Why “American Violet” Is Art, Not Polemics

My impressions of the 35th Telluride Film Festival

The 35th Telluride Film Festival showed two fight-the-system movies originating with legal cases. The message for aspiring heroes: Don’t settle your lawsuit. Don’t plead guilty to criminal charges against you. Go to trial. The first message in the first film came easily. In the second, the message was artfully disturbing.

“Flash of Genius,” based on a New Yorker article of the same title, is about Robert Kearns, a PhD engineering professor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper switch system now on most cars but got screwed out of his patented invention by Ford. He decided to fight, and when Ford offered settlements of his patent infringement lawsuit he refused on principle, losing his lawyers and his wife as a result. Worn down by the system and getting old, he represented himself in the eventual trial in federal court. Result: a $10 million jury award (supplemented later by $18 million from Chrysler).

The second was “American Violet.” It is presented as a true story, with the names changed, of a frightening case of injustice in east Texas (in a small town in Hardin County, the director revealed) beginning with a drug raid in November 2000. By comparison with “Flash of Genius,” this is still a live story, not a patent suit from 40 years ago. The principle figures are still living in the small Texas town and the villain of the piece, the elected district attorney, is still in office. The movie opens with intercuts between a single mother named Dee preparing her four daughters for school and well armed police grouping for a massive drug raid. You know who’s gets caught among the some 25 people arrested. Oh, and the defendants are all black. The DA and cops are all white.

But this is not about racism, I propose. It is about an oppressive judicial system. It becomes clear that Dee’s name was on the warrant list because of single vindictive informer who appeared before a grand jury. She is falsely accused. But her court-appointed lawyer urges her to take the easy way out and plea bargain. The DA’s prosecutor threatens her with years and years in the penitentiary if she doesn’t.

Several “messages” are declared often in the movie: that federal drug money is distributed in proportion to local arrests, encouraging doubtful indictments; that prosecutors seeking re-election are helped politically by drug raid publicity; that America has the world’s largest prison population (half of them drug offenders); and that more than 90 per cent of these prisoners are guilty by plea bargain. Ho hum. . . .

You don’t need a movie to tell you this. As John Ford said, If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. But Telluride is not a message-carrying film festival. In the tradition of its creators, Bill and Stella Pence, this festival is a fine high celebration of movies as art, as I have said before, and art is about character — essential, human and universal. Chuck Jones, the cartoon animator most famous for creating Bugs Bunny, is quoted in a screen-filler at the venue named for him, to the effect: “All good drawings begin with character.”

In this humanitarian vein, consider “American Violet” director Tim Disney’s press-release sentiment: “Sometimes in the darkest of circumstances a voice emerges to inspire us all. Scared, lonely, worried for her children and overshelmed by the power of her prosecutors, Dee still refused to plead guilty to something she didn’t do. She gambled her life to stand for American values as she understood them. Her courage inspired others to rally to her side. And six years ago, when my partner Bill Haney (the writer) and I first heard her story, it inspired us.”

I walked out thinking this story could happen to anybody who by cruel coincidence is identified as a member of a dangerous group in the wrong place in the wrong time – not just to black people in George Bush’s Texas, but perhaps a wedding party in Iraq or a school in Afghanistan.

It took a lot of work by Disney and Haney and a cast motivated, several of the actors said, by the story, not the pay. The actress who plays Dee, 24-year-old Nicole Beharie, is just out of Julliard. Others are solid character actors but not celebrities. Haney and Disney spent a couple of years preparing to write the script. This involved study of thousands of transcripts of depositions and their own video interviews of all of the principles who agreed to be interviewed. As a member of the audience suggested, they really did two films: first a documentary, then the feature.

It is a sad thing in my view as a former investigative reporter and critical columnist that, apart from a few seconds of a court house scene, there are no journalists in the movie. And this is undoubtedly because there were no hero journalists as the real events unfolded – just the typical reporting of a drug raid, logging of criminal procedures, notice of the filing of a civil rights lawsuit and eventual undetailed announcement of its settlement.

The director’s statement, however, transcends the legal record in a way that I can’t define. Perhaps that was the role in this year’s Telluride Film Festival of the strange Balkan philosopher Slavoj Zizek: as a definer. I am pretty sure that he would say, as he did in another context at the presentation I attended, that if you are inclined to cringe, or even laugh, at things like Tim Disney’s statement, you are the one who is “naïve.” Perhaps it is because he is an alien that American movies shine so bright in his quick darting eyes, but that does not diminish his challenges of audiences viewing, for example, a the resolving moment of emotion in a film noir: go ahead, laugh, make my day. This post-Freudian Marxist views nervous laughter for what it is: a defense (of some kind). When a young man sitting with a beautiful young woman in a Q and A said he laughs when an idea is well expressed simply because he approves, Zizek shot back, in so many words, “Do you laugh when you are engaged in bed with your girlfriend there?” Tough customer, this Nietzsche-like philosopher.

Two of his leading ideas are in his critique of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights,” where The Tramp is the benefactor of a blind girl, who believes he is a wealthy man. With money he delivers from a true millionaire she gets an operation that restores her sight. Then she sees him for the first time. “Here he is, representing nothing, holding the place of nobody, we must accept him or refuse him,” Zizek wrote in “Enjoy Your Symptom.” He goes on:
“Andthe genius of Chaplin is attested by the fact that he decided to end the movie in such a brusque, unexpected way, at the very moment of the tramp’s exposure: the film does not answer the question ‘Will the girl accept him or not?’ – The idea that she will and that the two of them will live happily ever after has no foundation whatsoever in the film. That is to say, for the usual happy ending, we would need an additional countershot of the girl returning a sign of acceptance. . . ”

Second point first. Hollywood studios shy from the techniques of subtle suggestion. “Saying too much ruins the case,” he said in the presentation I attended. “It is vulgar to show moments of conversion.” This was apropos of the 1952 film “On Dangerous Ground” directed by Nicholas Ray. In it a hardened city cop (Robert Ryan) who makes immediate judgments about street criminals at acts accordingly gets sent to a rural town to help with an investigation of a murder and falls in love with the killer’s sister (Ida Lupino), who is blind. (Again the non-visual in a visual medium.) He returns to the city, then has a conversion, goes back to Ida Lupino, and touches her hand. The End. Zizek sees it as the story about “the redemption of a soul.”.

And, accordingly, the first point in the critique of “City Lights” is that it’s about redemption, I suppose, of identity. No longer is the tramp an object, a messenger, a go-between, a soul defined by others. And this is the very point that, to me, makes “American Violet” an artistic work. Dee through great travail and suffering redeems her soul. Don’t laugh. . . .

But movies are entertainment first and foremost and the Telluride audience this year loved the sneak preview “Slumdog Millionaire,” soon the be released worldwide. It officially premiers at Toronto next Sunday but Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” etc.) decided to try it out here just before the final cut. It is a Western-directed Bollywood feature filmed entirely in India with an all Indian cast and crew. It’s very fast with multiple flashbacks and a deeply romantic plot about a slum kid who wins 20 million rupees on a quiz show. He is arrested before the final questions and tortured by police trying to find out how he is cheating. The answer is in the story of his life, which just happens to have an event related to each question. It is a fine travel log of the real India, including the slums of Mumbai where Boyle courageously took his digital cameras rather than build sets.

Boyle revealed that because camera crews create crowds in India he had to film scenes at the Taj Mahal covertly. He slipped in with the actors, playing the slumdog boy and a buddy hustling tourists illegally. He filmed using a Canon EOS at 12 frames a second. Guards finally discovered what was going on and kicked them out, but Boyle had his images. It is strong testimony to the new age of intimate cinema.

Other favorites at Telluride (judged by audiences requiring unschedulred reruns called TBA’s) were the French drama “I’ve Loved You So Long” and “Happy Go Lucky” by Mike Leigh of Britain, plus an Israeli animation called “Waltz With Bashir.” I arrived late this year and missed these three.

I did see some others, like the thriller “Flame And Citron” from Denmark about two heroes of the Danish resistance. It does glorify the violence of war, but what the hell, if Nazis are in the story, violence is justified. Also “Helen,” an indy film with experimental (and expensive) tracking shots, so long there probably only about 30 shots in the whole feature. It was a welcome relief from the handheld camera work of other films, including “With A Little Help From Myself,” a fiction feature about a strong woman standing up to all sorts of adversities, including police harassment, in an African ghetto in France. It is no “American Violet,” for reasons I went on and on about above.

Telluride enterprised the Kasakhi director Sergio Dvortsevoy, probably the most unknown director ever, who won praise at Cannes for his ethno-film “Tulpan.” In one of his documentary presentations he told us that modern film makers are “afraid of images.” Therefore, he said, they cut fast and furiously before one of the dread things detracts from their own self-promoting genius. To illustrate: in his documentary about Kazakhstan herdsmen a cow stuck its head in a milk can to get water. The camera fixes on the cow with its head in the milk can, motionless for about 20 seconds. Nothing happens. Cows are slow to figure things out. After a long time, kids run up to free the cow from the milk can. Dvortsevoy said there was energy in the initial image that he liked, so he kept the camera rolling and kept the result in the editing.

From this documentary he got the idea for Tulpan, which was scripted, but he changed the script as he shot because of opportunistic images that came along. The actors play themselves – people living in a yurt in a drought stricken land. This “observational” film, as the program called it, shows the clash of modernism and traditional herdsman culture. It appealed to my Clifford Geertzian anthropological bias.

Perhaps my favorite, as entertainment, was “Resurrecting Adam,” which is a perfect match of work by director Paul Schrader and actor Jeff Goldblum. Damn, the acting is good. This one is a work of art — almost an artistic fantasy, almost a comedy. Goldblum is a clown arrested by the Nazis and kept alive for their entertainment. It is set years later at an Israeli institution for the holocaust insane. I came away wondering, with some consternation, whether the holocaust is transmuting into an art form.

I walked out of a Korean thing called “The Good, The Bad, and the Weird,” the title of which tells the tale, set in Manchuria at the time of the Japanese invasion. The meaningless violence was tiresome. Or maybe I fell asleep because it was late.