April 14, 2009
Turner Classic Movies started piping into my Buffalo family’s cable box circa 1999, just as I was schlepping downstate to grow a wispy goatee at Binghamton University. This was vexing. I was already committed to studying the movies, eyeing the school’s vague “cinema” major like it was a slab of rare steak. And now that I was leaving home, this vast library of celluloid was going to broadcast 200 miles away from my rapidly watering eyes (TCM was persona non grata on campus). And so a plan was hatched. Every month, after exhaustively parsing the schedule and cross-checking titles at IMDB, I would send my father a lengthy list of films to record through my newly minted dial-up AOL account (screename: EdAsner). I tried to instill a military vigilance regarding this burgeoning bootleg operation, and he endured my tyrannical reminders with annoyed resignation. My “Make sure you get that Bollywood triple feature tonight!” would be followed by his drawn out, perfectly enunciated sigh of defeat.
Armed with one dollar tapes from the orange-besotted Aldi’s chain, he manfully battled our VCR to a draw. A few endings were clipped, but most made it through the Sony’s maw intact. Soon enough there was an imposing, wobbly tower of cheap cardboard and cheaper tape cluttering my Dad’s living room. They were shipped out in increments, or picked up at holiday visits. His labeling was sparse and incomplete, and most of my Christmases involved archiving the new stack of cinema accrued during the semester, toggling back and forth to see which title Mr. Robert Osborne would announce next.
My Dad endured, and snuck a few peeks at my obsessions, becoming especially enamored of Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night(1952, image at top, from DVD Beaver). He couldn’t remember the name when I talked to him last night, just images of Barbara Stanwyck, a fishing village, and its stark rendering of failed trust and nascent forgiveness. “They worked it out”, he said. “After all that.”
And so began my personal, idiosyncratic repertory house, airing nightly in a tripled dorm (three living in a space for two), which naturally provided its own version of Smell-O-Vision. Some sample offerings: Zombies on Broadway (1945) followed by Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), Kiss Me Kate (1953) paired with The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), or, my favorite, a triple bill of The Lusty Men (1952), Rancho Notorious (1952 – what a year!) and The Big Knife (1955). That latter tape alone introduced me to the carnal cinemas of Nicholas Ray and Robert Aldrich, and made me re-evaluate the received wisdom about Fritz Lang’s Hollywood work. The cramped, grimy noirs of Anthony Mann and John Alton, though, seemed especially appropriate to my living quarters, and TCM always delivered (one tape contained the chiaroscuro masterpieces T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948)).
So happy 15th birthday, TCM (and a happy ten years of viewing for me). It was always a thrill to see Robert Osborne’s avuncular bearing shimmer through my shoddy 13′ TV screen, because it meant a further dip into the seemingly inexhaustible archives of the classical Hollywood cinema. Not to mention Osborne’s always useful historical notes before each screening. But what’s most important is how the channel, through its devotion to showing films uncut, and in the correct aspect ratios, is preserving film history. While learning the rudimentary tools on a Bolex 16mm at Binghamton, TCM was offering me a crash course in the history of screen editing, from the brisk shot-countershots of Preston Sturges comedies to the longer takes necessitated by the CinemaScope process, seen in later Manns like the underrated The Last Frontier (1956) and Man of the West (1958). My education at school was valuable, but if I were to quantify how much I’ve absorbed about film history and style, how much can be imparted through a flick of a cigarette, a tip of the hat, I’d say the cable channel comes out on top (sorry Mom and Dad).
I come from a generation where this was the only place to discover the glories of the studio system. DVD has been spotty at best at releasing pre-1960 films, and TCM has been extarodinarily willing to air “uncommercial” product. How else was I going to see Frank Borzage’s romantic masterpiece Man’s Castle(1933) without paying exorbitant amounts for an import? Its broadcast was one of 2008′s major highlights. So many “movie lovers” haven’t seen anything before 1970, and I shudder to think where my own taste and knowledge would’ve wandered to without the channel’s existence. So here’s to another 15 years. Don’t ever change.