Sunday, April 19, 2009

Belated end to a failed reporting career: The last few days of Telluride 2008

The insignificance of it all…
I don’t envy the journalistic masses who have to shuttle from one film festival to another like constant refugees in search of happiness.
After two intense nights of film viewing and writing I quickly gave up on 'reporting' in Telluride. No wonder. There was no one paying me for it after all. Could there even be a choice between writing a blog that no one reads and late-night drinking amidst the romantic setting of Colorado mountains?

Fast forward two and a half months (and then another four months) and I get the strong desire to finish off the job with one (actually two) massive chunk of post-reportage. Aha. And that’s only because I have absolutely no desire to work on the film I’m supposed to be working on.
So how did it go in the last three days of the fest? I don’t remember much actually, so I’ll avoid the chronology of the events as much as I can.

Looking in the crystal ball, I see David Fincher - sitting only slightly regally as the newly crowned
king of American cinema (at least that was the insinuation of the leaflet published by the festival). The man was humble and funny in a way that is only too correct for an autocratic director such as him. “It was all Darius Khonji” or “the amazing talent of Jodie Foster transformed the film” and so on. Well good for him! As a visual stylist Fincher is yet to be surpassed in contemporary American cinema and the selection of segments from his best music videos and commercials proved it. Yet the twenty minute segment of the latest instalment in the Brad Pitt trilogy also proved that he will never truly achieve a cinematic nirvana that he COULD have delivered had he worked outside of the studio system. Even in its unedited form, these loosely connected scenes displayed a brilliant visual sensibility, yet overall, the whole thing was just… a literary adaptation. There was something old and heavy about the whole affair, like a film made by a director in his twilight years (Funny and Alexander comes to mind). It was all Capra with technicolor sugar-coating and I really think that American filmmakers should get over Mr. Smith. Watching Cate Blanchet do another Meryl Streep transformation (this time as a ballerina) I kept thinking where is the man who put those cones on Maddonna’s tits gone?
Rather more fascinating encounter awaited me in old library hall where an unkempt-looking man with dirty long hair and a pot belly pranced about nervously with a pile of papers in his hand. Slavoj Zizek. The great, enfant terrible of post-everything philosophy took up the stage to explicate the astounding wonders of a soapy Nazi melodrama called… oh god… just a moment while I check the title on IMDB.

Found the title, but I’ll have to take a coffee break.

Right... it was called 'The Great Sacrifice'. Do I need to go into the plot? Well, alright then. A young man comes back from his travels in Asia and decides to marry the virginal daughter of a local historian (or maybe he was a philosopher). It is all very upper-class with readings of Nietzche in an enormous mansion with darkened rooms and performances of melancholy pieces by Bach. This intellectual potpourri is not really to the liking of our hero, who likes the outdoors and “healthy thoughts”. He doesn’t have to search long to find his ideal in a Finnish neighbour who likes to swim naked in the lake and ride horses through the countryside, in between arrow shooting practices and frequent sex sessions. We don’t get to see much of the last bit alas – Nazi filmmakers proved to be surprisingly conservative when it came showing bodies in action, other than when they prance around half-naked in water or on horses.

Zizek was a nervous mess as he sprouted forth ideas on the aesthetics of fascism and how closely it relates to the aesthetics of contemporary cinema. The philosopher is famous for contradicting himself and one couldn’t escape the notion that he was frequently coming up against his own remarks. “We should believe in cinema because it’s more real that reality itself” and then “the truth is on the outside, not inside the soul – which is fake”. Considering that the film he was showing was busy depicting the melodramatic ‘soul’ of fascist ideology, it was certainly a complete lie. What are we to believe then? Frankly Zizek’s theories spouted during this mini-lecture and in the extended (and quite brilliant) documentary ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’ (which I managed to see only recently) engage on a visceral level, but after a close scrutiny don’t hold up very long. Maybe that’s why he’s so open about his contradictory nature… However, I’m too cautious about attempting to unravel any of his philosophical dictums – I’m not ready to go completely mad just yet.
An important occasion of the festival was the screening of the restored print of Lola Montes, which glowed and glistened like a polished diamond. Yet, somehow, it failed to generate the emotional charge of Ophulse’s other masterpieces. Only in the last few scenes does the pathos and irony of the situation register its power. For me, the film remains first of all, an astonishing feat on a purely artistic, aesthetic level. The camera turns into a crafty magician, rising up and down, pirouetting around time and space. Genius, even if a tad boring.
Amidst all the archival, retrospective screenings, it was a distinct shock to find oneself seated at the surprise, world premiere of Danny Boyle’s kinetic take on Bollywood cinema – ‘Slamdog Millionaire’. Like most of Boyle’s work, ‘Slamdog’ runs fast and think later. It has a complex structure that encircles the entire life of the lead character from childhood to adulthood. The scenes depicting the children of Mumbai are truly terrific, shot with a demonic energy that immediately sweeps the viewers into their cinematic reality. While Boyle keeps his eyes open on the most despicable conditions that children face in contemporary India (in particular children with no families and homes) he still manages to cover it all with a saccharine coat that dilutes the hopelessness of reality. Which is why I guess the audience screamed ‘Oscar’ in ecstasy after it all finished. How easy it is for people to digest shit when it is served with plentiful of chocolate.

Talking about shit… Despondent at being unable to see anything at the ‘Opera House’ I dragged myself (very reluctantly) to a screening of …. ‘Hunger’. Despite its multitude of prizes and rhapsodic reviews I really didn’t feel like sitting through a film about an Irish terrorist who starves himself to death in a British prison. Especially since hunger was a constant presence in my stomach throughout the five days of the festival (food being expensive and all). Sitting in the most uncomfortable seat imaginable, which was perched on the balcony of the tiny theatre, I looked at the most moving and powerful images that blinked on Telluride’s screens. Even while the prisoners smeared their shit all over the walls of that horrific prison I could barely look away. The astonishing precision and clarity of each scene and shot was breathtaking. Not to say anything about the extraordinary real transformations of the actors who turned from handsome young men into blue corpses covered with cuts and bruises. At times, the film recalled images from Francis Bacon and Leucian Freud and even at its most horrific had a tangible poetry about it.

The hyper-kinetic Korean ‘Noodle-Western’ by Kim Ji Woon made no apologies for recycling the over-chewed remnants of Sergio Leone’s films. The title says it all of course: ‘The Good, The Bad and The Weird’. Revolving around three highly divergent characters (a hero, a villain and a fool) who rush through the film in order to get their hands on some treasure, the film basically is concerned with staging as many spectacular and comical shoot-out scenes as possible.
Ji Woon, whose previous efforts include the Korean hit ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ and an exceptional segment for the horror trilogy ‘3 extremes’, made a solid Pop-mash of various film references, in-jokes and some inventive physical comedy. Unlike Takeshi Miike who also attempted an idiosyncratic ‘Noodle-Western’ recently, Woon is primarily concerned with surfaces and their immediate, visceral effects. The movie works horizontally and does not dig deep, it spreads out wide across different periods, styles and themes, brushing past all that historical bric-a-brac like some 2-D animated character from ‘Sailor-Moon’.
Ji Woon was present at the screening as a sparse group of film-nuts huddled under plastic covers and umbrellas while sitting on dripping fold-out chairs in the open air cinema as heavy rain poured mercilessly in the bitter cold. It was surreal and otherworldly and very appropriately Ji Woon bubbled on saying absolutely nothing of consequence. I loved it…

Quite a contrast really to the somber and wrenching mood that the Austrian film ‘Revanche’ was radiating in one of the small cinemas across the street. I seriously suspect that Austrians have developed only one aesthetic movement in cinema and are desperately sticking to their guns – whatever anyone else might be doing. How might one categorise this ‘movement’. Is there a term that I don’t know about? I’d call it the ‘lancent’ or ‘morgue-table’ cinema. Well, why not? The British have their ‘Kitchen Sink’ don’t they?
The thing about the Austrians is their Arian precision and coldness, which reminds me of a lancet-cut in the flesh. It bleeds and is horrific, but somehow you are meant to remain detached and analytical. The emotional response is always akin to a deadening shock and speechlessness. Now, Gotz Spielman’s film about revenge is nowhere near the harrowing terror unleashed by Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’, but in its brutal clockwork mechanism and unflinching look at human fallibility, it makes for an uneasy viewing experience. What Spielman does however in the end is effective because he has been so uncompromising throughout the rest of the film. He mellows his existentialist angst and gives the characters a ray of hope (and by default – the audience too). Its transcendental resolution does not ring fake, because it is as powerful as all the horror that has come before it.
Overall, I think the film is a much more balanced and successful work than its more extreme and fetishist counterparts by… say Ulrich Seidl.

Finally, THE film that had everyone talking and lining up in the long queues. ‘I Loved You So Long’ was the filmmaking debut of the French writer Philippe Claudel and somehow it had become the word-of-mouth sensation of the festival.
Starting Kristin Scott-Thomas in what could only be called a ‘performance of a career’, this Bergmanoid film developed through a brilliantly tuned structure. It pits the audiences with a character that is a cross between Joan Crawford and Hanibal Lecter – at least that’s how it seems in the beginning – and tells us that we must sympathise with her plight. Juliette (Thomas) has just been released from prison and her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) is there to meet her. They haven’t seen each other for 15 years. Juliette moves in with Lea and her family and tries quietly and desperately to adapt back into society. Of course, the moment anyone hears of her horrific crime, they reject her instantly. You see, she has murdered her son.
Scott plays her character almost like a Sphynx come to life. Her face is a mask; impenetrable, mysterious and at times frightening. Every time she’s around children you see her facial muscles jerk just a little. You know she’s in absolute agony, but never fully trust her. The director brilliantly builds the tension by giving clues and hints – much like Chabrol does in his bourgeois satires of the 60s and 90s, yet ultimately he can not avoid the final act of ‘disclosure’. And what a let down it is… Instead of a sensational tale of alienation and rebellion we get a snivelling TV movie by the end. The brilliance of the best Chabrol films lies in their lack of release. The pent up frustration and confusion gets exacerbated by the end. We leave more anxious after his films are finished than we got there. Claudel pussy-foots the real issues of his film by giving us a reassuring pat on the back. We get the Bergmanoid hysterics and ethical/moral issues I hinted about, but Bergman would have made EVERYONE face the issues – not just a single character that we can feel sorry about and think “thank God THAT hasn’t happened to me”. I had a layer of disgust and disenchantment over my whole body when I left the theatre as I looked at all the happy, exorcised and cried out faces of nice little old ladies and their rich husbands.
Other films I witnessed were: some Scottish kitchen-sink drama about two children who run away from home (we’ve all seen it before so I won’t even try to remember its name), a mildly amusing Hitchcockian thriller with the beautiful Jean Simmons called ‘So long at the fair’ (made in 1950, featuring the exact same story that appeared as an episode in 'Alfred Hitchcock presents', which is much better in my opinion) and a portion of the epic ‘The Emigrants’ - starring Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow - by one of the greatest of all Swedish directors, Jan Troel.
Troel was there to give a talk and I just loved listening to this exceptionally grounded, humble and fascinating director. I immediately wanted to see everything he’s directed, but then as things turned out didn’t get to see a single of his films in their entirety.
That’s one of the problems with Telluride. Too many films, too little time. You spend more time organising schedules than watching films. But… I’m not complaining. Other than the ‘Golden Apricot International Film Festival’ I have never been in such close proximity to so many amazing, talented filmmakers and never had a more ‘educational’ film-going experience. And once you get past all the self-congratulatory “we’re just here to celebrate film” bullshit, Telluride does start to weave its magic pretty quickly. No wonder the customary goodbye line at the end was “see you next year” … Well, maybe in a few years…

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