TIFF 2007 Day 10

Reviewed here:

  • Trumbo
  • Time To Die
  • Man From Plains 


Trumbo, directed by Peter Askin ****

One of those oddities of festival scheduling happened this year with my favourite films falling on the first and last days.  Carlos Saura’s Fados opened my festival, and is reviewed in the Day 1 post.  Here on the last day, Trumbo sent me out of the theatre full of admiration for Dalton Trumbo as a man and a writer, for his son Christopher who adapted his father’s letters into a play, and for Peter Askin for transforming this into a beautiful and inspiring documentary.

Dalton Trumbo was a prolific author of books and screenplays, and at one point was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood.  In the 1930s, almost as a lark, he joined the Communist Party and in 1947 found himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee. 

After World War II, Congress was in the grip of the Red Scare, and spent vast efforts looking for evidence of infiltration throughout the country.  Hollywood, that hotbed of liberalism, was a specific focus to root out the subtle, pernicious influence of those who advocated the “wrong” point of view.  The government used fear and intimidation masquerading as patriotism, and many politicians rode that bandwagon for years.  “The Hollywood Ten”, as they came to be known, stood up to Congress.  They refused to implicate others who might have Communist leanings and were jailed for contempt.

Hollywood was terrified that their industry could be painted as un-american and that Congress might restrict their ability to make movies and profits.  Spinelessly, the industry blacklisted those alleged to be unfit to work in America for political reasons, and Dalton Trumbo ceased to exist professionally.  During the blacklist, he was relatively lucky.  Although he exhausted most of his personal assets, he was still able to work under pseudonyms and even won an Oscar® for one screenplay.  Only when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger defied the blacklist and gave Trumbo screen credit for Spartacus and Exodus in 1960 was the blacklist broken.

Dalton Trumbo wrote letters, beautiful, polished prose on everything in his life down to fights with the local phone company, and he kept copies.  These were published in 1970, six years before he died, and adapted in 2003 to the stage by Christopher Trumbo with Peter Askin directing.  As a play, it was a two-hander with one actor as Christopher to provide context and linking passages, and another as Dalton reading the letters.  Several actors who have performed the play appear in the film version where Christopher’s role is replaced by historical footage including some of Dalton Trumbo himself.

The readings are breathtaking with Trumbo’s voice taken by Donald Sutherland, Michael Douglas, David Strathairn, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, Josh Lucas and Brian Dennehy (who performed the stage version longest of all).  They culminate with an almost choral version of a text “I have seen the face of America” shared by most of the cast.

As a call to arms against the tyranny of those who equate patriotism with silence in the face of stupidity, corruption and abuse of power, Trumbo is far more vital than Michael Moore’s “Captain America” reviewed earlier here.

There is no release information yet on this brilliant film, but it’s at the top of my list to see again as soon as possible.

Time To Die [Polish title: Pora Umierać], written and directed by Dorota Kędzierzawska ****

Aniela is an old woman living in an even older house in Warsaw.  Because of its size, for many years the city forced her to take lodgers but times have changed, and as we meet her, the last of them is moving out.  Aniela finally has the whole house to herself and her dog, Fila.  Her son drops by to visit, but his main interest seems to be when he might inherit the property.

The house is old and a bit run down.  Bits of Aniela’s life are everywhere in photos and assorted bric-a-brac, and the look is enhanced by the loving black-and-white of this film.

There are two neighbours.  On one side is a new house, the sort of thing one would expect from the nouveau riche, and its owner would love to get his hands on Aniela’s property to expand his own lot.  On the other is a music school, and the students peek into and play in Aniela’s garden.

Time To Die is a film about old age and memory, about the dignity of not being pushed out of home to suit other agendas.  Danuta Szaflarska plays Aniela, and although there are other characters, this really is her film.  She is 90 years old, 10 years more than her character, and at the Q&A, Dorota Kędzierzawska joked that she had to keep telling Szaflarska (who took a break from two projects to attend the festival in Toronto) to slow down, that she was playing an old woman.

In the end, the house passes not to the neighbour or the son, but to the school and its children who fill it with laughter at the end of Aniela’s life.  Reality was not quite so fortunate.  Two separate houses were used for the shoot, but one (the interiors) has been demolished and the other renovated with a loss of its charming exterior.

Man From Plains, directed by Jonathan Demme ***

Jimmy Carter jokes that he was involuntarily retired from his job as President, but he was not one to slip into obscurity.  In Man From Plains, Jonathan Demme shows what Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter have done for the past quarter century in the search for Middle Eastern peace and for better living conditions around the world.

The main thread through this documentary is Carter’s book tour for his controversial work Palestine:  Peace Not Apartheid.  The title alone roused great anger among people for whom equating Israel’s actions with those of a totalitarian, racist regime in South Africa is unacceptable.  Carter holds his ground speaking at length about the systematic isolation of Palestinians and the carving of their land to suit Israeli interests.  Without a resolution of this problem, he argues, there can never be peace, and countries like the USA who support Israel have no hope of winning the hearts even of moderates whose sympathies lie with Palestine.

Man From Plains is a film about a man who strives to do good in the world, who values his faith highly, but does not use it to bludgeon others into concurring with his opinions.  Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking what course world and US history would have taken if Carter’s presidency had survived into a second term.  Without the facile, bumbling Reagan presidency when the right wing put down roots and began the destruction of “liberalism”, would Bush I have followed, and the disaster of Bush II after the Clinton interregnum?

In Carter, at least as he is presented here, we see the best of the USA, the image that country likes to see as its own.  Generous, loved, admired, a country where religion is a force for social justice, not for hatred and bigotry.  Rarely is any country as good as its lovingly polished self-images, but even aspiring to be makes a difference.

With this film, I come to the end of another Film Festival on a note of hope — on a large scale that there is some good in the world despite so much bad news, and that stories about the strength and beauty of human character are worth seeing.

To my regular readers (if you have indulged me by coming this far), thanks for your patience.  I will now take a long holiday from writing reviews and concentrate on our transit system.

One thought on “TIFF 2007 Day 10

  1. THANK YOU. The TIFF has been over for some time now and I was wondering what the hell happened.

    Steve: I was distracted by TTC affairs and by a bad cold on Thanksgiving weekend.

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