indeed, though I attend every year, I'm lucky if I see even two movies I've never seen before. But you go for the experience as much as the films.

And nice shout out to Millie. I give her (comic) grief every year she introduces me and she's always a doll.