Thursday, July 19, 2007

2007 SFSFF—The Evening Class Interview With Robert Osborne and Charles Tabesh

Without question the program that most thrilled me in this year's SFSFF line-up was Camille (1921), screened in conjunction with a special tribute to Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") for their continuing contributions to the silent film genre. I have to be honest and say I was excited not so much for the film itself, but for the fact that attending the festival to accept the award would be TCM Senior Vice President of Programming and New Media Charles ("Charlie") Tabesh and TCM's weekday host Robert Osborne. Though I had spoken with Osborne on the phone earlier this year for "31 Days of Oscar", this would be my chance to finally meet him. Further, it provided the opportunity to also meet TCM's publicist Sarah Hamilton, who has been nothing but kind to me in this past year, tossing me one choice plum after the other.

Robert, Charlie, Sarah and I met up in the lobby of the Galeria Park Hotel. They were running a bit late from lunch, having gone all the way out to Clift House in hopes of an ocean view. As luck would have it, of course, San Francisco was socked in with fog and they didn't see much past their forks. To compensate, they invited me to spend the afternoon with them as they conducted their interviews with radio hosts Andrea Chase and Tim Sika. We all relaxed into something of a round table.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm intrigued by your both being in San Francisco to receive the Silent Film Festival's tribute award on behalf of TCM for Turner's contribution to silent cinema over the past 12 years. Clearly, TCM has had so much to do with silent movies because of their programming of silent features on Sunday nights. I was wondering if between the two of you I could hear some history on what led TCM to focus on that programming and to develop the Young Film Composers Competition?

Robert Osborne: Well, that would be more Charlie than me; but, it's been great and I just want to say that I'm thrilled that they're giving the award for [the fact] that Turner's had a help—and I think it has—in making people aware of silent films. It is, however, as we've talked about, I think a little more potent on the West Coast because of the time it's on. You get it here at 9:00 on Sunday nights.

Michael Guillén: The East Coast gets it at….?

Osborne: Midnight. We're three hours later. So I don't think it's had quite the impact on the East Coast, although people who are already into silent films and people who are up later do watch it. But I love the impact that it's had here because of that.

Charles Tabesh: The Young Film Composers [Competition] was the idea of Katherine Evans who used to be our head of marketing. She really was so key to all of what TCM has become. She was there from the very start and helped shape it. As far as the silent film programming and why we do it and why it's important to us, there are three things I can think of off the top of my head that I think really explain it: One, we are not ad-supported. As a programmer, that's great because it gives us all sorts of flexibility and it allows us to not do things that advertisers would want to try to reach a mass audience or whatever. Strategically, then, doing something niche like silent film, gives us really passionate advocates for the channel because we're the only place you can get it. There are a lot of people all over the country [where] the only way you're going to see a silent film is on Turner Classic Movies and that's really key because then you have those people going to their cable affiliates saying, "I really want TCM. Give me TCM." From a business perspective, that really helps us. It helps us and we're not hurt by the fact that it's very niche because we don't have to worry about advertisers. That's really good.

The second thing on that is [that] our general programming strategy and philosophy is we're the history of movies. We're the history of the film and we're the place to go to learn about it. Of course, that means sometimes that includes newer films and people might complain when we play a newer film, but that also includes silent films. You can't be the history of movies and not include silent movies. To narrow that further, we're also very much about context. We don't just put movies up on there; everything is themed and there is an idea or a reason behind it. So not only are we about film history, but in the way we look at film history by looking at actors, or directors, or various themes. No matter what theme you do—if you're doing romantic comedies—silent film is a part of that. They're actors and actresses that were both in silent films and sound films and—[if] we're going to do a tribute to Garbo—we're going to show both her silent and sound films. [Silent films] are just a piece of film history and that's what TCM is all about.

Osborne: What I love also is the fact that on TCM people are sometimes seeing for the first time a silent film shown at the regular speed of projection that they're supposed to be. So many people only have an impression of silent film as being very fast, jerky movement that go back to the Keystone Cops or something. I love to see how the evolution of film was going through—there were prehistoric days and then up into the late '20s when they became so sophisticated at their apex and then all of a sudden sound comes in and they almost go back to the beginning again. Those early sound films are so static because they didn't know how to move a camera and pick up sound at the same time. Just to see that whole evolution of film, you really have to see silent film and how it grew from nowhere and became so important and then went down again and had to build up and go again.

Then, of course, widescreen came in and some of those early widescreen films like Kismet [1955] with Minnelli—who was so great with the camera—[were] very static because he didn't know how to move the camera around with that letterbox dimension. Then they got into that and had to learn how to do it. The whole evolution of movies wouldn't be complete without silent films. All those musicals before Busby Berkeley, they never move the camera. They're literally there and the actors come in like the camera's sitting in the audience and it doesn't move at all. But before that, the camera was swooping around in those silent films. It was so beautifully done. It must have been heartbreaking for people that were in the industry then to see what happened when sound came in at the beginning. They'd say, "We had something really great going here" and then all of a sudden they're back to the basics again.

Tabesh: The other thing is the music. You talk about the Young Film Composers Competition and that's one thing that Katherine was very eager to do was to show off that connection between movies and music with that competition. With the silent films, you watch the same film but with two different scores and you have a totally different experience watching it. It's really interesting and it's kind of a nice way to reach out to the music in the audience and composer world as well as the film world.

Osborne: Plus, get younger people interested because they can participate and maybe score a film.

Guillén: [Addressing Charlie] So are all the thematic concepts yours?

Tabesh: Often. Usually. I suppose so. The themes we do come from all over the network; but, yeah, that's our department's job is to put those together.

Guillén: So if I have an idea, I pitch it at you?

Tabesh: Yes, you send me an email. I'll give you a card.

Osborne: The great thing about Charlie is the fact that he accepts those ideas. A lot of times in big corporations you don't get somebody willing to accept the ideas because [they'll respond] "This is what I do." But he's always so open to any kind of suggestions from anybody and often uses them or explains why he can't or why it doesn't work.

Tabesh: We definitely try to respect the intelligence of the audience.

Osborne: I think my favorite theme night was "Great Slaps." Slap scenes. Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady [1938], which is so funny with that slap, and then Faye Dunaway in Chinatown [1974]; it's just terrific.

Tabesh: We try to have fun. We do get serious and get in depth and academic but then we also have fun. Hopefully we stay smart. We certainly try to.

Guillén: In terms of the evolution of cinema—as you're talking about, Robert—what TCM is doing by using television to educate about film history—is actually a not-as-yet fully perceived leap in film literacy. I mentioned that to Richard Schickel when I interviewed him for Spielberg on Spielberg. I asked him if he could comment on how audiences are becoming more literate and he countered, "Are they?" I responded that I wanted to believe they were because of the efforts of programming like TCM's and he conceded that TCM was a unique case; that TCM was the only channel a person could go to become educated on film. Everywhere else, zilch.

Tabesh: That's nice.

Osborne: Yeah. As long as we entertain them at the same time.

Guillén: That's a given. So let's shift gears. Let's talk about the rarely-screened 1921 version of Camille that stars—not Greta Garbo—but Alla Nazimova and a young Valentino who at the time was just on the verge of becoming a superstar.

Osborne: It's a very interesting film. It's the same structure as the Garbo film but what's so interesting about it is that it was done in 1921 when films were still kind of theatrical, acting was overly generous and large, and Nazimova is very much that way but Valentino is very honest and natural in it and he's just charming in the film. It's also interesting because—I don't want to give this away but it's very interesting—Nazimova was a high-maintenance, very popular star at that time. She didn't really know who this Valentino was. He had made The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [1921] but it hadn't yet been released. It was released while the film was being made. Of course that changed the whole course of his career. She was so incensed by the fact that Valentino was getting all this attention from the press hanging around the studio and fans whenever he'd leave the studio—they weren't mulling around her too much—that she actually cuts him out of the last part of the film so that the famous love scene between Marguerite and Armand doesn't exist in this movie. She does it all by herself.

It's a fascinating film to see, particularly in the context of its time, and because we know the Garbo film and also because it's a chance to see Valentino at a very young age at the beginning of his career.

Guillén: Does he already have his characteristic swagger?

Osborne: No, not yet. Because he wasn't a star yet, he's very honest and plays it very realistically for 1921 kind of acting. I think that it may have been because he just didn't have the confidence yet. He'd made Four Horsemen but he had no idea whether or not that would be a success. He's very attractive in [Camille], he's very real, and she's so over the top that it's a very strange mixture of two acting styles.

Guillén: Was this a film that TCM particularly wanted the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to show?

Osborne: They let me pick one and I thought this would be fun because they hadn't shown it before. They asked me to pick one and I actually sent them a list of about five that [TCM] had and let them pick which of the five would fit their program.


Anonymous said...

ALthough of course TCM is magnificent, the channel started back in 1994 well before Tabesh was there and the thematic emphasis, which was actually started by the TNT programming unit when that network started in 1988, and they programmed the early TCM, has been in place a long time, clearly. TNT also ran silent movies in the years before TCM, and in its early form was the genesis of TCM, but with commercials. Whatever puts classics in front of the public is good, of course, but don't forget that TNT was doing classics back in 1988 from the moment they went on air. It's now quite a different channel, of course, but in the beginning it was classic -- that's all they had to run plus the programmers knew what they were doing. As someone who was there, I know.

Michael Guillen said...

Interesting. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Anon. What role did you have in the TNT programming?

TNT and TCM are both under the same aegis, no? So by logical extension I can see how the idea has morphed across channels. I think Charlie Tabesh fairly credited Katherine Evans as initiating much of the programming he inherited. Also, AMC used to be the channel I'd watch for uninterrupted movies until they lost their cool and started catering to advertisers. Osborne, if I remember correctly, was hosting over there at that time.

Whichever way the latticework goes, and with all fair respect to the predecessors, TCM has brought the project to its best expression, I think.