Coachella for Shut-Ins: What you’re Missing at the TCM Film Festival

At a screening of the cult classic Eraserhead, comedian Patton Oswalt described the TCM Film Festival as “Coachella for Shut-ins.” He wasn’t far off. While every year, young twenty-somethings descend on Indio, California for the Coachella Music Festival, I (and many others) take Hollywood by storm, attending the annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival.

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Norman Lloyd and TCM host, Ben Mankiewicz

For those who are not familiar, The TCM Film Festival is a four day classic film festival which includes little time for sleep or food. By the end, you feel wasted (probably similar to how Coachella attendees feel-but for different reasons). When I first attended the festival I was 17, just a senior in high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, only that I probably would land somewhere in entertainment.

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2010: My brothers and I with Ben Mankiewicz

My connection to Turner Classic Movies started in the early 2000’s. My dad, a self-made ultra film buff, started watching the channel. He was hooked, having himself grown up watching these films on television. However, it had been years since he had seen them and he was eager to share them with myself, and my two brothers (I have one older, one younger. Yes, I’m the glorious middle child).

At the time, my two siblings and I were young, at ages where we could easily be melded into little film buffs ourselves. My dad showed us popular films, things he thought we’d appreciate (The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Capra). However, he also showed us the small ones, the ones that maybe he and only a select group of people remembered and/or cared about. My dad and I bonded over genres my brothers weren’t interested in: romantic comedies and musicals. Movies were never just for entertainment. They were an inextricable part of our lives.

In 2009, Turner Classic Movies announced that they would be holding a film festival in Hollywood. The tickets were expensive, around the same price of Coachella. It was an experiment really. It could have been a complete failure for the company.

Nevertheless, my dad took a chance and took my brothers and I out to Hollywood for a week in April of 2010. It was a whirlwind four days. We watched about five movies (yes, really!) a day. At each one, there was a special guest; an actor or producer, a film historian.

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Grauman’s Chinese Theater: one of the TCM Film Festivals Venues

I’ll be honest. At that first festival, we were kind of an anomaly. My brother even made a joke (maybe a little in bad taste) that the average age of the festival-goers was deceased. We were really the only family and because of that, we stood out. We got to speak to actors and producers one-on-one because it was a small group and let’s be honest, my little brother was cute. People always are willing to talk to you if you have a cute kid around.

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#Squadgoals: My brothers and dad en route to the next film

That year we saw screenings of some major classics, but strangely the ones that stick in my memory are the small ones. We saw a film called Sunnyside Up, one of the first sound musicals. Made in 1929, we were told before we saw the film, that we were seeing it in better quality than audiences did when it was originally shown. I remember watching a scene where a girl (Janet Gaynor) writes in her diary, smitten and hopeful. It was kind of shocking actually. I think, for some reason, it struck a cord with me in establishing that whether or not this girl was living in the 1920s, she was still accessible and relatable.

I also saw a film that year called Leave Her to Heaven. Made in 1945, the film is a fantastic film noir (fancy film speak for a film which had a, “…style marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace”….Yes I did copy that from Google) The only living cast member, Darryl Hickman, was there to give insight into what Gene Tierney was like and how they shot a crucial scene in the film.

One of the most interesting things I experienced during the festival was the constant shock from fellow attendees that my brothers and I were interested in classic films, let alone an awe that we had attended the festival. I’m surprised they aren’t more young people (there’s obviously many out there that love classic films). I’ve had the joy over the past five years of seeing the festival expand and grow.

A lot of people underestimate the importance of classic films. To me, they  are our visual history, or as my dad likes to say, “a living museum.” Many of the guests who have come to the festival throughout the years have since passed away. I got to hear Eli Wallach talk about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and had the opportunity to listen to Mickey Rooney talk about It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. These experiences were truly once-in-a-lifetime. Moreover though, they established for me that though these stars, directors, writers, editors, etc. may pass away, their films will live forever if audiences continue to appreciate them.

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TCM Host, Robert Osbourne and Eli Wallach

I have gone back to the festival every year, despite the fact that I’m now footing the bill. It awakened my love not just for classic films, but for seeing films the way they were meant to be seen: in a theater where there aren’t distractions (Cell phones, Facebook, C’mon people!). It’s just you and the movie and it’s true magic. In 2014, I graduated from school and began working in the industry. There have been moments during my working life where I’ve felt disheartened and had my ideals torn down, but The TCM Festival has become something of a marker for me. It’s not just something I share with my dad. It’s a gathering of like-minded souls. I’ve met people there who have become great friends. It’s impossible not to feel inspired in that environment.

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Myself and Michelle Matiskiel, a close friend I met at the 2011 festival

I just bought my 2016 pass this morning. It’s expensive, but in my opinion, well worth it. I look forward to those four days all year long.

Extra Bonus: My brother and dad are in this old promo. Can you find them?

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The Legacy of Frances Marion

A few years back, in a community college film class, I saw a documentary called Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood. The TCM-produced documentary was based on a book of the same name by film historian and Vanity Fair writer, Cari Beauchamp. It was about one of the most prominent screenwriters in early Hollywood,  Frances Marion.

My impression of the industry up until that point was that it was always male dominated, at least behind the scenes. Nothing could be further from the truth as the early film industry was very much female driven. Prolific female filmmakers like Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blache, Anita Loos and June Mathis were hugely successful.

But, there was something about Frances’s story which stood out to me. She started as a journalist in San Francisco and worked her way up as a writing assistant to Lois Weber, another prominent female filmmaker. Frances was also an actress in the silent days, something she definitely could have pursued given that she was gorgeous.

She wrote over 100 films and was the first screenwriter to win two Academy awards, one for The Champ and one for The Big House. But while all of that is amazing and super interesting, it’s her personal life which intrigued me the most. She was married twice before entering the industry and was on her own for the first time in her adult life at 26 years old.

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At the forefront was her friendship with famous film star, Mary Pickford. They were first introduced by Owen Moore who was Pickford’s husband at the time.

Their mutual sense of ambition united the two women immediately and, although Mary was initially more reticent than Marion, they quickly established that they had both been married a few months shy of their eighteenth birthdays and shared a sense of failure in their respective marriages as well. – Cari Beauchamp, Film Historian

Their friendship was so close that Mary had it written into her contracts that Frances would write the scripts. They both worked hard and were very independent and driven. They went on to collaborate several times, making The Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and The Little Princess.

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She was a true film pioneer and wrote up until her death in 1973. She stood out as a writer among both men and women. We owe her a debt for paving the way and inspiring all the female filmmakers who have come after her.

 

The “Before” Series: Idealism vs. Reality

A few years ago, one night when I was still in college, I was doing the random Netflix search. You all know what I’m talking about; those times when you are just looking for something to watch. I had seen that Before Sunrise was on Netflix before, but stupidly assumed it was just one of those throwaway lifetime movies about a woman who moves to Europe, meets a guy with an accent and promptly falls in love.

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Nevertheless, my brother, who happened to be at my apartment that day, pointed it out, saying “Oh, yeah, I’ve wanted to see that”. I shrugged and put it on, figuring that if it was bad, we would just turn it off. I quickly stopped passively watching it and became entranced. Why? Because, I couldn’t help it. The Richard Linklater film, made in 1995 (I was three, guys), follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), two twentysomethings who meet on a train and spend a night together in Vienna.

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The film is really just their conversation over several hours, where they discuss everything: from their first sexual feelings to what they want to do with their lives. I’ve found that that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. My own mother calls the films “talky, talky, shit, shit, shit”. It definitely takes more concentration and patience to watch a film that’s all talking, all the time. But, in my opinion, these films are worth it. If you’re in your early twenties, watching this first film in the trilogy captures that very specific time when we’re too young to be jaded and we believe that such happenstance love affairs can happen. It is idealistic and pure, brimming with the hope that things will work out and that there will be a happily ever after for all of us.

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The second film in the trilogy, Before Sunset, was made in 2004, nine years after the first. It follows another chance meeting between Jesse and Celine, this time in Paris. They are now in their thirties and in a totally different place in their lives. Jesse becomes a successful author who now has a child. They talk a lot about how their lives didn’t turn out the way they thought they would, about their regrets and what they still want for their future. The film ends on an ambiguous note.

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Still, the third film, Before Midnight, made in 2013, was not planned. In this film, my favorite of the series, we find Celine and Jesse married and with two little girls. They’re vacationing in Greece for the summer. The two of them are now in their early forties and facing the reality of married life. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy shared a writing credit on this film and it very much reflected where their personal lives had gone. They had all been married and knew that it was not all it was cracked up to be. That’s not to say that they didn’t believe in love, but they knew that marriage and love came with imperfection and compromise.

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So much can be said about these films that it’s hard to focus on just one thing. The reason these movies mean so much to me is because they’re honest. Even though I’m only 23, I appreciate that the films don’t give a fairy tale happy ending to this romance. They take each stage in these people’s lives and explore the myriad of feelings people go through: elation, disappointment, happiness, sadness, regret…all of it. Life is not always rosy and happy, even if you’re with prince charming, There are good days and bad days and the Before series doesn’t shy away from that.

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Vintage trailer below:

Astaire gave her class; Rogers gave him sex appeal. They gave us some of the best movies ever…IMHO.

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been anticipating writing this particular post, mostly because I have a little bit of an obsession Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And not just an obsession with their dancing, but with the writing: the subtle blend of great screwball comedy antics with stunning, lovely musical numbers.

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I remember seeing a picture of Astaire and Rogers before I ever saw one of their films. My first impression: “He’s the romantic lead? That guy? Really? But he’s so unattractive”. Guys, remember I was in my early teens so my perception of attractiveness was pretty much solely based on appearance. Conversely, by appearances, I misinterpreted Rogers as a vapid dumb blonde.

That was what really made them work. They both subverted expectations. Their romances were based on wit and serenading and fancy footwork. Astaire started in the business in vaudeville as a dance partner for his sister, Adele. He had said she was really the one who wanted it. However, when Adele got married, he stayed in the business while she retired to have a family.

In the early ’30’s, Astaire famously screen tested for David O’Selznick, the prolific producer of Gone with the Wind. David’s first impression:

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little”. – David O’Selznick, Producer

It’s funny looking back on that quote because it forever immortalizes how wrong producers can be, even great ones. Although Astaire didn’t make his film debut until 1933, it quickly became clear that he was talented.

Rogers made her film debut in 1929. Her famous persona was always there, even in her pre-code films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Just look at her facial expressions in this number:

Now, to give a little background on the period. Rogers and Astaire rose to fame during the depression, when people were looking to be uplifted. They didn’t want to see themselves onscreen, starving and working hard to make ends meet. They wanted to see beautiful sets, gorgeous gowns and extravagance.

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The Astaire/Rogers films delivered on all those fronts. They were glossy and unreal and meticulously choreographed. Moreover, they were fun! They also boasted amazing classic songs from George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

What always seems to be forgotten when people discuss these films are the wonderful character actors who made up the supporting cast. People like Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes performed much of the screwball comedy antics to juxtapose the romance. Below is a great scene of Eric Blore in The Gay Divorcee:

Okay, so if you’ve never seen an Astaire/Rogers film, it’s probably best to start with Top Hat (1935). It’s the one where Astaire sings “Cheek to Cheek” and it’s really the epitome of what an Astaire/Rogers film is. The film also has one of my favorite musical numbers:

I dare you to not have a smile on your face after that clip. I know, I know. You’re in love with a man who’s unattainable. Well, join the club. 😉

Adrienne Shelly’s ‘Waitress’: A Modern Classic

Okay, so this post is a little out of the ordinary. I want to discuss a movie and a filmmaker that (IMHO) are extraordinary. Waitress, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly is one of my favorite films. Since TCM killed it last month with their Trailblazing Women in Film programming, I thought I would bring attention to a very underrated female actress/writer/director. But, first a little background.

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The late Adrienne Shelly got her start as an actress in the late ’80s. She starred in films directed by Hal Hartley (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth, etc). They were quirky and strange and its very easy to see how much Hal influenced Adrienne when you watch Trust and Waitress back to back.

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I was introduced to Shelly’s work when I saw Waitress in theaters at 15. It made an impression on me for many reasons. On a purely cinematic level, I was amazed at not only the poignancy of the writing but by Shelly’s directing choices. She had many sequences where her main character played by the lovely Keri Russell took whatever she was feeling and created a new pie in her head.

Waitress follows Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell), a small town waitress with a bad husband (Jeremy Sisto). Her only escape is in inventing new pies at the shop she works at. She gets pregnant which puts a dent in her plan to escape her husband. As such, she feels apathetic about her pregnancy and starts to write a letter to the baby. In it, she puts the whole truth, about how broken she feels and that she doesn’t know what she has to offer her child. Its resolution is about empowerment and the overall message that it’s never too late to start over.

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I love the film because it is simple and genuine. It doesn’t have some fancy high concept. It is just a little story about a small town waitress. The heart of the film is so clearly the heart of Adrienne. One of the things Adrienne said inspired her to write this film was the feeling of self-doubt and apathy she, herself, felt when she found out she was going to have a baby. She felt like no one had addressed that feeling in a movie.

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A few months before the film’s premiere at Sundance, Shelly was murdered in her Greenwich Village office. I remember coming out of the movie and seeing tears in my father’s eyes. When I asked him why he was crying, he told me about Shelly’s death and also about her three year old daughter’s cameo at the end of the film. Shelly was only 40 at the time of her death and she never lived to see the movie succeed. If she had lived, I have no doubt she would be doing very well.

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I’m very much of the belief that you should judge an artist not on a career, but on specific projects. Yes, Shelly’s untimely death was horrific and extremely sad. But, she left behind a piece of herself with this film, a film which will continue to inspire filmgoers and hopefully aspiring female writers and directors. Her husband, Andy Ostroy, established the Adrienne Shelly foundation, which offers grants to female filmmakers or female actresses trying to transition to directing.

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The film is so many emotions at once. It is a true women’s film, very clearly directed from the female perspective. If you’re committed to the movement #52filmsbywomen, then you should consider adding this masterpiece to your list. Also, as an added note, Waitress the Musical is set to open on Broadway in March 2016. Sarah Bareilles wrote all the music so you know it’s going to be amazing!

P.S. – If you’ve never seen the film and are planning to watch it for the first time, buy yourself some pie first! Just a suggestion. I can guarantee you’ll want some.

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