September 2–5, 2005
Geographically speaking, the Telluride Film Festival takes place on a line, a border of sorts. But this line need not be taken literally. Yes, the Rocky Mountains serve as a natural boundary between the eastern and western regions of the United States, but there is also the town’s history to take into account. All over the small town there are reminders of the past and if you drive 20 minutes into the surrounding mountains you will see remnants of mining towns that could have been taken straight out of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There are dichotomies in this small town; between the past and the present, industry and leisure, local and tourist. And so many of the films featured in this year’s program were about the lines and borders that exist between people, both naturally occurring and self-imposed.
Telluride is situated in the southwest corner of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Once home to miners it now exists as a resort town and plays host to several festivals including the Telluride Film Festival. The festival plays out over the course of a long weekend. For four days the town, which sits in a box canyon, is churning with cinephiles, filmmakers, volunteers, sponsors and the occasional journalist. This year’s festival was particularly interactive. As a new sponsor Apple made its presence known offering workshops with different filmmakers that were open to everyone. The “Made on a Mac” series featured filmmakers such as Laurie Anderson, John Canemaker and Hans Canosa speaking about their work. Throughout the weekend and those in attendance were offered numerous panel discussions, seminars in addition to the nearly 40 different screenings.
Since Telluride is a small town and a small festival, as you walk from one screening to another you see filmmakers and actors walking around just like everyone else. This year Mickey Rooney, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Charlotte Rampling, William H. Macy, Liev Schrieber, Andy Garcia, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Eckhart, James Mangold, Matthew Libatique, Michael Haneke and Neil Jordan all strolled the streets of Telluride. Some of them spoke at film screenings and on panels, while others were just there in support of a film.
Reading through both the official program and the “street press” newspaper that comes out the day before the festival begins, the relationship between “word and image” emerges as a theme. The American writer Don DeLillo served as a guest director of the festival, choosing a few of the films screened. He, along with fellow scribe Greil Marcus, also spoke at one of the festival’s “conversations” that was open to the public. Everything is Illuminated (Liev Schreiber, 2005), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005), The Lost City (Andy Garcia, 2005), Conversations with Other Women (Hans Canosa, 2005) and Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan, 2005) are all directly linked to literature. But the connection does not need to be direct. All the films at the festival relied on words at one time or another; the word, the lack of word, the adaptation of the word into image, the overabundance of words and the personal histories words can deliver.
Burning the stake
The program for Telluride is kept a secret until the opening night of the festival. When I arrived at the festival I was hoping that Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (2005) would be among the films shown at this year’s festival. Alas, it was not to be, but Kornél Mundruczó’s Johanna (Hungary, 2005) certainly made up for it. Before continuing, I should explain my own complex relationship to von Trier’s film. For me, he is both infuriating and ingenious. His films gnaw away at my nerves. He creates, tortures and destroys his female protagonist like no one else. No one else that is except Kornél Mundruczó.
Like many of von Trier’s films Johanna is so beautiful to look at that it is difficult to reconcile the plot with the images shown on screen. Johanna (Orsolya Tóth) is a woman without a past who falls into a coma in a dirty decaying hospital. When she awakens she becomes a nurse and begins having sex with dying patients. Once a patient has had sex with Johanna, they are saved from their illness. Johanna is a revisionist telling of Joan of Arc. It is also an opera, as in the Puccini-variety. The music at times is a haphazard mess of emotional outburst, but it works well with the extreme setting of the film. There does not seem to be a reason for Johanna to begin saving her patients. For her, like the Joan who preceded her, it is a calling. As an audience familiar with the first Joan, we must take Johanna’s actions at face value. We must assume Johanna’s actions have a purpose. Joan of Arc was trying to save France. It is never clear what this new maiden is trying to save and this is where Mundruczó fails to fully conceive of a new Joan.
The hospital in which the majority of the film’s action unfolds is a dark, damp and desolate place. It resembles an abandoned industrial complex. As the characters go about their business the walls look as though they are rotting. The camera sweeps along corridors that ooze decay. The seeming madness of Johanna’s mission is complimented by the appearance of her surroundings. The darkness and rot seeps out of the walls of the hospital and is absorbed by the people within those walls. Johanna’s madness/saviour complex is organic. For me, this is where Mundruczó and von Trier merge. There is never any question of what Johanna must do. Like von Trier’s “golden hearts” Bess, Karen, and Selma, Johanna is driven toward a sacrificial end, but at what price?
Walking the familial plank
John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son (2005) and Marion Lee’s Pirate (2005) are not only films about children. These shorts concern themselves with showing how children see the world and especially how they view their parent’s mistakes. Both films suggest that for some of us there can be a moment that defines our relationship to our parents. Before we cross that certain line, our parents are infallible, but afterwards we can never go back to that blissful time.
Canemaker’s animation is a series of drawings made by a child and photographs. The visuals flow and morph into one another creating a contained universe of memory and regret. These drawings construct a painful tale of father and son. Canemaker explores the mystery of his father’s origins and through a unique style of narration the filmmaker is able to question his father and demand answers. John Turturro and Eli Wallach serve as the voices of the son and the father. While the premise of this film might seem a bit like a therapy session, the actual product is a bare-bones search and rescue mission. Canemaker is looking for truth and resolve through his own art.
Marion Lee’s Pirate, a film she made while a student at Australia’s Victorian College of the Arts, is a depiction of childhood trauma; of the moment when a young girl (Amy Vellucci) witnesses her father’s infidelity and how she tries to shield her mother from this knowledge. Throughout the film the camera is often positioned at the eye-level of a child. As the young girl navigates through the party her parents are throwing, we literally see the world through her eyes. Clothed as a pirate, she is bold and unflinching in the face of her realisation about her father. Lee makes clever use of sound in this film. In the opening sequence the girl sits in a bathtub humming to herself. She is clearly lost inside of her own head. For the first half of the film it is as though she is floating through the world, as any child might do. But when she sees her father kissing a woman other than her mother, she is plunged into slow motion, she stumbles backwards and nothing will ever be the same. Pirate was featured in a program dubbed “Student Prints”. Situated among eight other films made by students, Lee’s film stood out as an uneasy tribute to the relationship between the universe of the child and that of the adult.
Getting ready to cross the line
A few of the shorts shown in the “Calling Cards” program were among my favourites of the festival. These films are made by filmmakers who the festival programmers feel are poised to become well-known. A few shorts stood out in particular. A Black and White World (Adam White, 2004) could have starred Buster Keaton. The protagonist of this silent film becomes terrified when the people around him begin to speak audibly. The film’s self-reflexivity recalls the sensibilities of the Nouvelle Vague, for example, the silent segment in the middle of Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961). As sound and then colour (!) encroach on this once silent world, the viewer is left to wonder where the boundaries between real life and films lie. Murder and mayhem on a sunny afternoon is the stuff of Who Killed Brown Owl (Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, 2004). In one extended shot the camera snakes in and out of crowds and individuals who populate a city park on a nice day. As the end of the film nears the camera moves towards a bloody scene of murder. Although the film’s imagery extols reverie and play, it is also an essentially English film, a song of praise both of the pastoral and the murder mystery. Enrique Arroyo’s The Other American Dream (El otro sueño Americano) (2004) confronts the viewer with the murder of young girls on the Mexico/United States border. The film opens with the image of a girl in the passenger seat of a pickup truck. She is trapped in the cab and the camera is pointed directly at her so her captor is only a fist and a harsh voice threatening to end her life. It is not clear in which direction the girl is being transported. Arroyo’s film is unflinching in its portrayal of this young woman’s demise. In reality, young women disappear from borderland areas on a regular basis, and Arroyo takes nationality, gender and border politics into account as he dissects one girl’s hellish end.
The trouble with Kitten
Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto is told in chapters, as though Kitten (Cillian Murphy), the narrator/writer, is reading his novel aloud. Jordan’s film occurs at an intersection. As a young boy growing up in Ireland, Kitten knows that he is more comfortable as a woman. But his odyssey is not only about the gender politics that he must navigate. No matter how hard Kitten tries, he is unable to remove himself from the times in which he lives. Gender, the Irish Troubles (1970s), religion and family intersect and Kitten is forced to engage with the reality he desires to remove himself from. Some of the most unlikely of characters are accepting of Kitten. This suggests Jordan’s unrelenting faith in the capabilities of people to tolerate one another. He does not do this in a sentimental manner, though. Kitten endures a fair share of brutality both mental and physical.
One of the most fascinating parts of the film unfolds when Kitten goes on tour with his boyfriend’s rock band, Billy Hatchett and the Mohawks. Billy (Gavin Friday), the band’s leader and Kitten’s man, is involved with the IRA. The band dresses as American Indians and Kitten joins them onstage dressed as squaw (a wife). Billy and Kitten in their costumes are a part of a larger history. As Irish rebels dressed as American Indians they exist in a colonial/postcolonial context. Kitten, dressed as a squaw, is demanding to be recognised as a woman. But the costume indicates that the Irish Troubles are not an isolated event. In the very presence of these costumes there is the implication of a colonial history felt not only by the Irish, but also by the American Indians and other people all over the world. What might appear on the surface to be rather kitsch is a statement about the condition of the colonised. Billy is an Irishman rebelling against the British occupation of Northern Ireland by hiding IRA weapons in his home. He is also in a relationship with a man who dresses and behaves as a woman. When he dons his American Indian costume, he confirms his position as an individual fighting colonisation. Neil Jordan is adept at blending the personal and the political. He does not preach at his audience but invites them to contemplate the intersections and interactions that might exist in their own lives and in those of the people around them.
Where have all the cowboys gone?
Like Kitten, the circumstances of the two protagonists in Brokeback Mountain are influenced by the times in which they live. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are cowboys in a time when cowboys are no longer needed. When they meet in Wyoming in the late 1960s, the two are employed as sheep-herders. Their life in the mountains is routine and domestic. They care for the herd and eventually become enraptured with one another. The image of Jack carrying a lamb up the mountain to graze stands out as an illustration of his tender nature. Jack is the more talkative of the two while Ennis barely speaks. They do not discuss their relationship; Jack initiates sex and they embark on a lifelong affair. Silence defines their meeting, their courtship, their domesticity and their love. Their relationship is born out of silence, and it is silence that separates them as they move on into lives which they do not desire.
The quiet nature of the film addresses the fact that as gay men living in Wyoming in the 1960s and ‘70s Ennis and Jack have no language with which to describe their partnership. They can communicate it to one another, but they cannot define it for others. There are no words. When words fail to describe, Lee relies on images of the mountains and landscape. The openness of the sky complements the silence of nature and of humans. The cinematography drives this film forward, but it also does so at a particular pace. Time purposefully drags as the two men go about their lives. Jack performs in the rodeo and Ennis paves roads and goes to the drive-in with his girl; the cowboy life is set aside. Even though they both marry and have children Jack and Ennis continue to be a presence in one another’s lives. They both acknowledge that men have been severely harmed and even killed for being gay. In varying degrees their wives both know something is not right; no one is happy.
There is an evolution that takes place during Brokeback Mountain. Jack and Ennis meet as young men, and over the course of the film they age. Jack’s wife’s (Anne Hathaway) appearance seems to represent the hardness of the world around Jack and Ennis. As she ages her hair gets bigger and bawdier and her makeup becomes more outrageous. Her “look” masks her own pain about her relationship with her husband. She refuses to reveal anything about herself even when she is faced with acknowledging the truth.
When considering Brokeback Mountain within the boundaries of genre, it is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). Like Junior, Jack Twist sometimes relies on the rodeo to make a living; a circus that is a distant relative of a cowboy’s real calling. The rodeo is where Jack meets his wife. Junior Bonner stands out in Peckinpah’s oeuvre as his quiet film. It is the film where he finally bears witness to the disappearance of the “old west” and sees the dilution of the cowboy’s purpose. Perhaps if Jack and Ennis were cowboys in a different era they could have carried on without anyone paying much attention. They would have been able to live always on the move and never settle down long enough for someone to criticise their lifestyle. Lee toys with the various could-have-beens, but in the end finds the only possible resolution.
The (split-screen) battle between the sexes
It is hard to decide where to look while watching Conversations with Other Women. Shot in dual frame format the film slowly uncovers the past and present of a relationship between a man and a woman when they meet (or perhaps reunite) at a wedding. In this film, director Hans Canosa employs dual imagery to comment upon memory and recollection. The two images are discursive; the viewer is able to experience the past and the present simultaneously. Helena Bonham-Carter and Aaron Eckhart star in this intense portrait of the-couple-as-a-collection-of-memories. Although the story is quite different Gabrielle Zevin’s screenplay recalled the oblique chatter of Emanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). Like Resnais’ film Conversations does not give out information, but instead reveals it slowly and methodically. As an audience we must merely watch the conversation unfold, take our protagonists at face value and not become too convinced of anyone’s truth. And it is not only the words of which we must be wary. Canosa creates visual engagement with duality and this reinforces the unreliability of Bonham-Carter and Eckhart’s characters. At times the same moment will play out differently on the two screens. It is as though each character is able to have it their way and although it might at first be infuriating to view, ultimately this visual doublespeak is satisfying. These moments are shot in an almost sleepy manner, the camera lazily relaying what he or she might or might not remember. Playing with different chains of events also suggests that in a relationship there are always at least two sides to every story. When the characters react differently, true difference might lie only in their perceptions.
My empire of song
Formally speaking, No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese, 2005) and Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005) could not be more different. But the two films share a mission. Rather than attempting to create sweeping epic tales of troubled troubadours (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, respectively), both films are exacting as they capture a moment in each man’s life. Of course No Direction Home is a documentary and most of its impact is created through the use of found footage and talking head interviews. The “moment” was always there on film, it only needed someone to assemble it. But Walk the Line, which is of more interest to this author, is drawn from scratch. While Johnny Cash’s music could always tell a part of his story, there is something both arresting and simple about James Mangold’s portrait. This love story does not bother to be epic. It does not need to be. In a Q & A session after the film’s premiere many people seemed preoccupied by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon’s performances as Cash and June Carter. Did they sound right? Were they real enough in their portrayals of this man and woman? For me all of these questions seemed pointless. Does it matter if Phoenix sounds like Johnny Cash? Isn’t it more important that the film is successful in its attempt to tell a complicated love story? Cash and June Carter had children and families that were impacted by their union. Carter’s musical origins required her to maintain a certain Christian morality. It was difficult for her to step away from that in order to love Cash and harder still to watch him try to destroy himself with drugs and alcohol. The film does not portray every fight between Johnny and June, nor does it picture them mellowing with age and becoming comfortable with their choices. Mangold’s Johnny and June are young and talented and brutally in love. One of the most interesting moments of the film occurs when June begins to write the song “Ring of Fire”. I had only ever heard Johnny Cash sing that song in his deep, growling way. To witness that song spring out of the mind and fingers of June Carter was a revelation. Mangold lingers on this moment long enough for Witherspoon’s June to reveal herself as a woman trying to walk a line, but not being able to keep from veering off her path. Walk the Line is so simple that it threatens to be absorbed into cliché, but it is a lovely portrait of the pain and suffering that loss and love can inflict.