Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on September 11, 2011
In case you missed it, the Telluride Film Festival had its 38th bash last Labor Day Weekend, September 2-5. It included the latest films by Aki Kaurismäki, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Béla Tarr, David Cronenberg, and many more. But the reason I still love Telluride is not because it delivers the newest works from so many talented directors, but because they also focus on the past (showing silent films, archive prints, and various repertory titles), along with some unexpected programming courtesy of guest directors who are given Carte blanche to select anything they like, no matter how esoteric that might be. (This year the guest director was Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist, writer, and political activist Caetano Veloso, who has worked on soundtracks for Michelangelo Antonioni and Pedro Almodóvar). Telluride also eschews the competitive awards-system that drives so many other festivals and has managed to sidestep being mobbed by industry professionals, brand-obsessed sponsors, or party-obsessed socialites. In sum, Telluride has managed to still be that rare festival that bends over backwards to bring obscure 35mm movies while simultaneously providing viewers with cinematic experiences that challenge them to broaden their horizons rather than simply pandering to market whims or popular taste. And, yes, I say that despite the fact that this year its tribute star was George Clooney.
“Exhibit A” would be the first film I screened at the Palm Theater on Friday, 9/2: Béla Tarr’s supposedly last film – The Turin Horse. Haters might describe this stark, black-and-white, bleak and austere film as nothing more than 2 1/2 tortured hours of watching an old man using his only working arm to repeatedly smash a potato for meager sustenance while brutal winds howl outside his cabin. Their memories will not match my own, for what I saw haunts me still: measured static shots that record brutal starvation and thirst with more ferocity than even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Replete with invocations of Nietzsche, rapacious industry, and even gypsy curses, it turns the Christian creation myth on its head so that instead of getting seven days (with that last one giving God a rest), we have six days that slowly get darker and darker until there’s simply no light left. Tarr may have been making a statement about his own career as he slips into retirement, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was also speaking for cinephiles everywhere who are now seeing their beloved 35mm projectors being scrapped left-and-right for digital projectors – none of which will be showing The Turin Horse.
The Story of Film (Mark Cousins) was, ironically, not on film – but for obvious reasons. It’s an ambitious project of which only parts 1&2 were screened as part of the Telluride program. Its full breadth and scope was to be found in 15 parts screening daily between 10am and 4pm at another location. Cousin’s passion for cinema takes him to its roots, and slowly works its way up from there while mixing historical analysis with a bit of poetic fancy. He material offers an excellent primer for the novice, along with a few surprises for the more experienced film-buff. In essence, it provides a crash-course in film history that endeavors to look at things from a larger perspective that acknowledges the contributions made by different cultures.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life is Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, here dealing with a death-row sentence spurred on by a triple-murder case in Texas. Herzog was supposedly so unnerved by the material that he even started smoking again as he put together the footage. It’s unpleasant material that fails to soar to the esoteric heights of either Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but because it’s Herzog – he still manages to both mesmerize you with unexpected moments as well as leave you scratching your head with more questions than answers. Which is a good thing.
The Island President (Jon Shenk). An electrifying doc that follows Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives (a collection of 200 small islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean). Nasheed survives imprisonment and torture under a brutal dictatorship only to take over the reigns and be confronted with the fact that his islands are all slowly sinking as sea levels rise due to climate change. Young, charismatic, and bolstered (for viewers, anyway) by choice Radio Head licks – this proves to be the ultimate Davis versus Goliath tale. Bringing it all home is this sobering thought: the tragedy unfolding in the Maldives provides us with a classic example of the canary in the coal mine. They may be first, but all other coastlines are next.
From Morn to Midnight (Karl-Heinz Martin). This silent German expressionistic film from 1920
Bonsai (Cristián Jiménez). This playful drama from Chile bounces around between a blossoming college romance and a time eight years forward, flipping with ease between comedic moments and something more melancholic. A Chilean Annie Hall? Not quite, but it feels fresh and knows how to balance the romantic and lusty ideals of youth with the somber realities that come later in life as the male protagonist contrasts his affections for a college sweetheart with yet another woman later in his life. This feature was preceded by a 10 minute short by Carter Smith titled Yearbook, which was unexpectedly funny and disturbing; sort of like what I imagine Napolean Dynamite might have been like if directed by David Cronenberg.
Speaking of Cronenberg, his latest film, A Dangerous Method, flips the Bonsai equation from one guy and two women to two men and one woman. But though also academic in tone, this is no college romance – it’s Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), and the wealthy Russian patient that influenced both of their works: Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley). Screenwriter Christopher Hampton is best known for writing Dangerous Liasons and here contributes a bit of his own historical research, aided in great part by a kind curator with access to various Jungian archives. In his Q&A, Hampton argued that his research conclusively proved that Jung did have an affair with Spielrein.
It was a bit offsetting to see Cronenberg shooting a feature in digital, and Kiera Knightley’s erratic Russian accent and histrionics were a distraction. In her defense, some histrionics might be unavoidable when playing the part of a patient afflicted with acute hysteria – but what I kept seeing was the actress, not the patient. In contrast, Viggo Mortensen (here in his 3rd Cronenberg film) might seem a strange casting choice for the part of Freud – but he pulls it off with aplomb and even manages to steal the show from Fassbender’s Jung.
Anyone who believes that things come in three will not be surprised to hear that Fassbender could also be seen in another kinky film about threesomes that screened in Telluride: Shame (Steve McQueen). Although I missed it, there was a consensus amongst many people that I talked to that this was one of the best films at the fest. (Shame also screened at Venice, where Fassbender won its award for best actor.)
One of my clear favorites was Wim Wenders’ striking foray into 3-D with Pina, a beautiful homage to the famous dancer turned choreographer, Pina Bausch. Although she passed away two years ago, Wenders had been in talks with Pina for the better part of the last two decades since first becoming acquainted with her work in 1985. It features great music, memorable locations, and the members of Pina’s Tanztheater Wuppertal really give it their all. If the standing ovation Wenders received is any indication of how this will be received by the public, I’d say it stands a good chance of giving Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams a run for the crown of best 3-D arthouse film of the year.
Perdida (Viviana García-Besné). This is a very personal documentary by García-Besné, whose grand-uncle was Mexican movie mogul José Luis Calderón. García-Besné feels that her families name has been slimed by intellectuals and here tries to set the record straight by bringing back into the light that which has been lost (“Perdida” is Spanish for “lost”). Her families cinematic contributions are the Mexican counter-part to Roger Corman’s work, happily catering to whatever trends in popular culture might put butts in the seats. Steamy romances with musical numbers transmogrified into more racy and exploitational fare featuring crime-fighting masked wrestlers (El Santo) and surreal mash-ups that include Santa Claus, robots, and Aztec mummies. Despite very low tech values, this is an interesting doc that uncovers a lot of new ground.
A Trip to the Moon – Film preservationist Serge Bromberg is a one-man show who both curates and provides live piano to a collection of film discoveries unearthed in various attics, flea markets, and private collections. The much talked about center-piece is a digital reconstruction of an original color version of George Méliès’s famous 1902 short, accompanied by an original soundtrack composed by the French band Air. Also in the mix: footage from San Francisco taken before and after the 1906 earthquake, rare never-before scenes with Buster Keaton, and much more.
Footnote – Writer-director Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) introduced his film as “the best film you will ever see about Talmudic scholars” – but it’s also a damn fine piece of work on other levels too. Winner of the best screenplay award at Cannes, it follows the trajectory of two academics, a father and a son. The elder academic devotes himself to tedious and very detailed work, in part aided by autism. His son, now grown and enjoying academic accolades of various sorts, finds himself in a sticky situation when the announcement for a coveted award that is meant for him is mistakenly sent to his father. By turns serious and funny, this is a revealing look at how vanity and jealousy can pit family and colleagues against one another.
Hollywood Don’t Surf! – A fun documentary by Sam George and Greg MacGillivray that looks at how surfing has been portrayed over the years. Talking heads include Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Frankie Avalon, and many more (the film is narrated by Robert Englund). The people behind Big Wednesday (John Milius) get a lion’s share of the attention, with Gary Busey and William Katt sharing many amusing anecdotes – but the coda with Jan-Michael Vincent adds a somber edge.
Le Grande Amour – This fun surprise from 1969 was the result of Telluride‘s tribute to Pierre Étaix, who is described as “the French Buster Keaton.” This rare 35mm print came on the heels of the official feature selected as part of the Étaix tribute: Yoyo (1965). A friend who saw both couldn’t stop praising Yoyo and felt Le Grande Amour was less successful. Even so, this story of marital tribulations had inspired surrealistic moments (at one point beds roll down the streets like cars being piloted by people in their pajamas) and it brought plenty of good laughs too.
The Artist – Director Michel Hazanavicius’s previous two films, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117 – Lost In Rio also featured Jean Dujardin to great comic effect – but this time Dujardin walked away with the best actor award at Cannes. The Weinstein Comany will surely profit from this popular acquisition which takes a cue from both Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard to deliver an inventive homage to the golden era of silent films. John Goodman and James Cromwell provide some familiar faces for stateside viewers, but it’s the pooch modeled on Rin-Tin-Tin as well as the A Star is Born-like love interest (Bérénice Bejo) who help give the film its sparks.
I wish I’d had time to see Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Scorsese’s 3 1/2hr doc on George Harrison (Living in the Material World), Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid With a Bike, Alexander Zeldovich’s Target, and… well, the list goes on. But there are only so many hours in the day. Thankfully, many of the aforementioned films will find their way, eventually, to nearby arthouse theaters. Just not the rare stuff – for that, you’ll want to make the pilgrimage to Telluride.
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