Hollywood Boulevard during the TCM Classic Film Festival is mostly business as usual: Captain Jack Sparrow and Marilyn Monroe walk up and down the street to the delight of camera-wielding tourists, Jimmy Kimmel Live staffers give away free tickets, aspiring rappers hand out CDs before not-so-subtly requesting payment. But there, in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre, is a barricade meant to protect anyone walking that night's red carpet from said hustle and bustle, a small bit of steel dividing Hollywood as it chooses to present itself from Hollywood as it actually is.
This particular strip of Los Angeles, always one of my least favorite in the entire city, has long struck me as somewhat of an odd venue for such an ostensibly glamorous event. The celebrities and flash bulbs in front of the TCL Chinese (formerly Grauman's) maintain the facade well enough, but there's little masking the fact that this is one grimy tourist trap. In a sense, I suppose that might actually make it perfect: seeing the illusion coexist with the reality tends to be more interesting than witnessing either one on its own.
Funny Girl opened TCM Fest on Thursday evening; a new restoration of The General closed it last night. I attended neither, opting instead to practice what I preached last week by focusing on lesser-known movies I'd never seen before, often at the expensive of bigger draws: I skipped Airplane! for Try and Get Me and Three Days of the Condor in favor of Safe in Hell, a pre-Code nasty that was such a hit on Thursday night they decided to re-screen it yesterday.
Directed by William Wellman (whose Wings won the first Best Picture Oscar in 1929) and introduced at the festival by his son, Safe in Hell follows a prostitute played by Dorothy Mackaill who goes on the lam after accidentally murdering a man. Licentious, occasionally melodramatic, and wholly downbeat, Wellman's film provided a fitting end to a festival that, for me at least, consisted almost entirely of dark tales marked by scandal and death.
Try and Get Me would likewise qualify as a pleasant surprise were it not to immensely dispiriting; Cy Endfield's blacklisted film is quite good but, given its lynch mob-driven third act, also a far cry from the cheery face sometimes associated with TCM. After the film I headed to Power House, a bar on the corner of Hollywood and Highland, and noticed a little person dressed as Mr. T.
TCM Fest is distinguished from every other film festival I've been to by its audience. Noticeably older and grayer than the crowds you can expect to find at AFI Fest later this year, a great many of its attendees are also out-of-towners: wait in any line for any movie and you're likely to hear a middle-aged couple talking about how they flew in from New York for the weekend and have done so each of the last four years. At 24, I'm often the youngest moviegoer in the room; what this says about my generation of cinephiles can't be good, but kudos to the baby boomers for showing up en masse each year. Most other art-inclined events here in L.A. are full of people trying their hardest not to look excited; not so at TCM, where unalloyed enthusiasm reigns supreme for a full four days.
Every year in this happy environment, one movie sticks with me more than any other: Went the Day Well? in 2011, Bonjour Tristesse in 2012. And though the inspirational-teacher tale To Sir, with Love wasn't the best film I saw this weekend — that would be either The Tall Target or Try and Get Me, which dramatizes a purported plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on a train prior to his inauguration in 1861 — it does seem like the one I'll remember most fondly.
To Sir is undeniably treacly at times — any more shots of the entire class smiling lovingly at Sir (Sydney Poitier) and you'd be in danger of developing a cavity. Even so, it works on a level that few (if any) tales of good-hearted educators bringing out the best in their misfit students to follow in its wake have managed to pull off. This is owed not only to Poitier's typically stellar performance but also the deservedly famous theme song, which Lulu performed live before the screening.
As someone who comes to this festival to see lesser-known movies for the first time — past exceptions include Rosemary's Baby last year and The Godfather the year before, neither of which I could pass up seeing at Grauman's — the overlong intros and post-film discussions tend to feel tedious by the time Sunday rolls around. Screening schedules are always difficult to maintain at film festivals, something Q & As of varying length do little to help.
Also by Sunday, that same pronounced tension between glam and grime outside the theaters had begun to make its way into the multiplex. After seeing Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow in the early afternoon, I noticed a speck of blood on a urinal and made a conscious decision not to wonder where it came from; minutes later in the lobby, a man said to a friend that he was “past contagion” and I wondered if he'd been recovering from a cold or disavowing Steven Soderbergh movies one by one. Less than an hour later I walked past several decommissioned StarLine tour vans and saw an abandoned car seat on the ground. Once again, I decided not to wonder.
Scarecrow may have been the most disappointing film of the weekend. Brilliantly acted by Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, starring as two wanderers who become business partners, it starts out as appealingly meandering before steadily running out of gas and turning unexpectedly maudlin in its final 15 minutes. As with his Panic in Needle Park, Schatzberg balances most of his missteps with intelligent decisions but ends up with something that feels like less than the sum of its parts.
The most poignant statement on the power of cinema came from neither the films themselves nor the special guests presenting them. It came, instead, from someone in the audience. Before Safe in Hell screened yesterday afternoon, I noticed a woman with what looked an awful lot like a seeing-eye dog but which couldn't have been because, well, what would a blind person be doing at a film festival? But blind she was, and animated as well: I overheard her having a conversation with the theater manager about two films playing later on, Dial M for Murder and The Train. She was leaning toward the latter, having already seen Hitchcock's film “about a hundred times,” but was worried that there might not be enough dialogue for her to follow along. “Is it very visual?” she asked the manager as her guide dog, apparently named Alvin, laid on the ground next to her. I didn't hear the answer and don't know what she ended up choosing, but at least I had something worthwhile to think about on the drive home last night.