Telluride 2011, Day 4: ‘Shame’, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, Tilda, and the future of film history

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Telluride 2011, Day 4

Tilda Swinton is the ideal Telluride guest. She’s just famous enough to provide the fest with a bit of an exclusive sheen, but she has more than enough credibility as an artist to suit the fest’s reputation of catering to people who are serious about film. At the public tribute and Q&A that accompanied the screening of We Need to Talk About Kevin, another good reason for her selection emerged: the line of questioning trended towards both the film festivals she has been organizing back in Scotland, and her sense of family. The Telluride fest crew often give the impression of being one hyper-extended global family connected by their love of film and their belief in it as a sacred place to gather in and around – and of the town of Telluride itself as an ideal vessel for that love.

That feeling was only reinforced at Swinton’s one-on-one chat with us at the Symposium, where she was joined by Kevin‘s director and co-writer, Lynne Ramsay. She spoke often of her love for departed collaborator and inspiration Derek Jarman, whom she credited as the inspiration for taking the role of the White Witch in the Narnia movies. Ever humble, she spoke lovingly and frequently about her various collaborators (including, in the public Q&A, Erick Zonca, who directed her in the awesome-but-underseen Julia), while simultaneously downplaying her own skills as an actor and interpreter. (The humility was contagious, as Ramsay spoke of Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher as movies that “two people” saw.) On her way out, Swinton left us with a simple request: “Make good movies with your friends!”

Before that, film historian, preservationist and all-around fanatic Serge Bromberg came to speak with us, having presented an extended program of newly recovered and restored shorts (mostly from the turn of the last century) set to his own live piano accompaniment and stitched together via his showmanlike commentary. (This included getting Alexander Payne to come onstage to help demonstrate the flammable qualities of nitrate film, stating, “this is the last time you will see Alexander Payne alive.”). At his talk, he stressed – refreshingly – that the increased accessibility of older shorts via sites like YouTube can only be a good thing despite the obviously not-optimal image and sound quality, stating that purists who believe such films should only be seen in a theatrical context are consigning those films to a “death sentence,” ensuring new generations of filmgoers won’t have any awareness of these works at all.

With the Symposium over, and its perks, faculty, guests and members all on my mind, I’d like to thank all involved for making this a very special experience that helped to reaffirm my faith in film – as well as those who help to make and disseminate them. I’m sure I’ll be speaking with most of you again soon.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin

After the death of his five-year-old daughter in a horrific limousine crash, the girl’s father’s televised appearance included this key sentiment: “You just saw my entire existence defined. Those five seconds set the agenda…for the rest of our lives.” This idea of seismic, irrevocable change in the wake of familial tragedy is at the heart of Lynne Ramsey’s first feature in nearly a decade, the searing, surreal We Need to Talk About Kevin, and that change is represented not only in the life and times of its central figure Eva (Tilda Swinton), but in the narrative construction of the film itself.

The film’s opening image is one of escape. Eva, a travel writer, lies amidst a throng of revelers at a tomato festival, smeared in the surrounding red substance, eyes squinting through the citric acid and into the sun. It may well be the happiest moment of Eva’s life. It stands in marked contrast to the rest of the film, which finds Eva dealing with the aftermath of one of the worst possible shocks imaginable: her teenage son, Kevin (played at the age of his crime by Ezra Miller), has committed mass murder at his high school at the age of 15. Eva is treated as a pariah by the parents of the felled students, one of whom has sloshed blood-red paint across her front porch as a constant reminder of the horrific crime they will never stop blaming her for. As Eva tries to piece together some semblance of a life, we’re shown Eva’s life with Kevin from the time of his birth to the full depiction of his crime spree.

At first, Kevin may seem psychologically reductive. In the flashback sequences, the titular kid is cartoonishly unpleasant, shunning his mother at all times, glaring evilly at his young sister, contriving to pit his parents against each other, and quashing any and all sentiment. Yet, as the film progresses, it becomes striking just how little we see of the boy’s father and Eva’s husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly). Was he really this absent in the development of his children, or are we merely seeing a carefully-selected set of Eva’s memories? And are Eva’s recollections even to be trusted? Her status as a survivor renders her immensely sympathetic, but is that alone reason enough to take her account at face value?

Ramsay uses horror-film aesthetics to render both Eva’s post-spree life and her version of events, both of which rely on cruel irony and wanton emotional brutality. Cheery pop singles of decades past serve to heighten the disconnect between the seemingly contradictory past and present – the intense bitterness of the locals towards Eva (which includes one woman outright slapping her in the face when she catches Eva smiling) suddenly seems far-fetched in the face of the full scope of the tragedy, which is only made clear in the film’s final minutes. Actually, the bookending scenes might be the only ones we’re intended to take at face value: the opening, with Eva’s one moment of bliss, and the ending, in which mother and son reunite and one is not the same as before. That character’s unstable depiction might well reflect the viewer’s relationship with Ramsay’s carefully distorted narrative; Kevin similarly defies easy conclusions and begs repeat viewing.

Shame

It seems almost paradoxical that there appear to be so few films that successfully probe into the life of the contemporary male. That is to say: the great majority of filmmakers are male; male actors topline most movies; most successful screenwriters are male. Yet there is a distinct shortfall in the number of movies that directly tackle the question of manhood in the new century. Steve McQueen’s stunning follow-up to Hunger, which reunites him with that film’s star, Michael Fassbender, exploits what seems at first to be a straightforward – if unconventional – story of addiction in the ultimate service of exploring just what it is to be a man.

Brandon (Fassbender) is, by all possible metrics afforded by men’s magazines and popular culture, an exemplary creature. He’s tall, striking, handsomely framed, wealthy (and steadily employed), lives in New York, and beds beautiful women on a more-than-regular basis. In marked contrast to his bumbling boss (James Badge Dale, late of Rubicon), he seems to have a preternatural gift for seducing women. As Shame opens, though, the voice we hear on his answering machine doesn’t belong to some booty call, but rather to his endlessly troubled younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling cabaret singer with a tremulous voice and old scars marking time along her arm. As she tries to insinuate herself into his life, Brandon struggles to balance his overdriven sex life and his sense of responsibility – however slight – as an older sibling.

If Brandon has any true corollary in the popular depiction of men, it’s Mad Men‘s Don Draper, but even Draper is meant to be seen as a relic from some bygone era. Brandon is unquestionably a sex addict, in that he doesn’t seem to differentiate at all between legitimate dates, encounters with prostitutes, online encounters, and masturbating in the shower – all are merely a means to an end. Brandon therefore can’t help but play into the notion of women as objects, even if his state of mind isn’t that outwardly contemptible.

McQueen’s long-take-driven style, so memorably showcased in Hunger, is here translated in a very modern setting, and Shame even features a repeat of Hunger‘s extended conversation piece, here reprised in the form of a perpetually interrupted date. (Another memorable take tracks Brandon on a late-night jog to escape the unseemly goings-on in his apartment). McQueen and Fassbender’s continued, intense collaboration helps to keep Brandon human even in the face of some truly monstrous behavior, particularly late in the film, wherein Brandon’s pent-up frustrations culminate in a marathon of depravity. As Brandon struggles with his urges – how many times has he shamefully discarded his porn collection, we’re left to wonder? – so we are left to struggle with where his lack of advancement leaves the object he symbolizes, the modern man, for whom unfettered access to outlets for base pleasure has only left him inaccessible.

Simon Howell

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