Feature by: Timothy Sun
Posted on: 19 September 2009
Festival website telluridefilmfestival.org
Allow me to begin on a wistful note: I’ve just returned from the 36th Telluride Film Festival and I miss it already. This was my fifth year volunteering at the festival and it has come to take on an almost familial quality. Returning each year as I do to the lovely little mining town-cum-ski destination that, somehow, transforms itself for four days into the beating heart of international cinephilia, I feel like I’m going home for a holiday—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Telluride. The same staff more or less returns every year, with newbies immediately welcomed into the family. It’s strange, but many of my Telluride friends and I lose touch over the intervening months and yet are able to pick right up where we left off the year before once we arrive to help put on this most unlikely of shows. Maybe it’s the altitude, the thin air, the crisp climate that mellows everyone out, washing away outside cares and focusing the mind on the people and movies that together make Telluride a film festival like no other. As this year’s Guest Director Alexander Payne said before a screening, “I’m having a fucking awesome time!”
One of the great hallmarks of Telluride is its devotion to unearthing forgotten classics. Each year’s Guest Director plays a large role in this endeavor, free to choose whatever past favorites/rarities (s)he may have buried in the back of the mind and daring the festival to find a print. I had no idea Payne was such a giant film nerd, but his program proved he was, indeed. Of the six films Payne brought to the festival, I managed to see three, each one a masterpiece. The Breaking Point, a 1950 adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, directed by Michael Curtiz, is a dark, grimly exciting piece of postwar Hollywood noir. John Garfield is Harry Morgan, a Navy veteran now implacably trapped into domesticity, trying to support his wife and kids as a fisherman. As the economic vice tightens around him, he turns to smuggling—first illegal Chinese immigrants, then the far more dangerous booty of gangsters who have robbed a racetrack. But the pulpiness of the plot is really just a framework for one of the most devastating portraits of postwar male anxiety I’ve ever seen from classical Hollywood. Garfield, in his penultimate film, plays Harry as a man torn between the virility of life on the edge and the neutered responsibilities of domestic life. He is clearly in love with his wife, devoted to his daughters, and yet… when he takes on his criminal duties, there is a flash of excitement in him, a rekindling of an old spark. Harry openly admits to being tempted by Patricia Neal’s slinky seductress and, for a moment, actually succumbs. The desire to be his own man again, to indulge in the masculine drives of sexual freedom and physical power, roil beneath Garfield’s haggard, heroic veneer. The violent climax of the film is shocking in its bluntness—people are shot at close range, while the camera stares, unflinching. The soundtrack is silent save the crack of the guns, the tension almost unbearable. When the dust settles, Curtiz leaves us with only a partial reconstitution of the nuclear family, choosing to emphasize, instead, a desolate final shot that lifts the traditionally expendable black sidekick into the realm of the tragic.
Another Payne selection was the pitch-black Spanish comedy El Verdugo, directed by Luis García Berlanga in 1963. A scathing denunciation of the death penalty and of the socioeconomic factors of the Franco era that limited an individual’s control over his life, the film concerns an undertaker (whom no woman will marry because of his profession) who marries the daughter of a retiring executioner (whom no man will marry because of her father’s profession). In order to retain the government flat provided to the executioner, the new son-in-law must, against visceral distaste, follow in the family business. Soon, the champagne meant to calm the prisoner is being drunk by the executioner, who is trying even harder than the condemned to get out of his predicament. A masterful long shot shows both prisoner and executioner struggling against guards leading them down a corridor to the execution grounds—who is the criminal? Who is the government agent? Is there a difference?
On the last day of the festival, Payne presented the rarest gem from his treasure chest. Daisan no Kagemusha, Umetsugu Inoue’s 1963 epic tells a version of the same story Akira Kurosawa would totally screw up in his own Kagemusha. Payne had only seen the film once, in 1985, but claims to have thought about it at least every six months since. I’m pretty sure I will too. The print that he saw 25 years ago has since deteriorated, so what we saw at Telluride was cobbled together from various sources—a few reels from Japan, a few from Europe, the rest from a Japanese DVD with no subtitles (the subtitles we saw were apparently ripped from a bootleg DVD of the film, but don’t quote me on this). In whatever form, the film blows Kurosawa’s out of the water. Instead of the stately, emotionless compositions that comprise Kurosawa’s exercise in widescreen aesthetics, Inoue’s film explodes with life, delivering on the primal expectations of the genre as well as the deeply human themes of ambition, love and fate. For all of its pulp provocations – an eye gauging here, a dismemberment there – the film can almost be said to be humanist. The protagonist is a young peasant yearning to become a samurai. His chance comes when he is discovered to be nearly identical to the region’s ruling warlord and is taken into the clan as the lord’s “shadow.” From there, the film speeds relentlessly onward as the characters first embrace, then fight against, then try to trick their fates. Shakespearean in its seamless mix of humor, brutality, irony and larger-than-life emotions, the film demands to be discovered by a much wider audience. I am hoping the screening at Telluride will spur its ascendancy to classic status.
Telluride would not be Telluride without the resurrection of a silent film, complete with an accompanying orchestra. This year’s silent was Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent, an eye-popping, ass-numbing three-hour denunciation of blind capitalism. Burdened with the albatross of being “timely,” the film’s depiction of greed and financial malfeasance actually pales in comparison to the very real, very complex mess we currently find ourselves in. But where the film fails in realizing the wreckage financial markets can leave in their wake, it more than makes up for in its more general, nearly abstract rendering of a world consumed by moneymaking. Everything that people do affects the stock market and everything the stock market does affects the people; bank executive’s offices are wallpapered with world maps illustrating the bank’s global influence; money takes the place of love and sex and is wielded as a bargaining chip for it. L’Herbier sees this amoral, topsy-turvy world through a impressionist’s lense—interiors of banks and the stock exchange are cavernous art deco palaces, teeming with anonymous masses of humanity. The frame is often blurred around the edges via the Vaseline-on-the-lens trick, smearing the image and lending a dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality to the activity on the trading floor. Like the best films of the late-silent period, the kinematics of the mobile camera are unleashed to full effect. There is nary a still shot, the camera craning up and down, tracking right and left, dollying into ever expanding planes of composition. L’Herbier’s visual mastery is best presented in the reel right before intermission, where a Lindbergh-esque aviator who has just partnered with the deviously unscrupulous financier at the center of the film takes off on his transatlantic flight. For the banker, the flight will be a bonanza to his company’s stock; to the pilot, it will be a personal triumph. But in L’Herbier’s crosscutting between the two men, one on the runway and one on the trading floor, the two goals are inextricably linked—the materialistic are one with the humanist; the soulless and the soulful each enable the other. When the plane takes off, L’Herbier cuts to a spectacular overhead shot of the stock exchange, the camera swooping over the massive space as if the flight doesn’t so much represent a physical human feat as the upward swing of the stock index. In the next scene, where the populace is eagerly awaiting news of the flight’s success, the people are gathered outside of the stock exchange—the equivalent of celebrating New Year’s not in Times Square but on Wall Street.
For all of its flamboyance, the film is overlong and somewhat plodding. Moreover, there is a certain distasteful irony to a film purportedly critiquing materialistic excess while being the most expensive film ever made in France at the time. The scenes at the Paris Stock Exchange alone took over a thousand extras and a dozen cameras to shoot. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, though like any nominally anti-war film that revels in the carnage of its battle sequences, the social thesis of the film is eclipsed by its technical glories.
Like the annual silent film, there is another feature of Telluride as dependable as Old Faithful: Werner Herzog. The man and the myth are present pretty much every year, whether he has a film in the program or not. This year, he had four: two features and two shorts, one of which he did not direct but which stars his voice as a plastic bag. Yes, a plastic bag. Said concoction is the work of Ramin Bahrani and is better than some of the features I saw at the festival. A poetic, beautiful ecological fable, it is the rare go-green! film that doesn’t lecture and is all the more powerful for it. But onto the main attractions: My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Both are insane but one works far better than the other. In My Son, My Son David Lynch served as producer, and his imprint is unmistakable. The overly sterile suburban setting is right out of Blue Velvet, and the Oedipal urges behind this story of a son who murders his mother with a sword while in rehearsals for the Oresteia are present in nearly every Lynch film. Michael Shannon plays the murderous son to creepy effect, though the character remains curiously shallow. The film casts him as an out-and-out loony, barely able to function in the world he inhabits. This necessarily distances the audience from the character and the situations on screen, and what we are left with is largely a freak-show. The story is told in flashbacks, as the detective called to the scene, played by Willem Dafoe, interviews the son’s associates. Each flashback is weirder than the previous and often ends in a tableau of the actors frozen in motion, as if Herzog wants us to contemplate the utter strangeness of what we just saw. There is little to take away from the film but it’s a curio worth checking out for any hardcore Lynch/Herzog fan.
The most hilarious movie at the festival was Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicholas Cage. It is a film whose humor doesn’t rely on plot, script or direction but almost entirely on performance. This is Nicholas Cage in full-on wild-eyed, I’m-actually-on-crack psycho mode, and it is a joy to watch. As both director and star went to great lengths to reinforce, this is not a remake or sequel to the Abel Ferrara film; Herzog claims to have never even heard of Ferrara, much less his film. Nominally a policier, the film cruises along to its own loopy rhythms, dictated entirely by Cage’s outlandish, mesmerizing performance. After selflessly saving a prisoner in a flooding jailhouse during Hurricane Katrina, Cage’s Lt. Terence McDonagh becomes addicted to a pharmacy’s worth of drugs—as he puts it, all prescription, except for the heroin. Cage afflicts his character with a limping gait and an increasingly nasal voice (due to his constant cocaine use, Cage said in a Q&A). As he spirals ever deeper into a drug- and painkiller-induced haze, his actions become more and more amoral. One hysterical scene involves Cage interrogating a nurse and her elderly charge while shaving with an electric razor. As it becomes apparent he’s getting nowhere with them, he calmly removes the old woman’s breathing tube and sticks a gun to the nurse’s head, proclaiming his hatred for them and their selfishness for eating up their grandchildren’s inheritance and inefficiently spending our nation’s health care dollars. Then there are the lizards. Herzog spends a solid five minutes or so shooting close-up point of view shots of an alligator and several iguanas. Apparently meant to evoke Cage’s drugged-out hallucinations, they were so important to Herzog that he threatened to never make another movie if the producer’s didn’t let him have at least four minutes of lizards.
The miracle of this film is that, while it careens wildly from policier to comedy, from gritty realism to outright fantasy, it somehow manages to remain entirely truthful to its central character, its setting and its story. To Cage’s credit – and a reminder of how uniquely talented he is when not running away from fireballs in slow-motion – the actor creates a totally believable human being, even while smoking his lucky crack pipe with a bunch of drug dealers and telling everyone he’s not Eazy-E. What keeps the character, and the film itself, from going off the deep end is its carefully calibrated existential bent—while the title of the film implies a sort of moral certitude, the story is much more complicated. Cage’s lieutenant is by all measures a good detective. The fact that he lights up a blunt and offers it to the criminal he’s in the process of apprehending does not change that. Moreover, the film pinions on its almost dialectical moral payoffs—when Cage does something indefensibly bad, good often results. When Cage does something good, like saving the drowning prisoner, bad things follow, like the chronic pain that leads to his drug addiction. The character is not moral or immoral but just is. From what Cage and Herzog stated at the festival, the selection of New Orleans had less to do with any social relevance than with its exotic, mystical energy; still, it’s tempting to draw parallels between this character and what happened to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina—a largely black underclass is amorally “protected” by a corrupt white governing power that lets the chips fall where they may. All in all, the film is certainly something to be experienced. Bad Lieutenant has cult classic written all over it, and, if nothing else, taught me to always shoot someone twice cause while the body may be dead, the soul’s still dancing.
It’s always exciting to witness a major new voice in cinema come into its own, and like Sergei Dvortsevoy with last year’s Tulpan, Warwick Thornton, an aboriginal filmmaker from Australia, stunned Telluride with his raw, lyrical Samson and Delilah. Awarded the Camera D’Or at Cannes, Thornton crafts a nearly silent neorealist depiction of life as an aboriginal teenager. Samson is a wayward petrol-sniffer who meanders through his days, aimlessly scrounging for food and awkwardly courting Delilah, a young girl who cares for her elderly grandmother and helps her paint traditional aboriginal artwork that is sold in far away galleries for 1000% markup. In these opening scenes of village life, we are lulled into the rhythms of daily routine; at the same time, thoughts are given room to surface: Shouldn’t these two be in school? How does anyone aside from Delilah’s grandmother make money? In an irony that I am sure resonates deeply with the aboriginal people, Thornton films his characters against beautiful, fiery-red vistas that nevertheless have a sense of trapping the characters where they are. Two sudden acts of violence send the pair out on their own, bumming their way to the nearest town where they are forced to live under an overpass with a deranged homeless man. The clash of Australia’s cultures are brought into sharp relief, with Delilah, hoping to sell a painting, wandering through a wine bar where the well-heeled ignore her entreaties. Fed up, she starts shoving her painting into the faces of the diners, laughing at the absurdity of what she has been reduced to. Thornton’s intent here is clear—while his film is far less confrontational than Delilah is, he is, in effect, thrusting his work toward a largely oblivious audience, one that would rather not have to face the grim reality of a disadvantaged, utterly ignored socio-ethnic class. A lesser filmmaker would end his film on a note of tragedy (there are plenty of opportunities), but what is remarkable about Thornton is his immense compassion. He does not rub our faces in misery, only to leave us feeling depressed and guilty, but instead ends on hope and a smile. The final moments of the film are a celebration of finding home and embracing one’s roots, of taming the travails of life with love.
Two other films at the festival dealt with colliding cultures in markedly different ways. London River, directed by Rachid Bouchareb, is the emotionally exhausting tale of a British woman, Elizabeth, and a French-African man, Ousmane, who both venture to London in search of their children, neither of whom have been heard from since the 7/7 terror attacks of 2005. Slowly, in Dardenne-like fashion, Bouchareb reveals that Elizabeth’s daughter and Ousmane’s son have been living together for some time and had been taking Arabic classes together, prompting the distraught Elizabeth (“Why would she want to learn Arabic? Who speaks Arabic?”) to assume the worst about Ousmane and his son. To the filmmaker’s credit, the film does not devolve into racist whitey/magical Negro territory, though Ousmane does come across as rather saintly. Instead, the relationship between the two develops organically and truthfully. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring people together, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the aftermath of 9/11, when the entire world stood alongside the United States as friends. But, just as the world soon realized even friends can only stand so much, London River steers clear of such pat pronouncements and delves deeper into the truth: no matter how close we come, tragedies are personal and there will always be rivers between people we cannot bridge.
Jacques Audiard, whose The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a modern classic of French crime films, also pits Muslims against white Europeans, only here it’s within the walls of a prison. A Prophet is the rags to riches story of Malik El Djebena, a wrongfully imprisoned Arab youth who, through brains, toughness and the keenest sense of survival since Tim Robbins, enters prison a nobody and leaves a crime boss. A gang of vicious Corsican Mafioso run the joint and Malik is soon recruited by them to eliminate an Arab prisoner they fear will testify against their organization. What follows is perhaps the most violent scene I’ve ever witnessed, and its intimate brutality haunts the rest of the picture. Malik, reviled as a traitor by the other Arabs, insinuates himself into the Corsican gang, making their coffee and taking their abuse because that is the surest way to survive his sentence. The film blows open the conventions of the prison drama, layering its traditional themes of masculine competition and bonding with no-holds-barred cruelty and, even, spirituality. I’m leaving a lot out here, mostly because I had to run in and out of the theater during the screening, but even having not seen the whole picture, I can safely say that Audiard has created a masterpiece. In ten years time I am confident that this film will have joined the pantheon of all-time great crime movies. I am dying to see it again.
In writing this, I’ve come to appreciate how great a year it was for Telluride. Of course, not everything was worthwhile; there are always the big prestige clunkers that somehow make it into the festival line-up. Chief among these is The Last Station, a lugubrious account of Leo Tolstoy’s last year of life. Christopher Plummer is Tolstoy, Helen Mirren his wife, Paul Giamatti his sycophant, James McAvoy his secretary—so Oscar nominations are on the way, particularly for Mirren, who sobs in hysteria so often the clip producers of the telecast will have a hard time deciding which bit of scenery chewing to show. The film is a handsome, lifeless period piece that falls into the biopic trap of reducing a genius to his everyman, melodramatic components. I got no sense of why Tolstoy was as revered as he was, what his thoughts on life were, why there were whole cults of “Tolstoyans” that sprang up around his ideas, why I should care. The film’s profound insight is that despite his difficult marriage, Tolstoy’s life and work is all about love. Right.
A similarly forced period biopic is Coco Before Chanel, an unimaginably dull telling of Coco before she became a fashion icon. Audrey Tautou does an admirable job playing the two sides of Coco, the androgynous, steel-willed iconoclast and the lovesick romantic. Still, aside from the sumptuous costumes and art direction, which will definitely garner a slew of nominations, the film has little to offer, elevating a romance that I didn’t buy for a second to the level of life-forming event. It is tiresome to see that even in a film about the most idiosyncratic and independent of female icons, it is the love of a man who shapes the rest of her life.
Oscars are probably also on the way for An Education, a ridiculous movie based on a true story about a teenage girl who throws her life away on an affair with a dashing older man in pre-Beatles England. An excellent Peter Saarsgard is the creepy-charming David and newcomer Carey Mulligan is Jenny, the naïve but world-hungry girl who deems herself a sophisticate because she likes art and speaks French. Sony Pictures Classics seems bent on making Mulligan a star—her name was on the lips of everyone at the festival and awards will surely be willed her way. Which is all fine and good, except that her performance is sorely lacking. Never once did I feel that this person was a 16 year old; there was no vulnerability, no fish-out-of-water wonder when she emerges from her dreary suburb into the glamorous London nightlife, no registration of danger or even much doubt when it’s revealed that her paramour is not what he seems. Mulligan’s Jenny is a fully-formed, obnoxious adult who begins the film not wanting to get an education just so she can go to Oxford and ends the film realizing that yes, one should get an education just so she can go to Oxford. The titular “education” she receives of course refers to both the book learnin’ of school and the life lessons of the real world, but the latter does not make Jenny more mature, it only serves to drive her back to the former. The tagline for the film could be “Be cool, stay in school.” Also, a huge demerit, the film manages to make me not want to go to Paris.
All this talk of the bad leads me to the best of what I saw in Telluride. Recently, film noir has become either self-parody – Sin City, The Black Dahlia – or code for b-movie obscurities made in the shadow of Hollywood half a century ago. Leave it to the Brits to reestablish a brooding, hellish noir that extends beyond surface fetishism and penetrates deep into the horrific darkness of society’s underbelly. Such is the hugely ambitious achievement of Red Riding: 1974, the first in a trilogy produced by Channel 4 for British television. Each film was designed to be self-contained, but the series is intended to be watched as a whole, starting with Red Riding: 1974 and moving forward chronologically to Red Riding: 1980 and finally Red Riding: 1983. The saga unfolds in Yorkshire, a northern enclave of England so bleak and corrupt it makes Soviet Russia seem homey. Each film takes as its starting point a series of murders; in 1974, it is a spate of child rape/homicides, wherein the killer adds the perverse touch of sewing the wings of a swan to the back of the little girls. This sets in motion the classic private eye narrative, here the investigator being a cocky prig of a reporter, Eddie Dunford. The disparate strands of the story – the killings, Eddie’s relationship with the mother of one of the girls, a rich land developer, political and police corruption – slowly, inexorably come together as Eddie wades deeper and deeper into the abyss. The film is shot almost entirely from his perspective, and the unusual formal strategy of obscuring the frame with framing devices – a car door handle, the back of a seat – allows the audience literally only a partial view of the story, just as the truth is obscured from Eddie. The film has an uncanny feel for time and place, aided by the decision to shoot in 16mm, like many films of the 1970’s. The tactile grains of film, blown up on the projected 35mm, combined with the color palette of brown, black and gray, lends a grubbiness to the image that nearly sullies the viewer. As Eddie gets closer to a resolution, the film takes on elements of a horror film, much like the ending of The Silence of the Lambs, only sustained and amplified over a claustrophobic reel or two. And in the tradition of the great conspiracy theory movies of the 1970’s, the unrelenting feeling of paranoia, the sense that everyone and everything is out to kill you, escalates to the breaking point, leading to a shocking catharsis the audience was too enraptured to realize it needed. This is a film that hurtles headlong into blackest soul of humanity and, somehow, emerges with a kind of redemption for us all.
I was unable to see the latter two entries in the Red Riding series, both of which screened at Telluride, but the title is seared forever into my very being. Here’s hoping that all three films will receive a proper theatrical release. And if not, I will do whatever is necessary to get my hands on the DVDs.
Thanks to Telluride, for again expanding my movie consciousness, just like it does every year.