In cult of TCM, front row is lined with filmmakers
NEW YORK (AP) — Turner Classic Movies, that bastion of black-and-white, holds a unique place on the dial and in the hearts of cinephiles. In a continuous, commercial-free stream, much of the history of Hollywood is on view, 24/7, for sampling and binging — an uncorrupted corner of celluloid obsession that flickers day and night with Buster Keaton shorts, Robert Ryan series and Ernst Lubitsch marathons.
But for many filmmakers, TCM isn’t just a favorite channel, it’s their lifeblood. Among directors from Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s a common refrain that Turner Classic is a constant source of inspiration and a beloved background in their lives.
“I tend to have it on in the kitchen,” said Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”). “I have a small TV in the kitchen, a great old Sony Trinitron. And that’s probably where I see it the most. It’s a comfort blanket. It’s like a pacifier.”
While Anderson might have once watched a string of films on TCM, he now has four children and is more likely to catch 15 minutes of something while making breakfast. But he says even a small bite of a great film is “food and drink in a way, to me.”
“I wake up in the middle of the night with hot sweats, thinking: ‘What’s going to happen to TCM? Are there going to be commercials? Is somebody going to buy it?’” said Anderson, building to a mock scream.
Since premiering in 1994, (“Gone With the Wind”) Turner Classic has been a glorious anachronism on the television landscape. Now available in about 85 million homes, it beams out film after film with almost no exceptions: an endless feast of pre-code comedies and post-war noir, John Ford Westerns and Fred Astaire musicals.
Especially in the dog days of summer, when superheroes have a stranglehold on movie theaters, TCM can be an oasis.
“Turner Classic is the only thing that kept me a U.S. citizen during the Bush years,” says Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” ″Election”).
The round-the-clock programming (some 400 movies air in a month) means there are plenty of duds, too. But they in some way only add to the charm. Even weaker, forgettable films can offer directors lessons — sometimes more so than the classics. It has long been watched by filmmakers with a keen eye to their craft: a window into how different directors move the camera or summoned an atmosphere.
Sidney Lumet, the director who so famously satirized television news in “Network,” said before his death in 2011 that he didn’t watch TV much, but he watched Turner Classic Movies religiously.
“Every evening I’m home, I automatically check Turner Classic Movies and see what’s on,” Lumet said. “And it doesn’t even have to be a good movie. For me, it starts you thinking: What was it that made them do this?”
There are, of course, many other avenues for such study, but few that can be beckoned with a simple click or with the same sense of discovery. TCM is like radio for movies.
Martin Scorsese pens a monthly column for the network and has made the restoration of old films a personal crusade. For him, the distance between making movies and watching them on TCM is comically small. While editing his films alongside his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese keeps the channel perpetually playing on a nearby monitor.
“All the time. Not with sound. And away from Thelma,” Scorsese says, chuckling. “I watch when I want to. I’ll glance over and see a certain scene. Or she’ll glance over and say, ‘What was that a minute ago?’ And I’ll say that’s so-and-so. Or I’ll show her a sequence that comes on.”
It’s also a connection for Scorsese to his earliest exposure to movies; he grew up watching films on television. Payne, too. But TV has changed considerably since then. Amid the rise of original cable programming, TCM has been one of the few to stay devoted to movies. Its original rival, AMC, became home to “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad”; it no longer goes by its full name: American Movie Classics. IFC, too, has moved away from indie films to embrace scripted comedies like “Portlandia.”
But TCM, which is owned by Turner (part of Time Warner), has been happy to be the standard bearer for vintage film. It now hosts an LA film festival and a seven-night cruise. The channel’s longtime host and face of the network, Robert Osborne — that friendly font of movie trivia, forever walking toward the camera — is now joined by hosts Ben Mankiewicz and the recently added Tiffany Vazquez.
But the biggest change is yet to come: a new subscription-based streaming service from TCM and the Criterion Collection, a partnership that unites two tent poles of home-movie cinephilia. It also fills a void; Netflix has shown little interest in streaming older films. The service, FilmStruck, is to launch in the fall.
Yet being able to pick and choose isn’t quite the same as dipping into and out of TCM’s broadcast stream. Though TCM can seem like a nostalgia factory for golden-age Hollywood, the network (which has an on-demand app) has courted younger viewers. A 2012 survey found that its audience isn’t so old — 60 percent are aged 25-54. And some of its most famous fans watch on a variety of screens, including Steven Spielberg, who describes himself as “a TCM devotee.”
“I watch these movies mainly when I can’t sleep. I’ll get my iPad out and watch them,” says Spielberg. “Instead of just running one Greta Garbo film, they run four or five and you get to see them all.”
Such discoveries are a part of a never-ending communion with cinema.
“I like to watch a lot of the silent movies,” says Spielberg, who has re-watched all of Keaton’s films in recent years. “They taught me so much about where to put the camera.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP