Telluride 2011, Day 1: ‘Pina’, ‘The Kid with a Bike’, polio, and averting the apocalypse

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Telluride Film Festival 2011, Day 1

The first day of the festival proper also means the first round of Symposium speakers have arrived, and two of them are program fixtures. The first is documentarian Ken Burns, who’s spoken to the Symposium students every year since the second edition; the second is theater director / arts professor Peter Sellars, who’s become a regular over the last few years thanks to his unique speaking style. (More on that later.)

Burns, who’s also on the fest’s Board of Governors, was up first. Each speaker – and this goes for the entire Symposium – gets a 45-minute slot. Burns, whose 35 years as America’s foremost documentary chronicler of American history made him the most familiar of the three speakers to the bulk of the group, opened himself up to questions right away, rather than setting the agenda. Burns would often relate his answer to his latest epic-length production, a new series on the Roosevelt family due for broadcast in 2014, for which he’s employing a typically precise structure. (“Part five is polio.”) Despite his unusually fact-heavy subject matter, he was careful to point out that “meaning trumps everything,” and for a documentary filmmaker whose style is so distinct, he displayed a remarkable even-handedness when discussing the works of others; he even had a kind tone when discussing Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

The festival’s Guest Director, a figure who is often not associated with the film world but does program a number of its titles, is also granted a guest-speaking slot, and this year that figure is Brazilian composer and author Caetano Veloso. Veloso arrived slightly late and slightly jet-lagged, but in very good spirits. A titanic figure in Latin American music famous for his political activism, Veloso spent most of his time talking about his emergent love of film as a young man, and of his experiences in the film industry. A question about the use of musical sequences in narrative films inadvertently prompted an ambling anecdote about “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” a kitschy Mexican popular song he was challenged to re-interpret. He finally wound up recording a spare version of the tune over ten years after that initial ultimatum, and it was set for prominent inclusion in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret – until it was discovered that Wong Kar-Wai had swiped it without permission immediately beforehand for Happy Together. Considerably later, Almodóvar’ convinced Veloso to appear in Talk to Her and perform the song live. Finally, Werner Herzog made use of the recording as well in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Not a bad filmic lifespan for a track basically recorded on a lark. He also discussed his program choices, including René Clair’s Les Grandes Manoeuvres, which he highlighted as the first film he thought of as perfect, at age 15 – and which remained a personal touchstone of cinematic greatness.

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“Welcome to the meltdown,” warned the day’s last speaker, Peter Sellars. It’s easy to see how the fest came to insist on having Sellars speak every year; though his connections to the film world are tangential, his fiercely determined and confident worldview and love for the power of visual and performing art made his portion of the evening incredibly memorable. “There are people in here I need to know for the rest of my life!,” he insisted, and there was no reason to doubt his sincerity. According to Sellars, art and its creators – particularly the younger generation – must be in direct, pitched battle with the forces of political oppression and cultural hegemony in order to prevent global catastrophe. Citing every holy text worth mentioning, Sellars’s most emphatic message was of socially constructive and considered filmmaking as a weapon forged from constant dialogue and communication, making them the natural enemy of fascism. Perhaps most encouragingly for the audience of mostly-budding filmmakers was the idea that in an era with so many cultural avenues and increased interactivity, it’s not only possible but necessary for artists to create and expand their own audiences based on the resonance of their work. Just as often as Sellars would speak about filmmaking, though, he would challenge the audience to examine their own standards of self-actualization. Even the most jaded amongst the young crowd must have fought hard not to be moved by his genuine belief in the power of creation.

*    *    *


Over twenty years ago, Wim Wenders watched influential modern dancer Pina Bausch perform, and found his preconceptions about the form utterly destroyed. He met with Bausch the next day, and he proposed to Bausch the idea of filming some of her pieces. She seemed unresponsive at the time, but she eventually contacted Wenders to get the project underway – but Wenders faced a dillemma: he couldn’t conceptualize of a filmmaking approach that would adequately capture Bausch’s work. They would reconvene regularly to see if he found a way around this block, but it never came to be – that is, until 2007, when Wenders caught a screening of – of all things – U23D, and became immediately convinced that he could finally bring Bausch’s work to life on film. And then, some time into the preliminary shooting process, Pina Bausch died suddenly at age 68.

Pina couldn’t possibly be the film Wenders and Bausch envisioned together, but it’s every bit as indebted to Bausch’s life and work as the title would indicate. A highly unusual hybrid of performance film and biographical portraiture, Pina is made up almost entirely of Bausch’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, performing her works, interspersed with new works of tribute from some of the company’s performers, as well as archived footage of Bausch at work. Bausch’s pieces tended to elude easy thematic analysis, but motifs emerge quickly: repetition, autonomy (or the lack thereof), gender conflict, and elemental energy frequently recur in these pieces. True to Wenders’s taste for staging the ecstatic in earthbound realms, many of the pieces are staged in public areas, though a few are placed in constructed environments. (We see a performance of Café Muller, the piece seen at the beginning of – in a bit of odd symmetry with Veloso – Talk to Her.)

Pina‘s editorial rhythm is infuriating at first, with the sumptuous first piece – which immediately justifies the use of 3D and announces the film as perhaps the technology’s most stunning application thus far – being interrupted with the talking-head appearances by company members explaining Bausch’s style and work ethic. It’s not until sometime later that it becomes clear that Wenders is deliberately insinuating the company’s perconality and sommentary itself in crucial moments in order to establish them as a figure of collectively equal importance to the title subject. Their performative energy seems still to come from their absent director, but they struggle individually and as a family with trying to grasp the true nature and meaning of the work. Pina‘s deliberately scattered construction mimics the experience of a closely knit group who nevertheless must process the seismic loss each in their own fashion. Pina is precisely as messy and frustrated as it must be, and just as revelatory.

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The Kid With a Bike

Cyril (Thomas Doret) is only 11, but he’s already shouldering a huge emotional burden – he just doesn’t know it right away. His father (Jérémie Renier) has left him to his own devices, and sold the child’s prized bicycle in the process. Not imagining or understanding that his father could be so cruel, he attempts to track him down, meeting a kindly-but-stern hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France), in the process. The fleet-footed Cyril, with Samantha’s help, does track down his deadbeat dad, but he’s soon forced to accept that it’s those closest to you who can dish out the most hurt.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are internationally renowned by now for their social-realist portraits of Belgian life (generally based out of the town of Seraing), and Kid With a Bike does little to challenge their bona fides. As Cyril struggles to define his own life in a city that seems poised to pull him in opposite directions, the Dardennes keep the boy in center frame for nearly the entire film, tracking the nimble young man on foot and on his coveted bike as he weathers one disappointment after another. Despite their pedigree as social realists, Kid is primarily a very simple human story about two people whose concepts of unconditional love don’t quite mesh at first. Cyril has a great sense of loyalty and affection towards the man who wants nothing to do with him; Samantha knows what Cyril needs is a reality check and a measure of tough love, but that approach only seems to drive Cyril into an unseemly element.

The first two acts of Kid flow naturally and seamlessly, helped along by Doret’s kinetic performance and a couple of powerhouse emotional sequences. The late-film character decisions and plot contortions, though, reek of careful engineering for maximum audience impact, rather than a contiguous outgrowth from what preceded – particularly Cyril’s shift in attitude towards Samantha, and a tacked-on act of retribution that seems to be present only to muddy the waters and prevent too tidy a happy ending just for the sake of it. Before that, though, Kid With a Bike acts as a fine showcase of the Dardennes’ gifts for coaxing naturalistic performances, and their ability to expand the emotional reach of the tiniest of human moments.

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Tomorrow: New Herzog and Cronenberg; plus, Herzog and Wenders speak.

Simon Howell


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