Tuesday, March 4, 2014

More films

DAY NINE:  On Saturday, I saw four more films with Ellen: one listed as a "Secret Screening," and then The Unknown Known, The Notorious Mr. Boot, and Happy Valley. Ellen stayed for one more film  - Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart - while I went home with Katie 

The "Secret Screening" is something that may be peculiar to this film festival. It is the showing of a film that has not yet been officially released. The True/False Festival has managed to get it with a proviso: people who see it are asked to promise not to mention the name of the film publicly - esp. on Social Media like Facebook of Twitter. We actually saw two films in this category and they were both outstanding. So,  I can't tell you the name of the film we saw Sat. morning (I've forgotten it anyway - it was in French) but it was a very touching film. We both liked it a lot. It was about two Belgian men, Bob and Marcel, both alcoholics, but Marcel's addiction was the more severe. This film is of a certain kind - the kind where the film crew basically moves in with the characters, wins their trust, films hundreds of hours of footage, then creates a story by editing. They don't know ahead of time what the story will be; they don't know where things are going to go.

The film began with Bob, who was described as sort of an older cowboy (whatever that means in Belgium) going out into the woods to find a favorite spot where he was determined to commit suicide. It was a place where a beautiful tree overlooked a sylvan clearing in the woods. Just the place to end your life. He got to the spot and found that loggers had come in, cut down his favorite tree, and basically destroyed the place. "C'est la vie," he shrugged, and went back home to have a drink - his favorite is spiced rum. Shift to Marcel, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the film, leaving him devastated and caring for two children some of the time. He responds by drinking just about anything and everything. These might not sound like very attractive characters, but the beauty of this film was that you came to love these two guys and care about them and feel compassion for them. Marcel decides to go into s rehab unit, and Bob visits him there. He is an impossible patient, but he tries to make a go of it. He genuinely loves his kids, and wants to be a good dad, but his life is so empty of meaning and purpose, that you just weep for him. Marcel has a relapse after being released from rehab and he wants to kill himself;  a final scene shows him going up a snowy road on his scooter and you think for sure he's going to kill himself by running into something, but he gets to his house ok, and that's the end. Ambiguous ending.

It was beautifully filmed and very touching. And maybe there is an undercurrent of meaning in the film about what life is like in at least some aspects of European society today. Sort of bleak.

The Unknown Known will probably be something of a hit. It's by Academy-Award-winning filmmaker, Errol Morris (who did The Fog of War), and it's about Donald Rumsfeld. It might be nominated for an Academy Award next year (four of this year's documentary film nominees were in the True/False Festival last year!). The title comes from Rumsfeld's famous line: "There are known knowns, there are unknown unknowns, and there are unknown knowns." The film is basically one long interview with Rumsfeld which Morris conducted over many sittings and many hours, interspersed with some archival footage on the Iraq war, news clips showing Rumsfeld obfuscating before the press corps, etc.  It is about words, about how words can both hide and reveal, about how someone can make terrible decisions and then use words both to justify them and distance himself from them. It's a disturbing film. Errol Morris appeared via Skype, and is quite engaging.

Unknown Known poster

Errol Morris on Skype, on stage
The Notorious Mr. Bout was not my favorite, but it was an interesting film. It is about an arms merchant, Viktor Bout. Here is a summary:

When he was arrested in 2008 in Thailand as a result of a U.S. government sting operation, the career of internationally known arms smuggler Viktor Bout came to a decisive end. Veiled by the obscurity of post-Soviet Russia, Bout had built an empire of aerial delivery so vast he was called "the merchant of death" and was even the subject of a Hollywood film. In sharp contrast to the widely known, super-villain persona, however, was another Bout: a philosophical businessman who simply enjoyed travel, his work, his family, and filming it all with his video camera.

The thing that made this film sort of amazing was the fact alluded to - that Viktor Bout was constantly filming his own personal life, and the filmmaker got access to those home videos, which he used to good affect as a foil to Bout's "professional" life as an arms merchant. If you have ever wondered - what kind of person can be an arms merchant? What is he actually like? -  this is the film for you.

Finally, on Saturday, we saw Happy Valley, another film that could get an Oscar next year. This was one of my "faves."  It's about the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State, but it takes a very broad view of it, and is sensitive to symbolic meanings at several levels. There is Sandusky himself, whom we see in earlier years as a shining and charismatic leader and benefactor of youth through his summer camp programs; there is his adopted son, Matt Sandusky, who undergoes inner torture as to where his loyalty lies - to the man who rescued him from a tawdry and hopeless life, or to the truth - that his adoptive father sexually abused him. There is Joe Paterno, the revered coach of the highly successful football program at Penn State, who was told about Sandusky's activities in the shower room, and notifies his superior at Penn State, and then drops it, allowing Sandusky to go on abusing boys. There is Paterno's widow and sons, who are trying to preserve their father's good name, but who don't quite "get it." There are the fans of Paterno who are angered by the University's decision to fire Paterno and remove his statue from the grounds (there are some great scenes at the statue); and there is the larger community - "Happy Valley" as it is called, not so happy anymore, and trying to restore the good old days - largely through denial. And there are a few outspoken and even courageous individuals. You could discuss this film all night. 

Four movies in one day was enough for me and I went home. Plus, the weather was turning nasty - freezing mist - with freezing rain, sleet and snow forecast for overnight and Sunday. But Ellen the trooper stayed for one more film on her own. This was a film about a murder trial that many Vermonters were aware of because it took place in New Hampshire. A teacher, Pamela Smart, was accused of having her husband killed by her lover, a teen-aged boy. There were a lot of ambiguities in this case, and the truth is still unclear.

A small-town murder in New England became one of the highest-profile cases of the twentieth century. As the first fully televised court case, the Pamela Smart trial rattled the consciousness of America. From gavel to gavel, a nation tuned in, and reality TV was born. Pulsating with sex, drugs, betrayal, and murder, the trial inspired 20 years of television shows, books, plays, and movies, including To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Gus Van Sant.

Unfolding with the suspense of a fiction film, CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart reexamines a case we thought we knew and cuts into deeper, hidden layers. With surgical precision, master filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar unmasks the role of the media in creating a skewed version of reality that the public now accepts as truth. Fascinating, sexy, and cunningly brilliant, CAPTIVATED makes us question everything we’re told as the line between journalism and entertainment continues to blur.

Ellen liked it. 

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