It was only about 10 days into the global lockdown last year when Turner Classic Movies made the fateful decision to cease its annual in-person film festival in Hollywood. They were the first major festival to do make that call. To their credit, they made it quickly and decisively. It took some conventions way too long to make the smart, admittedly disappointing decision. Now, 13 months after the initial TCM Classic Film Festival Home Edition, the second such fest has concluded. It took everything great about the in-person fest and did their damnedest to replicate it at home. They couldn’t have done better. And still…
The 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival had a huge roster of movies, across two “venues”; one was the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, the other the TCM hub on HBO Max. A few movies played on the channel that were also available to stream on-demand on HBO Max, but in general they were different. Which is great. It kept the appointment-viewing aspect of the real film festival while also allowing for flexibility for those who either didn’t want to watch what was on TV, or didn’t have access to the channel.
In both instances, the movies came along with TCM’s trademark introductions and discussions. Much talk recently with regard to the place of classic films in the age of content focuses on curation. The context behind some of these decades-old films makes all the difference to properly set the stage for the viewer. As always, TCM’s hosts (Ben Mankiewicz, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger, and Jaqueline Stewart) did an amazing job introducing the movie, and in some cases interviewing or leading post-movie discussions with experts and people who made the movies.
I cannot say enough good things about the way TCM presented this at-home festival weekend. It felt inviting and essential, with plenty of variety between stone-cold classics and new discoveries. But this also points to the major difference between an at-home experience versus the in-person one; even the best of the virtual festivals and conventions can’t quite match the atmosphere of everything surrounding the movies and panels.
Let’s take my viewing habits as an example. I am, admittedly, a classic movie junkie, and much of the roster for both TCM and HBO Max were great movies that I’d already seen. As such, I chose to almost exclusively watch movies I’d never seen before. I did watch West Side Story, but that was the festival kick-off movie and I hadn’t seen it since high school. Other than that, all of my choices were new-to-me, and almost all of them I’d never heard much about, if anything.
- Doctor X (1932) is a supremely weird sci-fi/horror/romantic comedy(?) that was one of the very last movies to use two-strip technicolor. It has an eerie, sickly yellow-and-green look. The plot is a murder mystery where every suspect is a mad scientist. It’s great!
- Black Legion (1937) is a sizzling and all-too timely drama about a guy (Humphrey Bogart) who loses a promotion at his factory in favor of a Polish immigrant. This resentment sends him on the path toward the titular Black Legion, a hate group akin to the KKK.
- The Man Who Would Be King (1975) stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine as a pair of adventurers looking to take control of an untamed Afghan nation in the 1880s. It’s a rollicking, sprawling film, with two excellent performances.
- I Love Trouble (1948) is a very fun, very twisty private detective flick.
- So This is Paris (1926) is a silent comedy from the great Ernst Lubitsch which features the first choreographed dance sequence of the Charleston.
- La Chambre (1972) is the great Chantal Akerman’s experimental short film that is literally just a camera panning around a room 360 degrees several times. Akerman herself is in the bed, looking at us every minute or so. It’s the most oddly compelling thing I’ve ever seen.
- Wuthering Heights (1939), a very handsome costume drama that I didn’t like at all.
- They Won’t Believe Me (1947) is a tremendous noir from producer Joan Harrison, one of Hollywood’s first major women producers. It’s got a hell of a wild narrative about a man who stumbles ass-backward into relationships with three women, two of whom end up dead, and he’s the prime suspect.
- Dogfight (1991), an absolutely wonderful movie about marines on the eve of shipping off to Vietnam running a contest to bring the ugliest girl to a party. One such marine (River Phoenix) brings one such girl (Lili Taylor) who does not take this indignity; it leads to the sweetest one-night-conversation you’ve seen since the Before movies.
- The Mortal Storm (1940) finds Jimmy Stewart as a German in pre-Hitler Germany who sees the rise of fascism around him as his friends fall under the spell of the Third Reich one by one.
Some of these movies I loved, and some I didn’t. But I’m happy I saw all of them. However, if I’d gone to the festival in person, I probably wouldn’t have seen some of these. In person, on the gorgeously huge screens at the Chinese and Egyptian Theatres in Hollywood, I probably would have elected to see Bullitt, The Maltese Falcon, or Strangers on a Train. I’ve seen them, but never seen on the big screen. I would have missed out on some outstanding new discoveries in favor of familiarity and scope.
And that really gets to the heart of what I couldn’t help thinking during both TCM Fest 2021 and Sundance 2021. Despite some amazing films and wonderful discussions… it’s still just watching movies on your TV at your house. Conventions don’t even have the luxury of screening movies along with them; if I could never watch a zoom discussion or panel again, I’d be incredibly happy.
I know it’s nobody’s fault a massive pandemic has devastated the world. Still, after a year of attending these virtual festivals and cons, the isolation deafens. There was a frustrating beauty in standing in line for a movie for an hour, casually chatting with other film buffs. I somehow miss the constant discussion of what I’m going to eat and how I’ll fit it in before the next movie. The car or subway ride back home at the end of a long day at the cinema. The inconveniences become precious in retrospect.
By no means am I saying these festivals didn’t do a great job; they did! Not only did they do their best, they turned them into something that truly does capture as much of the festival atmosphere as one can at home. But movies are, in their most elemental sense, a communal art form, best experienced in a room full of other people, all staring at faces projected on a screen bigger than your house. I long for that again.
TCM Classic Film Fest’s second home edition made me even more eager to see movies in person again.