There once was a time – now so long ago it seems but a dream – when the Cales approached the Labor Day weekend with an almost naïve optimism; days full of opportunity, and the nights an endless, always winnable battle against fatigue and despair. As such, the Telluride Film Festival, one of the world’s most sacred cinematic affairs, both because of its unique, uncommercial locale and highly guarded schedule, became our raison d’etre; our yearly sabbatical into the bliss of artistic expression and theatrical escape. We cherished the world premieres, the sense of exclusivity, and above all, the communing with fellow moviegoers who, we once believed, were our soul mates of the silver screen. Telluride is always an expensive undertaking – passes, hotel rooms, and fine dining are all but unreachable to anyone but the fanatically devoted (or decidedly well-off) – but we always found a way, whether that meant increasing our debt load, undignified begging, or even the kindness of strangers (yes, people we’ve never met have sent us money). Now, on our 9th trip to this annual event, we are a different animal altogether; still in love with movies, of course, but older, crankier, and far less inclined to take a load off and enjoy clean mountain air. There’s a meanness about us now, and we’re pretty much certain this will be our swan song.
Almost from the beginning, as if the boundaries of Telluride proper release a toxic gas best able to extract the worst in our beings, we start bitching like two old coots in need of a nap. Right off the bat, there is the traffic. Not LA or Boston traffic, needless to say, but for a tiny burg, it grates as if we were suddenly thrust into the ass-end of an interstate work zone. As if on cue, some clueless bastard decides that 35mph is actually 20mph, and when I follow too closely, he will use the opportunity to slam on his brakes. Hard. I bolt into oncoming traffic to avoid a collision, being saved by the lack of actual traffic. But his move was deliberate, and when I finally got a chance to pass, he waved smugly, the surest move possible to elicit my wife’s blistering middle-fingered retort. So before our first movie, we were looking for trouble. Telluride, being home to some of the most expensive real estate in America, also brings out the more fanatical side of our class envy, and many a fist was raised in the direction of some snooty millionaire as we drove in. More than that, though, we just don’t like people anymore. Maybe we never did, but actual live crowds highlight our loathing in ways abstract, couch-sitting bitterness never could. Have there always been this many people? Moving so slowly to boot? I already had a headache, and we hadn’t yet reached our first queue.
Ah, the queue. If you’ve ever been to Telluride, you know the queue so well that it gives you night sweats. You’ll eat, sleep, and shit the queue until you damn near grab the nearest sharp object and vow never to stand in one again. It defines your life for four solid days, and just might be the most immovable object in the entire experience. Ten people? Twenty? Maybe fifty? Amateur hour, friend, as you’ll become a living statue in lines curling, shifting, and pulsing into eternity itself; a hell without end. Because of this, one must start this love affair with immobility as early as two hours prior to a screening, meaning that the schedule is more than selecting what you want to see. You have to factor in hour after hour of hip-shattering, knee-inflaming waiting into every single day. Back in 2002, it seemed a minor inconvenience. Now, it’s all but an act of war. Made worse, mind you, by cutters. You know the type: entitled, self-satisfied pukes of depravity who don’t do any actual waiting themselves, but saunter up at a time of their choosing to hail a friend or equally annoying acquaintance. Both the official program and the passes speak to the illegality of such a move (“the saving of places in line is not permitted”), but hundreds do it anyway. It might not matter to some, but when I get up at 6am to make a screening, and you of the 8am alarm bell get ahead of me for no other reason than your inherent rudeness, I shall not let it pass. No, sir.
Much to our delight, however, we had a focus for our obsession this time around, a white whale that just happened to be black, 300 pounds, and gay. Marcus Bachmann gay. While his name remains elusive – his pass is always just out of sight – I shall forever know him as Fat Black Gay Dude. To say I hate him is to describe the universe as a tad vast, and with every appearance at Telluride (we’ve seen him for several years now), we blast the gods for allowing him to live another day. But there he is, plopped down like a beached fuck of too many buffets, right there at the front, even though he didn’t put in the time. He waddles over, mincing in a way heretofore thought impossible for such a rare rotundity, smiles, and cuddles up next to his equally gay friends, only one of whom may have been in queue since the beginning. This year, FBGD has a partner in crime from New York; some husky-toned Jewish midget who avoids being my target of violence only because she’s far too new. I must give my boiling rage time to build. But it will come, as both are saddled with shitty taste, vapid conversation, and eye-rolling shop talk that lead one to believe that they have jobs in the industry. They are the Al Qaeda of Telluride, and only their bullet-ridden corpses dumped at sea will quench this acidic thirst.
Lines and lunatics aside, what of the films? Telluride 2011 went the Hollywood route this time, landing George Clooney as a tribute, when in most years, some Indian character actor is deemed sufficient to quiet the masses. Such star power is rare at Telluride, and we could only wonder how this might impact the show (more on that later). Not much, it would seem (at first), as the town prides itself on “protecting” celebrities, and it’s not uncommon to see many an Oscar winner wandering about solo without so much as a nod hello. No one hounds actors for autographs, and while pictures are likely taken, no official press hides in bushes. This is a low-key affair, and certainly the primary reason why it remains the best loved stop of the festival circuit. Yes, even we had our own Clooney Sighting, and it came and went as quietly as possible. On our way to dinner, we turned a corner and oh, there he was. Old George, dressed impeccably and still impossibly handsome, and there was I, wearing a stained Hawaiian shirt and scuffed tennis shoes. But we passed like two ships in the night – one the QE2, the other a garbage scow – and at no point did anyone fear an embarrassing encounter. Even an hour later, when Jennifer Garner and her smiling children passed mere yards in front of our dinner table, there was a decided lack of star fucking on display. To act in a contrary fashion would break festival protocol as if one had leaked details for the event in February. That said, had I known at the time what her movie had in store for me, I might have pulled a Bruno Hauptmann with at least one of the brats.
2011 would also be the year for Tilda Swinton (in town for a tribute and to promote We Need to Talk About Kevin), Werner Herzog (he all but lives here), Glenn Close, and Alexander Payne. We’d have fresh prints never before screened for a live audience, North American debuts, and titles not available for wider release until early next year. There would also be small gems and even smaller stinkers that will likely never again see the light of day, many of which will fall into the short film category (that said, last year’s Best Live Action short premiered here). Though Telluride is not usually strong with documentaries, they do manage to select the odd and the obscure, ensuring that at the very least, you’ll be treated to something no one else in your neck of the woods will have heard a whisper about. And admittedly, it’s this VIP veneer that draws us all back time after time, despite the annoyances. Not everything’s a hit (even though Telluride audiences notoriously fall in love with everything), but the selection committee is good about avoiding more mainstream fare that will hit multiplexes at some point in the future. Which is why Clooney’s award is so odd for the Telluride faithful. Though he has been associated with some great cinema in recent years, he’s still a movie star, and it’s hard to find a time when Telluride’s program so closely aligned with the cover of People magazine. Never fear, festival fans, I have no doubt that in 2012, the coveted Silver Medallion will again adorn the neck of some Mongolian cinematographer, or perhaps an editor who last worked with DeMille. It’s how they ride.
Oh, and before I forget, fuck the Telluride Mountain Lodge. Mind you, we’ve stayed here before, though in more flush times, we were able to swing a suite. Now, having booked a room at the eleventh hour, nothing remained in all of Mountain Village (necessary, given that the Chuck Jones Theater – the forced choice location for all Acme pass holders – is located here) save the glorified closets at $185 a night. It’s easily the smallest hotel room we’ve ever had the displeasure of staying in, and I’m including a moist Motel 6 in San Angelo, Texas that just about brought me to tears. So fine, I’d be bumping into my wife at every turn, and my late-night shit sessions would, by sheer proximity to the beds, be forced to envelop my nostrils as I tried to sleep, but what can a man do? Or expect? Not dirty linens and random pubic hairs found throughout each of our respective beds, of course, but that would all change after an angry note to our maid, right? I’ll be fucking damned if many of the hairs did not remain the next day, and the same mysterious stains on Brooke’s blanket weren’t just as creepily crispy. And the note? Crumpled in a ball at the bottom of the wastebasket. I guess that can be attributed to the maid’s poor English skills, but this is perhaps the only Colorado town where the Russians outnumber the Mexicans. Even the parking sucked mighty ass, with only three spaces to be fought over by at least 600 guests. Instead of something close by, I had to park in some “once free, now $20 a day parking garage” so far away that a morning hike to get the car damn near brought about a heart attack. And the walk back at night? Try a frightening, unlit path where one side tumbled over into a creek. The things I put up with for my devoted fan(s).
On the good side, there is the food, where for once we decided to skip peanuts and beef jerky and try a little fine cuisine. The first night, we dined at M’s Restaurant, which, being al fresco, gave us a bird’s eye view of bicycling children and a damn near lethal fountain (one girl smashed her ankle to bits). The noise aside, this was a great dinner, with lamb sweetbreads, wedge salad, and killer mac & cheese for the gentleman, and a wild mushroom ragout soup and heirloom tomato salad (with fresh apple sorbet on top) for the lady. While lunches remained cheap, yet tasty (I’d suck someone’s dick to have that gyro stand near my house), another solid dinner was had at 221 South Oak Bistro. Once again munching in the open air on a fine Saturday night, we both inhaled a delightful selection of sausages (elk garlic, spicy pork, duck mushroom, and chicken cranberry), while my entrée featured red fish and Cajun inspired shrimp with spinach and sweet potato pancakes. Brooke, also craving fish, enjoyed the purple potato crusted halibut. We spent a small fortune, but something had to wash the stink away from some truly bad cinema. Though for one sneak preview in particular, I’m not sure any kitchen under the sun could have concocted a dish to save the day.
Fortunately for us, Friday night’s offerings at the Chuck Jones were two films high on our must-see list, so our anger was, for the moment, tempered by joy. First up, Michael Hazanavicius’ supremely winning The Artist, a film that sounds like a cross between Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, evoking the cinematic period of transition between the silent era and the dreaded “talkies”. Here, though, the result is itself a silent movie, with crisp, eye-popping black and white cinematography and the occasional title card to keep things honest. But it’s more than an immersion in nostalgia (no fondness for “the good old days” is assumed); it’s a rare tribute to a lost medium whose time has, thankfully, passed. Without any sense that Hollywood turned an unfortunate corner once it insisted that its movie characters speak to audiences, The Artist, via the story of silent star George Valentin (Cannes’ Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) suggests that the entertainment of its day – then and now – holds currency and the ability to captivate, but as a fleeting craft, it need not last beyond its own brief time in the sun. Obvious, yes, but no one’s looking back. It’s why terms like “dated” don’t seem to matter when one considers that at bottom, they help us gain insight into the time period on display and, more importantly, what had the power to move audiences. We no longer want our motion pictures in quite this way, but that’s more a testament to our evolving humanity than any sign of cultural decay. People like George are left behind, but not much else is.
Valentin is a star, an action hero renegade with charm to burn, and his public appearances command huge crowds and adoring press. All of his films are by-the-numbers trash, of course, but he inhabits them with grace and charisma, lending their mass appeal a singular touch (few are as deadly with an arched eyebrow). Once the age of talk begins – represented here by new sensation Peppy Miller (her meteoric rise is a well-played showbiz cliché) – Valentin is pushed aside with brutal disregard, but how could it be otherwise? We care for him, of course, because it’s instinctive to the human animal to empathize with those for whom better days are not ahead, but Peppy is no villain. She is but the next stage of development, and she too will eventually find a hollow conclusion to her pursuits. It’s to the film’s credit that Peppy is not demonized as an opportunist, nor is she without talent, and deep down, it’s likely that Valentin agrees. Predictably, his gut reaction is to insist that the silent era is not yet over (he pours all of his resources into a ridiculous epic entitled Tears of Love), and he smugly declares, “I am an artist! I am not a puppet!” Is he right? Can a peddler of the formulaic be an artist? And can one ever hope to aspire to such lofty pursuits if one’s craft does not survive the time in which it is created?
Thankfully, The Artist comes down firmly on the side of the affirmative, insisting that the act of creation, for good or ill, need not last throughout the ages. If tradition is the illusion of permanence, permanence itself is the illusion of value, as anyone can speak to who has watched with disgust as great thinkers and talents have disappeared into the ether in favor of hacks with great PR machines. We are wrong to assume that if it’s still around after 300 years, it must always be good, and we are just as incorrect to argue that absence connotes a much-deserved burial. So yes, Valentin was and is an artist; our judgment of him, then, is only a matter of degree. His star may not shine as brightly as, say, Peppy’s, but as their final dance demonstrates, there’s room enough on stage for both. The Artist is clever, wise, and spirited (look for a truly awesome dream sequence), and despite hanging on a bit too long (a few redundancies creep in during the last 15 minutes), it transcends its gimmick to become a moving ode to everyone who straps on a pair of shoes for our amusement. The opening night crowd (ours was the first in the United States to see it) seemed to agree, granting the closing credits a roar we haven’t heard in years. Keep an eye out for this little gem, and don’t be surprised when it becomes the first silent movie to be nominated for an Oscar in over eighty years.
Later that same evening, we shared a packed theater with Werner Herzog and his clingy female companion for his new documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. Forsaking the odd and the esoteric, Herzog has now gone a little too far in the other direction, the result of which is solid as a rock, but a bit too easily digestible for those expecting the standard Herzog head-scratcher. Here, the German filmmaker considers a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, and the resulting trial that ended with one of the killers being executed. For the film’s first half, it all seemed a tad Dateline NBC-ish, with a full account of the crime itself, the perpetrators, and the victims. Herzog visits the crime scene, the men in jail, and law enforcement, all of whom recount the tragedy with the expected precision. It is when Herzog visits with surviving family members that the emotional wall is broken, and we see the shattered lives that are left in the wake of a senseless murder. Again, nothing groundbreaking here, but Herzog does insist on pushing his subjects to speak to their grief in full measure, such as when the daughter of the woman slain (she is also the sister of another victim) wanders into the thicket of her almost comically sad family tree, whose branches are teeming with overdoses, suicides, deaths-by-train, and numerous felons. She’s a testament to the maxim that in life, there are those who just can’t seem to escape trouble. It will always find them whatever the cost.
Herzog being Herzog, there is more method to his madness than simply rounding out a case of an auto theft gone horribly wrong. He wants to investigate the ritual of state murder, so he visits with prison employees, and shows us the very room where the convicted take their last breath. With clinical detachment, Herzog, himself an opponent of the death penalty, shows how the very process of execution destroys everyone involved, with casualties mounting far beyond the death house doors. Without saying so, we know that Herzog finds humanity essentially homicidal, and it stands to reason that we would find a relatively “clean” way of ending life, if only to cover the tracks of our barbarism. Additionally, Herzog opens the gates of a truly odious trash heap in Conroe, a town where these types of crimes just seem to crop up with disturbing inevitability. Consider that one gentleman – or should I say, typical resident – in particular who testifies to the rage of Jason Burkett, one of the killers who, without surprise, declares his innocence. As he rambles on, pausing only to lob tobacco juice in any number of directions, he reveals his own prison stint, now-conquered illiteracy, and encounter with a foot-long screwdriver. We laugh so as not to cry, but yes, we laugh just the same. While Herzog often finds great dignity in the natural world, his human subjects often leave us contemplating a long jump off a short pier.
Herzog also spends much time with Michael Perry, the baby faced butcher who, in the closing moments of the film, is given his fatal injection in Huntsville. Perry also considers himself a victim, and his final words are accusatory, as if a man responsible for ending three lives because of his lust for an automobile had a side worth considering. Herzog does not travel down the road of his possible innocence (the film proves pretty conclusively that he is the man), nor does it join a candlelight vigil for his stay of execution. Instead, Herzog wants to allow the voice of the condemned to occupy a space in time, almost as a constant reminder that in some fashion, the dead speak to us always. There’s also the bizarre case of Melyssa, the legal representative of Mr. Burkett, who eventually falls in love with the killer, though she too believes him to be innocent. It’s especially disturbing to listen as she tries to separate herself from the others – the “sick ones” – who obsess over and eventually marry the infamous. She’s as loony as the rest, of course, which is perhaps the point. Find me a murder, and anything in the vicinity (and surely anyone) will be swallowed alive by madness. In Conroe and elsewhere, survivors are that in name only, long ago having surrendered their resemblance to the living.
Saturday, for several reasons, was a bitch, not least of which was the ungodly hour at which we woke. But we had an 8:30am screening, which meant getting in line just after sun-up. We were particularly nasty this day, and we still had a movie to endure. The film in question, Albert Nobbs, was this year’s requisite gender-bender (count on at least one), which is usually the shortest, easiest route to an Oscar nomination. This time, it’s Glenn Close (who also co-wrote and co-produced) who has decided that no mere character will do – one must dress like a man to get the Academy’s attention. Since Glenn wasn’t likely to play a retard, a slave, or, channeling Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger, a retarded slave, she deepened her tones, donned a suit, and became Mr. Nobbs, a proper Irish butler at the tail end of the Victorian era. Sure, Close looks the part – she also resembles the love child of Robin Williams and J.D. Rockefeller – but once the gimmick wears off, what are we left with? Could Close move beyond the trappings of a turn of the century Tootsie and channel any unexpected insight? The audience seemed to think so, but I was unmoved. By comparison, Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day was an ass-grabbing, bourbon-swilling extrovert who wore every emotion on his impeccably tailored sleeve.
The primary objection to Albert Nobbs, then, is the fact that he/she is so bloody dull, and when the character is talking to himself about saving money for a tobacco shop (these conversations are clearly meant to convey information we’d otherwise lose, but they’re awkward nonetheless), we’d rather be in the other room watching paint dry. Nothing really happens in the course of this tale, which isn’t automatically bad, but here, we have nothing to cling to once we accept that Nobbs is what an Irish lass becomes when there aren’t any jobs available. Sure, there might be some discussion regarding identity and sexual politics, but the characters are so poorly drawn and the screenplay so muddled that we end up waiting for Nobbs to die, which he does, though in a manner just as inconsequential as his breathing hours. If there’s drama afoot, it comes in the form of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), who discovers Nobbs’ secret after having to spend the night in his room. Yes, Page is yet another woman passing as a man (would the only two such creatures really meet so conveniently at some Dublin hotel?), and frankly, s/he’s more believable. McTeer is like Jack Lambert with tits, and after she bares the suckers, we instantly discover that yes, if push came to shove, we’d fuck the shit out of this Steel Curtain stalwart.
Telluride often surprises guests with unknown documentaries about equally unknown subjects, but with Becoming Bert Stern, the man of the hour seems to have been unknown to me alone. Stern is, quite obviously, a world-famous photographer, and while I instantly recognized many of the shots on display, I had never known their author. Here, in a crisply made, authoritative account, the entirety of the Stern legacy is laid bare, and he’s more than up to the task. Stern started humbly, almost accidentally, and his talent with the camera became apparent by the 1950s after a stint at Look magazine. Within a few years, he revolutionized advertising, taking Smirnoff national in a way previously unknown. Until Stern brought artistic energy to marketing, ads were drab and top heavy with explanatory text; he gave products life with symbolic heft, emotion, and clarity of presentation. As never before, consumers could extract an identity from what they purchased, and Stern brought a hip sensibility that belied the sterile, corporate image of the craft. Even after moving to Vogue, Stern’s eye deepened, highlighting the allure of the female form in an age not yet ready to accept empowered sexuality from the other side of the table.
While the strength and excitement of the documentary lie in the series of images we see (his work is stellar), this is far from a mere puff piece. Stern, like all artists, is an egomaniac, and his love of women, endlessly conveyed, both verbally and visually, masks an insidious misogyny that, at bottom, reduces women to the pleasure they can bring to him. He gets involved, cheats, gets married, cheats some more, gets divorced, and moves on, and it’s always apparent that Stern just can’t help himself. His most interesting “affair” just might be the one never consummated, however, involving Marilyn Monroe. Stern was taken by her, naturally, after the “last sitting” shoot mere weeks before her death, and his photos remain iconic to this day. And when we receive access to his “private stash”, we see that for every artistic bent, there is an undercurrent of obsession. An entire museum could be fashioned around his negatives alone. If there’s a drawback to the movie, it stands at the feet of the director, Shannah Laumeister, who has known Stern for over thirty years. Too often, her own ego takes hold, interfering with the subject, and for all the naked women we see, her own tits are featured most often. Stern himself might need Shannah, but we most assuredly do not.
More often than not, Telluride’s sneak previews are a cause for celebration. Not this time (so much for the rumors of Carnage). When it was announced that we would be the first audiences in the world to see Jim Field-Smith’s Butter, we were not amused, as we already heard the talk that many believed it would be this year’s Juno. If only. While I hated that movie with an unparalleled glee, I would have gladly sat through it a dozen more times had I been spared a collision with Butter, now and likely forever the worst film I have ever seen at this festival. Curiously, I demand laughs from my comedies, and here, there are none to be had, even though the theater often displayed an opposing reaction. Sure, the chuckles became less intense as time passed, but presumably mentally sound human beings were discovering a form of amusement, and as such, I have rarely been this frightened for the future of this country. If you must know, the movie involves Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), a Sarah Palin-type whose only love in life appears to be watching her husband win the annual butter-carving competition at Iowa’s state fair. Why, he’s done The Last Supper in butter, has he not? After being asked to excuse himself from any awards this time around, Laura decides that she must uphold the Pickler legacy and win one for the Gipper.
And while it is true that those from the Midwest are insane, this movie’s satirical sensibilities lie somewhere between heavy-handed and retarded, with an emphasis on caricature and stereotype. There isn’t a single noteworthy observation to be had, and if you needed this movie to know that conservatives like hookers, you’re also in need of the sort of institution no longer allowed under the law. Broad as a barn and painfully puddle-deep, Butter is obvious and stupid, that is, when it isn’t substituting gratuitous profanity like a 6th grader having just learned how to shock his parents. A better movie not made by the sub-mental set would have mined the potential subtext of butter carving, perhaps exploring the cultural origins of small town oddities and rituals, but instead, the screenplay thought it would be more inventive to introduce a Wise Minority Figure into the mix, this time in the form of an orphaned black girl. Her narration often talks about how “crackers be crazy”, and while that might indeed be true, it’s about as insightful as the plot device that insists we’re all but an encounter away with a dark-skinned savant from getting our houses in order. Olivia Wilde’s turn as Brooke, a stripper with a heart of gold and a mouth like a sailor, is nowhere near an original creation, but she’s a rare spark of life in this otherwise bloated corpse of cinematic crap.
As Sunday dawned, we had been pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of awe regarding Mr. Clooney and his descent from the clouds, but this would soon end in a flurry of revolting hero worship last seen when The Beatles invaded New York. While waiting at the Palm Theater (a rare in-town screening) for a noon show, Clooney and his handlers came out the front after his tribute. Within seconds, women swooned, men screamed, and a good dozen fanatics could be seen running in Clooney’s direction, as if fleeing the collapse of the Twin Towers. Cameras were suddenly everywhere, and from every corner of the parking lot, one could hear various sobs and hysterical ravings. “He waved at me!”, one cried, while another breathlessly remarked on George’s appearance. “Oh my god, he said hello!”, another yelped, odd indeed given that this was otherwise a grown-ass man. Even as his car made its way to the exit, the mob acted as if they were in the presence of royalty, tearing at their hair and all but jumping on the hood in a half-naked frenzy. In all our time here, we had never seen anything quite like it, and if a single theme dominated the weekend, it was that all were evermore under Clooney’s spell. With this kind of reception, the man would be a fool not to promote his films here from now on. When the first statement from any random person’s lips pertained to a George anecdote (“I hear he closed the bar last night!”), you know you’re in an altered landscape.
Using one of our two non-Mountain Village selections, we spent the next few hours with Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, arguably our most anticipated offering of the weekend. Having loved the book, we felt that at last, we’d be assured of the masterpiece we craved, even if more honest reflections knew it couldn’t possibly measure up. For the first hour or so, however, it spooled forth with an unsettling grace, and I damn near started to believe it could pull it off from start to finish. The style is fragmented and semi-conscious, as if half-remembered dreams and raw emotions are forced to butt heads for supremacy. The mood was disjointed and dark, and as an assessment of the main character, it seemed confident and assured. Playing Eva, Tilda Swinton is appropriately glassy-eyed and insecure, as her character is one of the few in any context who, while still sane and reasonable, appears to lack a genuine maternal instinct. During these opening blasts of confusion, Eva is more than uncertain about her new role as “mommy”; she is adrift without the requisite knowledge to keep up that all-too-delicate juggling act. This is not simply a woman thrust into the abyss all new mothers share, but rather a confrontation with, and confirmation of, a genuine, unapologetic selfishness that is, refreshingly, borne not of meanness, but simply the desire to pursue an alternative. Eva has traveled the world as a young woman and new wife, and her gifts lie in her ability to describe her journeys by putting pen to paper.
Admittedly, the book is more careful about exploring Eva’s complex inner life, and as presented in the movie, it could be assumed that Eva is simply ill-equipped and unwilling to put in the hard work, rather than expressing a wholesale rejection of the motherhood precept. Both Ramsey and Swinton do their best within the limitations of the medium, but newcomers might dismiss this character without fully considering the radical implications. Still, an appropriate sense of dread is crafted, even if Kevin, once he moves from infant to young man, seems just a little less than real throughout. From the start, he’s perhaps too immersed in the bad seed ideal, even if one of the book’s themes considered whether or not kids were always, by necessity, a product of their environment. As presented, Kevin just might be the emotionless manipulator he is because mommy failed to dish out kisses and hugs along with her quiet judgment, when in fact nothing in the book argues for so simplistic a conclusion. In fact, even as Kevin blooms into a full-fledged killer, the film upholds the book’s failure to provide answers. Why do kids kill? Who can we blame for school massacres? At no point does anyone chime in with undue arrogance, as this is less Kevin’s story than Eva’s, body and soul. There’s a reason, after all, that Kevin spares his mother alone among everyone close to him. The film doesn’t hit the mark on this as well as it could, but Kevin actually has a begrudging respect for Eva, for in some perverse fashion, both share a genuine lack of empathy. In some odd way, Kevin is returning Eva to her once pristine state without familial obligations.
The film also missteps in making literal that which holds more power as an imagined event, such as the actual killings (a few soundtrack selections also play to the cheap seats). Given where the film is tending, the murders need not have been presented at all, as the bits of pieces of lead-in were enough to take us only so far without having to complete the picture. Showing even small moments of Kevin’s actions takes us away from Eva’s perception of them. We should only view Kevin as she does, for our opinions as an audience should not be as judges and jury for the eventual trial. Even a key scene near the end involving the deaths of Eva’s husband and daughter is too heavy-handed, almost as if the director doesn’t trust us to know what lies beyond the patio door. We Need to Talk About Kevin, all told, remains a modest success, if only because it draws us in so convincingly from the opening passages that presage fear and loss. In a sense, it’s about the only way one could hope to make a film with school shootings as a central dramatic event, dealing less with “survivor’s guilt” and the scars left behind than the sort of person so afflicted from the outset that what’s to follow merely confirms the initial doubts. Eva, for many, was broken well before Kevin, though I would add that the cracks only started to appear once she gave in, ever so gently, to the pressures all women share. Riding out her instincts would have been the only way to avoid the disaster to come.
Later that evening, at last, came the gem of the festival. With gritty simplicity and raw emotional intensity, director Steve McQueen’s Shame becomes the Last Tango in Paris for a new era; a sadly perverse gutter ballet that wallows in sexual addiction and untethered humanity in ways rarely explored in the usually cautious world of cinema. And while Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is solid, he’s no Paul, though to ask anyone to compete with Marlon Brando at the peak of his powers is an exercise in futility. Still, where Last Tango drifts (every scene without Paul is mired in tedium), Shame remains focused, never wavering from Brandon’s punishing descent into a hell of his own making. Above all, this is a work of behavior, where plot devices and obligatory story turns are left behind as scraps of inevitability to be picked over by less gifted filmmakers. Shorn of extraneous detail – we are here and now, as if future and past were luxuries lost somewhere along the way – the film builds, pushes, and literally invades our space with encounters almost offensively private. It’s no great revelation to expose the self-loathing and pain at the core of obsessive promiscuity, but McQueen isn’t showing his cards, preferring instead to leave us with the nakedness of Brandon’s twisted nature. He’s more than a slab of beef; he’s already been prepped, gutted, and bled dry for sport.
For once, I was excited from the opening bell, as the first scene aboard a subway offers a lesson to us all on how to build character with no words and few gestures. As Brandon studies a woman sitting nearby, no dialogue is exchanged, but the glances are so witheringly seductive that the woman practically orgasms on screen. Using ambient noise, long takes, and subtle movement, an entire seduction from start to finish takes place right before our eyes. The woman says absolutely nothing before departing from the train, but we know exactly what she’s thinking. She’s gone over everything in her own mind, and we cheer the result. Such bravura filmmaking is rare amongst new filmmakers, and it does not surprise us that McQueen has worked as a visual artist. He possesses a rare talent for composition, and his use of color and music instill the proceedings with a flair beyond the commonplace. In other hands, the film might suffer from familiarity. Here, it’s practically the opening salvo of a cinematic revolution.
Needless to say, the film is saturated with sex (and yes, Fassbender will inspire a great deal of penis envy), and while most of what we see remains curiously joyless, it’s less the opinion that anonymous intercourse is always bad than the particular experiences of a man who long ago lost any other method of communication. This is no morality play, where bed-hopping is automatically a sign of the devil’s work or even a damaged soul, but simply Brandon’s specific arc of character. Larger issues may indeed be at work, but at this time and place, a single human being has channeled the whole of his life into a crippling preoccupation that substitutes for actual living. Consider Brandon’s boss in contrast, even while he flirts, seduces, and beds assorted women. His methods are a ritualized, almost comical game, and a foolish one at that, but one that insists on a set of rules seemingly agreed upon at some unspecified date. Brandon, on the other hand, operates from need alone, and mere compulsion pushes him into these otherwise distasteful interactions with others. Even the arrival of his sister, Sissy (an extremely sharp Carey Mulligan), is not enough to right the ship, as her pathetic state simply distracts Brandon from the only reality he could ever know. She too is in pain, but he’d rather not be reminded of the consequences over which he claims to have no control. If anything, she’s a version of Brandon he’d like to forget. Shame, fortunately, deserves only to be remembered.
Her arrival is marked by gnashing, bucking, and a jetting jaw so sharp it could slice an artery. She is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the daughter of wealthy Russian Jews, and she is in town, so to speak, to begin treatment with the up-and-coming Swiss doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender, once again). Using the controversial new method known as the “talking cure”, Jung draws out the increasingly hysterical Sabina until, well, she spills forth with a rush of sexual dysfunction. She was beaten by a tyrannical father, took pleasure from withholding defecation, and, as luck would have it, eventually expresses a grave desire to bed the naïve young doctor. And so begins David Cronenberg’s sublime new psycho-drama, A Dangerous Method, a film destined to appear on my year-end ten-best list for sheer entertainment value alone. Expecting a dry, pointless exercise, I was instead treated to a witty, sly, sexually charged battle royale between the two great giants of psychoanalysis, Dr. Jung and his more famous father figure, Sigmund Freud. As played by Viggo Mortensen (as if channeling Paul Muni), Freud is an arrogant, cigar-chomping bastard with brilliance to burn. He’s all crisp suit and well-manicured beard, and as such, he’s destined to drive a stake through the heart of his young protégé. Their early friendship (begun as a marathon 12-hour conversation) leads to much more, only to disintegrate in the face of conflicting opinions (it seems that Jung is a little too fond of mysticism). Freud was right, of course, and his assessment of Jung blisteringly accurate, as the pair manages to inhabit a wrestling ring like two intellectuals warring for the soul of mankind.
Sabina successfully seduces Jung, needless to say, and their passionate encounters run the gamut from heavy petting to not one, but two highly-charged spankings (in fairness, one is more accurately labeled a whipping). Jung’s painfully proper moustache always appears on the verge of violent indulgence, yet he manages to rationalize his infringement on the doctor/patient separation with the expected hilarious hypocrisy. He rages against Freud for reducing the whole of the human animal to sexual repression, yet proves the wise Austrian’s theories correct time and time again. Again, I have no idea how historically accurate any of this is, nor do I care, and for once, a movie involving iconic figures throws caution to the wind and insists on having fun. Instead of studious aspirations, the film relies on verbal combat, spitting out fascinating ideas and theories without regard for the audience’s ability to follow along. Some dismissed the movie as “talky”, which more often than not damns the critic as simpleminded, rather than accurately describing the verbiage on display. I mean, this is Sigmund Freud, the man who brought the penis front and center to any and all debates. Who on earth would want him to remain tight-lipped? Years pass, journeys begin and end, and throughout, despite the brief 99-minute running time, we feel sated. Tightly, hysterically wound, the whole thing flirts with fabulous disaster by burning the rule book for highlighting the past. Against the odds, it almost singlehandedly salvaged the festival.
The Maldives is a bizarre collection of 1,190 coral islands spread over 90,000 square kilometers in the Indian Ocean. Approximately 314,000 people inhabit this most improbable of nations, when a random view from the air speaks to the impossibility of any civilization whatsoever. How did people get here? And who decided it was a fine idea to stay? Despite its complex geographic attributes, it has a fascinating history all the same, with the usual dictators, coups, and political violence of a nation a hundred times its size. Declaring its independence from the United Kingdom is 1965, the modern history of the Maldives has been a predictable, sorry lot indeed, that is, until democracy triumphed and Mohammed Nasheed assumed the presidency several years ago. The Island President, a new documentary from the makers of Lost Boys of Sudan, charts Nasheed’s rise from political prisoner to proud leader, though it’s not the overthrow of a brutal regime that is this film’s primary subject. While the Maldives is no longer threatened by an oppressive military and state-sponsored torture, it will almost certainly face extinction from a much more daunting foe — climate change. You see, the Maldives is at sea level. Every last man, woman, and child stands at the brink with no room for error. Any significant rise in ocean levels and this nation will cease to exist. And yes, the oceans are rising.
Nasheed, almost alone among world leaders, is fully devoted to the issue of global warming. He makes no apologies, pulls no punches, and asks not for delayed consideration, but immediate policy changes. He knows that unless carbon emissions are lowered, we’ve condemned his country to a death sentence, and he’s not exactly excited about presiding over a funeral. We follow Nasheed (unprecedented access is granted) to a United Nations conference where lip service is paid, but tangible actions fall under the weight of useless rhetoric. He’s heard it all before, yet here we stand. The big daddy, though, remains the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, where leaders from 192 countries gathered to discuss stemming the tide of the planet’s disintegration. As expected, China remained the primary roadblock to honest reform, though the United States was (and is) hardly a champion of radical change. We’ll only go so far, then fold like a tent when negotiations get tough. But yes, it’s ultimately about China. In more ways than one, they are the ultimate representation of where our planet is tending. And when you’re the sort of country wholly uninterested in public health, democracy, human rights, and living wages, it’s not a good idea to remain beholden to such a devilish master. Nasheed’s passion at the conference is infectious, yes, but also a little sad, as few power brokers are going to alter global policy for such an “insignificant” player. But the Maldives is our canary in the coal mine, and we ignore them – and Nasheed – at our peril.
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants argues that all of us owe a debt to ancestor and offspring alike; not of the financial variety, but a simple gentleman’s agreement to live well. Honestly, at the very least. George Clooney is Matt King, a successful attorney who, thanks to the obligatory workaholic tendencies, reaches a point in his life when he’s set adrift in a sea of doubt and guilt. As always, there’s a catalyst – here, the serious injury of his wife – and after learning enough about the comatose spouse to know that she’s a scoundrel and not at all the woman he married, he sets out to become a father again to his two predictably sassy daughters. Admittedly, even in the re-telling, Payne’s latest hardly sounds like a film I would ever fight to see, but there’s enough here to warrant a recommendation, even if the final product is less than the sum of its parts. Taken in sections, the film leaves viewers with some terrific set pieces; not hard to do when the whole thing is set in Hawaii. Sure, my attention wandered from time to time, as I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the islands (and arguably the greatest collection of loud Hawaiian shirts ever assembled for a motion picture), but I always drifted back, tethered to the story by strong performances and a willingness not to get too sticky about the whole thing.
At bottom, Payne wants his heroes to grow up and become men, and that’s no less the case this time around. Fortunately, King is not a bad guy, just the sort who would quickly defer all child-rearing decisions to the mother. He’s warm, charming, and tough-minded when necessary, and we never get the sense that he’s in love with money despite his obvious success. But he is flawed first and foremost because he hasn’t put his daughters first, and that’s enough these days to produce a screenplay about your redemption. There’s even a side story involving an extremely valuable patch of ancestral land that may or may not be sold, but that’s less a loose end than an additional opportunity for King to do the right thing. I hated his final decision, of course, because I couldn’t possibly imagine turning away heaping piles of cash in favor of youthful camping memories, but that’s why I remain in my predicament and the least attractive subject for a story of any kind. Still, I appreciated the realism regarding the siblings, the switcheroo whereby the wife is the no good cheat, and how the characters deal with death. At just about every point, they speak and react as people would, not what a screenplay dictates. Though inferior to Payne’s two previous efforts, The Descendants is a pleasant, easy ride with no heavy lifting; just a decent story well told.
AN ACTOR TO REMEMBER: Michael Fassbender, Shame and A Dangerous Method
AN ACTRESS TO REMEMBER: Carey Mulligan, Shame
AN ACTOR TO FORGET: The State of Iowa, Butter
AN ACTRESS TO FORGET: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
BEST SET OF TITS: Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
WORST SET OF TITS: Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
BEST SEX SCENE: Doggie-Style by the Window Atop NYC, Shame
WORST SEX SCENE: John C. Reilly Getting Blown, We Need to Talk About Kevin
WORST POST-SCREENING INTERVIEW: Todd McCarthy with Alexander Payne, bringing a whole new meaning to “awkward silence”
MOST APPROPRIATE INTERVIEW: Leonard Maltin with Glenn Close, as both understand playing a part and living a lie
QUESTION I NEVER THOUGHT I’D ASK MYSELF: “Is that blood on the comforter?”
MOVIE I WISH I HAD SEEN: The Turin Horse
SO WHY DIDN’T YOU?: At no point could I have squeezed in a 33-hour Hungarian meditation on cruelty with approximately six words of dialogue
SHORT FILM WORTH A DAMN: First Interview
SHORT FILM WORTH SHIT: Zergut
THREE WORDS TO SUM IT UP: “So very tired”