Telluride Film Festival: Day Three

Paul O’Rourke reviews some of the films from day three of the 50th Telluride Film Festival.

The Pigeon Tunnel

I remind myself to take in a documentary during the festival each year; it’s always a good plan. The process this year was made quite easy when learning Errol Morris and his film The Pigeon Tunnel would be screened.

The intelligent verbal exchange between Morris and David Cornwell (aka John Le Carre) was enlightening in that—shame on me—I’ve not read any of his books, though I have seen a few of the movies adapted from them.

The range of topics in the ongoing conversation between the two is remarkable; Morris is an adept interviewer and Cornwell, not surprisingly, is a wonderful responder. It was difficult to know which end of the dialogue was more engaging, but it did seem like the two were old and dear friends.

What surprised and gladdened me almost as much as the literary questions and answers was the filmmaking itself; the images and the cinematography made me feel like I was watching a feature length film. The multitude of truths and perspectives on the world and on life these two shared was worth the visit to the Herzog Theater, reminding me that I need—and want—to read, very soon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Pordenone Presents…The Unknown

James Card, co-founder and co-director of the first Telluride Film Festival, resurrected the 1927 classic silent film The Unknown during the 1950s, with the capable assistance from the Cinematheque Francaise. The George Eastman Museum, where Card was director for many years, was responsible for the restoration of this iconic film.

The Unknown is the sixth collaboration between director Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, “the man of a thousand faces.” The film also starred a young Joan Crawford, helping to launch her remarkable career.

The film is a love story. It is, in its 68 minutes, also a tale of revenge, betrayal, jealousy, and, yes, lust. As with most great works of fiction, whether literary or cinematic, there must be a change of direction in the story line, with a simple twist of fate an added, but necessary, component. In this case resolution of the characters’ numerous dilemmas turns on a one-sided “The Gift of the Magi” sort of irony. This classic silent era film should be seen. I’m a little put out with myself for not seeing it sooner.

Rustin

No surprise that Rustin made its way to Telluride in 2023, sixty years almost to the day when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. What was surprising—more like embarrassing—was how little I knew about the man, Bayard Rustin, who produced and choreographed the March on Washington, one of the more iconic moments in American history.

The film, Rustin, is about the man who came to be King’s confidante and right-hand man and who championed the march when many in the community, including Martin for a time, were doubtful it could succeed. Some were even dead set against staging it. Others who knew Rustin was gay and an ex-Communist felt he’d be a distraction, a detraction from the movement’s goals, rather than an appropriate director of them. But the film wasn’t just about the fight for civil rights, though that was the obvious background within which Bayard (Colman Domingo) fought his own battles. This important film was about the character of the man who, in the end, overcame. We know how the march and the speech changed history, at least for a time. We have to think director, George C. Wolfe, knew exactly what he was doing in bringing out this fine film when he did, reminding us of the magnificence of that August day and what it manifested, but also cautioning us that while we’ve come a ways since 1963, the sad truth is that there are many more battles to fight. And we need to keep Bayard Rustin firmly in our collective memory as a model when waging them. See this movie!

Poor Things and a Tribute to Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos was in Telluride in 2018 with The Favourite, one of my favorites from that year. I figured I had a sense of what to expect from Poor Things, a reunion of Yorgos with Emma Stone and screenwriter Tony McNamara. I should have known better to go into a TFF screening with any preconceived expectations.

Poor Things is about Bella (Emma Stone) who is, in simplest terms, a female Frankenstein. Following her failed suicide attempt, Bella is surgically modified by way of an inexplicable transplant using her unborn child’s brain. The surgeon is a somewhat mad but brilliant scientist (Willem Dafoe), who, we must assume from his facial appearance, has had a few surgeries himself. This rather preposterous prologue provides only a small clue as to what’s to come.

Bella, a mature adult with a baby’s brain, acts and thinks in a wide range of behavioral and psychological patterns; her social, political, and decidedly sexual inclinations are intuitive and hilariously spontaneous. But she develops an above-average intellect as the story evolves that drives her male suitors, Duncan Weddaburn (Mark Ruffalos) and Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), accustomed as they were to her former erotic fantasies, a bit crazy.

Make no mistake Poor Things (I have no idea where the title comes from) is a wild and crazy ride. The sets look like they were designed by Antoni Gaudi and the costumes are surreal. But in the end, we find Bella in a good place, having confronted and overcome to some great extent the obstacles placed in her way by a sometimes unintelligible but plainly misogynistic world. It is, ultimately, a feel-good story, worthy of any film fan’s attention.

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