Coming Of Age at the 2009 Telluride Film Festival

Michael Lerner, a bullish old character actor from Brooklyn, was saying what he likes about Nicholas Cage and other great actors is they are “ballsy.” They don’t let the character bio get in the way of ballsy acting. He was saying this on the stage at a seminar in Elks Park at the Telluride Film Festival. I wondered how the others on the panel would take ballsy. They all were women, and the topic was “The Challenges of Portraying Complex Heroines on Screen.”

They didn’t react. Not actress Brenda Blethyn who plays the widowed mother of a lost daughter in “London River.” Not Lone Scherfig, Danish director of the potential Brit hit “An Education,” where a 16-year-old girl waivers between book learning and man learning. Not Margarethe von Trotta, director of “Vision,” about the brilliant medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen, adored by feminists. And not moderator Anette Insdorf, the Columbia film professor, who repeated the word without sarcasm. So would you please say goodbye to political correctness! We’re all post-feminist now.

Example. The first time I went to Telluride, 18 years ago, Jodie Foster was applauded as a pioneer because she was there as a director (“Little Man Tate”), not actor. Insdorf arranged a seminar in which Foster, Martha Coolidge (“Rambling Rose”) and Laurie Anderson (“Home of the Brave”) discussed their directing experiences.

Someone asked if male actors (ballsy ones) could work under a woman. Someone related the situation of women in the Hollywood power structure to the struggle of African-Americans, Hispanics and gay men in society at large. Foster knocked down the analogy, saying her purpose was to “make the minority experience a universal experience.” Two years later at Telluride: Jane Campion and “The Piano.”

So now, nearly two decades further on, the same festival has a seminar on complex heroines in which a token male taunts a panel of women, who ignore him. And they also don’t bother with the distinction between heroine and hero. Similarly, Scherfig’s film is about an underage girl’s happy (for a while) seduction by a wealthy businessman who takes her everywhere – and away from school. Carey Mulligan, a rising star at 24, delivers a nuanced performance ranging from joy to heartbreak. “An Education” is being described as a “coming of age story,” referring to a genre that used to belong to Hemingway and his tradition, which was all balls.

On the contrary this film, set in the moral distance of stodgy middle-class England in the early 1960’s, can be a lotta fun. Scherfig described the inevitable crisis in the young woman’s life as “a minor catastrophe.” And she said, “I always think: next time I will to something that is more pure and dark.” Footnote: the story is based on a magazine memoir by Lynn Barber. Mulligan said the former journalist visited the set for about 20 minutes, became nervous, and left. Barber’s darkened life after the happy ending portrayed in the movie is something Mulligan said she had not studied.

“An Education” is shadowed closely by another new Brit film directed by a woman – Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.” It is a contemporary lower-class telling of the same story. A 15-year-old girl in the projects is screwed on the couch by a man twice her age, who also happens to be the drop-in lover of her sexy drunken mother (Kierston Wareing). Coming of age? More like statutory rape. And the underage girl, played with boundless energy by Katie Jarvis, gets mad as hell once she catches on to the man – just as she catches on to the nightclub dance business that throughout the film has been her dream of a way out of this hopeless Mike Leigh world. But again, the story is resolved without pathos. These two edgy movies, I suppose, would not have been made in contemporary America.

And neither would “Samson and Delilah,” from indigenous Australia, despite its disturbing resonance with the lives of Native North Americans. This is the debut of Warwick Thornton, an indigenous (the word used to be Aboriginal) writer-director from Alice Springs in central Australia. Themes often surface among clusters of movies at Telluride, not by design but because the selection process is in touch, globally. And this movie too is about teenagers stripped of childhood.

Thornton searched settlements in his native land until he found two totally untrained youngsters, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, for the title roles. (Christianized indigenous families use biblical names somewhat arbitrarily.) McNamara, 14, who was on probation for a liquor store break-in, was ballsy on and off location. His character is a “petrol” sniffer, removed from the world by the cheapest and most dangerous of intoxicants. The movie was filmed in and around all-white Alice Springs in two weeks on a $1.4 million budget. (One one Aussie reviewer said was about equal to food catering budget for the filming of the epic bomb “Australia.”) I won’t give away the plot, except to say it is a silent love story. Thornton kept his Telluride remarks brief, saying, “It’s dark, but I hope you will see light at the end of the tunnel.”

The youngsters accompanied him and producer (meaning money) Kathy Shelper, as they did at Cannes, where Thronton won the Camera d’Or (for best first film). The kids did not speak in public, so far as I know. By contrast, Mulligan and Jarvis did. Matt Langdon attended an interview session in which, he said, Mulligan showed sophistication and a flare for publicity while Jarvis acknowledged getting irritated by journalists and such. All of which reflects the three movies: rich, poor, indigenous.

The other woman in that panel on heroines was Blethyn, who plays a Guernsey farm widow looking for her only child, a daughter who moved away to the city, in the days after London’s July 7, 2005, bombings. She goes to her daughter’s address in Finsburg Park, appalled to find the neighborhood is “absolutely crawling with Muslims.” She is joined by a tall, vapor-thin African Muslim, played unforgettably by Sotigue Kouyate, looking for his son. Their fates will run together like the waters of a river. Rachid Bouchareb directed this well designed and subtle story about terror and ethnic fears. The genius of it is that the violence of the bombings, which left about 50 dead and hundreds injured, is always kept in the background. (I learned a long time ago in journalism that if you don’t have artful photographs of an actual event, run pictures of the faces of onlookers, which can be even more effective.) I do not know of a treatment of America’s 9/11 that even approaches the meaningfulness of the treatment in “London River” of Britain’s 11/7. All we have, it seems, is the hammering crashes and fake heroism of Oliver Stone’s meaningless “World Trade Center.”

Speaking of ballsy blindness, Telluride is not immune to blunt sex and violence. That is the main commodity of the movie trade. One example this year: “A Prophet” by Jacques Audiard, a French prison film with “Godfather” pretentions. The interplay of Corsican, Italian and Arab groups is interesting, but not worth sitting through 155 minutes of blood and the usual shower-room assaults. And the woman and child in the last scene bring no redemption, as does the woman at the end of Stanley Kubric’s classic, “Paths of Glory.”

Telluride this year honored the new genre of made-for-television episodic productions with the showing, for the first time on the big screen, of all three segments of the British Channel 4 drama “Red Riding.” Set in west Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983, it’s a story of police corruption cemented by lots of sex and sadistic violence, but the intricate related plots and excellent acting and directing hooked the hundres at Telluride. A couple of showings ran six hours. The new thing about this genre is you can now take these episodic productions home, complete by the box load.

Another trend evident this year was the blending of mediums. Marco Bellocchio’s relentlessly depressing “Vincere (Win)” about the tyranny of Benito Mussolini blends news clips of Il Duce with re-enactments. And the poetic “Room and a Half” by Russian director Andrey Khrzhanovsky adds to the mixture audio recordings and animation. This artful film, which took 10 years to make, is a biography of the Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky, based loosely on his memoirs. The images of St. Petersburg are equal to Brodsky’s heartfelt nostalgic descriptions, many of which are from his own recordings in Russian.

One other of my favorites from Telluride was “Window” by Buddhadeb Dasgupta. I was corrected by an expert when I called it a Ballywood production. There are other regional schools in India, he said, and this one belongs to Calcutta. Anyway, it’s Indian, about a poor but proud man who becomes obsessed with donating a fancy new window to his former grade school. The result of this exercise in ego and quest for permanence is loss of what really matters in the here and now. Like I said, it’s Indian. And, the director’s name has the Buddha in it.

My strategy in choosing among the 30-plus movies shown at Telluride each year is to avoid the ones that probably will be released by Christmas. That way Telluride continues! So I look forward to seeing:

— “The Last Station,” about Tolstoy’s crazy final months, with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.

— “Bright Star,” by Jane Campion (“The Piano”), based on the passion of the poet John Keats for a shy young seamstress.

— “The Road,” starring Viggo Mortenson as “the man” in Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic journey.

— “Up And Away,” by Jason Reitman (“Juno”), starring George Clooney.

— And, if it’s released, “Farewell,” a French flick about a Russian KGB agent who feeds state secrets to the West through an ordinary businessman.

By the way, director Christian Carion said he hired a popular Russian actor for the lead role as the KGB traitor, but he quit suddenly after receiving a call from the Russian ambassador in Paris who is now a minister of culture. Like I said, there are strange Telluridian themes: The crisis in Khrzhanovsky’s film is the exile of the poet Brodsky by the KGB in 1972. He died in New York in 1996 without returning to his beloved homeland, or his parents.

To which I want to add a comment by Alexander Payne (“Schmitt,” “Sideways,”) this year’s guest director, most of whose excellent selection of old films I saw. He said censorship, such as was beautifully overcome in the Iranian films featured at Telluride a decade ago, “produces poetry.”