Ed Note: Once again, Matt Cale has risen far beyond what somebody who doesn’t get paid at all should ever do, and brings us his report back from the 2003 Telluride Film Festival. We can’t thank him enough. .
Matt Cale delivers the goods…
It was difficult to concentrate at this year’s Telluride Film Festival after hearing about Charles Bronson’s shocking and untimely death (I know he was 81 and had every illness known to humanity, but I worshipped the man, so fuck off), but I sucked it up and managed to see 11 films, several of which were among the best I have seen this year. The 2003 edition of one of the world’s most prestigious festivals was noticeably lacking in star power (unlike previous years, there weren’t a lot of big names this time), but more than made up for that with a solid line-up of North American premieres and world exclusives. And of course, being Telluride, there were obnoxious wannabes and never-weres (if I only had a dollar for every deluded dreamer who claimed to be a filmmaker), but the gorgeous setting and relaxed atmosphere helped me to forget that people in show business are indeed the scum of the earth. It also helped that my wife and I were given the wrong hotel room, which for once was a good thing. Expecting a closet with a toilet, we received a lavish suite with a full kitchen and two — count ’em, two — televisions. But the room was secondary. The films were, and always will be, the highlight. Let me take you through my experience:
— A film from Austria that explores the mind-numbing nature of manual labor and how immigrants around the world literally live day to day. By showing us the process by which these people earn a living (it is rare indeed to see people actually working in the movies), we are given an insight that would be impossible with mere speeches alone. The film is dark, dry, and humbling, which is as it should be given the subject matter. And given the near absence of dialogue, we are left with the faces and bodies of the largely non-professional cast — broken, humiliated, and desperate. A great wake-up call for all those who claim that the lower classes are lazy and inept.
Love Me if You Dare
I should have known that I was in for a mess when the director introduced his film by saying that he was expecting his fourth child. At best an <em>Amelie</em> rip-off and at worst an excruciating bore, this film contains the two most obnoxious characters I have seen in years. It tries in vain to be a cute and quirky romance, while forgetting that the audience should not hope that two budding lovers be drawn and quartered rather than finding true bliss. It is colorful and as light as a feather, which means that American audiences should eat it up, but I never bought a minute of it. Self-conscious, trite, and never compelling. Trust me.
The Fog of War
— Once again, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has made a compelling, wholly original work of art that is both insightful and entertaining. Consisting primarily of interview clips with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Morris also includes stunning visuals and historical facts that speak for themselves. Contrary to what people might think, this film is not an apology, nor is it McNamara’s attempt to rationalize his behavior during the 1960s. Instead, McNamara (still vibrant and articulate in his eighties) talks about war itself and the “lessons” that must be learned from our own actions, as well as those of others. For the unfamiliar it is an opportunity to learn about American life from WWI through the end of Vietnam, but for those ready to either forgive or hang McNamara at the start, it is a sobering lesson about how little we have learned and what killing for king and country truly means.
— Easily the worst film of the festival, this waste of time from Iceland is little more than a series of still photographs set to music. Not literally of course, but the characters and “story” are so boring and lacking in substance that I do not apologize for having fallen asleep on several occasions. Apparently, the film is supposed to be about a troubled youth who hopes to escape the snow and poverty of his small town, but I saw little that resembled human behavior. There’s an avalanche and a grave-digging scene for those who insist on excitement, but I’m still trying to scrub off remnants of this sick joke. This is the sort of film made by people who insist that a complete absence of narrative coherence or action are tackling “realism,” and thus have reached a deeper truth than other, more lively works. Whatever dude. Just keep such notions to yourself next time.
Lost in Translation
— Sofia Coppola, strangely enough, has now eclipsed the cinematic output of her father post-Apocalypse Now. While Francis guzzles his wine and tortures the public with crap like Jack, Sofia has embarked on a dazzling career of bold, risk-taking cinema. Her latest stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two lost souls in contemporary Japan, both of whom would rather be with anyone else but their current mates. In addition to the astounding scenes of Tokyo itself (a stunning contrast to the Tokyo of 1945 that I saw in The Fog of War), there are laughs, sighs, and knowing glances between two people who don’t know where they’re going and don’t seem to know how they arrived at such obvious unhappiness. Murray is great as always, and for once we get a story where the characters understand that their connection, such as it is, cannot extend beyond their “lost weekend” in a strange city. Full of charm and subtle wit, as well as a quiet sadness.
The Barbarian Invasions
— The biggest treat at the festival, largely because it takes a cliched premise — dying man faces his own mortality — and manages to say something fresh and original. More than that, the people we meet are intelligent, sophisticated, witty, and not once give in to sticky sentimentality. This is not some cloying Oprah bullshit, but rather a celebration of a life lived with dignity and without apology. The man in question cheated on spouses, flirted with everything that moved, and cursed his own son for being a capitalist stooge (it was amazing to find a rock-solid socialist as a lead character), and is never portrayed as a sweet old lug with a heart of gold. There is fire and selfishness to this man, as well as a fierce intellect that never lets go. There are the expected shots at America (this is a French-Canadian production, after all), which was just fine with me, although the director attacks Canadian health care as well. At bottom, these are people I want to spend time with, as well as engage in unlimited conversation. The dialogue sweeps along with charm and delight, and when it was over I felt as if I had watched a complete life meet its unfortunate end, rather than a dull existence come to its merciful termination.
This Little Life
— My worst nightmare come to life: the story of a British couple and their premature infant as it struggles for survival. Eyes watered and noses sniffled throughout the theater, but I waited patiently for the torture to end. It plays like a TV drama, and while it is competent and the performances are solid, the story is so blubbery and predictable that I was just counting the minutes until I heard the inevitable line, “The little bugger is a fighter, but there’s nothing more we can do.” The film is based on a true story and I suppose it plays as it would in reality, but given my contempt for children (and those who suck the health care system dry by keeping the unfit on expensive machines for weeks on end), I could never recommend it without feeling like either a complete fraud or an emasculated pussy. Leave this shit on Lifetime and quit polluting film festivals with this tripe.
— As it was in Cannes, Gus Van Sant’s film about Columbine-style killers was the talk of the festival. While it is severely minimalist and unconventional, I loved it because it refused to make judgments and provide easy answers. The lack of applause after the screenings is no doubt due to the film’s objective stance, as Americans would rather have a film show that only kids who have been beaten, raped, and live without Jesus are capable of such violence. Instead, this film shows that events leading up to a massacre can be quite routine, even banal. There are subtle clues here and there that might help explain, but by no means does anything definitive rise to the surface that can prove what motivated the killings. Still, we see enough (teasing, blond bimbos who mock the un-beautiful) so that I can believe that Van Sant is, like me, pro-death regarding teenagers. A little bloodbath now and then is nature’s way of weeding out the undesirables, is it not? And when the bullet-ridden conclusion finally arrives, I would be lying if I didn’t feel a positive surge of adrenaline. Maybe I’m sick and maybe I’m missing the point, but had the internet been up and running when I was a disgruntled sophomore, I can’t say I wouldn’t have ordered my own cache of high-tech weaponry. Regardless, here is a film that presents an event matter-of-factly and we are meant to explain it to ourselves, rather than submitting to the heavy hand of the director. How refreshing.
Girl With a Pearl Earring
— I’m not saying that the story behind Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s most famous work couldn’t be interesting, but it failed to reach this humble viewer. The film is beautifully shot, well-acted, and meticulously detailed, but it seemed a bit shallow and kept me at an emotional distance throughout. I am a fan of art (no fag jokes Jonny), and I acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to convey the artistic process on screen. Still, I failed to connect with any of the characters and too often felt as if melodrama dictated the course of events rather than anything tangible. It might make waves come awards season, but only because it has the look and feel of an “art film,” rather than having any real substance.
— It took me a bit to get into this puzzle of a film, but once I did, I was genuinely interested in where it was going. On the surface, the film considers a man’s journey through the streets of Denmark as he tries to figure out why his girlfriend doesn’t appear to recognize him and why a strange love interest looks like that same woman. It’s all incredibly complex and convoluted (what is reality and what is fantasy?) but when I realized that the characters inhabited the novel of an author trying to work through a failing relationship, it made more sense (or as much sense as it could given the bizarre premise). The shifting identities and sexual games reminded me of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, although it lacked that classic film’s delightful mean-spiritedness. In an age of Memento we must expect a bit of play regarding structure and character, so I was willing to give this film a chance to succeed.
— Leave it to the Aussies to wrap up the festival with cruelty, savagery, and revenge, all told with a delightful smirk. At the very least, this story of a wife’s payback for a lifetime of neglect maintains a level of tension and foreboding that had me hooked from the first frame. As the story builds, we think we know how this desperate woman is going to strike back, but when the resolution arrives, we are dumbstruck by our foolish guesses. This is a clever, enjoyable ride that understands how to keep an audience locked in its grip, and for once, it rides it out until the end, never undermining it all with a last-minute “just kidding” or pathetic reversal. This might be human nature at its worst, but never has depravity been this enticing.
I also saw six short films, but with the exception of a three-minute French piece, the entire lot was indistinguishable from a flaming pile of bile-infested manure. As a rule, short films are the worst humans have to offer in any context, and I am at a loss as to why film festivals insist on showing them. I know, I know — these are the filmmakers of tomorrow and how else would they get a chance to display their work? But no one has explained to me why it is an iron-clad rule that these films must insist on pretension, ambiguity, and painfully self-aware film school tricks in order to be displayed before a paying audience. I’d explain these shorts, but you wouldn’t understand. I sure as fuck didn’t. I’m not sure anyone ever could.
Special Ruthless Awards
- Best: The Barbarian Invasions
- Worst: Noi Albinoi
- Film I Most Regret Not Seeing: Shattered Glass
- Film That Seemed to Divide Audiences the Most: Dogville
- Longest: Best of Youth (six hours)
- Shortest: (tie) Equestrian & The Flame (three minutes)
- The Ken Burns Award for Worst Haircut: Ken Burns
- Most Inexplicable Festival Event: A Tribute to Toni Collette
- Most Inexplicable: Leonard Maltin posing as a straight, married man