We at the Independent know that ex post facto film festival coverage is tantamount to a sports report that withholds the final scores. Typically penned by a smug twit with the audacity to complain about being paid to watch and write about movies (not unlike ourselves), we've chosen instead to limit our griping about last weekend's Taos Talking Pictures Festival to the staggering abundance of aging, ponytailed bald guys. While such "Subaru: The Thinking Man's SUV" culture tends to grate with self-congratulatory bourgeois left-loving, we were genuinely delighted with the main event: the films.
Next to the Holiday Inn and across the main drag from an adobe-styled Wal-Mart in Taos sits the StoryTeller multiplex, a remarkably unpretentious location for a film festival to be sure. Not that the modest setting kept the audience from announcing their appreciation of the films at hand with the sort of "mmming" and "unhunhing" grunts commonly found at poetry readings and mediocre motel trysts.
Unlike other Rocky Mountain celebrity summits posing as film festivals, Taos Talking Pictures Festival (
www.ttpix.org) -- now in its ninth year -- is short on glitterati and well stocked with cineastes. With over 100 or so shorts, documentaries, and full-length features and this year, it's well worth the three and a half hour drive.
What follows are some snippets of what we saw and what we liked. For the most part, these were one and the same. Given the fact that Colorado Springs is something of a challenged market for independent cinema, you're likely to encounter these gems not on the screen, but at the video store, on HBO, and perhaps on PBS. File 'em in your cranial bookmark folder and prepare for happy viewing.
An Injury to One
Extreme Low Frequency
The New Rulers of The World
While the courteous festival staff saw fit to introduce each film with a shout out to their corporate sponsors, they did not think to warn attendees like me that they were about to choke on irony. Surrounded by gaggles of graying New Mexican hippies of the socioeconomic class that permits them to watch films at 9:45 a.m. on a weekday, I took in two pedantic pieces of Marxist agitprop rarely seen outside graduate school symposiums.
That said, Travis Wilkerson's An Injury to One is about as eloquent as a piece of propaganda can get. Through a somber voice-over narration and elegiac acoustic score, the film tells the story of Butte, Mont. and the copper mine strike of 1917. It's a mournful history of a company town with a lament for the lives of the thousands of miners who lived like slaves below the earth. When the International Workers of the World organized a strike, the company struck back by lynching its most charismatic leader, Frank Little.
Wilkerson serves up an ideological buffet, but with a surprising gracefulness that manages not to privilege politics over aesthetics or lose sight of the imperative of telling a good story.
Next up was The New Rulers of the World by British documentarian John Pilger. This traditional documentary explores globalization through its effect on the nation of Indonesia. Pilger is of the BBC school of British documentarians who still finds it necessary to talk directly into the camera in the didactic style famously spoofed by The Simpsons' Troy McClure.
Pilger introduces us to Indonesian apparel workers who live in mosquito-infested slums with neither running water, nor electricity. Hardly the place anyone would want to call home after a 36-hour standing shift to make the Gap boxers we know and love. The New Rulers is a compelling indictment of economic globalization. Unfortunately, Pilger falls into the Michael Moore syndrome of deriving too much pleasure from making World Bank and IMF apologists look like stuttering fools. This provides the hippie audience with a convenient whipping post, their very own axis of evil, but does nothing to explain how and why globalization continues to triumph in the war of ideas.
At the screenings conclusion, an attendee issued what I hope will not become the New Left shibboleth: "Michael Moore for President!"
Xingu Films, United Kingdom
Even if you've never wondered what goes into a Disney animated musical, The Sweatbox is a worthwhile 86 minutes. Watch as producer after producer waxes reverently about the joys of the "collaborative process" during the production of The Emperor's New Groove. But push aside their aphorisms and the real story concerns the swift brutality of studio power politics in the creative arena.
Unlike live-action features, animated films are made by scores of artists, story teams, and musicians who typically spend three to five years in production. In The Sweatbox, two years of work, including six completed Sting songs were upended after the Disney brass viewed a storyboard screening.
The Sweatbox is filled with amusing interviews with David Spade, Eartha Kitt and a bevy of animators, musicians, and Disney executives. Most amusing, however, is Sting who is rarely interviewed in the same country (or castle) twice. During one reflective moment he expresses genuine surprise that Disney would turn an interesting project about a unique culture into the equivalent of a hamburger and fries. For all his worldliness, Sting comes off as living, likeable proof that human beings can match their virtuosity with staggering naivete.
Marooned in Iraq
Menemsha Entertainment/mij film
By far the most timely and relevant film I saw all weekend, Marooned in Iraq is a gorgeous look at convoluted ins and outs of Kurdish culture at the time of the first Gulf War.
Directed by Bahman Ghobadi -- the prolific and much-touted Iranian director of 1999's child-immigrant epic A Time For Drunken Horses -- Marooned tells the story of Mirza, an old Kurdish-Iranian singer and his two musician-singer sons who must journey into the Iraqi side of Kurdistan to find Hanareh, one of his many wives who left him so she could sing freely (forbidden to women in Kurdish culture).
Though the three main characters are men, the film's ideological locus is the conflict between the ancient, highly gendered culture and customs of the Kurdish people and the modern, yet savage world full of all forms of collateral damage.
Of course, the closer the trio of men comes to finding Hanareh and the modern freedom from traditional male oppression she sought, the closer they come to the brutality of war and its costs.
Beautifully shot and charismatically acted all-around, Marooned puts an honest face on a complex culture and landscape that will undoubtedly take center stage in post-war Iraq.
Never Get Out of the Boat
New Crime Productions
I had the pleasure of dining with Paul Quinn (yes, brother of Aidan), director of Never Get Out of the Boat, along with about four other cinephiles just after the film's screening. All of us agreed on two things: none had wanted to see the film, and all of us loved it. (No, we weren't just being obsequious).
Somehow, a film about a group of recovering alcoholics and junkies struggling and (mostly) failing to stay clean in a halfway house just isn't my idea of a fine time at the movies on Friday night any more than rubbing a cheese grater across my forehead is my idea of a facial.
True to its blurb, the movie was brutal to watch, but expertly handled and completely unsentimental in its treatment.
Following a core cast of five young men from all variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds as they dangle moment to moment on the thread of their addictions, Never deftly manages to avoid becoming an infomercial for 12-step programs while revealing the dignity and contradictions inherent in the culture of recovery.
And how did he do it? "It wasn't my script," Quinn said, noting that he frequently had to take the edit axe to large swaths of screenwriter and actor Nick Gillie's script. People in recovery the world over will undoubtedly be thrilled to see a non-parodic representation of their life preserver.
The Shape of Things
By far the crown jewel of the festival, Neil LaBute's latest foray into the truth about human cruelty and propensity toward selfish self-deception, The Shape of Things is a masterwork of post-everything cinema.
Anything beyond a skeletal reference to the plot would, sadly, give away far too much of the secret of this film, but it's worth saying that it more than plumbs the line between art and reality in a world still morbidly obsessed with surface.
LaBute takes the fatuous and self-important world of academia to task from the opening scene as Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a seductively disheveled art student, prepares to spray paint a penis over a fig leaf on a monumental statue of God. When she meets Adam (Paul Rudd), a young museum guard and student who bumbles around long enough to get her phone number, it's clear that you're in for something far more philosophical than an awkward college love story would portend.
Adapted from his play by the same name that debuted in London and played in the U.S. for a year, LaBute cast the same actors -- Weisz, Rudd, Gretchen Mol, Frederick Weller -- for his screen version. Not surprisingly, the acting in the opening scenes seemed to suffer a bit from some residual theatrical overacting, but the "fake" feeling it leaves becomes all-too relevant as the story unfolds.
For those who loved In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things is a welcome return to the more conceptually barbed and visually stripped look that one seldom gets from an American director. Don't miss this film if and when it opens in Colorado Springs.
LaBute was awarded the Storyteller Prize at Saturday night's awards ceremony.
While I was excited to see that Michael Imperioli (who plays Christopher on The Sopranos) had ventured onto the big screen as Stu "The Kid" Unger -- one of the world's greatest card players, and the only person ever to win the World Series of Poker three times -- the movie fell flat into biopical formula and overly romantic tendencies.
Imperioli's acting wasn't much of a stretch as he played a character with almost all of the same flaws and demands as Christopher: addiction, mob ties, and a lovely lady he just can't seem to stop wronging. It'll surely be in theaters soon. I give it a shrug.
Raymundo is documentary about famed Argentinean documentary filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer who was "disappeared" in 1976 under the brutal Peronist dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla. More than anything, it's a testament to the uncompromising and unparalleled socialist political dedication of a group of Latin American filmmakers.
While some of the film smacked of sentimental idealization of leftist propagandist, the film is also a testament to the true courage an artist must have to effectively contradict fascist regimes in order to "tell the truth."
Also fascinating is how closely Gleyzer was able to document the many Argentinean and Mexican struggles for liberation from dictatorships in a period of constant political upheaval in all of Latin America.
While the film runs a bit long, it's an absolute tour de force of historical research and editing from directors Ernesto Ardito and Virna Molina.
The True Meaning of Pictures
When is photography exploitation? When is it documentation and where along the way does it become art? The True Meaning of Pictures attempts to answer these questions by exploring the work of Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams.
The film fascinates on two separate plains. First is the political debate about how one can photograph a people who have been stigmatized by decades of cultural stereotypes (think Deliverance) while staying true to the gritty realities of their lives.
The other element is the people behind Adams pictures. Ethics or not, the dwellers of eastern Kentucky's hills and hollers are as fascinating as Americans can be. Living and farming in homes of tin propped up by cinder blocks, it's hard to believe that this Appalachia is America. Without running water or electricity and with teeth foul enough to make your average '70s Briton look like something out of an Aquafresh ad, Adams' subjects -- and after 30 years of shooting them, his friends -- live not all unlike their kinfolk a century before.
What's so curious about the photo-ethics debate is how much it appears to be only the plaything of art establishment intellectuals. The only non-art critic to express a beef with Adams' photographs was a woman who struggled out of Appalachian poverty herself. Listening to her describe Adams portrait of her granddaughter as a "disgrace to my family," one wonders if she's looking at the same picture and if the price paid for class mobility is a lifetime of shame.
100 Mile Rule
100 Mile Rule has no star power, which is why its director Brent Huff informed the Q and A crowd that rather than risk the vagaries of hustling and promoting it on the festival circuit, he hawked it to HBO. That's a long way of saying that this film won't be coming to a theater near you.
But if you like dark comedies about poorly dressed men behaving badly, it's well worth watching. Bobby is a hardworking salesman; faithful husband and loving father. Or at least he was, until he gets ensnared in a multimedia doublecross of sex, lies, and Internet blackmail.
Mistakes are made as men in frighteningly accurate tacky sweaters, forsake all they hold dear for a little hotel room naughtiness. The temptress, Elizabeth Shue look-alike Maria Bello, proves too cunning for Bobby, who submits to her scheming like a lust-ravaged putty pod.
100 Mile Rule is less about infidelity than the precarious nature of seemingly solid middle-class lives.