Film Festival 2002

Matt went to a festival

As a refreshing alternative to the mindless drivel that passes for contemporary cinema, there is no better source than an international film festival with a reputation for independence, shock, and originality. Telluride’s annual festivities, tucked away deep in the mountains of Colorado during the Labor Day weekend, are exactly what serious film lovers need to cleanse the soul of mediocrity and mass market lunacy. For four glorious days in one of the most relaxing spots one could imagine, I stood in line (often queuing as early as ninety minutes in advance of showtime), waited, and witnessed world premieres, obscure foreign releases, short films, and documentaries. While not all was at the peak of artistic brilliance, I did manage to experience moments of awe and wonder, despite fleeting moments of disgust and outrage.

Telluride, unlike other festivals, is simply about the movies themselves. There are no red carpet treatments, no deals to be made, and no annoying young filmmakers peddling their wares to the highest bidder. There are celebrities, yes, but they walk the town almost without notice, for the festival has an unwritten rule that even the actors, writers, and directors are merely patrons and must stand in line just like everyone else. Surely these famous faces are noticed, but no autographs are sought, no pictures are taken, and no reporters swarm about begging for interviews. It is no big deal, for example, when Ken Burns is spotted walking down the street, or Willem Dafoe is seen sipping a cup of coffee at a local restaurant. As such, Telluride is truly the most democratic of festivals; all attendees watch the films, discuss them afterwards, and move on to the next screening. No hype, no problem.

Still, one must suffer the occasional fool and pretentious wannabe; the “filmmaker” who fails to understand the simple concept that in order to secure such a label, one must have either a finished product or at least a work in progress. Standing in line for hours provides tedium of course, but eavesdropping also allows one to quietly mock the delusions and pipe dreams of others. Because Telluride is exclusive and quite expensive, most of the patrons are the sons and daughters of the wealthy class, thereby allowing them to pursue their artistic dreams on daddy’s dime. On at least a dozen occasions, I heard discussions of “finished screenplays,” roles secured in films “you probably haven’t seen,” and witnessed a level of unwarranted self-promotion unseen since the last group of students filed out of a taping of Inside the Actor’s Studio. While these narcissistic creeps are not officially whoring themselves for their big breaks, they do strut and stride through the festival as if their experience as “Passerby #4” in some unreleased Czech film, or as the assistant to the assistant caterer on the set of an indie short was enough to justify their unsolicited comments about everything. These bastards are entitled to their views, of course, but is it necessary to run from a screening, get in line behind me, and proceed to reveal key plot points about that very film, especially when I plan on seeing it later that night? Moreover, one must take their pronouncements with heavy skepticism, for it has been my experience that what passes as a “festival darling” is often the film that nearly resulted in my leaping from the nearest peak. Just as often, films that get negative buzz are welcomed by me with open, loving arms.

Now, then, for the films themselves. While it is impossible to see everything (with 30+ films, lectures, standing in line, and such annoyances as eating, sleeping, and bathroom breaks, even the most diligent can only hope to see anywhere from 12 to 18 films), it is possible to see a representative sample of the festival’s treats. By including foreign releases unlikely to reach my local Cineplex, documentaries, and unrated smut fests (yes, they had these too), I ensured myself a strong, challenging weekend that would, hopefully, put to eternal rest all reminders of what passes for entertainment in the world of malls, teenagers, and the great unwashed masses.

Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore’s latest social document is a lacerating indictment of hypocrisy, violence, and America’s culture of fear. Moore himself appeared in person to say that while the film started out as an attack on our gun culture, it later became a discussion of how and why we became so afraid of each other. Moore offers dozens of possible explanations for our collective bloodlust, but is not so presumptuous as to believe he alone has the single answer. Typically, Moore is unfair, outrageous, and even unfocused, but that is how it should be. This film is not a “documentary” in the conventional sense, nor does it aspire to be. As Moore states, it is an entertainment first and foremost; a film that uses interviews, archival footage, cartoons, and slices of pop culture to create a montage of where we are in America. Still, I must give the firmest possible applause for any film that humiliates Charlton Heston in his own home. Bravo.

The Man Without a Past

This creaky, hideously dull slab of Finnish nonsense won many hearts at the festival, but managed to leave this viewer cold and full of contempt. Concerning a man who is beaten in an act of random violence, dies in a hospital, and later awakens having lost all memory and sense of identity, the film fails to draw interesting characters or provide true insight or surprise. And, in an act of war by the Cannes jury, Kati Outinen was awarded Best Actress at this year’s festival, prompting one to wonder how many cocks Ms. Outinen was forced to chug in order to secure the prize. She, like the rest of the cast, fails to register, confusing bland, unemotional, zombie-like movements with “acting.” I’m not sure what the hell this film was trying to say, but people were talking and moving around, so I’m positive it wasn’t a still frame projected on the screen. At its conclusion, I heard applause when only gunshots would have sufficed.

Antychryst / Old Believers

The first film, a 28-minute offering from Poland, is a Lord of the Flies-style piece about a group of friends reverting to a savage, beast-like state in what appears to be either a post-apocalyptic world, or merely the average day in Eastern Europe. It was strangely compelling, if only for a scene where the youths pull fish from a river, hold them between their knees, and slap them around like disobedient wives. In the latter film, a 46-minute documentary from the Czech Republic, we are introduced to a group of Russian Orthodox villagers and their ancient ways that defiantly resist 20th century conventions. As a piece of social history it is worthy, but in the end, one can only feel pity for people who so vehemently resist modernity, science, reason, and the benefits of frequent bathing.


In what was easily the most talked about film of the festival, Gaspar Noe’s unflinching, brutal film features a nine-minute anal rape sequence that sets the standard for all depictions of graphic violence. Needless to say, there were many people who stormed out in disgust; I stayed, strangely unmoved. The film is told in a Memento-style reverse order, beginning with a boyfriend’s revenge (wherein a man is savagely beaten to death with a fire extinguisher), proceeding to the rape, and “ending” with a happy couple on the verge of starting a family. The shocking scenes are the order of the day, but the film fails to provide anything else of interest, and I found the entire exercise shallow and exploitive. I was not offended, just bored.

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary

A fascinating historical document, featuring a 90-minute interview with Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 until 1945. We are given no archival footage, no still photos, and no distractions; only Junge’s face and her powerful words of regret, sadness, and apology. She literally takes us inside the Third Reich, offering us a unique perspective within Hitler’s bunker during the final days, as well as during the process in which she was selected for such an “esteemed” post. Junge reminds us that despite Hitler’s confirmed madness, her understanding of the man took place before the extent of the Holocaust was known. Therefore, she is able to provide an unvarnished, sometimes controversial appraisal.

Russian Ark

A remarkable artistic achievement from Russia, consisting of one continuous, unbroken shot (of 90-minutes in duration) through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Our guide, a charming, wry Marquis from France, takes us through dozens of lavish rooms, appraising the art, the architecture, and even the historical “guests” who stop by for a visit. In the end, this is a trip through Russian history itself, leading up to a grand ball circa 1913. Because we know the devastation to follow (both World War I and the Russian Revolution), there is a tone of sadness throughout; a vision of the end of an era, both for Russia’s elite and Europe itself. To know that all of this was filmed without editing (one bloody take!) makes it a work of supreme brilliance.


A horny devil of a woman in the isolated country of WWII-torn Europe is pleased to have male guests for the first time since her husband’s death: a young Finnish soldier conscripted into the German army and an older Russian soldier, injured in an attack. She nurses both to health, acts as a peacekeeper between the two, and enjoys scream-filled, passionate sex with each. They exist in relative harmony, despite the fact that none of them are able to understand the other. Tragedy ensues, but this is a heartwarming, crowd-pleasing film with genuine entertainment value. Sometimes a lot of charm goes a long way.

Ken Park

With Irreversible, this film had the most people talking throughout the festival. Directed by noted cinematographer Ed Lachman (The Limey, Erin Brockovich) and Kids scribe Larry Clark, this is nothing more than an excuse to show teenage boys having sex, masturbating (with a particularly revealing shot of ejaculation), and being blown by their fathers. There is plenty to shock and promote controversy, but the characters are poorly drawn, their motivations remain unclear, and scenes go by without insight or impact. Normally I would sing the praises of any film where a naked young man stabs his grandparents to death (his grandfather’s offense is cheating at Scrabble), but that is simply not enough to warrant a feature-length film. Perhaps it is all a portrait of teen angst and anomie, but following Kids, it feels redundant and unnecessary.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

An Australian film directed by blow-’em-up king Philip Noyce (think of the Jack Ryan films), this is big departure; a quiet, reflective tale of three young Aborigine girls who escape from a government sponsored “re-education” camp in 1931 Australia in order to return home. While the intricacies of the government’s policy are not fully explored (nor is the camp itself, where Aborigine children are taught how to be more “proper” and European), we spend enough time with the girls to witness the power of their plight (and 1500-mile journey through the one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world). Inspiring, yes (it is a true story), without being too sentimental or sappy.

Talk to Her

Pedro Almodovar’s first film since the critical smash All About My Mother, this is a charming, watchable entertainment about love, passion, obsession, and sex with the comatose, although not necessarily in that order. Style abounds, but the film is so rich with character and wit that it never becomes a mere exercise in artistic indulgence. A winning combination of depth and escapism that is so rare in the world of cinema as to be practically non-existent. One of the festival’s best offerings.

Auto Focus

Greg Kinnear stars as Bob Crane (Hogan’s Heroes), a seemingly content actor thrust into popularity, only to fade away into humiliating dinner theater and sexual addiction. Crane’s story begins as he is on the cusp of accepting his fame-making role and ends with his brutal (and unsolved) murder in a cheap Arizona motel room. Crane’s friend and fellow pervert is John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a man with homoerotic leanings who exploits Crane’s unending lust in order to secure himself the women he could not get on his own. Compelling to be sure, but somewhat shallow and bereft of true character insight, for it seemed to me that if this weren’t the story of a famous man, we might not be as interested, if at all. Director Paul Schrader has a flair for the seedy and the sad (his own Hardcore was a better exploration of the world of pornography and depravity), but the script was lacking in many respects.

Special Ruthless Ratings:

  • Best Overall: Russian Ark
  • Worst Overall: The Man Without a Past
  • Most Likely to be a Commercial Hit: Rabbit-Proof Fence
  • Least Likely to Play Anywhere (but NY/LA): Irreversible
  • Most Relevant: Bowling for Columbine
  • Least Relevant: Old Believers
  • Biggest Letdown: Auto Focus
  • Biggest: Roger Ebert



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