Why It's Great to Be a Media Buff in LA (Part One)

I moved to Los Angeles two years ago July 1 and good and loyal readers, I am having a blast, exploring this phenomenal city and taking advantage of some of its many opportunities to watch old movies and hear front line perspectives from people in the entertainment industry. I figured that I would share some of my favorite things about this city in hopes that I may flag something one of you has been missing out on and in hopes that you may know some things going on here that have so far missed my attention. If the later, write me at hjenkins@usc.edu and I will pass your tips along to my readers. Be sure to let me know whether your letter is for publication or not. These are listed in no particular order.

The Paley Center for Media: Beyond a rich archive of materials from across television history, the Paley Center hosts a broad array of public programs showcasing the best of what the media can do. Every Spring, they run the Paleyfest which includes screenings and conversations with the cast and crew of top contemporary series. This year, I was lucky enough to get tickets for evenings focused on True Blood, White Collar, The Walking Dead, and best of all, a reunion of the casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. They have also launched a Rewind festival which brings back the casts of classic television series and shows episodes from their archival collections. Highlights for me last summer were Room 222, My Three Sons, and the Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella. I am eagerly awaiting news of what's on tap for this July. And throughout the year, they have other special events, including a program on Bing Crosby's specials, with members of his family and friends. The conversations at the Paley are much sharper than those with some of these same groups at Comic-Con: the audience is less likely to ask spoiler questions, more apt to ask about insights into the production process and the storytelling, since so many in the crowd are from the industry or would like to be in the industry.

The Cinecon Classic Film Festival -- Held in The Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood, Cinecon is the hardcore movie buff's event of the year. My wife and I have gone for the past two years and it now has a permanent spot on our calendar for the fall. Basically, for four straight days, they show films that even I have never heard of -- genre films primarily from the 1920s-1950s, often from minor studios. A key selection criteria is that the films can not have been released on DVD and are rarely if ever shown on television. These films come from archival vaults and especially from private collectors. Despite the grab bag like effect of moving between genres, studios, and periods, each film is selected with some wisdom -- I have rarely seen a film here which is not without interest and most are really engaging examples that fill in the gaps for me in terms of understanding this period of film history. For example, my big discovery last year was the silent westerns of William S. Hart. I'd seen his picture in books for years and I had no idea how visually compelling and morally complex these early westerns could be. I also have seen several silent or early sound films from Frank Capra, one of my personal favorite directors, which I had never been able to catch before. Part of the pleasure is also eavesdropping on the conversations of aging movie collectors, who have an encyclopedic knowledge of whatever kind of film they are passionate about. And for the rest of the year, The Egyptian hosts the American Cinematique and the Art Deco Society often hosts screenings and lectures here.

TCM Classic Film Festival -- Hosted by the television network, the festival is held primarily at the Grauman's Chinese and its accompanying multiplex. TCM's schedule is organized to sustain the interest of film buffs at all levels of sophistication: lots of "The Essentials" but also several screens showing much more obscure stuff, often stuff being restored by the country's leading film archives. My experiences this year included seeing Kubrick's Spartacus introduced by Kirk Douglas himself, seeing Whistle Down the Wind with Hayley Mills, watching Drew Barrymore introducing Night Mail, which featured Lionel and John Barrymore, laughing my way through Cary Grant's delightful first film, This is the Night, enjoying Buster Keaton's The Cameraman with a live orchestra, and seeing the last film of Clara Bow, Hoop-La. Despite the star power which TCM provides throughout the event,

I still tend to prefer the more intimate and more obscure Cinecon, but this is a great way to spend a weekend.

The Art Directors Guild Screenings: Of all of the Hollywood Guilds, the Art Directors are doing the best job of explaining to the general public what they do and why it matters to our experience of great movies. Organized by my friend, John Muto, the Guild shows roughly a film a month at either the Egyptian or the Aero theater, accompanyed by a panel discussion with veteran art directors, film scholars, and others who know about the craft of production design and shown with great clip reels which showcase the featured Art Director/Production Designer's body of work. I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a program focused around The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, which is one of my very favorite movies, and have attended programs on everything from Bollywood epics to British science fiction classics.

The UCLA Film Archive -- I have yet to make it to the UCLA Film Archive's Festival of Preservation, which is where they share rare films which have been saved from decay and destruction and brought back to something akin to their pristine qualities. But I have enjoyed some great screenings through the past two years. I was flattered, for example, that earlier this year they did a series, Mixed Nuts: Vaudeville and Film, which, unbeknowst to me, was inspired by my dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. It was great to see films that I had watched 20 plus years ago in archives being shown to a sparse but engaged audience at the Hammer Museum, in some cases on original Nitrate prints!

El Capitan -- This vintage movie palace is the flagship theater for the Walt Disney Studios and shows only Disney releases, mostly contemporary but also periodically vintage animated titles. Everything is done with the showmanship and "magic" one associates with a Disney production, including exhibitions of props and costumes from the films, live stage presentations (a lazer light show for the new Tron movie, a live animal show for African Cats, etc.). My wife and I took a day off recently to watch all four of the Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Carribbean movies shown back to back, complete with performances of classic Disney songs on the Wurlitzer Organ, appearances by minor cast members, pirate bands, jugglers, and stiltwalkers to entertain us while waiting in line, and a spectacular pre-show for the most recent installment. I confess that I have fallen hard into Disney fandom since moving to LA, revisiting childhood favorites, and taking advantage of an annual visitor's past to Disneyland.

Last Remaining Seats<: We are lucky enough to live on Broadway in the heart of what was Los Angeles's Theater District during Hollywood's golden years. I can see the neon of the Orpheum theater out my window and all along the street there are what remains of some great movie palaces (not to mention the often filmed Bradbury Building). Every summer, the Los Angeles Conservancy organizes a screening series, which shows classic films in some of these great old facilities. So last year, I was introduced to Mexican melodramas of the 1940s at the Million Dollar Theater and saw the silent version of Peter Pan at the Orpheum. This year's series includes Sunset Boulevard, King Kong, Captain Blood, and Safety Last. We have season tickets so look forward to seeing some of you there. Throughout the year, there are other amazing one-off events, such as a screening of an obscure Colleen Moore film last year, and of course, the Orpheum is the host of tryouts for American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and other reality shows. And the Conservancy does walking tours of the theater district, of the Art Deco buildings (including Eastern Columbia, where I live), and other downtown landmarks.