Cinematic Misbehavior At Telluride 2017

In line for coffee on the first morning of the 2017 Telluride Film Festival, I met theater icon Peter Sellars. Leaving the discrepancy of our achievements aside, we chopped it up on censorship and poetics of Iranian cinema before he ran off to introduce Angelina Jolie and her new snoozefest that supposedly qualifies for best most Hollywood foreign film.

I, on the other hand, ran off to the Opera House and lodged myself between (and one row behind) Werner Herzog, whose film would conclude the Guest Director’s Series, and Joshua Oppenheimer, the Guest Director himself. Oppenheimer introduced his curation as an exploration of “the gap between who we want to be and the mysterious self we really are.” Of course, his seminal documentary The Act of Killing (2012) is the gold rush of such exploration, and according to Mr. Oppenheimer, the film we were about to see had been the inspiration behind his realer-than-real documentaries.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (1995) is, as my cousin Seth described, “the kind of film that fucks itself.” In the film, thousands show up to casting calls in Iran and a riot ensues, leaving at least one hospitalized. When order is restored, we find ourselves with the director and his crew in an elegant auditorium where he begins to audition small groups of people.

A still from Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 1995 documentary film, Salaam Cinema.

At first, the aspiring actors are confused by the lack of script or any defined role. Rather, the director demands they laugh, cry, or simply “act.” By this point, the thematic elements Oppenheimer introduced had become evident – there is space between ourselves and our performance, and perhaps skillful actors have simply learned to narrow (or widen?) that space. Nearly all of the finalists fail to cry – unable to manifest an act that isn’t currently their own.

Peppered throughout are scenes of men proclaiming themselves to be doppelgangers of Western stars (one cites Paul Newman despite never having seen him) and throwing themselves in the air to the tune of fictitious grenades. One woman begs Mr. Makhmalbaf for a part so she can get a Visa to visit her boyfriend. While denying any interest in acting, she holds the room for several minutes, inadvertently offering one of the most rapturous performances from the entire weekend. Maybe the best performances are not performed?

The final 30 minutes surround two girls distilled from the masses that arrived earlier. Mr. Makhmalbaf tortures them with impossible questions on morality, art and humanity while relentlessly prodding them to “CRY FOR CINEMA”. Several times he sends them home, only to have them immediately retrieved. At last, he congratulates them and offers a day’s salary. The girls take the director’s seat and begin to gruel new contestants with the same cruelty he’d offered them.

The rest of the festival was littered with fairly predictable stories of people with an issue to overcome and probably a romantic side-plot. One that I managed not to immediately forget was Paul Schrader’s First Reformer (2017) starring Ethan Hawke as army-man-turned-pastor-turned-eco-terrorist. Wry humor, static 4:3 photography and a late turn away from reality made it worth sitting through the abominable 2.5-hour Jolie film First They Killed My Father that had preceded it. I particularly appreciated the rare depiction of white man as radicalized terrorist, especially one from the army and the church.

A still from the 2017 Ethan Hawke thriller film, First Reformed.

The rest were pretty “whatever” until the final night when I returned with my cousins, god-cousin and god-friend to the grand Sheridan Opera House for the very special screening of Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), a film Herzog himself hadn’t seen for 40 years. Oppenheimer, however, claims to watch it 4/5 times every year, sometimes immediately starting it over again. This was apparently the film that launched him into filmmaking, and as ringmaster of the Opera House, he had saved it for last. After a brief gush-sesh, he thrust us into a hallucinatory Canary Islands compound of very small adults wrecking havoc with childish mania. Afterwards, explaining the process behind the chaos, Herzog cited a scene where the only instruction was to “keep going until all 36 dinner plates are broken.”

About half of the film involved a truck with the wheel yanked to one side and strapped down to conduct perpetual driverless donuts (inspired by Herzog’s time as a parking lot employee). The tiny people taunt the vehicle like matadors, ride behind on a dragged carpet, hurl the aforementioned plates at the windows, and eventually heave it into a dark abyss – a proper end to a largely formulaic selection of films, most of which have already joined Herzog’s truck in a void of discarded memories.   

This harrowing, un-commissioned festival recap is dedicated to my very dear father Stephen (as of 2016, pronounced “Stefan”, like our favorite baller) who was notably bonked into (and subsequently apologized to) by Emma Stone at the prior year’s festival. Although he couldn’t make it this year due to surprise open heart surgery, the celebrities showed up anyways. So when Natalie Portman shamelessly tried to cut me in line for a chicken sandwich at the Labor Day picnic, I was less surprised than simply incensed by her unmasked immorality. But in true Telluride spirit, Portman was swiftly banished to the back of the line by the chicken sandie-man. Briefly, Natalie and I locked eyes – at once clenching each other’s hearts with physics-defying passion, sailing away into a daydream’s sunset, settling down in Jersey Shore, making social issue documentaries that change the world, learning to love each other in a more honest way, etc. – she smiled softly but turned away, offering no apology whatsoever.


prn3kqljT. Anthony Schear doesn’t accept the status quo. His progressivist rebellion from the status quo substantiates his opinions. These are ideas you’ve never heard before, which make you think: Where did these thoughts come from? Are they potentially concerning?  Wiki | Portfolio