Go To Telluride, See The World

The 2005 film festival

The world comes to the Telluride Film Festival each Labor Day weekend, and my strategy in picking films is to see the world. So I missed the U.S. films “Walk The Line” about Johnny Cash and “Brokeback Mountain” about  gay rancheros but they’ll be in a neighborhood multiplex by Christmas.

I learned something about Israel from “Live And Become,” an internationally financed feature that illuminates the experiment 20 years ago in which thousands if Ethiopian Jews were rescued from genocide and brought through equally perilous Sudan to Israel. These supposed descendants of King Solomon were poor and rural, but they were people of the Torah. Because they were black, they had to deal with racism among Israeli conservatives. This film by Radu Mihailaneau is the improbable story of one of them who had the added problem of hiding his Christian upbringing.

I learned something about occupied Palestine from “Paradise Now,” another internationally financed feature, about two suicide bombers. The plot is in the thriller category, but the story purports to give a serious account of the religious and political milieu that somehow calls thoughtful men to volunteer for missions like these, from which there can be no return (even if, as in this story, one backs out). Someone asked director Hany Abu-Assad if he had thought about the consequences of making this sort of movie. He answered in a word: “No.”

Terrorism was not invented in the middle east. Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto” is set mostly in London during the IRA bombings. It is pure theatre – Irish transvestite theatre – and the effect is something like “Cabaret,” which was set against the rise of the Third Reich. Unlike Jordan’s “Crying Game,” this is a film that keeps its distance – up there on the stage as entertainment, tragedy turned to farce. I wondered if terrorism is theatre and, if so, is the refusal to take it seriously (a theme of this film) possibly a way to defeat it.

Technology was everywhere in this Apple-enhanced film festival, but the most tekkie feature was “Conversations With Other Women,” digitally edited. The young Harvard-educated director, Hans Canosa, shot every scene with two cameras, and both viewpoints are projected on a split screen. It is an inspirational story of marital infidelity (two bright and witty people meet at a wedding in New York and go to her room). A strange perceptual thing happened to me: the split screen disappeared as I got intrigued by the very bright dialogue and acting (especially by Helen Bonham-Carter), and I was drawn into the picture, three dimensionally. Canosa, raised in a fundamentalist family, did not see a movie until he was 17. Perhaps that is why his production has such bright literary value.

Technology was a prop, or a backdrop, in many of the films I saw. Take “The Child,” this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, by the Dardenne brothers, who also received a Telluride tribute. It opens with a young mother carrying her baby home from the hospital to find that her boyfriend has subleased their flat. She kicks the door, screaming that she needs her “mobil” charger, which eventually comes flying out the door, which slams again. Her boyfriend, father of the child, directs petty thefts and sells stolen goods by mobil. Eventually he sells the baby by mobil but gets the boy back by mobil after the mother goes into shock so severe she has to be hospitalized. The ending, following some police problems and a chase, is predictable. The audience I sat with didn’t know whether to applaud or just walk politely out at the end.

Telluride is about artful story telling, and films using technology simply for glitter or status wouldn’t make it here. The chosen directors would not let cell phones, or whatever, get in the way of a good story, just as the film festival itself will not tolerate any electronic interruption of a show. In one show I saw a man’s cell phone went off and he was so embarrassed that he walked out (perhaps never to be seen again).

My favorite: “Be With Me,” by Eric Khoo is an evocative, minimalist movie that left the audience sitting in silence for 30 tearful seconds before breaking out in applause. It is from high-tech Singapore with love, or about love. In one of the three interwoven stories two girls whose love is fatally broken communicate by text messages and email. But in one of the other stories, the main one, the protagonist is a blind and deaf woman who can write only on an old manual typewriter and “talk” only by touch. This is the most beautiful film I have seen in years, and the central character is played by herself, Theresa Chan. This is a case where the combination of scripted story and reality is better than a pure documentary.

Also from Asia: “Three Times,” by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, also tells three love stories, one of which is about young people in the high tech world of Taipei. The same pair of actors also play couples in stories from 1911 and 1966. It takes some concentration, because this film moves slow with long takes, but you can see how the same relationship exists in all three historical settings – each a different world — whatever the tech epoch. Roger Ebert wrote the official program note on this one. He called it one of the best movies of the year.

In a U.S. film, “Everything Is Illuminated” by Liev Schreiber, there is no high tech propping (it takes place in impoverished Ukraine), but there is an American backdrop. The naïve narrator of this film about a young American Jew returning to the place, now an empty field, where most of his ancestors were shot and buried in a mass grave, is a young Ukrainian who knows nothing about the holocaust. His interest is America. He tries to talk, dress and move like a cool American. It is very funny. The audiences loved this part. The last part was not so funny. It seems to be a characteristic of U.S. films that any serious statement has to have a comic or ironic escape valve. As if the director could say, across the cynical distance of American culture, “Just kidding.”

This year Telluride presented for the first time in North America the work of Eugene Green, a sixties expat American who by now is completely French. “Les Ponts des Arts” is another piece of woven love stories – as directly and open and unapologetic as the two Chinese films. Set in the sixties, it is tech-free and America-free. The music is Monteverdi. The central character is a deeply talented soprano who is driven to suicide by a corrupt, mean, baroque-music maven. Her recorded music saves the life of a depressed and suicidal philosophy student. The dialogue is clipped and existential, but (unlike the philosophic wisecracks of David Mamet, see below) meaningful. Can you be in love with someone who has died? (Can mountains see?)
As an old journalist, my love is documentaries, and I really liked “Sisters in Law” (emphasize “Law”) by the great Kim Longinotto of England (“Divorce Iranian Style.”) There is this judge in a Muslim town in the West African country of Cameroon who has been enforcing the law of human rights against Muslim tradition in the villages. Longinotto spent three months filming proceedings in this woman’s court and chambers. The prosecutor is also a woman. Three of the cases followed in detail involve a rape of a preteen girl, the attempt of a woman to get a divorce from her violently abusive husband, and the beatings of a 6-year-old girl in custody of an aunt. Surprise: the abused, under law, win!

The networks have the money and technology to do things like “Sisters in Law,” but they prefer politics and violence on a grand scale. They prefer victims and always, always, the new angle. I hope the new technological environment will produce a new generation of Kim Longinottos. Matt Langdon (rashomon.blogspot.com) and I met a new Stanford film grad student in a line last year – Erin Hudson of Albuquerque. This year we saw her again at the prestigious “Student Prints” show, and her 12-minute video was in it. The others were short stories with high production values (and high budgets), some almost too good to qualify as student work. While the credits on some of these ran into hundreds of names, hers was basically herself and her student partner, Ben Wu. They checked out a video camera and spent a couple of weeks at a trailer park in northern California – one of the few that accepts old units and people who otherwise would be homeless. They put “Unhitched” together with Apple Final Cut Pro.

Last year the Telluride Film Festival premiered “Kinsey,” in the new bio film genre. This year “Capote,” a bio film with a similarly weird subject, has been a hit in Telluride. It follows the writing of “In Cold Blood,” the “non-fiction novel” by Truman Capote in the early sixties. The runaway best seller bothered me at the time because I thought it was a case of the New York art and publishing cabal exploiting a massacre in a small town in western Kansas. Capote told the story of the murder of an entire family of four in a cold-blooded literary way, based on his extensive interviews as a New Yorker writer. He humanized the main killer, Perry Smith, spent hours with him on death row, witnessed his hanging. It was made into a movie starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith. “Capote,” from the biography by Gerald Clarke, supposes that Capote also exploited Perry Smith, even if it was a case of the author falling in love with his subject. Philip Seymore Hoffman is so Capote it’s painful. Catherine Keener is Harper Lee, who I was surprised to learn accompanied him on his reporting trips to Kansas.

In the exploitive murder department, “Edmond” by David Mamet is a comedy starring William H. Macy as a white-collar weakling who for no apparent reason leaves his wife, hits the streets in search of prostitutes but without enough cash, gets mugged by black three-card Monte players, buys a knife, kills the next black mugger who tangles with him, picks up a white waitress, slashes her to death, goes to prison, bunks conjugally with a big black man. . . OK, maybe it’s not a comedy. The message seems to be some distorted conservative text that, for jungle-type reasons, white guys will always be defeated by black guys.

Apple Computers made its appearance as a major sponsor of the film festival – and was given several hours of show time plus an exhibiting room next to the Sheridan Opera House (the prime venue). Apple is promoting its Final Cut Pro, and the exhibit room had three setups with amazing High Definition screens at which demonstrators were at work. Some old guys stood in rapt amazement as the young guys whipped through the editing sequences, the music graphics, the sound synchronization. We were amazed. The future is digital.

Laurie Anderson has gone completely digital. In the earliest of the official presentations, she talked about her work (mostly special events creations), illustrated with a digital slide show projected on the big screen of the Galaxy. She showed her short digital event made for a four-story-high screen at Expo 2005 in Nagoya, Japan. It’s called “Inside Mountains,” which she suggested might be a reference to the 13th Century Zen master Dogen, who posed questions such as, Do mountains see? Do they walk? But her main inspiration was the Japanese haiku. Lines of poetry streamed, in English and Japanese. “What lives inside me, like a light, a bell?” And there is a running question: Where do angry gods hide?

The presentation is so high tech that no lights illuminate the scenes, shot in video. The light comes from projected images that are backdrops. Laurie Anderson admitted, however, that she is burned out on technology. Her appointment as artist in residence at NASA apparently was a disappointment to both sides. While not rejecting technology, she is turning more and more to nature. She said she grew tired of sitting in front of screens. She decided to take her life “outside.” In the Apple room a demonstrator was telling me and Matt Langdon that, yes, technology will change the industry and that everybody will be able to make movies, but. . . “the strong will prevail.” And by the strong he said he meant those who kept their eye on the product, the story, and used the tekkies for that end. “If you want to get involved in programs,” he said, “you’ll probably stay in programs all your career.” Wise young man. Also, I love Laurie Anderson, her presence, her communication of the possibilities of freedom.

The prefestival show in the park was John Ford’s “The Searchers,” probably chosen by Peter Bogdanovich, a regular here, who introduced it as Ford’s greatest and John Wayne’s favorite. It is a good piece of manly story telling, in the tradition of Manifest Destiny, shot mostly in Monument Valley. Strangely, the younger people in the audience did not titter, did not walk out, much. I doubt that I ever again will get to see a true Western on a big screen. Unless. . .

Well Bogdanovich said the film will be released next year on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary. But I wondered if some marketer in Hollywood has come up with the idea of exploiting the Christian Republican mood. This film would appeal to them – and not just because they all want to be John Wayne. The secondary male role is a man who is both a captain in the Texas Rangers and a Christian preacher. He can change costumes at will. John Wayne’s character is a Confederate veteran who never surrendered and still wears the uniform. It is set in Texas in 1868. There are no blacks in it. The attitude toward Indians and Mexicans is compassionate racism. To understand Christian Republicans it might be useful to get into this film, to understand it from the point of view of the Eisenhower years.