24 September 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth, Days 1 & 2

A Dangerous Method
Dartmouth College has a long-standing relationship with the Telluride Film Festival, and every year a group of films that premiered at Telluride are shown as part of the Telluride at Dartmouth program, a highlight of any northern New England cinephile's year. (It was at Telluride at Dartmouth last year that I saw Never Let Me Go.)

This year, I've decided to try to see as many of the films as I can, and unless exhaustion wears me down, I expect to see five of the six. (Unfortunately, The Kid with the Bike, the new movie from the Dardenne brothers, is playing on a day when I have a prior commitment.) I won't do in depth reports on the films here, I don't think, because of a lack of time, but I do want to record initial impressions.

The first film shown was A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg's best comedy since Crash. Most people probably wouldn't classify A Dangerous Method as a comedy, and it's certainly not being sold as such, but I find it a helpful way to view it. Cronenberg has the most developed and complex kitsch aesthetic this side of Abel Ferrara, and much like Ferrara, he allows actors to indulge their most histrionic tendencies with utter sincerity. Such acting can create a variety of effects, and the style's strength is the complexity of feelings it can evoke in an audience -- a complexity especially apparent when one cannot suppress laughter at the unbridled mugging on screen while also wondering whether this is something you should be taking more seriously (one of the funniest scenes I've ever watched is the one in Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant where Harvey Keitel talks to Jesus). Yet the filming and acting make no concessions to comedy in such moments -- and many viewers do not see them as funny; indeed, some see them as "great acting" and powerful, authentic expressions of emotion. Which they may be. Most of James Dean's reputation is based on such scenes, and one of the legacies of American Method acting, particularly as proselytized by Lee Strasberg, is a whole canon of "Look at me, Ma, I'm emoting!" moments. The filmmaking process can tone down, fragment, and distort such performances, and the brilliance of a Cronenberg or a Ferrara is to go in exactly the opposite direction -- to indulge the actors and allow them to reach their full melodramatic heights. More traditional directors and editors try to manage the emotions represented and the emotions evoked in the audience, and their greatest nightmare would be an audience laughing at a scene intended to be dramatic, but the filmmakers who love the melodrama inherent in their material cast that fear aside.

A Dangerous Method is a perfect example. The last thing the world needs is another historical drama about the repressed emotions of people who wear tight clothing. Yet we're still attracted to such stories, and Cronenberg delightfully plays with that desire. In the first half hour of the film, he gives us many scenes of Keira Knightley, portraying Sabina Spielrein, aiming with all her might for the My Left Foot Oscar. One shouldn't, of course, laugh at the emotionally distressed, but film is a fundamentally voyeuristic form, and one of its joys is that it allows us to do what we know in real life we shouldn't. I must admit, though, that surrounded by hundreds of people who were not laughing at the scenes of Knightley jutting out her jaw, popping her eyes, moaning and screaming and wrenching herself in every possible way, I repressed my laughter. Had I been alone at home, I would have laughed and clapped, hooted and hollered. But no. I felt pummelled by the propriety of the people around me.

Which is the perfect effect for this film, a film all about what we repress, and why -- and where.

Cronenberg and editor Ronald Sanders did what more "tasteful" people would not: they let the shots of Knightley acting her heart out go on and on, heightening the spectacle of her performance. A mediocre film would have been too embarrassed to let it go on; A Dangerous Method is fascinating and discomforting because it encourages Knightley to keep going and us to keep looking.

And I haven't even mentioned the great delight of watching Michael Fassbender portraying Carl Jung as a proficient spanker.

The beauty of a movie like A Dangerous Method, a movie that delights in wrapping trashiness in a "respectable" veneer, is that it allows a wider range of emotions and responses than does a more self-conscious and better-behaved film. The progress of the film's style and content mirror its themes -- the final moments give us characters who have achieved a stolid maturity, have reconciled their urges with the repressions of everyday society, and have been, for better or worse, cured of each other. These scenes are beautifully acted, quiet, unspectacular. And they are utterly heartbreaking in a way they could not have been had the scenes leading up to them been less excessive. 

Albert Nobbs
The second Telluride at Dartmouth film was Albert Nobbs, another sort of historical drama, this one much more traditional and respectable. It's one of the most rewarding tearjerkers I've encountered in a while; if you can watch the last scenes without at least a bit of weep in your eyes, you're probably a cold and dastardly human being.

Albert Nobbs is far more restrained than A Dangerous Method, and this is appropriate to the tale it has to tell. Glenn Close's performance as the title character, a woman who has spent most of her life as a man in 19th century London, is impressive in its control and reserve. The virtue of the restraint lies in the ability of a glance to convey meaning and emotion -- this was most obvious in a moment where a single change of Close's countenance caused the audience I was in to erupt in laughter and applause (a moment where Nobbs discovers someone else is living as he is, something I expect just about everyone in the audience had figured out by that point, and so we were waiting for this moment, and were delighted when it was delivered with such panache).

From the moment we see him, we know Albert Nobbs is Glenn Close, because Glenn Close is famous and we have not been living under a rock. I don't know if the very good make-up and costuming would have fooled me had I had no knowledge of Close and no knowledge of the film's premise, but the point is moot, because I knew going into it that that was a movie in which Glenn Close played a woman who lived as a man. I was wary of this knowledge at first, thinking the effect might lesson the impact of the movie for me, but then I was grateful for it -- the knowledge dispenses with the "shock" of a revelation and puts us immediately into a potentially more sympathetic position with the character: we are in on the secret. Similarly, few viewers will mistake Janet McTeer for a man the way the characters in the film do -- when I first saw her, I thought, "I don't remember seeing k.d. lang's name in the credits..." (Then I spent a while thinking, "Is that Edie Falco?") This is all to the best, because not only does it put us in positions of sympathy, but it highlights the constructedness of gender signs -- someone clothed as a man is, to the characters in the film, a man. (Except to a little boy who stops and stares at the beginning and end of the film, as if showing that the cultural cues have not yet fully taken hold in his young mind.) Their society was one of much more restricted fashion codes than our own. As opposed to London over 100 years ago, in the general society of the U.S. in 2011 fashion is less bound by gender, transgressions of gender codes are more common, and we are attuned to more subtle cues for gender identity.

What's fascinating about the film, however, is how much it normalizes the assumed male roles even for us. A marvelous moment comes when Close and McTeer put on women's dresses for an outing to the beach -- they look ridiculous! And yet at the same time we can feel the sense of freedom that Albert feels, the freedom not to hide anymore. The dress and shoes are obviously not comfortable for him, they are not his desired outfit, but they relieve him of a secret that he has held for fear of humiliation and perhaps even death (death, certainly, of his male identity) -- his panic when McTeer first discovers his secret is the most emotional he ever gets in the film.

I've referred to Alfred here as "him" because after the first five minutes or so, that's how I always perceived him. And clearly, it's how he perceived himself -- he yearned for a wife, but he didn't seem to yearn for a wife so that he could also be a woman. He yearned for a wife because he yearned for love. When McTeer asks him his "real name", he insists it is Albert. And she's okay with that -- she seems to understand that her own desire to hold onto some of her female identity is not the same as Albert's sense of himself. For McTeer's character, the male identity is at least partly a disguise, one that allows her to be employed and to live as a lesbian without harassment. For Albert, it began as a useful disguise, but now has become very much who he is.

It's a wonderful movie -- beautifully acted by even the actors of even the most minor characters, intelligently conceived, and strengthened by the utter conventionality of its form and narrative, because this allows the unconventional elements of the characters' lives to shine. The pacing is slow and careful, which is a virtue as well: it becomes a film we live with, its incidents only occasionally feeling like plot devices. It is, in many ways, the sort of film Remains of the Day aspired (and failed) to be.