The Dogs of Telluride
The Telluride Film Festival’s nabobs may have gotten the word. After recent years of bad scheduling (wildly popular films in small venues) and general overcrowding, they have done better: improved (but still far from satisfactory) scheduling; a good iPhone app; morning email notifications of sneak previews and TBAs (repeats of crowd pleasers); and a redone opening feast, with better seating and multiple serving points.
This year’s opening feast on Colorado Avenue brought crystalline Telluride weather together with an outstanding Russian-Ukrainian themed meal: roast salmon and lamb, tiny cups of borscht, nutty tea cakes for dessert. Russia and Ukraine may be at one another’s throats but not on Telluride’s high street.
If the feast was an auspicious beginning, our opening film at the beautiful new Werner Herzog Theater (650 seats) was overwhelming. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, and under the direction of the veteran Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, chronicles the life of Alan Turing, the semi-autistic, homosexual mathematician and computer pioneer who led the team of British geniuses at Bletchley Park that cracked the German Enigma codes and arguably saved millions of allied lives during WWII.
A constant refrain in the film, uttered by friends and colleagues at each moment in Turing’s life when he faced terrible obstacles is: “The people you can’t imagine anything of are the very people who create what you can’t imagine.”
Benjamin Cumberbatch, in what will certainly be an Oscar-nominated performance, shows us the many sides of Turing, who was drawn to code breaking because for him the simplest human communication—”Want a sandwich?”—was a code to be cracked.
What is astonishing about The Imitation Game and Turing’s story are its lessons for today. We see the toll taken on Turing’s life—and at times the British war effort—by homophobia, bullying, and sex discrimination. At one point the brilliant mathematician played by Keira Knightly is almost consigned to the secretarial pool.
Tyldum’s direction (and an excellent screenplay by Graham Moore) bring everything together: a moving personal narrative, a touching love story as Knightly’s character and Turing reach out to one another; and an exciting WWII period peace, with a top ensemble of British actors.
Above all The Imitation Game shows how important it is to nurture the abilities of every human being, including those of whom “you can’t imagine anything.”
I hope The Imitation Game makes it to the Cineplex and the Oscars. Don’t miss it.
RON’S GRADE: A
Saturday morning began for me (as my wife and sister went elsewhere) with The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa’s documentary account of the life of Heinrich Himmler. Introducing the film and Lapa, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the theater’s host remarked, “If you’re here to see this film you’re either a World War II cinephile or Jewish.” I guess I qualify on both counts, and for me this was the fascination of the film. Having recently read Peter Longerich’s Heinrich Himmler: A Life I was amazed by the collection of still photos and films that director Lapa was able to gather. Here is Himmler dandling his infant daughter Gudrun on his lap. Here he is bringing Gudrun and his wife, Marga, Christmas presents during the war; and here, just days before, he is walking through an inspection tour of Auschwitz at the height of the killings.
By juxtaposing readings of warm and intimate family correspondence with the photographic record of Nazi brutality, The Decent One reinvigorates Hannah Arendt’s point about “the banality of evil.” On a slightly critical note, while I understand that the film is an Israeli-Austrian-German co-production, and though I understood much of the German, I wish the filmmaker had chosen to prepare an English language version of all the readings and voice over material. The visual images are so new and so interesting that it was painful to have to take my eyes off them to read the English subtitles.
One troubling and sad note. Throughout the film we watch Gudrun’s growth from infancy to adolescence. Of course, one can understand how a child can love her father, even if in his professional life he’s a monster like Himmler. But it was disturbing to learn at the close that Gudrun is alive and a major figure in an organization that supports surviving Nazi war criminals and other neo-Nazi activities. How fortunate she is that the victorious allies did not believe in her father’s practice of Sippenhaft, the execution of the families of his opponents.
RON’S GRADE: B+
After being turned away from our chosen afternoon film, Rosewater (yes, scheduling problems persist), we changed course and headed to Madame Bovary. An early arrival gave us the opportunity of talking at length with a fascinating pair of physicians from the Bay area (she Canadian; he a Canadian immigrant from India) for whom this was their first Telluride. They were enchanted with the Festival, and we enjoyed learning about their medical-business doings in that effervescent part of the country. Line time at Telluride is never wasted!
Have you ever traveled somewhere and found, strangely, that your best memories are from that unexpected and not immediately important moment: the quick picnic lunch on a hillside; the crowded train compartment with engaging fellow travelers?
Madame Bovary is like that. Despite being a bit slow and not in every respect emotionally convincing, the film by the young French director Sophie Barthe sticks with you. You find your thoughts going back to the village of Yonville in mid-nineteenth Normandy, where Emma Bovary, beautifully played by Mia Wasikowska, is a newly married young woman at once intoxicated by her readings in romantic literature and suffocated by provincial life and her dull physician husband, Charles. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh brings you into the life of this gray/green village, where well watered fields and forests lie under a sun that almost never seems to break through. We watch Emma as she pushes the unwitting Charles into insurmountable debt and as she careens from one brief love affair to another in the effort to fill the void at the center of her heart. The exquisite dresses on which Emma spends Charles still unearned earnings vividly illustrate her dreams of beauty, wealth, and status. Emma’s tormented suicide, with which the film both begins and ends, is inevitable.
On a critical note Henry Lloyd-Hughes may be miscast as Charles Bovary. Whereas Charles in the novel is an unattractive boor, Lloyd-Hughes is both handsome and devoted, making it emotionally hard to understand Emma’s discontent. We wonder why she undertakes her destructive trajectory.
RON’S GRADE: A minus
Saturday began early for us, with a 7:00 AM gondola ride up the mountain for what we expected would be a wildly popular tribute to Hilary Swank and viewing of her latest film, The Homesman. Our prudence was well rewarded. Although hundreds turned out for this event, we secured seats near the stage. Despite her frequent playing of roles as an unattractive woman, Swank is vivacious and she offered fresh answers to the interviewer’s questions about her ascent from trailer park childhood to Oscar-winning stardom. Never professionally trained, she learned acting by obsessively watching other people (as a child her mother repeatedly told her, “Stop staring!”). Even today, she eschews the separate world of Hollywood superstars and rides the L.A. metro in order to watch and learn from her fellow passengers.
Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Jones and Hilary Swank, the Homesman celebrates the classical Western genre, but in a new mode. Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is a thirty-one year old spinster efficiently managing her own small farm in the far Western territories. Three local woman, faced with the terrible stresses of frontier existence, including one’s loss by disease of all her children in a single day, have gone mad. At least one of them is violent and needs restraint. The women must be taken back east to civilization, but none of the handful of local men can leave their families, so Mary Bee volunteers. As her solitary journey riding a wagon with the women locked inside is about to begin, Mary Bee encounters George Briggs (Jones) in dire straits and persuades/coerces him to accompany her. What follows is a journey of spiritual redemption, but one not without its reverses and non-Hollywood turns. Never have the landscapes of the plains West been more beautifully filmed than they are here by Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto. Jones as Griggs and Swank as Mary Bee (“as plain as tin pail”) offer outstanding performances. The Homesman is somewhat marred in its plot and direction by a measure of Jones’ self-promotion. These blemishes may prevent The Homesman from being a Hollywood smash, but, nevertheless, it is a Western that at times reaches the heights of both versions of True Grit, and The Unforgiven.
RON’S GRADE: A minus
I’m beginning to think that this year’s Festival has a theme. It’s “redemption and perdition.” Clearly, Madame Bovary and the Himmler documentary fit into the second category. The Homesman is profoundly about the first, as was our afternoon film, Two Days, One Night, the latest gritty realist film about lower-middle class life in today’s Belgium from the amazing Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. The background is growing unemployment in a small Belgium city. Sandra, courageously played in this small film by Marion Cotillard after her triumphs in La Vie an Rose and Rust and Bone, has been laid off at a small solar panel manufacturing firm as a result of Asian competition. Management has agreed that she can keep her job if the majority of her sixteen fellow workers each forego their pending one thousand euro annual bonuses. Sandra and her husband Manu (sensitively played by Fabrizio Rongione) have a weekend to convince nine of her colleagues to vote for her. Each encounter is a lesson in either human selfishness or human compassion. Running beneath this effort is Sandra’s depression from which she is only recently recovered and which contributed to her being laid off. The threat that unemployment and social dependency represent to Sandra’s sense of self worth and the judgments of her peers reveal themselves as even more important than her loss of salary. The film gives new social meaning to the themes of perdition and redemption. Two Days, One Night will predictably not make it into a single Cineplex. But is the kind of film for which one comes to Telluride.
RON’S GRADE: A
Can a mother’s love save a developmentally scarred child? This is the question that rings through the final film of our day, Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s, Mommy. We first meet Diane (Anne Dorval) in a juvenile detention facility where she is picking up her teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Steve is responsible for a fire that badly injured another boy at the center, but Diane, a sexy, middle-aged working class woman who seems to be propositioned by every man she meets, is not yet ready to invoke a new Canadian law that will allow her to commit Steve to prolonged incarceration. What follows is a roller coaster ride as Steve careens between charming youthful exuberance and deadly violence against Diane, himself, and others. Neighbor Kyla, a high school teacher who is unable to keep her job because of a nervous speech impediment (whose cause is only cryptically suggested) enters their lives, bringing friendship and fun to Diane and Steve, as well as assistance with home schooling that may help fulfill the mother’s and son’s dream of high school graduation and a Juilliard admission for Steve.
I’ll say no more about Mommy’s plot, since anything further would be a spoiler. Mommy shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year with the renowned director Jean-Luc Godard. As a film, however, Mommy disappointed me. Steve is so wildly extreme in his behaviors and moods that we never quite learn to love or hate him, and we remain emotionally perplexed by Diane’s (and to an extent Kyla’s) devotion to him. Mommy is a glimpse into the tormented world of a parent with a disabled child, but it is one we are glad to leave.
RON’S GRADE: B
Labor day, the final day of the Festival, began for us with Dancing Arabs, a film adaptation directed by the Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree) of two largely autobiographical novels by Sayed Kashua, a popular Arab-Israeli Haaretz columnist and writer of an award-winning Israeli television comedy series. We meet Eyad (very well played in his teenage years by Tawfeek Barhom) as a child growing up in a close Arab-Israeli family and neighborhood. Intellectually gifted—Eyad alone is able to crack a TV puzzler—he dwells in a milieu boiling with Palestinian nationalist sentiments (later we see his family on their roof cheering Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Tel Aviv). But then Eyad is accepted as the sole Arab at a prestigious Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem. What follows is a coming-of-age saga. Eyad, excels at school, begins a sweet love affair with Naomi, a beautiful Israeli girl, and as part of the school’s community service outreach, befriends Jonathan, a wheelchair-bound and homeschooled classmate suffering from muscular dystrophy. We watch Eyad practicing his pronunciation in an effort to eliminate his Arab accent. As he gains confidence and a measure of recognition from classmates, Eyad offers his literature class a penetrating critique of the stereotypical and sexualized depiction of Arab males in many esteemed Israeli novels. But Eyad’s effort to dwell simultaneously in the opposing Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli worlds founders, and in the end, Eyad is forced to find his own difficult way out of the conflict.
Dancing Arabs is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. It holds out the hope that if these two peoples could get to know one another better, they might see themselves as the siblings that they are. The film’s premier in Israel on the eve of the recent Gaza conflict was postponed, but it was finally shown in a limited venue to strong audience approval. Dancing Arabs will almost certainly not be shown in any commercial movie theaters in the U.S., outside of a screen or two in New York, but it is one of the reasons we come to Telluride.
RON’S GRADE: A
Our Festival ended—and culminated—with Rosewater, the first feature film written and directed by Jon Stewart, comedian host of The Daily Show.
But I must note first that Rosewater was preceded by a vivid eight-minute French short subject, Aïssa (directed by Clément Tréhin-Lalanne). A pretty Congolese teen’s physical exam will determine her destiny. Is she older than eighteen, in which case she’ll be deported from France, or is she younger and able to stay and pursue her intended career as a cosmetologist? As Aïssa undergoes a rigorous and invasive physical exam, we hear her unseen medical examiner record his notes. Conclusion? The bone structure in Aïssa’s hands indicates an age of perhaps twenty, “although all our ossification graphs derive from Caucasians and we have none for Africans.” Probed and measured against possibly irrelevant standards, Aïssa will certainly be deported.
Rosewater is adapted from a memoire by Maziar Bahari that records his months of imprisonment at the hands of Iranian state authorities. During a journalistic visit to Teheran, Bahari, a young reporter for Newsweek (and well played by the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), happens to film the murderous repression of a street demonstration against Iran’s deeply flawed 2009 presidential election. He is soon arrested and subject to months of solitary confinement, only interrupted by intimidating interrogations and occasional violence at the hands of a “specialist.” During his incarceration, Bahari is sustained by frequent “conversations” in his cell with his deceased father, who, as a Communist had been imprisoned and tortured under the hated previous regime of Shah Palavi. In various ways, Bahari eventually learns to outwit his captors. The film ends on a happier note but not without revealing the generations of lawless authoritarianism and terror to which the citizens of Iran have been subject.
RON’s GRADE: A minus
This was not our quantitatively most intense Telluride. Over three days, we managed to see only eight films (as opposed to my all-time record of sixteen). But if low on quantity, this year’s festival was high on quality. We saw several films that will not likely be screened elsewhere, and even the worst of the films (Mommy?) stimulates continued thought. Strolling late in the day in the light of a Telluride sunset, we look forward to next year.