Nestled away in a majestic box canyon of the Rocky Mountains and isolated – at 8,750 feet, no less – from the flashbulbs and champagne of Cannes and the Hollywood sphere of influence that has long since imperialized Sundance, the old mining town of Telluride, CO has played unlikely host to the annual cinephilic ritual known as the Telluride Film Festival for the past 35 years. Founded by Bill and Stella Pence and Tom Luddy, Telluride has managed, miraculously, to remain pure in its intent and execution: to showcase the best of world cinema, past and present, without competitions, bidding wars, paparazzi or attitude. Film is love at Telluride, a place where the theaters are considered sacred ground and cell phones are agents of Satan.
Telluride is justly famous for the friendliness and efficiency of its staff – I should know since I am one of them. An internationally respected festival that runs almost entirely on unpaid volunteers is a special place indeed, and for the past several years my Labor Day weekends have been in the service of this great endeavor. Of course, my efforts are not entirely altruistic; being able to see a dozen or so films every year without paying for a festival pass may play a small part in my continued employment at the festival.
I must say, though, it was a mediocre slate this year, both in the audacity of the films and in the love audiences felt for them. There was no I’m Not There to rewrite our conceptions of cinema, nor a Juno to blast off the buzz machines; no Brokeback Mountain to take hold of the national discourse, no 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to announce a Palme d’Or and a New Wave. What we did have was a perfectly good year, with nothing mind-blowingly great or bad.
After last year’s slate of formally challenging works and grim subject matter (it seemed like every other movie featured rape and/or graphic violence), this year was like a trip through Disneyworld—no, really, American Violet was directed by Tim Disney, Roy’s grandson and Walt’s great-nephew. Based on the true story of a small Texas town’s round-up of an entire housing project’s population of African-Americans under bogus drug charges and the woman who, with the help of the ACLU, took on the racist district attorney, American Violet is a pretty good TV movie. Totally artless in its direction, cinematography and acting, it’s the kind of film that shifts the score to a minor chord every time a white cop appears on screen and who casts as the corrupt DA an actor who looks exactly like Ray Liotta in the coked-out scenes of Goodfellas. Evil is underlined and italicized, and we even get one of those 360 degree shots of an innocent child surrounded by chaos. The film’s depiction of project life made me yearn for even a bad episode of The Wire, particularly every time Alfre Woodard was brought out as the protagonist’s mother in order to inject some “sass” into the proceedings. Still, the film is so earnest and well-meaning in it’s rah-rah we-shall-overcome feel-goodness that I can’t bring myself to totally dismiss it. If The Man’s got you down when you happen upon this on Lifetime or TNT, it might make you feel better. Sort of.
Another film that pales in comparison to The Wire is Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, which, for some reason, came away with high praise from Cannes. I will follow up with a full review of the film as part of our New York Film Festival coverage, but suffice to say for now that this bleak expose of the Neapolitan Mafia essentially tells us that the Mafia kills lots of people. A far more effective and affecting slice-of-life film at the festival was With a Little Help from Myself, directed by Francois Dupeyron, last seen stateside with a spirited Omar Sharif in Monsieur Ibrahim. The rare mainstream French film to focus on the travails of a black family, With a Little Help from Myself balances comedy and pathos in the richest humanist tradition. Félicité Wouassi gives a tremendous, generous performance as a woman who must deal with one daughter’s marriage, another’s pregnancy, a son’s drug arrest, a husband’s gambling debts and the creepy-sweet advances of an elderly, heartbreakingly lonely neighbor, all while trying to open her own laundromat. This is no neorealist exercise in asceticism, though—the film is shot almost entirely with a handheld camera, full of energy, vibrant with colors. The handheld look is not so much the faux-documentary shaky-cam lesser films employ to assert their “authenticity” but rather a tightly controlled expression of intimacy. The camera almost never strays farther from the characters than a medium close-up, long takes used to harrowing effect in scenes of arguments and fighting that place us directly in the middle of the room. The film is lovely to look at, either color-corrected in post or filtered during shooting to lend a sun-kissed beauty to the compositions. It is, in fact, too pretty—the pictorial qualities of the image amplified my feeling throughout the film that this family doesn’t really have it that bad. I never got the sense that they were poor, that their lives were, as the son puts it, “pathetic.” The African-French community seemed pretty well-adjusted, as far as disenfranchised minority communities in racially troubled European countries went, especially with that great soundtrack guiding everyone along.
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire runs into similar problems, though here the contradictions are both more complex and, perhaps, more appropriate. If there was a runaway hit at the festival this year, this is it. It’s not difficult to see why. The bizarre setup of a kid who grew up in the slums of India becoming a contestant and getting within one question of the jackpot on India’s Who Wants to be Millionaire caters perfectly to Boyle’s instincts. The film unfolds in flashbacks after Jamal, the contestant, is arrested under suspicion – actually, near certainty among the show’s host and the cops who take him – that he cheated his way through the show since there is no way a slumdog nothing like him could know the answers. Plausibility of his story (and the film) be damned, it turns out that each question on the show triggered in Jamal a memory of his rough-and-tumble upbringing as a more violent Oliver Twist, scamming and stealing his way through the underside of India’s economic boom with his brother, Samir, and lifelong love, Latika. With each memory comes the answer to the question, gleaned circumstantially through his adventures. Boyle’s adeptness with underdog fables (Millions), kinetic action (28 Days Later) and clannish subcommunities (Trainspotting) are blended together with every stylistic trick in the book to create a whirlwind of a film that leaves you giddy with excitement, but is too breathless and simple to stay with you as anything more than a modern-day fairy tale. The scenes of Jamal and Samir’s chaotic childhoods could be titled City of God II: Mumbai Edition, what with their frenetic chases and amoral swagger. I suspect that the vivacity and humor of these scenes are what led some festivalgoers to praise the film for avoiding “poverty porn,” but isn’t this treatment of slum life itself a form of poverty porn? Like Fernando Meirelles, Boyle treats the third world as a cinematic playground, distilling its lawlessness and energy into hyperkinetic action filmmaking posing as expose for a comfortable audience to consume as entertainment. There are scenes of genuine terror, especially when the trio of kids are taken in by a gangster who makes a business of exploiting orphans as beggars, but too often life as a slumdog is fast and fun—and if not exactly fun, then entertaining in a generic-payoff kind of way. The audience never sees where or how these kids really live – we never, for instance, actually see the inner details of what an Indian slum actually looks like – only how they chase, get chased, steal and/or shoot people.
The general conceit of the film more or less lets Boyle off the hook, though. The Who Wants to be a Millionaire setup, the chance encounters, the Dickensian side characters and, most importantly, Jamal’s undying love for and quest to escape to a better life with Latika all mark the film out to be a fable, through and through. It is impossible to take the film seriously as anything else, and certainly not as a realist work. If you meet the film on these terms, its style – the same style I’ve just criticized as being glib – is entirely appropriate. The film becomes less about growing up in India’s slums and more about those familiar, crowd-pleasing themes of personal redemption, triumph over adversity and fated love. This does not necessarily diminish the film, for Boyle is a wily filmmaker and his film allows for these universal themes to gain a deeper resonance in the context of India’s burgeoning capitalist society. For a country where the vast majority of people are still unimaginably poor, where a class, if not a caste, system is undeniably in place, where, according to the film, your best bet of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is if your boots are full of guns or luck, the film is perhaps a fable in the best, purest sense: a moral parable of how the world should be.
Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan is decidedly not a fable. It is the rare narrative fiction film whose proposed authenticity can actually be taken at face value. A more detailed analysis of Tulpan will be included in our New York Film Festival coverage, but if you read this before the festival, I urge you to see the film for yourself. I have no doubt that Sergei Dvortsevoy will become a major figure in world cinema, and not just for the documentaries he has been known for up to now.
Romanian filmmakers have certainly been making a name for themselves in recent years, with uncompromisingly bleak visions like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But lest we think the Romanian cinema is comprised solely of neorealist filmmakers rigorously uncovering the darkest corners of their country, Telluride reminded us of Nae Caranfil, a “god” in Romania, as one of his Q&A moderators described him to the Telluride audience. Caranfil is in many ways the opposite of the New Wave filmmakers, reveling in an exuberant, lighthearted filmmaking style last found in classical Hollywood. His latest, The Rest Is Silence, is the biggest production in Romanian history; fitting, given that his subject is a fictionalized account of the making of Romania’s first feature film, the epic The War of Independence, made in 1912. Caranfil’s film is gorgeous to behold, the sets, costumes and cinematography of the highest, MGM-in-its-heyday order. This is not the Romania we’ve come to know from its recent depictions on screen; this is a Romania before Communism, before two world wars, still full of hope and optimism at the outset of a new century. For Caranfil, this optimism is best encapsulated by the advent of movies: from its first days as an entertainment of ill repute to, with a screening of The War of Independence for state dignitaries and veterans of the war, an art form capable of forging a national identity. It is telling that, as the story skips ahead a few years to the German occupation of Romania during World War I, the most violent, destructive act we see is a producer burning his own film reels.
Caranfil’s nostalgic, tragicomic look back at the early days of cinema was mirrored by Telluride’s own resurrection of the past with a restoration of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command. Every year Telluride makes it a mission to screen at least one silent, complete with musical accompaniment (usually, as it was this year, by the great Alloy Orchestra). Leonard Maltin introduced the screening by saying The Last Command is one of the top two or three silents he would recommend to someone who has never seen a silent film. I was dubious of this claim and the screening bore out my doubts. The late silents that are contemporaries of The Last Command – Sunrise and The Passion of Joan of Arc, just to name two of the greatest – are astoundingly mature, both in technique and subject matter. Neither of these films are the least bit dated today, Joan practically untouchable by any film made since. The Last Command, compared to these two masterworks, seems from an earlier time. The pictorial qualities of both Sunrise and Joan are vastly richer than The Last Command, which, surprisingly, relies heavily on conventionally framed still shots and montage rather than the sort of exquisite camera work being employed by Murnau or the elastic, idiosyncratic compositions of Dryer. It was ironic to me that von Sternberg, so famous for his prizing of the graphic image above all else, did better work as a visual stylist in his talkies with Dietrich than he does here, at the height of film as a visual, spectacular medium. This is not to say that the film is poorly conceived—on the contrary, the last reel in particular conjures images that I am still thinking about as I write this. But for a film and a filmmaker remembered largely for visual innovation, one could do better to look to either of the other films mentioned. The politics of the film, though, are surprisingly sophisticated, largely thanks to the towering performance by the great Emil Jannings as a fallen Russian general on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. Jannings creates a character who can be petty, who may acquiesce to the Czar’s idiotic orders, but who loves his country as much as the revolutionists. Jannings was a great physical actor, and one look at him here tells you he is a man of principle and nobility. Of course, the odds are somewhat stacked in his favor in that the Bolsheviks are depicted as bacchanalian anarchists, not above killing each other once power is theirs. Yet at the same time, the Czarist troops are shown mowing innocents down and abusing prisoners. The film’s ultimate political leanings are perhaps most clearly scene through its depiction of Hollywood. After the Jannings character falls victim to the revolution in Russia, he finds himself scraping by as an extra in the impersonal, capitalist gauntlet that is Hollywood. It is telling that after all he has endured, von Sternberg’s hero meets his ultimate fate on the set of a movie.
As with every festival, there were many films that I did not get to see that I wanted to see such as Hunger, winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and Adam Resurrected, Paul Schrader’s latest. There were also those I did see that I wouldn’t have minded missing, like Flash of Genius, the story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper (played by Greg Kinnear) only to have his invention stolen by Ford. Sure, it’s an inspiring story and Kinnear is, as usual, very likeable, but did I need to see something as pedestrian as this at an international film festival? Probably not, especially since it’s being released soon. As far as David and Goliath films go, I’d still take this over American Violet, but American Violet has the charm of a poorly made independent movie whereas Flash of Genius is the kind of generic, middle-brow studio movie you forget almost as you’re watching it. Similarly – I will be castigated for this – the restored print of Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes left me with nothing. I liked it far better than the other two Ophuls films I’ve seen, but that’s not saying too much since I hated the other two Ophuls films I’ve seen. I will leave the dissertation on Lola to a writer who can appreciate its glories. I will only say that for a supposed master of melodrama, every Ophuls film I’ve seen has left me cold, cold and cold. Lola, despite its magnificent mise en scene and technical sumptuousness, did much the same.
When all was said and done, the most enjoyable film I saw at Telluride – hell, the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in a long time – is Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad and the Weird. Ostensibly an homage to Sergio Leone but baring no resemblance aside from the title, the climactic showdown and a western setting, Kim’s “kimchi western” is more like what would happen if John Woo and Quentin Tarantino had a child who then had a child with Jackie Chan, who then that sat around all day watching Mad Max and decided to make a movie. If that makes no sense, neither does the film. Many people at the festival grumbled about the lack of character development or the gaping plot holes, but that’s like complaining that a Big Mac isn’t healthy enough. I’m usually not one to subscribe to this kind of film criticism – the “it’s a genre movie, let it suck as long as there’s a gunfight” school of criticism. But in this case, I have to succumb, not because the film doesn’t take itself seriously enough to warrant criticism but because it takes itself just seriously enough to know not to be too clever. The recent spate of exalted genre films (see Rodriguez, Tarantino, et al) are so self-aware and ironic as to defeat their own purpose of simply having fun at the movies. Takashi Miike’s own Asian western, Sukiyaki Western Django, though I have not yet seen it, seems to fit right into this group of genre rehashers who make movies that know they’re movies, whose characters know they’re characters in a movie, who cram every inch of the frame with in-jokes. What is so refreshing, and, by extension, actually entertaining, about The Good, The Bad and The Weird is the absence of all this cleverness. It is a straight-ahead action movie, with each set piece (spaced roughly two minutes apart from each other) outgunning the previous one. It is not concerned with its own cinematic baggage; it treats its characters, as outrageous as they are, as people who have actual stakes in the Red Herring of a plot device. Plus, it’s got a chase that goes at about 10,000 mph involving a thief on a motorbike, a bounty hunter on a horse, a gang of hired assassins, a Mongolian tribe, the entire Japanese Imperial Army and enough explosives to crater the earth’s surface. How can you not love that?