By Paul O’Rourke
Ed. note: Paul O’Rourke is an author, historian, and regular contributor to Telluride Magazine. He shares his observations of some of the most compelling films that were screened at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.
Women Making History…Changing the World
I wondered going into the first-ever public screening of He Named Me Malala how Oscar-winning Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman) could tell me anything I didn’t already know or understand about Malala Yousafzai. I’d followed Malala’s remarkable story in the newspapers and on TV. I knew she’d refused to buckle under to the Taliban’s edict that girls in her Pakistani hometown be prevented from attending school—she’d been shot in the head for her obstinacy. And I knew that following her miraculous recovery she’d worked to shine a sad but revealing light on the failure of communities and countries around the world to provide adequate educational opportunities for girls and women, work that earned for her—the youngest person ever to receive it—the Nobel Peace Prize.
What I didn’t know or understand until I viewed He Named Me Malala was the extent and genuineness of Malala’s religious beliefs, offered in the form of forgiveness to those vicious extremists who’d nearly took her life. The film easily could have been—but is thankfully not—about good versus evil; it is, however, all about good. These men who claim Islamic teachings as validation for their heinous acts and what they’d like the world to see as a virtuous jihad were probably ill-prepared for an eleven-year-old girl defending her right to receive an education. And in the moment in the film when asked how she felt about the men and the violence and injury they’d done to her, Malala responded with genuine sincerity and with complete forgiveness. The irony was not lost.
I sense Malala is a presence and a force that will not soon fade from view, for Malala and her engaging and heartfelt message is changing the world, “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen at a time.”
Meryl Streep draws attention wherever she goes and whenever she speaks. For as long as I can recall, and for sadly obvious reasons, Hollywood’s leading actor has spoken eloquently, forcefully, and sometimes angrily about women and the inequality they face in the workplace, in society, and at home. And in Telluride this past weekend, Streep, along with director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan did their talking on the big screen (and in discussion panels), and as such, drew attention and considerable praise.
Suffragette is the story of workingwomen seeking the right to vote in turn of the century London, told principally through the character of Maud Weeks (Carey Mulligan, in an Oscar worthy role) who evolves over the course of the film from a skeptical and reluctant observer to a dedicated, twice imprisoned, and hardline devotee to the cause.
“Unlike the suffragist movement in the U.S.,” explains Streep (who plays movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst in the film) during the Q & A following the screening, “the British movement was much more violent.” The suffragettes in London, when we first meet them—the cast includes stellar performances by Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff)—exhibit their aggressive tactics, breaking as they do with no little enthusiasm, several windows in a London department store.
We know, of course, women got the vote (the scroll at the end of the film, listing country names and the dates when women’s suffrage was ratified in them, is a bit off-putting considering when it occurred: Switzerland as late as 1971 for instance). But Suffragette is far from historical reenactment and it is far from predictable, such is the storytelling mastery performed by Gavron and Morgan. It is the story of not turning away from a choice when everything reasonable and near and dear informs you that is exactly what you ought to do. Despite enormous and in some cases absolute sacrifice, those choices were made, they changed the world, and all of us are the better for that.
TAKE TWO More Strong Women, More Bold Choices
The 1950s were not especially receptive to expressions of non-conformity. An ethic devoted to normalcy and productivity was harshly intolerant of most things outside the WASP-ish status quo. In her title role as a wealthy and sophisticated woman living in New York City, Cate Blanchett, as Carol—married to Harge Aird (Kyle Chandler), the personification of all that is “male and conventional”—has crossed the line of what is sexually permissible, not for experimental titillation, but because she must. It’s more than a choice; it’s a dangerous calculation. In spite of what she could lose, her financial well-being and more importantly, her daughter, heart and mind compel her to act in Todd Haynes’ film, Carol.
As soon as Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara) we sense the inevitable; the when and how and where is what’s left to explain. And Todd Haynes does so by way of sensitive and artistic direction and brilliant cinematography; close-ups of Carol and Therese’s facial expressions render dialogue unessential. But in these several silent yet meaningful exchanges, we understand Carol’s commitment and Therese’s uncertainty. Until, on a road trip following Harge’s literal yet legal abduction of his and Carol’s daughter, Therese finally comes to terms with her love for and physical attraction to Carol in a rather sparse hotel room, in, of all places, Waterloo, Iowa (the other Waterloo, of course, well known for another infamous denouement). The love scene and this love story are exactly and only that, in a truly classical sense: romantic, passionate, and fearless. But that’s not the end of the story.
Convention—through Harge and his lawyers—separates the lovers, and without giving too much away, it is Therese who finds herself in the position to determine the future of the relationship. And she, conclusively, undeniably. and urgently makes that choice, for herself and for Carol in a final scene that’s exquisite in its silent but poignant telling that leaves the audience fulfilled, on the verge of tears, yet smiling.
Aretha Franklin is an icon; her voice is unmistakable for its power and its soulful beauty. And what Hollywood Director Sydney Pollack filmed over a two-day span in January 1972 as a documentary to celebrate Aretha’s music turned actually into a true cinematic treasure. With Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience (as much a part of the event as the music itself) Aretha delivered a series of gospel standards and spiritualized melodies that became, not long afterwards, her best-selling album, “Amazing Grace.”
Unfortunately, due to problems syncing the images with sound, Pollack was unable to finish the film before his death in 2008. And in what can only be called a labor of love, UCLA music professor, Alan Elliott, picked up the project and poured countless hours and considerable money into completing Amazing Grace, the film.
For Telluride movie lovers Amazing Grace was, unfortunately, a non-event. An injunction filed by Franklin’s lawyers requested the film not be screened at the festival. Apparently the “Queen of Soul” needs to grant permission for any commercial use of the film. Aretha declined.
Despite her apparent fondness for the film—she told the Detroit Free Press she loved the movie—the SHOW didn’t go on in Telluride and we hear it won’t go on in Toronto, either. It’s her right and it’s her choice, and, not surprisingly, it was a bold one. We only hope resolution comes soon. Amazing Grace is too important to be left unseen and unappreciated.
TAKE THREE Two Strong Men…Two Strong Performances
Directors Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) insist their respective blockbusters, Black Mass and Steve Jobs, are not “biopics.” Only because they say so will I concede to their descriptions of these two powerful stories about two powerful men, played by two gifted and powerful actors, Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger. Whitey Bulger, for those who haven’t read the book by the same name written by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill or caught 60 Minutes a month or so ago, was a South Boston street thug who transformed himself into the city’s most feared crime boss, with the capable assistance of the FBI and agent John Connolly, Bulger’s boyhood friend, played exceedingly well by another Oscar contender, Joel Edgerton.
With two such iconic public figures it’s difficult, if not impossible, to not focus exclusively on them; the camera, after all, seldom strays from them. But Boyle reiterates his film is not a documentary; it’s a portrait, he says. It’s the essence of Jobs that Boyle wants to deliver to his audiences, not the genius behind Apple’s miraculous turnaround after he rejoined the company in 1996. Aaron Sorkin’s (Moneyball and The Social Network) screenplay, while based on Walter Isaacson’s biography, is not, Boyle tells us, a literal adaptation of the book. Cooper told the overflow Q & A audience at the Palm on Sunday afternoon that Black Mass was the story “not about a criminal who happened to be human, but about a human who happened to be a criminal.” Again, the essence of personality was foremost in the minds of both directors when they made their films; it’s the “who they are, not what they are,” that’s important for us to understand.
Fassbender is outstanding as the mercurial and enigmatic Jobs. His interactions (read: confrontations) with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), original Apple team member Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslett), Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), his ex-wife, and daughter, Lisa (who he all but refuses to recognize as such until the end of the film in a very touching—almost redemptive—scene) all take place at various product launches and form the context within which Boyle explains to us who Steve Jobs is, or, more accurately, was. I have—and have heard—nothing but high praise for Fassbender, Rogen, and Winslett and for Danny Boyle and his great movie, but I am left without a complete (I may be asking too much for a 125-minute film) understanding of Steve Jobs. There is, perhaps, too much to understand.
And as for Whitey Bulger I’m almost certain I don’t need to know much more. In a genre made famous by Brando and Pacino, Johnny Depp as Bulger is, at once, almost a folk hero to his South Boston Irish neighbors and to fellow countrymen across the Atlantic, and at the same time, we understand, all too well, he’s a psychopathic cold-blooded killer, who, with calculating skill scares the bejesus out of just about everyone (including Connolly’s wife played by Julianne Nicholson) with whom he comes into contact. I was in Ireland celebrating my 50th birthday 15 years ago and on the golf course in Lahinch in September 2000. My caddie, whose name I forget, asked if I’d read Black Mass, which had been published only a few months before and which, apparently, had sold very well in Ireland. I said I hadn’t but promised I would, and did. That caddie’s comment about Whitey Bulger I do remember: “He’s quite the man, quite the man.”
TAKE FOUR The 4th Estate from Two Points of View
Spotlight—the story of a team of journalists who investigate and uncover the complicity of the Catholic Church in covering up sexual misconduct within the ranks of Boston priests—refers me, almost immediately, to All the President’s Men (I overheard someone refer to Spotlight as “All the Predators’ Men”). Both have a similar message: good journalism has the power to “get the bad guys,” the President of the United States in one, and Boston’s Catholic Archdiocese in the other, two fairly significant institutions. And both have stellar casts, that work, like a newsroom, as an ensemble, with an “all for one, one for all” camaraderie: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards in the latter and Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachael McAdams in the former. Spotlight, like All the President’s Men, was based on a true story, but both films, due to superb direction (Tom McCarthy and Alan Pakula) are far from predictable, the suspense building from one scene to the next as the actors—as journalists—uncover new and further damning material on their targets.
Spotlight does more than entertain. The film is a serious cautionary tale reminding us that without print journalism and without the expertise and dedication devoted to “watch-dogging” those in positions of authority, we may no longer possess the capability of catching the truly bad apples that occupy the State Houses and Ivory Towers and who are in charge of those social, political, and religious institutions that affect and direct our lives. Go out today and subscribe to your local newspaper.
Adam Curtis claims he’s a journalist. He writes and directs visionary documentaries, and as such could—and perhaps should—be called a filmmaker. But Curtis, in introducing his most recent offering, Bitter Lake, is adamant that this well crafted narrative of how the West got itself into such a mess in the Middle East in general and in Afghanistan in particular, is journalism. It’s reality, it’s the world as it is; it’s just telling the truth, he explains. Bitter Lake is remarkable for what it shows and tells us.
Bitter Lake, a confluence of archival newsreels and contemporary footage, begins with a meeting between FDR and Saudi King Abdulaziz prior to the end of World War II on a U.S. Navy battleship on the Great Bitter Lake, in the Suez Canal. FDR wanted oil; the King demanded religious and political autonomy (no western influences) in return. A deal is struck, the unintended consequences of which would have a dramatic future effect on the region and on Afghanistan.
At the time the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was ruled by a political-religious alliance formed by the House of Saud and the Wahhabis, a puritanical, violent, backward-thinking branch of Sunni Islam. Left to its own devices, state-sponsored Wahhabi teachings flourished and a growing militancy among mostly young Wahhabis would, only a few decades later, manifest itself when men and money and arms poured into Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia following the Russian invasion. One of those men was Osama bin Laden.
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, and in an attempt to “out-gift” the Russians, U.S. engineers constructed a huge dam in Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan. The U.S. proclaimed the newly reclaimed land the “new wonderland of vegetation.” One variety of vegetation thrived: poppies. Helmand Province now produces 80% of the world’s opium.
Put these two historic incidents together, along with the rest of this well-narrated journalistic effort and you’ll better understand the conundrum that is Afghanistan, and you’ll understand why Curtis introduces his documentary with the caution, “We live in a world where nothing makes any sense.”
TAKE FIVE The Art of Transformation…”Putting On” Character
Johnny Depp is known for his colorful costuming and makeup, Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, and the Mad Hatter three roles that come fast to mind. But, as a result, Depp’s characterizations are often perceived as form over substance. In Black Mass and as James “Whitey” Bulger, Depp not only expertly acts the part, but he’s over-the-top frightening in looking the part.
Johnny Depp moves into this character (with assistance from his longtime collaborator and Academy Award-winning make up artist Joel Harlow) as though he wants to stay for a while, and the transformation is pretty darn chilling. Whitey’s washed out, chapped—almost reptilian—skin gives one the shivers, and his pale, wolf-like blue contacts lend his eyes a menace that befits the ruthless gangster he plays; Whitey can look right through you. And as was Julianne Nicholson (who plays the wife of Whitey’s childhood chum and FBI agent, John Connolly) in one memorable scene, there are moments in the film when we are simply repulsed and at the same time terrified by him.
Black Mass was one of the best and most-talked about films at the Telluride Film Festival, Johnny Depp’s acting the principal reason why, but his nightmare-inducing transformation into Whitey Bulger may be what’s remembered long after Oscar Night has come and gone.
According to director Paddy Breathnach (Viva), “one word for drag artists in Cuba is transformistas, someone who actually transforms…and that idea of transformation…when something becomes something else through sublime alchemist, is central to the film.”
The transformation of Jesus (Hector Medina), from a shy, gay hairdresser in the slums of contemporary Havana, to a gutsy, confident drag queen performance artist occurs because he decides to be true to himself, despite a few rather dramatic bumps in his transcendental road. Such as the sudden and, at first, unwanted appearance of his father, Angel, (Jorge Perugorria) who left when Jesus was three and who, due to his rum-fueled machismo (he was a celebrated boxer before being sent off to prison for presumably killing a man) is all that his son is not. The struggles between father and son are set alongside the relationship between Jesus and “Mama” (Luis Alberto Garcia), who is the “man in charge” and headliner (and Jesus’ mentor) at the cabaret where Jesus, who has adopted the stage name Viva, wants to perform. When asked to choose between Mama (who’s acting like a Papa) and his real father, Jesus’ choice is disturbing, but in the end, the right one, considering how the film proceeds and concludes.
Central to Jesus’ transformation to Viva and key to the fairy tale-like magic of the film is Havana, itself. The close to squalid living quarters and the almost less than subsistence level lifestyle experienced in Havana’s slum (“the most beautiful slum in the world,” proclaims Mama) provides a backdrop that serves to make Jesus’s transcendence even more dramatic and, in the end, more satisfying.
Viva was, perhaps, my favorite film at this year’s festival. It was sublime, and it was transforming.
FINAL CUT Last Word
It’s difficult not to form preconceived expectations about a film with a title like Cocksucker Blues. That it was documentary footage from the Rolling Stones’ 1972 U.S. Tour (I’d attended in Chicago) only fueled the anticipation.
Yes, Cocksucker Blues contained graphic nudity, sex acts on airplanes, heroin and assorted drug use, there wasn’t enough music (but what there was was excellent), and yes, many viewers were appalled with what they saw, but for me: “I know it’s only rock and roll…but I like it, like it, yes I do.”