Silver Mining

Digging for the genuine article at the Telluride Film Festival's 25th anniversary celebration

Part of the pleasure of Boorman's latest picture is that it defies expectations -- it's one crime film that resists fueling the "need for vengeance." Shot in coruscating black-and-white CinemaScope, this turbulent and acidly funny movie (due out in December) is based on the real-life saga of Martin Cahill, a Dublin king of thieves who pulled off one criminal escapade after another until his mysterious assassination in 1994. Played by Brendan Gleeson with astonishing gutter cunning -- indeed, emotional and physical heft of every sort -- he's less a godfather than a demigod of hooliganism who views all straight-world authorities or politicos as butts or knaves, and all self-respecting crooks as clansmen.

Commenting on the film at Telluride, Boorman, a resident of Ireland since the early '70s, confessed a personal reason for his obsession with Cahill: The bandit had once robbed the filmmaker's own home. Believing that gold-record awards were really made of gold, Cahill had seized the one given to Boorman for the "Dueling Banjos" single from Deliverance. That scene is re-created in The General, along with Cahill's discovery that the gold is fake. This revelation buttresses Cahill's belief that he is the only genuine article left in the world. The police (led by Jon Voight as a zealous inspector) go to extraordinary and often debasing lengths to clamp down on Cahill, who also clashes with the IRA.

But Boorman never succumbs to anti-hero worship. Cahill lives out a convivial menage a trois with his wife and sister-in-law, and disdains drink, smoke, and drugs; he also enforces his gangland edicts brutally, literally nailing a potential double-crosser to a pool table. (The victim turns out to be innocent.) In Kevin Brownlow's David Lean: A Biography, Lean says that to do Dickens you can't just assemble snippets; you have to "give it weight and do it proud." That's how Boorman does Cahill. It's not a matter of budget. In the '60s-70s panel, Boorman declared that they were all "middle budget" filmmakers, and that the erosion of the whole category had curtailed their careers. (He put his own money into the minuscule budget of The General.) "Giving a subject weight and doing it proud" is a matter of the vividness and density of a filmmaker's imagination.

Brownlow also attended Telluride. Over coffee, we talked about Lean's concept of "weight." Many if not most of the older films at the festival had it, and were middle- or low-budget films to boot, including, of course, the re-cut Touch of Evil (in its public premiere). Lean's "weight" had to do primarily with his ability to get performances from actors that are enriched, not exposed, when blown up on the big screen.

Although it's a mad masterpiece of design and camerawork, Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs derives most of its romantic-masochistic allure from Conrad Veidt's tingling characterization of a man with a smile carved as punishment into his face. Through an amazing feat of empathy and creativity, Veidt succeeds in realizing what Victor Hugo wrote in the original novel, L'Homme Que Rit: "Whatever emotion he felt only served to increase and aggravate that strange face of joy." One look at Veidt's face confirms what Batman creator Bob Kane always contended: that he based the Joker on this woeful laughing man.

In The Man Who Laughs, Veidt spends much of the movie with his hand covering the area from his nose to his chin; in The General, Gleeson splays his fingers over his whole face whenever he appears in public. These are two of the most fabulous hooded performances of all time. Most of the new movies I saw lacked these actors' primal charge, even when the films went in for full-faced novelty or grottiness. But there was vitality and weight in Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic, from a Hanif Kureishi short story and script that rank with his My Beautiful Laundrette (1985).

In Fanatic, Om Puri is wrenching as a Pakistani taxi driver in a provincial English city. His son's newfound Islamic fundamentalism both bewilders him and forces him to confront his own midlife dissatisfactions. The movie takes off from the hero's central outburst in Kureishi's story: "I can't understand it! Everything is going from his room. And I can't talk to him any more. We were not father and son -- we were brothers! Where has he gone? Why is he torturing me?" But under Prasad's direction, Puri's soulfulness enlarges on those questions. Puri transforms his flailing cabbie into a gut-level liberal who refuses to accept yawning cultural gaps. If Gleeson's General is the anti-hero of this year's crop of movie characters, Puri's cabbie is the hero.

And if this silver anniversary for Telluride had a golden girl, it was Meryl Streep. I find this fabled actress sometimes gritty and inspired (as in A Cry in the Dark), and sometimes weighty in the worst way (as in The French Lieutenant's Woman). But in an onstage talk with Roger Ebert, she proved to be charming and glamorous, dizzy yet down-to-earth -- a movie star in the grand old fashion. Her appearance reminded me of how much I've enjoyed her in comedies like Death Becomes Her. She refused to be self-serious; she punctured her own sometimes-forbidding screen facade. Ebert invited Stanley Kauffmann to ask Streep a question from the audience. She interrupted with a question of her own. She remembered that Kauffmann used to teach at Yale, and she wanted to know how he voted when the Drama School deliberated over whether to put her on probation.

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