Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on September 13, 2009
Last week I talked about the exceptional Red Riding trilogy the debuted at the 36th annual Telluride Film Festival. Now that the festival can be seen receding in my rear view mirror, it’s time to reflect on some of the other films that were also screened there. Let’s start with The Road.
Cormac McCarthy’s follow-up to No Country for Old Men is a harrowing read and an unforgettable book about a father and son trying to survive a post-apocalyptic landscape. It was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and became an immediate best-seller. The film version is poised for a theatrical release this Thanksgiving and was directed by John Hillcoat, whose previous film (and debut feature) was The Proposition (2005).
The Proposition was a bleak and violent Australian western that was written by Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame). Cave also did the soundtrack, and fans of his brooding, dark lyrics certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see disturbing scenes of rape and murder being brought to us by the same man behind such albums as Murder Ballads and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
In McCarthy’s The Road, rape and murder are a daily worry in a lawless world (barely) populated by desperate and hungry souls – some of which resort to cannibalism. Thus the choice to bring Hillcoat aboard (and Cave too, who provides an appropriately understated soundtrack for The Road) make total sense. But what I couldn’t understand was this: The Proposition is a great film, but it came and went with nary a word and didn’t exactly make a big splash at the box office. How in the world did Hillcoat manage to get the rights to adapt a Pulitzer Prize best-seller for the screen?
As luck would have it, I was able to talk to Hillcoat while we were both in line to watch the documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (where but in Telluride does this happen, by the way?)… And his answer was simple: he’d gotten his hands on an advance copy of The Road and jumped on it before the book was even published.
Hillcoat had other fascinating things to add, for example noting that his film does not contain a single shot in which only C.G.I was used – and this despite some extravagant post-apocalyptic scenes. This was accomplished by shooting in areas that have already suffered extreme destruction (ie: around Mount St. Helens) and marrying footage from actual devastations (ie: Katrina) with their own footage of the wandering father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to create composites. There is one scene in the film that has a lot of smoke and fire, and it was clearly real and I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be if this film about environmental devastation was creating its own massive carbon footprint to help speed along the process – but the stunning news here is that much of this smoke and fire was culled from footage of the terrorist attacks on September 11th.
In both McCarthy’s book and Hillcoat’s film, the cause of the apocalypse is never revealed. And, in fact, it’s irrelevant, a detail that would only undermine the existential core of the story – which despite the grim and bleak trappings is ultimately one about hope because it focuses on two people who choose misery over death, and who decide to put one foot in front of the other no matter what. Still, as I waited in line with Hillcoat, and knowing that the elusive McCarthy was on-site for some of the shoots and had many conversations with the director, I couldn’t resist to ask: “Did McCarthy ever give you his take on what caused the apocalypse of The Road?” Hillcoat hedged a bit, but did reveal that McCarthy hangs out with academics and scientists and is less religiously inclined – and that his thinking is more in line with the idea that we have been long overdue to get hit by a comet or meteor.
On that cheery thought let’s move on to Life During Wartime! The latest film by Todd Solondz is a follow-up to Happiness (1998) – a breakthrough misanthropic black comedy that epitomized uncomfortable laughter by making pedophilia one of its main subjects. This time out the main subject is forgiving and forgetting, and we visit the same characters to see how they’re getting along ten years later. Although the characters are the same, the actors are not (and anyone who saw Solondz’s Palindromes knows the director is already quite comfortable introducing several different actors to play the same character). The other big difference is that whereas Happiness was shot on 35mm, Life During Wartime was shot with a new 4K Digital Red One Camera. Fun cameos are provided by Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens, and my favorite: Charlotte Rampling.
Onhand for the Q&A were actors Michael Lerner and Rich Pecci, who were cheerleaders of the digital formats for two main reasons: 1) Solondz’s is a detail-freak, and whether it’s the tattoo he creates on Ally Sheedy’s arm or the books placed on background shelves, only High Def resolution would give viewers the chance to see those details. 2) The digital format allowed Solondz to do away with rehearsals before shoots – which is to say the actors simply went at it and rehearsed while the camera was rolling.
Life During Wartime certainly got a lot of laughs from the audience, but for me the funniest film at Telluride was Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – featuring an out-of-control, coke-snorting and crack-smoking Nicholas Cage. Herzog regularly attends the Telluride festival (which coincides with his birthday) and was there this time out with several films including another feature (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done) and two shorts (La boheme and Plastic Bag – the latter by Chop Shop director Ramin Bahrani which Herzog narrates, and was one of my favorite finds at TFF).
Herzog and his wife Lena had just flown in from the Venice Film Festival and he was proud to announce the launch of Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. Nicholas Cage was also in attendance, and related an amusing story about how in shooting Bad Lieutenant, Herzog became extremely upset about the fact that the studio might trim footage he’d shot of iguana’s, saying “I need more iguana time!” Animals always play a big part in Herzog films, which is why another funny expression he used should come as no surprise, this one in relation to Cage’s acting: “He really let the pig loose!”
Abel Ferrara has made known that he is very unhappy with any retooling of his Bad Lieutenant (which came out in 1992 and showed Harvey Keitel letting the pig loose, in more ways than one), even going so far as to say that “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” At first I’ll admit to thinking Ferrara might have reason to be upset as Bad Lieutenant was not a film that begged for a remake or update or anything – it was a stand-alone bit of craziness. But now I realize it’s much ado about nothing because Herzog’s film has zilch to do with Ferrara’s film; Herzog even claims he’s never seen the original (and, adding maybe a bit of salt to the wound, also claims to be completely unfamiliar with Ferrara).
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a case of a film that is 100% Herzog being slapped with an unfortunate title by the studio – one that Herzog lobbied to change. Cage, only half-jokingly, suggested that if the film should do well at the box office there might be a franchise attempt that pursues the Bad Lieutenant theme further, but this time with Val Kilmer (who has a small role in this film) playing the title role.
The first screening of Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant at Telluride saw over 300 passholders turned away, and subsequent screenings were also packed. But despite the laughter, some people didn’t care for the over-the-top humor featuring such scenes as a drug-crazed Cage pulling a gun on an old lady in a wheelchair sucking air from an oxygen tank. Horrible as this sounds, it needs to be added that Herzog’s bizarre fusion of camp comedy with the sublime (this is were certain shots of snakes, iguana’s, and sharks come in) gave me as much joy as a midnight screening of Showgirls seen alongside a troupe of rowdy dancers. What can I say? I love it when uncompromising directors let the pig loose AND get their iguana time.
Next week: a look at the marvelous films programmed for Telluride by Guest Director Alexander Payne.
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