You ain’t seen nothing yet

Dispatch from the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch (1969). Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

“It ain’t like it used to be. But it’ll do.” So says one grizzled old timer to another at the end of 1969’s The Wild Bunch — one of the few movies that can truly claim to have changed the trajectory of cinematic storytelling. Set during the Mexican Revolution, director Sam Peckinpah’s past-obsessed Western focuses on a group of men who represent a way of life rapidly being replaced: semi-automatic pistols in lieu of six-shooters, cops as crooked as criminals and violence that is as collateral as it is personal. 

So it went at the 14th TCM Classic Film Festival, three days and four nights in Hollywood full of flickering classics, rediscovered gems and anniversary celebrations inside the movie palaces of yore. The governing theme of this year’s festival, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” celebrated the cinematic stories that shape and share cultural identities, particularly those made at Warner Bros. studios, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

WB’s centenary wasn’t the only milestone at this year’s festival. Many of the movies screened were also celebrating anniversaries, including Alfred Hitchcock’s ode to small-town America and the darkness underneath, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the film that transformed Vincent Price from a third-billed actor into a horror icon, House of Wax (1953), Bruce Lee’s American breakthrough Enter the Dragon (1973), and another groundbreaking movie whose tagline might as well read, “It ain’t like it used to be”: American Graffiti.

Released in ’73, set in ’62, American Graffiti is pure Americana. The story revolves around a group of teenagers in Modesto, California, all sharing a collective long night of the soul. Some are ready to leave Modesto; others want to stay. Everyone is waiting for their real life to begin. One in particular (Richard Dreyfuss) isn’t sure one option is better than the other. 

It’s a classic hangout movie where the kids do most of their hanging out in cars that casually cruise up and down Main Street — until a race breaks out. Rock ’n’ roll permeates the soundtrack, and everything seems fun and idyllic until the movie reminds the audience that the reality awaiting these pranksters, goofballs and budding intellectuals is the Vietnam War.

You’ve probably seen American Graffiti and Enter the Dragon and all the others before. If you haven’t, keep an eye out: Many are slated for anniversary screenings this summer. Even if you have seen them, give them another look. Cinema is our cultural heritage, and you’ll be amazed at how many revelations and warning signs are lurking in the nostalgia of days gone by.


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