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The TCM Classic Film Festival, a showcase of movies past, points to the future

April 26, 2010 |  6:30 am

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Apart from bringing the soothing, erudite tones of Robert Osborne off the upper end of the cable dial and into full (3-D?) effect of a live staging, this weekend's TCM Classic Film Festival did something else. The barnstorming event, which just concluded its four-day run in Los Angeles, improbably offered a glimpse into the future of movie-going.

How exactly does a festival dedicated to the creative output of Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Borgnine and Eli Wallach do that? By showing how someone can make the film-going experience unique and even exciting, and with little more than some old prints and inventive pairings.

We caught two screenings at the festival over the weekend -- a Saturday showing of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," with Anjelica and Danny Huston in a pre-screening chat (their father and grandfather directed and starred in the film, respectively) -- and a Sunday afternoon showing of Martin Scorsese's fame- and celebrity-critique, "The King of Comedy" (co-star Jerry Lewis, though on the bill as a guest, did not turn up, so we had to use our imagination on that one). Both were stellar events, thanks to introductions from Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, and the sheer pleasure of watching both a vintage classic and a modern classic on a big screen, and in an ornate theater like Grauman's Chinese, no less.

We also heard gushing reports from several other events, including the Friday afternoon screening of Nicholas Ray's hard-boiled noir "In a Lonely Place" and the closing-night festivities that brought the screening of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" together with a live orchestral performance,

The reason it all worked was because the festival took something that's part of our pop-culture canon and made it fresh. In some cases, these screenings were simply a way of introducing a piece of art or entertainment to a new generation with the extra flourish of a large-scale screening; in other cases, they added something specific to our understanding of the work. ("L.A. Confidential" director Curtis Hanson, for instance, introduced "In a Lonely Place." Who better to talk about the history of noir than someone who's made the best modern example of the form?)

The movie business often frets about the relevance of film-going in the YouTube age, when entertainment is disposable, portable and inexpensive to view (read: typically costs nothing). Hollywood has been intent on trying to compete with these many out-of-theater experiences by mounting ever larger spectacles -- see under: the 3-D revolution, a particular hobbyhorse for us and others these days. And theater owners, eager for anything that will give them a leg up or stave off obsolescence, have gone along, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically.

But the entertainment world, as it often does, offers another way. And the TCM festival shows us what that way might be  -- namely, creating a buzz around a screening of a previously released film. The festival provided a template on how movies can be fun and event-worthy. By creating either a one-off or a weeklong road show of any one of a number of great movies from the past 90 years, accompanied by a live element that will motivate people to leave their homes, theaters can emulate the TCM festival and offer a pretty valuable service to audiences (while also saving their own hides).

Most big cities have at least a few stars living in them and, judging by this weekend, most stars are happy to come out and talk about their film if it means sharing it with a new generation, or even if it means reliving it with an older one. Repertory houses have been doing something along these lines for years, but the bulk and costs associated with shipping prints has prevented the phenomenon from catching on in a wider way.

These days, however, digital cinema makes screening these films cheaper and easier than ever. So why couldn't theaters show these films in a TCM-esque manner, lending them an event quality, not to mention giving viewers the chance to establish a connection to the film that's deeper than just watching it on Netflix. The theaters would win (is there any doubt that a weeklong run of, say, "The Godfather" as introduced by Francis Ford Coppola wouldn't sell out each night?), the libraries of these classic prints would win and, most important, film fans, no doubt feeling a little strangled by first-run movie offerings these days (when "Date Night" and "The Back-Up Plan" dueling for screens passes for diversity), would get a needed breath of fresh air.

It wouldn't have to be "Easy Rider" and "Gone With the Wind" either -- you can show contemporary classics, like "Memento" or "The Matrix," and achieve the same effect. And you wouldn't need the presence of Robert Osborne, beatific though it may be, to make it happen.

As movie-going becomes ever more spectacle-oriented, we're constantly reminded that the future lies with the sound and fury of 3-D. But as the TCM festival shows, there are many ways to turn a movie screening into a larger-than-life event.

-- Steven Zeitchik

(Follow me on Twitter.)

Photo: Humphrey Bogart in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Credit: Warner Bros.


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