March 27, 2014

On Family, Community, Legacy and the TCM Film Fest

This year marks the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, and the 20th anniversary of the Turner Classic Movies television channel. To commemorate, the theme of the 2014 TCMFF is "Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind." While that's a pretty broad theme (as all festival themes have been), when we expand the definition of family to include (the idea of) community at large, the theme becomes a comment on the festival, and the channel itself--the first "meta" TCM Film Fest.

From the TCMFF website: "TCM is summoning its family of movie lovers from around the globe to come to Hollywood for a cinematic celebration of the ties that bind us together."

Never let it be said that TCM isn't brand-savvy. They may be the only TV channel with its own Bat-Signal. For those of us who have been attending TCMFF for a while, the decision to focus on the attendees as much as the films itself (and the intersection between the two), comes as no surprise. The first time you come to TCMFF, you're home. It's a cliche, but the people you meet at TCMFF really are like family.

The great thing about this festival, and what makes it different than most film festivals, is that everyone is here to have fun. Since none of the films are new, there's no sense of competition, no nervousness over their reception. Everyone is a fan, even the "celebrity guests" and panelists. It's no exaggeration to say that TCMFF is closer to a fan convention like Comic-Con than your typical film festival (some people even cosplay!). Unlike Comic-Con, which in recent years has been plagued by overcrowding and is increasingly just another arena for film studios to sell their new summer superhero tentpole, there is comparatively little pressure to "debut" new content (restorations, original scores, cast reunions) at TCMFF. For most attendees, they're here for the movies.

Which brings me to the schedule itself. While some films present a traditional portrait of a family (Cheaper by the Dozen, Father of the Bride), other selections are deliciously dysfunctional (Grey Gardens, The Lion in Winter). Friday provides us with two terrifying science-fiction portraits of perverted childbirth, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Eraserhead. Siblings take center stage in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Innocents, and East of Eden. Several films blend family and community, notably The Best Years of Our Lives (in which WWII veterans are inextricably linked via their military service), and Gone With the Wind (in which the divisions within a country are expressed in microcosm by Scarlett O'Hara's family). John Ford often created communities, both with his stable of actors and crew members, and in the stories he chose to tell: The Quiet Man (in which the community takes the lead in creating a new family) and Stagecoach (in which traveling strangers take on the roles of members of a small town, another microcosm) are prime examples of Ford's favorite theme. (How Green Was My Valley, is of course, a more traditional example of a Ford family.)

The Club TCM discussions and guest talks also reflect the larger theme of how the classic film community forms a kind of multigenerational family. "Sons of Gods and Monsters" features makeup artist Rick Baker and filmmaker Joe Dante, both of whom got into movie-making because of their love of monster movies. TCMFF is fantastic at highlighting the legacy of classic film, and how we are all living within a continuum of cinematic influence--regardless of whether we're fans, filmmakers, critics, bloggers or historians. More than most, TCM understands its audience is as deeply engaged in classic cinema as many professionals in the industry, and the festival respects that relationship.

I'm especially glad this year features more contemporary actors speaking on behalf of classic movies. I understand this is a somewhat contentious issue among attendees, but in my opinion, the more inclusive and wide-ranging the festival programming is, the more relevant and engaging the festival becomes. When they're introducing cinema classics, Patton Oswalt, Greg Proops, and Dana Gould aren't just comedians, they're fans (maybe funnier and more well-spoken than most, but still, fans). When Bill Hader introduces The Muppet Movie, he's just kid who loves the Muppets (aren't we all?). When Anna Kendrick introduces The Women, she's not an Academy Award nominated actress, she's a Norma Shearer fangirl (again, who isn't?). The idea of cinematic legacy is stronger than ever given the slew of remakes and reboots in contemporary Hollywood; hopefully Gareth Edwards (director of the upcoming Godzilla remake) won't skirt the issue when he introduces the original Japanese Gojira.

I think the universality of this year's theme has lead to the strongest line-up of TCMFF films yet. It's also a major step towards acknowledging that that while a channel/festival specializing in classic films shouldn't necessarily always be looking backwards. Programming contemporary Hollywood guests like Kendrick, Edwards, etc. speak to TCM's understanding that "old" films exist in a universe where time is relative. As long as classic films are screened and seen, they remain contemporary. To paraphrase an old NBC slogan, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you! As we move forward in time (unfortunately, unlike great films, we all have to age!), the "legacy" aspect of the family/community film will become more prominent.

Luckily, TCM has fostered and inspired thousands of thoughtful, engaged and passionate fans to carry on the legacy of classic film, and hopefully, as we move forward, continue to update and redefine what it means to be a part of the classic film community.


  1. Awesome. Even though this will be my first TCMFF, I've often thought that it would be like Comic-Con for classic film geeks, and you seem to bear that out. I do a lot of Cons, and one of the main reasons is the sense of community. You can still find it at Comic-Con, but it's hard to appreciate it with all of the chaos. One of the reasons, I've never been to TCMFF is that it always falls to close to Wonder Con. This year is no different, but I decided to go anyway. Sure, I can do TCMFF one weekend and Wonder Con the next. Who needs food, sleep, and other basic humnan necessities, when you can pal around with a bunch of strangers who feel like family.

  2. I like your comparison of TCMFF with a con - I've never actually been to a con, but I imagine it would have much more of a sense of fan-based community than a regular film fest. With the film fests I've been to, there's always a sense that a lot of people are just there because they're industry people who are looking for stuff to buy,or they're journalists only there because their outlet sent them. With TCM Fest, everyone's there because they want to be, because they love the films showing and the culture that TCM has created.

    I was actually a little disappointed in the line up this year for me - it's got a lot of great films, but very few that I haven't seen before (including at least one I've seen before AT TCM Fest), and even the few I haven't heard of aren't ones that really caught my interest. There's no "here's Cary Grant's film debut This is the Night, and it's awesome!" Or "here's Sunrise's rediscovered expressionist-romantic sister Lonesome, and it's awesome!" Or "here's Clara Bow's last film," or "here's the long-unavailable The Constant Nymph." Unless I just didn't read the program carefully enough; Hat Check Girl seems like the best bet on that front. Even the Lloyd film, which I'd like to see for the new score, is one I've seen before. Not that that's a bad thing, but discovering silent and early sound film at the fest has been my favorite thing at past fests, and it seems like there's not too much of that this year.

  3. Jandy--I agree that there are fewer "discoveries" this year, but that's just the nature the beast, isn't it? There's a limited supply of novelty in the classic film arena, which is why I tried to highlight how different perspectives on old favorites can create a "new" viewing experience, whether these come from a new crop of film fans (young people), or current Hollywood commenting on Old Hollywood. For me personally, even though a lot of these films are beloved and maybe very popular, there are a lot of blindspots for me! This year more than ever feels like a schedule full of stuff that's been on my to-do list for years, but I've never gotten around to it before. I'm just excited I'll be able to experience these on the big screen for the first time.

  4. That's for sure true, as much as I'd like to have a huge slate of newly discovered or rediscovered films every year, I guess it's not possible all the time. I like the spin you've put on all the fresh faces introducing classic film. My first thought was like "Anna Kendrick? What does she have to do with The Women?" But my immediate next thought was "hold up, I really like Anna Kendrick, and I really like The Women. How cool is it that Anna Kendrick apparently also really likes The Women and wanted to introduce it at TCM Fest!" And as the people who actually had anything to do with older films start to fade out, that's what TCM Fest is going to have to do - find younger people who are enthusiastic about these films to be the guests, and make it relevant. They've made a great start at that this year.