Have you been watching the amazing new original documentary series on Turner Classic Movies called The Power of Film? This riveting six-part series explores some of the most popular and memorable American films of all time. New episodes will premiere every Thursday night through February 8. As someone who is obsessed with classic movies and TCM, I’m in heaven! The episodes are hosted and curated by renowned UCLA professor Howard Suber who organizes the episodes in such a unique way. The series is directed by accomplished documentarian Laura Gabbert, written by filmmaker Doug Pray and Howard Suber, and executive produced by Gabbert and Pray. I so enjoyed chatting with Howard, Laura, and Doug about this excellent series.
Danny Miller: I’m so thrilled that this series exists and that it’s on TCM, the lifeblood for all of us classic movie fanatics.
Laura Gabbert: They’ve been absolute heaven to work with.
Doug Pray: Yeah, they’ve really been great, and so supportive.
I love the organization of this series, centered around the human experience instead of following the chronology in the history of film. Is this the way you taught your courses at UCLA, Howard?
Howard Suber: Yes. I’ve been doing it like this for 50 years!
I wish I had been in your classes. Laura and Doug, I understand both of you were students of Howard’s at some point?
Doug: Yes, and we were actually TAs for Howard at different times. He was and continues to be our mentor so working on this series was kind of like returning home. He definitely had one of the most popular classes at UCLA grad school.
Laura: People would whisper to us, “Don’t even consider leaving school without taking that class!” It was just a different way to think about film.
The use of clips in this series is just masterful. I’d like the three of you to do all the montages from now on that appear on the Academy Awards, please!
(Laughs). Doug, how many clips do you think there are in the show?
Doug: Oh, there are clips from several hundred films, I think, all chosen very carefully by Howard.
What a labor of love! But so effective.
All of the ideas came from Howard. I think the biggest challenge was just trying to navigate 50 years of teaching and breaking it down to six different episodes. If you took all of his lectures, they could probably fill a large barn. So, the hardest process began when Howard started boiling down his themes and principles. It took a long time to say, okay, these are the six days, these are the major themes we’re going to include. There are a lot of great things we learned from Howard that we couldn’t include.
Season Two is writing itself! There were so many concepts I’d never thought of, even in the first two episodes, like the distinctions between fate and destiny and a new way of thinking about movie heroes. Howard, did you feel pressure to include certain movie because they’re universally regarded as “Important Films”?
Howard: I know there are certain films that people expect to see. If I could have, I would have gone all the way to the present and talked about movies like Oppenheimer which I think will probably win big at this year’s Academy Awards. That would have allowed me to go back to the Greeks and look at what so many of these Big Stories have in common: they follow a pattern of a single character around whom all the action revolves.
I love your discussions in the series about films that are long-lasting versus the flashes in the pan. There were so many emotional “trigger points” for me, I think I burst into tears four different times in the second episode alone. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, if I see even five seconds of that final scene in The Miracle Worker, I am bawling like a baby. The same thing with the scene when they empty the money on the table in It’s a Wonderful Life. Instant emotion, talk about the “power of film!”
Laura: So true. One of the things we loved doing in this series (and being in Howard’s classes!) was looking at patterns. You might have a horror movie next to a comedy next to a romance next to an action film next to a buddy film. And Howard looks for those patterns that go across all of them. It’s so interesting to us when he compares the endings of very different movies. Nobody would think of those two films together but as soon as you get into Howard’s way of thinking about film, you think, “Oh my God, that makes so much sense!”
Doug: And then you can go even further and look at the endings of so many memorable stories, even before film, in books, plays, Shakespeare. It’s that kind of universality that we were after, and I think that’s what we’re most proud of in this series, that it gets you thinking about the power of storytelling in general which applies to everything. Laura and I make documentaries, and it definitely applies to that as well, really every genre and every form of storytelling.
Were there certain types of films you felt it important to expose people to, maybe for the first time?
Howard: Oh sure, many. I’m glad we were able to include Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. For the last 30 years or so I’ve taught only graduate students who are usually quite knowledgeable about film history. But still, many of them have never seen Chaplin.
I remember one of the first classes I ever did over 50 years ago was a seminar entirely devoted to Citizen Kane. But students today? Most are simply not interested. That film has moved down to #48 on the IMDB list of greatest films. Sometimes I think that the arts are like the stock market. Some go up, some go down, and once they’re down, they don’t usually go back up. But, to be honest, I’m not one of those professors who tells students, “You really have to see Citizen Kane,” or any other film. The history of art is like everything else in society. People move on, new stuff comes along. And there are only so many hours in a person’s day, let alone for their education. So, by today’s standards, a lot of people think Citizen Kane is boring.
Ugh, this is why I’d be a horrible college professor. I’d be screaming at them, “You’re wrong! Watch that movie, idiots!”
(Laughs.) Well, if somebody tells me they think something is boring, it’s not worth it to argue with them. I’m just going to move on to something they might enjoy and think is good. If you argue with them, it’s a lost cause!
Yeah, even in the classic film community, nothing gets people going more than the idea of someone saying “THIS is the greatest film ever made!” I’m always like, “Um…no, it’s not.”
Laura: One of the things that Howard used to do in his classes was look for something that was coming out that week or month and we’d really analyze that film and whether it was something that we thought was worth our time and would stand the test of time.
Doug: Right. So, for example, when I was in grad school with Howard, we watched Schindler’s List. Then we looked at the original text and then also back at the movie. I think that kind of approach keeps young people energized. We were definitely learning about older, classic movies, but one of the best things about the class is that we were looking at everything.
One of the things I love most about TCM’s annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is seeing people of all ages and background there, just loving these movies. Is one of your hopes with this series that people will see these clips and then want to watch many of these films in their entirety?
Laura. Absolutely. We hope it’ll pique their interest in these films. There are many young people who have never seen The Godfather, for example.
Doug: Yes, that is definitely one of our goals. I think this series goes a long way in reframing a lot of these old movies for younger people. We hope some will think, “Oh, maybe I do need to check that out” after they see a film talked about in the same context as one that they love.
I hope this series becomes a gateway drug for a lot of people. I remember one of my gateways into classic film was the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on TV back in my childhood. They used to have different hosts for it. It really made a big impression on me. We waited all year for it, like a holiday.
Oh, yeah. Episode 6 ends with The Wizard of Oz. It brings together all of the themes that Howard explores in the series.
Before we go, if I dare to ask the dreaded “favorite film” question, which I personally loathe because my list changes by the hour, are there any titles you’d immediately mention?
Howard: I usually say I have two: The Godfather and Singin’ in the Rain.
Laura: Singin’ in the Rain is probably in my top two as well. I’d also have to mention The Graduate.
Howard: I love that film, too. I did an analysis of that movie for Criterion when laserdiscs first started.
Howard, did I detect a rare moment of personal bias when you mentioned the main character of that film in one of the episodes?
Ha, yes you did. I had to watch that film so many times to do the voiceover for Criterion. And one day it just occurred to me: Benjamin Braddock is a real jerk! (Laughs.) I mean, what redeeming qualities does he have? Is is smart? Is he funny? Not intentionally!
Laura: But the film works anyway, right?
Howard: Oh, definitely.
I love that you included that ending with Benjamin and Elaine on the bus. You could do a whole episode on that scene alone, and how everyone interprets it differently. I once heard Mike Nichols say that it only happened because he decided to keep the camera running and Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross didn’t really know what to do. But the moment has inspired many deep interpretations and fights between couples.
There it is…the power of film!
Watch The Power of Film on Thursday nights on Turner Classic Movies.
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.