Jimmy Stewart filibustering for cleaner politics.
Bette Davis operating in her reality-based mode.
James Cagney conjuring up, as it were, “sumpin’ out of nuttin.’”
These iconic American actors, symbolizing iconic American traits, are mainstays of a venue fashioned just for them: Turner Classic Movies. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, “uncut and commercial-free,” you could tune in to TCM and partake of stories and performances that thrill, elevate, comfort — in sum, entertain in the richest possible way.
That is, once upon a time it did.
The disturbing news that Turner Classic Movies has undergone a corporate “reorg” — it has been taken over by Warner Bros. Discovery, resulting in 70 of its 90-member staff laid off, including the programmers who curate TCM’s fare with peerless taste — has hit film lovers hard and has us asking, yet again:
Must everything fine in American life be commercialized, cheesed-up, ruined?
In its short history — Ted Turner, media mogul with taste, founded the eponymous Turner Classic Movies in 1994 — TCM has become, not just destination TV, but so much more: a kind of club-cum-cathedral. That is, a gathering-place both popular, in the sense of the broader public, with overtones of the sacred, something to be honored. I have met people who have the channel on, audio off, all day long — “wallpaper with meaning.”
“Classic” for TCM means movies from the 1930s through the ’60s, perhaps the high point of American filmmaking when the studio system reigned. Critics cavil at the studio system, also disparage the attendant Production Code.
But one can argue that, in their intra-studio and Code-abiding rivalry, Hollywood in this period produced movies that reflected the best of the American character — its essence: the free-standing individual who’s resourceful, hard-working, responsible, honorable. Which essence was heightened by black-and-white photography, color being extraneous. It was the era of the hero, and pre-feminist heroine, before the anti-hero slouched in with so-called “tougher” fare of the post-studio “indie” era.
And now, this classic fare, TCM’s raison d’etre, is being sidelined. Already we see duplication of fare that’s lesser and cheesier and — well, let’s just say the movies on view are not classic. Is TCM’s programming now done by AI? If so, artificial intelligence is lesser intelligence: What’s on offer now are, yes, movies, generically speaking, but they are not very good. “Uncut and commercial-free” may also be sacrificed. I can see it now: Soon TCM will be reduced to cinematic clickbait, intercut with jangling commercials that take you way out of the action — just like every other commercial channel.
This is no way to treat a national treasure.
George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute and Kennedy Center Honors, and son of iconic director George Stevens (“Alice Adams,” “A Place in the Sun,” “The Diary of Anne Frank”), got it exactly right when he called TCM “a national treasure and something to be nurtured.” Remarking on TCM’s value, and making an important point, Stevens added: “It allows audiences to treat films as culture.”
It is as culture, I believe, that TCM’s role is so vital, instructive, even nation-saving.
At a time when America is so lost — since 9/11 we have been flailing, blindly waging war with others and ourselves, unable to unite even in the throes of a deadly pandemic — it is singularly tonic to be reminded of our best American selves: our best traits and, crucially, our best solution-creating capacities.
Which tonic role Turner Classic Movies plays splendidly. For example:
See: Jimmy Stewart filibuster for cleaner politics in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Especially for young people who don’t get much civics anymore, this film is a primer on American democracy: its machinery and the honor of working it. Stewart’s newbie Senator must learn the ropes fast, to save land designated for a boys’ camp from a corrupt Senator he once admired. Told his cause is a lost one, the newbie speaks to a lost America today (and also for TCM?): “You fight for the lost causes harder than any others.” See corruption defeated; see also cynicism defeated. See this film with your political opposite — and see what ensues.
See: Bette Davis in her more complex roles — “Now, Voyager,” “Watch on the Rhine,” “All About Eve.” I say “complex,” because in these roles she plays decency, intelligence, dignity —traits not much seen on screen now and harder to play than crazy. (Davis does crazy, too — see: “Of Human Bondage” and “Dangerous” and “The Little Foxes” — but, at a time of wall-to-wall crazy, why compound our churn?) America needs to grow up: Almost 250 years old, our national style still is adolescent. Bette Davis personifies adult: no attitude, no guile, just (“just”?) intelligent and principled grappling with reality, no matter how grave.
See: James Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” go from unproduced Tin Pan Alley composer George M. Cohan (of “Over There” fame) to, voila, produced. Cagney epitomizes the vaunted American character who battles his way up from not-much to something-better. I love the scene, set in a bar, where Cagney/Cohan, as a composer yet unknown, foists himself upon another composer meeting with a producer and, through deft reading of dynamics, comes out partnered with that composer (Cohan as senior partner, of course) and, together, closing the deal with the producer to produce Cohan’s new musical. Neat!
Fighting the good fight, navigating as adult, going from “nuttin’ to sumpin’”: All these traits — enabling America to navigate a darkening future — are continuously on view at TCM.
Of course, the knock on film’s classic period has always been: It’s so very white. Yes, it is. White actors had a lock on lead roles; actors of color played supporting parts, often demeaning ones. And yet, and yet: In the classic period, we see the American character limned so clearly — the individuality, the fight, the intelligence. The template is there; now, to cast it from the entire universe of actors. As a life-long civil-rights advocate, I can see Denzel Washington or Raul Esparza filibustering for cleaner politics, or Viola Davis or Michelle Yeoh as the latter-day Bette Davis adult, or Leslie Odom, Jr. finessing that deal in that bar with that producer.
Note: TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and team do a good job of bridging the gulf between the classic — that is, white — period and our more diverse now, shining the spotlight on filmmakers of color, women filmmakers, foreign filmmakers. TCM is equal-opportunity.
Altogether, TCM is a treasure to be treasured — and saved. Since both the American character and Hollywood are solution-oriented, is rescue being planned?
Hollywood luminaries —directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson — met with Warner C.E.O. David Zaslav, seeking assurances that TCM’s offerings remain unchanged; Zaslav assured the delegation he was a “fan” of the channel. (Why am I not encouraged?) For now, in a curious move, this eminent trio will curate the programming until further notice. At least the chief programmer has been rehired.
Classic movie fans are an ardent lot; let’s hope the activists among them will team up, organize, and mount a rescue operation. A petition and letter-writing campaign has been launched on Twitter, at #SaveTCM. And Ted Turner: Surely he has a proprietary interest?
Historically, perhaps it is only to be expected: that in Late-Stage Capitalism, all value is financial, Culture be damned. But I devoutly hope not. Spread-sheets come nowhere near the humanist truths a rich Culture provides. Of which Turner Classic Movies is key. See: “The Best Years of Our Lives.” See: “How Green Was My Valley.” See: “Casablanca.” (The distressing news about TCM comes when another American institution, National Geographic Magazine, publishing since 1888, announces it will cease its print edition, going online only. Gone soon, that signature cover with iconic yellow border, whose contents whisked the questing mind to parts unknown.)
In a way, this all is a test: Does American Culture, at this late-capitalist moment, have the resources to mount a rescue? Does American Culture, so degraded it is now lower-case culture, even recognize the stakes, the peril it is in? Rescue — of TCM (and of National Geographic Magazine) — will of course require the financial component (deep pockets will be involved), but that financial component will need to be deeply cultured.
As to TCM: What if (scenario-building often begins with “What if”): What if a coalition of Hollywood players — directors, icons of acting, of all generations older and younger — banded together to, metaphorically and literally, save itself, because TCM is Hollywood at its once-upon-a-time best. It means the newer generations of filmmakers, whose work (I have tried to be discreet here) I do not much like, will of necessity, in joining the collective rescue, acknowledge the virtues (and not laugh at the word “virtue”) of classic film’s emphases: on character over attitude, on motivation over trauma-plot, on a definition of humanity that elevates rather than descends to pathology and dysfunction.
In sum, film that ceases to “push the envelope” and instead heads for core — core truths, core human aspirations, core Art. In sum, film that aims to reverse America’s decline.
That coming-together of Hollywood’s disparate elements to rescue both itself and America: I’d love to be in that bar when that deal for that production — for a New Day — is signed.