Made it, Ma! Top of the World!: TCM Classic Film Fest, 2011–PART 1

I guess I didn’t realize exactly how excited I was about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got there that first day. I rolled in, locked up my bike, collected my pass, and sat down to get some food. I looked around me, and I realized that I was surrounded. It was like a scene from John Carpenter’s They Live, only instead of being beset by alien creatures I was actually surrounded by people who were, more or less, my people. They were the kinda folks that could chat at length with me about Ida Lupino’s career or discuss why Ball of Fire (1941) is probably one of the greatest examples of “ensemble cinema” ever created.

It was at that point that I started feeling like I was walking on air. THIS WAS IT!!! A full weekend-plus that was just full of film. I had done something right. Yep.

Last year I had just sorta gone about my business, running into pals and such, maniacally running from film to film, overflowing with anxious joy and wonder at the fact that I was getting to see such an astonishing number of my favorite films on 35mm. I had lived off the food and coffee provided me by the concession stand at the Chinese theater, and gotten little to no sleep. But I was more concerned about getting into the screenings due to the fact that I didn’t have a pass. I was on stand-by. This year proved to be, well, very similar. However, I had a pass. Did that make things easier? Not really. I still ate very little and pumped even more coffee through my poor sleep-deprived body. But having the pass definitely made me less stressed out about whether or not I was going to get into the screenings I wanted to get into, and that was worth every bit of it.

The postcards for this year...I like them so much better than last year!

So as I sat there, having one of the only relaxed nice meals I would have for the next 3 days, I was giddy. It was what I call “conference energy” and it was wonderful. I’ve done so many of these damn things, from purely academic to absurdly geeky and…the buzz on the TCM Festival went up to 11, in the way that Spinal Tap truly intended it to. EVERY table had the schedule out and was eagerly arguing and planning out their course of events for the next 3 days.

:::NIGHT ONE:::

“I kissed you because I loved you…for a minute!”–THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN

I finished up, tipped my good-looking waiter, said good-bye to the Gregory Peck that was playing on the screen. Timely as ever for film-related events, I entered the welcome party in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just at the perfect moment to hear Robert Osbourne give the “Welcome to the TCM Classic Film Festival” address. I schmoozed a bit, met up with some lovely folks that I had gotten to know due to the wonders of the internet such as the lovely and wonderful Sales on Film (who I was also lucky enough to spend some quality time with over the weekend), and ran into some old and dear friends like my good pal Eric Caiden of Hollywood Book & Poster.  Looking at  the time, we realized

Not gonna lie. As many times as I could, I saved my silly ticket stubs. They make for good copy! And, well, that archiving thing ya know...

that social time was over and Film Time was ON. So…we scrambled over to the Chinese and grabbed seats for Night at the Opera (1935). The guests that they had were Robert Bader and Groucho’s grandson, Andy Marx. The Q&A was lovely, with a good discussion about different parts of comedy and the place that it had within the relationship between Andy and his grandfather.

One of the things that interested me most was the discussion that Bader and Marx had about technology and comedy routines. Having recently watched the Bill Hicks documentary and cried my ever-loving EYES out (if you haven’t seen it, see it. NOW. Even if you don’t know who Bill Hicks IS), I’ve been thinking about good comedy quite a bit and so their revelations were most enlightening.

The two men discussed how they used to record people’s comedy routines off of the television and play them back and memorize them that way. Marx said he used to do that with his grandfather’s own work. To me, that kind of translatory learning is fascination. Visual learning is one thing, but to realize that comedy, good comedy is so damn multi-faceted…that is clearly another. And while the Marx Brothers are incredibly physical comedians, their other major strength is in the pure, unadulterated speed and complicated linguistic play that took place within their dialogue- something that could only be learned through an aural reification.

After the Q&A, and just before the feature, they showed the Warner Brothers’ cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” As many of my friends can attest, I am a junkie for old cartoons and this was a REAL WINNER. As my research showed, it was indeed what I thought: a condensed version of Wagner’s operas. You can’t get much cooler than that. And with Chuck Jones at the helm? HELL YES!!

Merris Melodies does Wagner!

Then it was time for a complete change around. From the zaniness and chaotic anarchism of the Marx Brothers, it was time for Joseph Von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935). While this film is notorious for a multitude of reasons, it is apparently most well-known for the fact that it really hit a nerve with the Spanish government officials who hated it with a passion, due to its portrayal of the police guard. They threatened to ban all Paramount pictures completely if the studio didn’t do something about Von Sternberg’s film so…Paramount pulled the picture and destroyed the master. Because, ya know, it’s important to throw the baby out with the bathwater (I know, I know, different time…different time…).

Paramount also decided, in their infinite wisdom, that it would be a good decision to release Von Sternberg from his contract early. And once again, hindsight is 20/20, but GOOD LORD. What hindsight!! Can you imagine what the situation would have been if…this had not been Marlene’s favorite movie? The thought gives me chills. Because this was one of the best films I saw over the course of the festival and it is one of the best Marlene movies ever. Don’t get me wrong- she’s done great stuff- but her out-and-out petulance and lust for life in this film is incomparable. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve watched a good deal of old movies with great divas, Dietrich included.

Asked why this film was her favorite, Marlene Dietrich simply replied, "Because it is my favorite."

The Devil is a Woman is a film that stands apart. It is to be noted that the festival background gives it a flavor of defiance and exoticism that is all-at-once erotic and, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word, Carnivalesque. Ideas of the fool and the grotesque populate the film as often as the drippingly sensual flowers carefully placed within Dietrich’s hair. It would be dismissive to call this film a “movie.” It is, by my count, both a stunning prayer to the alter of Marlene (and we all know the Von Sternberg-Dietrich thing, so…) and an exquisite exploitation of the cinematic medium.

The woman who came up beforehand, Katie Trainor, is the Film Collections Manager (read: killer moving image archivist and who I wanna be when I grow up!!) at MoMA, and is a total rockstar. She explained that although the master of the film had been destroyed, per Paramount’s instructions, Marlene Dietrich actually had a print of Devil in her bank vault. She gave the print to MoMA, who restored the film a while back, but restored it again now, this time to polyester film stock, making it good for another 300 years! Of course, I was sitting there while she talked about this stuff geeking out mercilessly, hoping she would continue talking about it for a good time more. Luckily, I was able to hear her speak one more time during the festival, but sadly I was not able to talk to her in person.

After the films were completed, we all went our separate ways in order to get some sleep in preparation for Friday- a day that I knew was going to be exciting, difficult, and invigorating all at once. It proved to be all of these things.

:::DAY 1::: 

“That’s Neat! I like That!”–BECKET

I got up incredibly early. Like REALLY early for me. Having not had to get up early for a very long time, this was a challenge. But, surprisingly, it went incredibly smoothly. Got up, showered, dressed, got on the bike, grabbed a breakfast sandwich & a huge bucket full of espresso (4 shots and the rest filled with coffee, please…yes, I do know how many ounces it holds, I’ll be drinking from this all day, I appreciate the concern!) and I was off.

When I got to the Egyptian, I was actually surprised to see that there was a mass of folks that had gotten there WAY before I did, and we still had about an hour and change to go before we got let in!

It's all about the Saxons. And the Normans. And...well, the O'Toole of course!!!

The doors to the Egyptian finally opened, and I shuffled up to the front of the theater. It may be a little intense for the screen, but if I want to see a guest at the Egyptian…I’m gonna try to be at the front. And so? I found myself a lovely little chair and patiently waited.

For me, this was a fairly big thing to check off my list. I had DVR’d Becket (1964) a few months back, but when I heard that it was going to be at the Festival, I had quickly erased it and been anticipating this moment the whole time. Especially since I knew that Peter O’Toole himself was going to show. At this point, I can’t wait to see what O’Toole film TCM Fest’ll play next year, since last year I saw The Stuntman (1980)! In any case, there we all were, waiting, anticipating, patience dwindling to nothing like a 10-year-old child’s on the tram to Disneyland. You could literally look at the people beside you in the theater and they had the “Are we there yet?” look on their faces. Considering the various age-ranges (a good percentage retirees or thereabouts), the look of wonder and child-like excitement was fantastic. It gave the audience a wonderful sense of democracy that technical generation gaps were not permitting.

And then it happened. Ben Mankiewicz appeared and the crowd went nuts. He came out and chatted a bit, making a few jokes about the Royal Wedding that had happened the night before and the film Royal Wedding, since that was going to be presented later in the day (all I could think at that point was how hard that made me laugh and…oh boy- I must be a really BAD film nerd if those are the jokes that get me! I’m sunk for good!). Mankiewicz was even more charming and a hellovalot smarter and cooler than he is on tv, and I like him on tv, so that’s saying a lot!  After his initial presentation, he gives a bit of historical background on Becket and they run the film.

Is the film good? It’s better than good, it’s great. When I call this the first “bro” movie, I’m not kidding. I say that in a slightly off-the-cuff joking way, but I do mean it in the sense that it does discuss all the issues that pertain to that which we have come to look at as “bro” culture. Perhaps not what it is now, in that it has completely been degraded and turned in upon itself in some kind of commodified and trivialized way (like most other things), but in the sense that there is a sense of loyalty and masculinity that two men can share with each other that women have no place in.

On the other hand, I recognize that there is a highly sexual element of this film, between Henry and Becket. It is quite exciting and enthusiastically celebrated, in fact. This may be one of the first films that I have seen in a long while where, with one notable exception, women are portrayed as horrific, evil creations, and I’m…almost down with that struggle. Mostly because I am so dearly and desperately in love with the relationship as it evolves/devolves between Henry and Becket.

The colors were beautiful. The story exquisite. I could write about this film alone for an entire entry. However, I cannot do so, as I have to discuss the actual in person visit from Henry II, himself! You know a film is good when it closes and it feels like a lover pulling away in the morning…you know they have to go, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And thusly, Becket wrapped for me, and Mankiewicz returned to the stage.

"They found Burton at the Pair of Shoes and I was under a piano at the Garrison club. They had to get us all dressed up like a king and a priest again for those final shots. We were very confused."

And then came the man. There’s no getting around it. I’m prejudiced. His eyes and his acting got me one day and…I was sold.

Well, I wasn’t any less sold that morning. He was elegant and charming, and seemingly surprised at the film. I don’t think he had been there the entire way through, but he mentioned that it was quite something to hear the way he sounded “all those years ago.”

The discussion wound its way through all sorts of topics: theater, Lawrence of Arabia, drinking, Burton, their relationship, cricket, and Katharine Hepburn. The most memorable moments, of course, were when O’Toole would go “off the script” as they say, and add something that truly was a personal touch. When discussing Richard Burton, he asked Mankiewicz if he was familiar with the cricket expression a “pair of safe hands” (the generosity of this made me smile- Americans? And cricket? I love you, Mr. O’Toole!). When Mankiewicz replied in the negatory, he responded that it referred to someone who was reliable and could be counted on not to make a mistake, someone who would back you up properly. “I knew with Richard Burton it would be like that,” O’Toole said.

His stories were wonderful. I could have listened to them for hours. But the one that stuck with me the most was the one that he told about Lawrence of Arabia. “I find acting very difficult,” O’Toole commented, and then discussed David Lean in some detail. “To sit on a camel, in the non-existent shade, covered in vermin, is not my ideal platform. But I came out, and David said, ‘It’s an adventure!'”

And Peter O’Toole himself is an adventure. Even as an older gentleman his eyes sparkle and his wit is sharp. “It’s an adventure!” No doubt. His life could not have been more of one and his films could not have expanded that if he had tried. Seeing him before me that morning was a dream. Theatrically, scholarly, and filmically, Peter O’Toole will remain one of the greatest actors in the world and I feel irascibly lucky to have been able to see him have a live Q&A after the masterpiece that was Becket!

I rushed out of there like a house on fire, unlocked my bike, and slid amongst Friday morning cars along Hollywood Blvd on my bike. I have to say- it was SO much quicker than walking! I love my bike! So I found a place to lock her up, and charged straight up to the Chinese 3 for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956). Some of you may remember that I have written about Nicholas Ray before or know my passion for his films, so you can imagine how excited I was. Well, quadruple that. It was a spectacular event, in the true meaning of the word spectacular originating from “spectacle.” Not only was star Barbara Rush there to do the Q&A with Robert Osborne, but it was in glorious DeLuxe color and Cinemascope.

Words fail to describe how good Barbara Rush looked. The fact that a woman who is in her 80’s looks like she just popped off the screen is almost unfathomable. Yet there she was, plain as day, gorgeous, funny, bright and quick as hell!

For a young actress to work with Nick Ray was a big thing, but James Mason...that VOICE!

When Robert Osborne asked her to talk about some of her leading men, she quipped back in the middle of his question, “I had ’em all!”

Her discussions on Paul Newman’s aspirations to character actorhood were especially enlightening. due to the fact Indeed, looking at his career and certain roles he chose to take on, you can see that desire manifest itself more than once. However, due to the fact that he was deadly good-looking,  he lost the character-actor lottery and was more leading-man stock (can’t say I’m complaining much). She said that he always really wanted to be Wallace Beery.

Rush was also on very good terms with Sinatra, too. He made sure to let her know that he had her back, no matter what. “Kid,” he said, “If you ever need help…” to which Rush replied “You would be the last person I’d call! You’ll kill ’em!!”

For someone who was extremely unfamiliar with her work, this Q&A was a godsend. Not only was she delightful and funny, but she was informative, incisive and analytical about the Hollywood system then and now. She stated, pure and simple, “There were no Lindsay Lohans because of the Studio System. They would give them picture after picture, shape them and mold them, protect them.” It was an interesting and saddening thing to consider. It’s not like people were partying any less back then. It’s just that the Studios and the Agents and the assorted folks in and around that circus authentically cared more (not about the person, mind you, about their product/commodity) and that, in effect, prevented a great deal of mishap. Don’t get me wrong, bad things still happened, but the covering up and shaping/molding/continuing to provide pictures after scandal may have saved more lives than we think.

Then there was the film itself Bigger Than Life is aptly named. And no, it could not have been shot in black and white or any other aspect ratio. It was a deliberate use of tools for a deliberate study on addiction, psychosis and different kinds of abuse-related traumas. It felt like a Douglas Sirk movie that had gone to the circus but in that upside-down, ten-in-one, freakshow kind of way, not the cotton candy and ferris wheel. It was dark and twisted and over the top, and while many might see this as the basis for a cult film and cause for laughter, I saw it as hauntingly beautiful and uncontrollably disturbing. It was meticulously thought out in the way that only a Ray film is, and is very clever at disguising itself as simply the American dream gone wrong. The issue is that this is the American dream gone to Hell in a handbasket. It deals with drug abuse, sure, but it deals with all kinds of other abuses and their repercussions on the psyches of the most vulnerable. We’ll put it this way- I adored the film and will be writing on it more at a later date, I’m sure.

So I believe I might have had something to eat at that point. I honestly don’t remember. I think I did, but that seems highly unlikely seeing that there was no possible way that I was going to miss the next screening. The bits and pieces in between the screenings at the Festival seems so meaningless unless you are in the company of fantastic and awesome people (which I was for good portions of the weekend) or getting to know some new ones, so anything less than that pales.

The next thing I knew, I was making my way into the Chinese 3 again, when who should I see but my good friend and companion, writer-on-film extraordinaire, and all around excellent being with opposable thumbs, Dennis Cozzalio. I was THRILLED to pieces. I always love spending time with him and so every time I see him it’s like some cool holiday. I snagged a seat right by him, sat down, and we immersed ourselves in the glory, the magic, the unbelievable brilliance  that is The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). In my notebook, as I was watching, I scribbled the following phrases:

1) Indiana Jones and Goonies totally bit off this!! Dude!!

2) Pixar for nerdy grown-ups!! [ok, so maybe I shoulda written Aardman. SUE ME.]

3) Who let the dragons out? Who? Who? Who? [YES. I went there. TO MYSELF. In the movie. THANKS.]

My decision, right then and there: any film that has such beautiful and skillfully battling skeletons has won my heart. Now I know you might say- hadn’t you seen Harryhausen’s work before? The quick answer is yes. The longer answer is a) never a full film (but many clips, pieces of documentaries, and virtually hours of footage on the making-of stuff) and b) NEVER ON A BIG SCREEN.

Never let anyone tell you that the big screen doesn’t change the way you seen a film. Even one you have seen a bazillion times. It is a complete falsehood. Seeing this film on the big screen with Bernard Herrman’s excellent score ripping its way through my ears was life-changing. The 13-year-old boy in me was doing cartwheels and flips. It was so brilliant. I’m surprised that my seat remained in one piece considering how much I was bouncing around in absolute glee.

Delightful doesn’t begin to describe this film. ROCK an ROLL comes close, but…that doesn’t sound too scholarly, now does it. Perhaps we shall split the difference?

When that came to a close, I walked out into the lobby with Dennis and we ran into a friend of his. As it turned out, his pal John is finishing up the same program that I will be starting up in September! So after a bit of movie dishing, Dennis moved towards his next film and John and I chatted about film archiving and all sorts of fun stuff. Also how fencing/fighting skeletons essentially just rule. After grabbing some coffee with him, I made my way down to the courtyard in front of the big Chinese, so that I could get in line for Spartacus (1960).

It wasn’t so much that I felt a need to see it on the big screen (although seeing anything in the big Chinese is almost like seeing the face of a god…well, maybe a junior deity, seeing as it’s all digital now and I’m a sucker for a good print. But still- stuff in the big Chinese? GREAT) as I wanted to see Kirk Douglas. I love the man. Lonely Are the Brave (1962) (Douglas’ favorite film of his career, by the way!) is possibly one of the best modern Westerns to grace the silver screen, and Ace in the Hole (1951)? Well, let’s just say I still don’t go to church. It still bags my nylons. I’ve also read his autobiography (the first one, anyways) and have a very keen sense of him due to my minor obsession with the blacklist and blacklist history. So aside from the fact that my mother had seen the very same film in the very same theater when it came out, 50 years ago (sorry for outing your age, mom! Forgive me for the sake of journalism?), I had my excitement gauge set firmly to “Elder Statesman of HELL YES I RULE” Douglas. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Kirk Douglas has had multiple strokes over the years which have made his speech difficult to understand. I can’t say I got everything, but I got most of it. His poise was brilliant. His timing? SPOT ON. Whatever neurological explosions happened within the Douglas anatomy, they have not, for even one instanteffected his ability to turn on a crowd and keep them going.  People were laughing at his jokes (damn funny), murmuring in agreement at his statements and watching intently as he discussed certain elements of his life now in comparison to back then. He actually said that he was happy that he had the strokes, as they taught him to stop taking things for granted.

"I think for a guy who can't talk, I'm saying a lot!"

My favorite story that he told was when he called Stanley Kubrick and wanted to make Paths of Glory (1957) (another GENIUS performance from this man). He said he had to cajole Kubrick into it a little, and his stance on Paths when he decided that he wanted to make it, verbatim, was: “This picture won’t make a nickel. But we have to do it.” That attitude ruled his career and it still rules him. It was inspirational to see clips from his one-man show and to know that this man has the strength of a thousand winning armies. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, still.

He received a standing ovation in response to his statement about breaking the blacklist by using Dalton Trumbo’s name as an actual credit and making sure that Trumbo was let on the lot when no one had the balls to do that, and with that we said our farewells to the man who changed Hollywood (and my personal film life) forever, and got on with the show.

Spartacus itself was quite enjoyable. It was made a little less enjoyable by the people in the audience who persisted in taking pictures of the screen. I knew when the flashes would go off, too. It was like clockwork. People’s credits at the beginning? FLASH. Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in the now-infamous “snails-oysters-bathing scene” FLASH FLASH FLASH.

I do understand that there were a ton of people attending this festival from different cities, states and countries. I also understand that those places may not have theatrical screenings of these films, thus you make the journey to the seriously amazing TCM Classic Film Festival. But…it was quite distracting and disappointing. There are amazing screen captures that you can get online. It is entirely unnecessary to disrupt other people’s film-going experience by shooting pictures through it. If the staff could’ve done something, I think they would have. But quick flashes in a large group of people…well, not much you can do.

Spartacus is truly an amazing film. Due to the emotional attachment to storyline/characters I am always guilty of when I go to the movies, I tend to forget how many extraordinary actors are in it together. You can probably play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and connect him to any one of these actors because of this one picture. How poignant, too, that I was seeing another Tony Curtis movie at the TCM Festival, as last year I had seen one of my ALL time favorites, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and he had been the guest for the Q&A beforehand.

As the film let out, I had to throw in the towel. I was spent. This broke my heart because I was so looking forward to seeing William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) at the Egyptian. Castle is one of my 100%, no-question-about-it, favorite humans to have come into the world of the cinema. But I had to admit defeat, and so I biked home, opened my door, put the bike down with my stuff, and promptly passed out completely. It was necessary. I’m kinda glad I did, too, as Saturday turned out to be the biggest and most movie-filled day of ’em all!!

****WATCH THIS SPACE SOON FOR PART 2 OF THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL SAGA!!!!!!!****

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Man Out of Time: Film Preservation and the Noir Western

As I have been participating in this amazing Noir Blogathon, I have had a lot of time to consider what I wanted to write about each day. And, as I have been writing, I have had many things on in the background. Whether it was TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar or just some music, it has somehow played into the way I have put together my work. But last night, I was having a rough time deciding what I wanted my last piece to be. I looked at my wall of movies and couldn’t figure it out. Did I want to go Sam Fuller, and dig through House of Bamboo? I love me some Sam, and while I have written on him before, never have I attempted that film. I pulled it out and looked at it, and kept it out as an option. Then I pulled out Lonely are the Brave, which I had been thinking about for about a day or so. It was a rough choice. Did I want to battle another film that wasn’t just an out-and-out noir? A film that masked its “noirness” underneath another genre? Then I looked down at my television, and saw what was playing.

I had just finished watching Blow Up (1966), and considered writing about that, but was honestly having a hard time thinking critically about the piece, due to the fact that I hadn’t seen it in so long and…well, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings are so impossibly good looking in that film that I was reduced to a drooling idiot, in no uncertain terms. So that film was out. However, as I stood by my television, DVDs in hand, trying to make my choice on the Next Noir to write about, the first bars of 2001: A Space Odyssey came on. And that’s when I remembered why I had challenged myself to write as many pieces in this short a span of time.

In December it had been announced that 17 extra minutes of the film had been discovered in a salt mine. To me, that was phenomenal. I know that it is blasphemy for any cinephile to say this, but I’m not a huge fan of 2001. In fact, I’ll come right out and say that I think the movie is extremely boring. Is it gorgeous? Totally. Well made? Absolutely. Is it a work of genius? Yeah, it probably is. Do I like it? Nope. I just like the parts with H.A.L. Those parts are creepy and I like creepy stuff. So there’s my admission and I am totally comfortable with it. That said, this discovery was brilliant to me. Not because it was 2001 necessarily, but because it was part of our history; and even moreso, our shared cultural history. Cinema bridges so many gaps in the world and manages to create a common visual language amongst millions of people and peoples who have never known each other and will never meet each other. When I fell in love with cinema in college it wasn’t because I wanted to make a movie, it was because I realized that no matter how much I like Chagall, not everyone on the planet would know who that was if you said his name. But if you mentioned/described Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse or a more modern star (who would it be now? Brad Pitt? Mark Wahlberg?), people would absolutely know who you were talking about. Of course it is, as always, about monetary economy and access, but cinema as a medium is far more wide-reaching than any other art form. Which is why the restoration of Metropolis or the saving of this 17 minutes of 2001 is crucial for us as scholars, film lovers, noir fans, and human beings. It is film preservation, my friends. Without our past, we do not have any future.

And with that, I made my decision on what I needed to write about. I needed to write about Lonely are the Brave. It is a story based on a man who is, in a sense, a bit of an anachronism. He’s a cowboy in a world that is, quite literally, over run with cars, trucks, and other machinery. Yet his own world is still alive and vibrant; he refuses to accept the idea that the things that surround him are “higher” technology. He is, indeed, a “man out of time,” in more than one way. With Lonely are the Brave, I see a man who whole-heartedly embraces what the world sees as the “past,” and he just accepts it as what he is. He doesn’t hold it against anyone else, necessarily, nor does he live in some kind of fantasy world where he thinks that it really is still the Days of the Wild West. His Past Persona is his identity and, to me, his ethos. Jack W. Burns feels that if there is no man out there living free like he does, then the world will somehow have died.

The film, written by Dalton Trumbo, is one of extreme import. Jack W. Burns (played with grace and style by Kirk Douglas) returns to an urban landscape from his regular transient routine doing whatever cowboy-related tasks he can find (sheep herding, etc) to help a friend in need. That friend, Paul Bondi, however, has changed, and is no longer the same person he once was and the help that Jack is willing to offer will do little to no good. In fact, in trying to help out his friend, Jack gets himself into the jam that leads to his ultimate altercation with the law and spiral downward. The great irony is that it is, quite literally, this modern, urban landscape and all of its accessories that end up leading to Burns’ downfall. Jack reinserted himself into the situation so that he could help his pal from the ol’ days; a friend he thought was still living (at least partially) in the same world that he was, only to find out that Bondi had moved on, become more responsible. But for Jack, his Cowboy Culture is not a phase, it is a way of life.

Burns gets put into jail specifically to see Bondi. After meeting and talking with Bondi, he realizes that Bondi is on a different life path, and so Jack stages a jailbreak- Bondi does not go. When Burns returns to the house where Bondi’s wife and child are, he has a conversation with Jerry (Gena Rowlands), Bondi’s wife. It is clear the two have had some kind of possible previous romantic involvement, at some point in their relationship, although it is not entirely apparent whether or not it was ever consummated. Before Jack leaves to try to start outrunning the police (on his horse, Whiskey), he says something quite important to Jerry:

JACK: I didn’t want a house, didn’t want all those pots and pans, didn’t want anything but you. It’s God’s own blessing I didn’t get you.

JERRY: Why?

JACK: Cuz I’m a loner down deep to my very guts. And you know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s crippled because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live, it’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you, cuz he couldn’t love you. Not the way you are loved.

JERRY: You’ll change too someday, Jack.

JACK: Mmm, maybe. Can’t now, too late. Paul did though…

The kind of emotionally-tinged speech to Jerry that is at once pushing her away while telling her that he cares deeply is very similar to another very famous speech involving Bogey and Bacall and a hill of beans. While Lonely is masquerading as somewhat of a western, the noir sensibility is just as strong as it is in Casablanca. Jack and Rick share a great deal of things in common. They are both outlaws in their own areas, live by their own rules, and are not willing to budge, even a little. While I have heard people argue on whether or not Casablanca is a noir, I’m not going to get into that discussion at all. If we are to go by the Borde and Chaumeton definitions, the Durgnat discussions, and even Paul Schrader’s family tree, I believe that both Casablanca and Lonely Are the Brave would qualify.

But a western noir is a difficult thing to be. And this film is even more difficult to qualify as it is, in essence, about the end of the western. Jack Burns is a loner, and all he has is his horse and his tight grip on the past. The environment and the officers/representatives of the environment he has put himself in are attacking him, and as the movie progresses, he gets more and more trapped within his situation and becomes even more of a “man out of time.”

Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliantly constructed score works in tandem with the alternate storyline of the trucker (Carol O’Connor) and the police chase to build the film up to a brilliant crescendo. The finale sequence, in the rain, essentially plays out the way a standard noir might do. If the standard noir was about a man and his horse, just trying to live their own way, damn the consequences. The modern world comes into conflict with Jack’s world, and he is left, confused, broken, and, ultimately, alone. His earlier words to Jerry were true. He is the only person he can live with, and that world is now coming to an end.

Our final moments of the film show us a man who has been conquered by forces beyond his control. Not dissimilar to other films noir, Jack W. Burns has been broken by the world that he did not wish to play a part in. The downbeat ending only further identifies this film as part of the cycle of the films that go under the categorization of noir western.

Lonely Are the Brave tells the tale of a man who is an anachronism, and a strong individualist. When I thought about this story, I thought about how I wanted to end this blogathon with a piece of writing that centered around this film. While the film has a downer ending (few noirs don’t, western or not), Jack W. Burns is still a good guy and a hero and somewhat part of our struggle. And our story doesn’t have to have a downer ending.

It is hard to convince people that film matters, these days. Most people would rather sit at home and throw on a DVD than go to the theater. The problem with that is that the less you go to the theaters, the less theaters there will be to go to. It’s also hard to convince people that film conservation and restoration is as important to our history as other archival professions and pursuits. Apparently, since it’s “entertaining” it cannot reflect our social values of the time? Sorry, bub, wrong answer. Every film is a little time capsule, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

It is hard to be a film-lover in this day and age where everything is so digital and technologically-bent. I’ve seen gorgeous 4K restorations of films that blew my mind, but to be honest? I almost cried when I was at the 12th Annual Film Noir Festival at the Egyptian last year and they whipped out that awesome print of Cry Danger, fully restored, looked brand-spanking new. I don’t want an Ipad or to watch a movie in a car stuck in the back of some headrest. I don’t want to be able to download the latest toy. I want the films that are languishing away in our vaults to get babied by the professionals who care about them so that I can see them, dammit. Yes, I am totally selfish. But somewhere inside of me there is a hope that if we conduct more of these blogathons, raise enough money, show our support for the film preservation and restoration community at large, maybe there will be people in the studios who will listen and they will financially back our attempts at saving our past.

I’m not going to completely knock the digital world. I don’t know enough about it yet and therefore I can’t say much. But I can say the following:

-We are still projecting nitrate prints. Those are damn old. We are also projecting everything from after that. Cared for properly, prints can last.

-Whatever happens, we need to make sure that our history gets saved. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our friends and families to make sure that this happens by continuing to write about/watch/support/go to/be an activist for any kind of film festival or theater that shows restorations or is a revival house. In my neighborhood, I have things like the New Beverly and the Cinefamily and I’m very much looking forward to the UCLA Festival of Preservation this next month.

I would like to thank everyone who has blogged for the Noir Blogathon. You guys are all fantastic. I have read a bunch of your stuff, and it has been delightful. I have to say that this was an amazing week for me, getting to bask in the presence of a bunch of talented folks who clearly believe in film preservation as much as I do. So hopefully we did some good, and keep at it!

See you at the movies!

Son of a Gun: An Ode to the Trumbos

Christopher Trumbo died today. And that saddens me greatly. As I sit here, tap-tap-tapping away at my computer, I have Johnny Got His Gun on in the background. Not only does it remind me of why I am here and why I became interested in the film world in the first place, but it also reminds me of why I became passionate about political issues, and where the two collided.

In the early ’90’s, when people were obsessively concerned about heavy metal music turning kids suicidal or into massive drug-fiends, heavy metal music was very busy turning me into a history buff and a cinephile. See, in 1988 Metallica released an album called …And Justice For All, which included a song called “One.” I didn’t get my grubby little adolescent paws on it until a few years later when I was hip-deep in the penny loafers and uniform skirt of an all-girls Catholic school (needless to say, being a metal fan in that location earned me more than a few detentions-that and the fact that I wore black nail polish on a regular basis). But I purchased …And Justice because I was a big Metallica fan and I had seen the video for “One” on MTV, most likely on Headbanger’s Ball with Riki Rachtman. When I saw that video, my life changed forever.

As many people are in their early teen years, I was a complete jerk to my parents. However, I had some presence of mind and enough brain cell capacity to reach out to my mother (who is exceptionally awesome) and tell her all about this video I had seen. I had also done my research in the academic journals of the time (Metal Edge, Circus, Hit Parader, and especially RIP) to find out more about this phenomenal piece of work. “One” seemed different to me. The sentiment was strange (ie outwardly political, and liberal at that!), the video structure was unusual…the entire assemblage was ground-breaking in my eyes.

The conclusions to my research were good and bad: the film was unavailable to be rented. The book however? My awesome mother got it for me. I ate it up like pie.

Johnny Got His Gun was my gateway drug. I became obsessed. I decided to find out all about the man who wrote the book, and all about the movie, and I quickly did so. I may have been the only underage kid who was spending time (without my parents’ consent or knowledge, of course!) outside Gazzari’s trying to get a date by talking about the blacklist and literary activities of Dalton Trumbo and how that tied into heavy metal. To this day, I am very thankful that approach never worked!

Due to the fact that the internet was not what it is now, it was not until I got to college that this obsession continued in full effect. As I began my film career, I renewed my interest in the subject when I was taking a film history course. To me, the Hollywood Blacklist was one of the most horrifying and awful marks on the industry that we’ve had. I could write for hours and hours simply on that but this is about the Trumbos.

In college, not only did I find that my own family had ties to the Blacklist, but I wrote several pieces exploring the ways that it brutalized people’s souls. At the end of the day, what I found was that Dalton Trumbo, the man who had started this whole journey and catalyzed my interest in this section of American filmic history was a man who, as his son Christopher Trumbo said, “wasn’t able to break the blacklist, to smash it into pieces or obliterate it or crumple it up into a ball and throw it in the trash can — but he was able to cripple it, and when his name appeared on the screen when ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Exodus’ opened within a few months of each other in New York, it became easier for other writers to get their names on what they had written without having to sign statements about what their political beliefs currently were or what they had been in the past or needing to justify themselves to their employers about anything at all.”

 

Dalton Trumbo's mugshot, prisoner #7551, upon being jailed for "Un-American Activities"

 

 

 

Trumbo’s “crippling” of the Blacklist served a great purpose and essentially opened the employment floodgates so that a great many people who had previously been economically and professionally cowed by this terrible tragedy were no longer handicapped in that regard. Dalton Trumbo, to me, was a hero. He had been a hero to me since I had first read about him as a teen, and he became even more of one as I read further.

 

The blacklist was a time of evil, and that no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.

I believe that it was with the introduction of the Blacklist to my life that I realized the importance of the writing community to Hollywood, as a good portion of those that were Blacklisted (and almost all of the Hollywood Ten) were, in fact, writers. It was also at this point that I started visually “collecting” blacklisted writers’ and artists works, Trumbo being foremost on that list.

One of the first films Dalton Trumbo's name ever was allowed to be attached to, "breaking" the Blacklist

Kirk Douglas, by insisting that Dalton Trumbo be allowed on the set (and then putting his name on the film), essentially helped catalyze the "breaking" of the Blacklist

 

Life can never cage a man like this! And it never could...a great film of Trumbo's and very telling.

Tonight I returned home from the movies to the tragic news. Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo’s son, had passed away at the age of 70. My heart sank. A few weeks ago, I had snuggled myself up with some cross-stitch and blankets, and put on one of the best documentaries I have seen in many years, and (I will stress this) it was not just because of the subject matter.

In 2003, Christopher wrote a play called Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted. Directed by Peter Askin, this piece constructed a narrative about the Blacklist and Trumbo’s life based on his correspondence. It played off-Broadway, and had an intense amount of star-power attached to it at different points. In 2007, this became the basis for the documentary, Trumbo.

Trumbo is not only an excellent documentary, but it is a fabulous example of theater put onto film. It not only shows the talent that Dalton Trumbo himself had, but the skill that Christopher possessed in being able to communicate his father through two different mediums (theater and film) that were so thoroughly enmeshed on the screen. Christopher also adds an even deeper layer. Alongside the aforementioned play/film marriage, there are interviews scattered throughout, reminding us that this is not only players recreating correspondence, but real figures recalling real events. The Trumbo family as well as other Hollywood Ten families are contained within the text, relating their own lives with Dalton, while figures like Liam Neeson and Nathan Lane are reading the letters and playing their “parts” so to speak. There are also interesting connections. Kirk Douglas, a very significant figure in Dalton’s life is an interviewee, while his son is a participant in the performance/dramatic readings.

The following clip is one of my favorite sections from the documentary. But there are oh-so-many more!!

 

Not that Christopher didn’t have his own separate career. He did! Aside from being the assistant director and associate producer on Johnny Got His Gun and assistant director on Exodus, directly out of college, he also had a long and successful career in television (shows such as Falcon Crest, Quincy, Ironside). Christopher Trumbo was widely considered to be, as Peter Askin said, ” a very smart, funny, articulate guy. He was enormously gifted himself, and with the work he did in respect to his father.”

He was indeed his father’s son. He became one of the preeminent scholars on the Blacklist, devoting much of his life to being as learned about the subject as he possibly could. His sister, Nikola, noted that “His passion for the last 20 years or more was to learn as much as he could about the blacklist and then educate others about it, and I think he went about it using each of those attributes.”

Trumbo once wrote that making the film version of Johnny Got His Gun was his father’s response to the insanity of Viet Nam. It is tragic now that we don’t have anyone as poetic or striking as either Dalton or his son to make such bold and original filmic statements about the way of the world. Rewatching JGHG tonight, it reaffirmed my love for Dalton Trumbo, and my feeling that there is some writing talent that, like Haley’s Comet, only comes around every so often. With Christopher’s passing, and my recent viewing of his documentary, my heart breaks even moreso, as there is also one less historian who was Really There, and can talk about what it was Really Like to live through that kind of persecution.

I suppose that all we can do now is all we have ever done: watch, remember, and never forget.

 

I know that nothing can happen if I remain silent and that everything becomes possible when people find each other and take each other’s hand. I know that when enough of us are able to put aside our fears and find courage in the name and power of our common humanity, that when we do that one by one and then another and another, again and again, every day and day after day that we will become a great and irresistible multitude and that this war will end.

So be it.

Christopher Trumbo