After a whirlwind month that included making my first short film, long nights in the edit room, a run in with a stomach bug, and a flight from Oakland to London, I have arrived in Oxford and hit the ground running. I arrived on Monday afternoon to the Stanford House in Oxford and have been busy ever since. At last, I am able to sit down and begin to write. We’re on a long train ride to Glasgow, Scotland at the moment, and as I hurtle toward my seventeenth country, I am trying to process the excitement and exhaustion of my last thirty days.
First, I am brimming with thoughts concerning the Stanford House and Oxford itself. I’ll be brief, as I will have months to elaborate more deeply. However, it is as if I’ve entered a fairytale. Within a one mile radius from my bedroom the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, and Lewis Carrol studied and taught and drank and wrote. The architecture inspired the sets of Harry Potter, Narnia, and many other stories. The University is also twice as old as the United States of America. The history and accomplishments of Oxford are palpable as you walk down its cobbled streets.
The Stanford House is historical, complicated, and magical. Renovated from six old Oxford houses into one labyrinthine dormitory, it is easy to feel that you might make a wrong turn and end up in Narnia, or swear that a staircase has shifted since you last walked up it, or wonder if there is a potion room behind one of those locked doors, or find the garden to actually be the Secret Garden, or find that when you bump your head on a low doorway you feel quite like Gandalf in a Hobbit Hole, or wonder if you’re actually Alice in Wonderland and if you’ve grown too, too tall and that’s why everything around you seems so small. I do feel as though I’m living in a half-reality, a world where fantasy and fact mix… hm, Wizards vs. Muggles, Narnia vs. England, The Shire vs. Middle Earth, Wonderland vs. England—I sense a pattern here. What is it about Oxford that is so unbelievable yet so real? I’ll be studying C.S. Lewis and Tolkien in depth this term, so I’ll keep you all updated on my musings and findings of the magical city I’ve stepped in to. I would not be surprised to find a white rabbit with a pocket watch just around the corner or Mr. Tumnus waiting for me at the Lamppost just down the block. Pure imagination and stressed out students. Ah, yes, Oxford is wonderful indeed.
Now, concerning America. I spent the last three weeks at Stanford in an intensive film class. It was an introduction to film production and screen writing, although a trial-by-fire crash course is probably a better description. From basic camera operation to cinematography, sound design, dialogue crafting, to on-set directing, we learned and did it all. We had ten days at the end of the course to create a 3-minute short narrative film. The days were long, our resources limited, crews shorthanded, and yet, we all had an amazing time and not only learned so much but saw a film through from beginning to end. My co-director and I wrote a film about a naïve girl named Marie who had moved to LA to pursue a modelling career. Upon being rejected and told she wasn’t special, Marie digs within to find her voice and embrace the things that make her unique. It perhaps fell short of accomplishing exactly the vision we’d had, but nevertheless turned out to be visually interesting and emotionally resonant. Due to our lack of music rights, I cannot post the film, but if I know you personally and you are interested in watching, feel free to comment or fill out a contact form to request a link and password to the film. My big take away? I’m not half-bad at acting, I love deadlines, making things happen, and writing/producing/directing.
So, back to England. We visited Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, which was lovely. I also picked up my Student Delegate Pass for the London Film Festival and watched a screening of a strange Argentinian thriller that spent two hours setting up an intriguing and exciting political thriller with compelling elements of suspense just to end abruptly, everything unresolved. It didn’t even leave me wondering how the story ended but rather if perhaps their budget had run out. It was weird. I forget the name of the film. Anyhow, if anyone knows of cheap, safe accommodation in London, I am looking for somewhere to stay the next two weekends so that I can pack in watching as many films as possible without having to commute excessively from Oxford.
I’m still a bit jetlagged, but while dozing off on the train I had a thought I’d like to share:
No one can ever know themselves to be good. Goodness, in all its facets, is something determined by God and by others, not by oneself. However, greatness is different. Greatness is something one knows from within. Greatness, or what I call excellence, is internal and disregards the opinions, approval, and judgement of others. Excellence is radical—it can be radically good or radically bad—but excellence is not something another can take away from you. So, in all you do, pursue excellence. I encourage, of course, a humble and noble pursuit of righteousness in this pursuit of excellence, but I have convinced myself that it matters not if you think yourself good or bad. You won’t ever know if you are because it’s not for you to decide, but you can know you have achieved greatness, even if you appear to be failing miserably, based on your own knowing of you heart and soul and body and mind. Feel free to disagree, but the hazy in-between on transportation and fatigue can often induce some rather philosophical conclusions in me. The point? Be bold. Be a fool. Don’t settle for good. Good is safe. Great is terrifying. Do that.
To anyone who is actually reading this blog, I apologize for the very delayed final post concerning the Telluride Film Festival. I've been busy back on campus at Stanford taking a three week Write and Shoot Narrative Film Intensive class. Telluride prefaced the course wonderfully and it has been a blast getting to learn the technical side of cameras, sound, lighting, etc. in addition to honing story crafting skills and screenwriting technique. Anyhow, I did want to review our final day at Telluride (it was Sunday, Sept. 3rd for us as I had to leave on Monday to get back to Stanford).
We saw four movies on our last day. First, we piled into the Nugget Theater at 9:30am for a beautiful Finnish film about a Syrian refugee who crosses paths with a declining Finnish business man who leaves his wife and buys a restaurant. Oddly whimsical for a film about a rather somber topic, The Other Side of Hope revealed the various faces of human hardship, the universal beauty of goodness and kindness, and charmed the audience with its cynical and humorous tone. It did not disrespect or downplay the gravity of being a refugee or of losing your family, but nor did it discount the mundane bleakness that so often categorizes the later years of one's life. It was a film filled with joy and one I'd highly recommend seeing.
Next, we saw Angelina Jolie's new film, First They Killed My Father. Jolie has long been touched by the Cambodian people. She worked closely with her friend Loung Ung to adapt Ung's memoir for the screen. She sought permission from the Cambodian government to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge regime that devastated the Cambodian people not too long ago. It's a dark part of their history that many remember, yet few talk about. Jolie's film is long and still, cinematically beautiful and wonderfully human. She showcases the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide yet avoids politicizing it, instead telling the story in a way that is respectful and helpful to the Cambodian nation. While the film was at times slow and the dialogue sparse at best, it's young child star is remarkable and the story is quite moving. Jolie has brought Cambodia's modern history to the big screen, recognizing and uplifting a nation that has suffered unspeakable horrors in rather recent times. I must say, I was very impressed by Angelina Jolie.
Next, we saw Battle of the Sexes. As an admirer of Emma Stone, she did not disappoint. Steve Carell was fabulous, too. For those that were alive at the time of Billie Jean King's face-off with Bobby Riggs, the story is nothing new. And even for those who were not alive then, most know of Billie Jean King's powerful influence on women's rights and her demands for equal pay for female tennis players. She was a trailblazer and a great woman to whom we owe a lot. The bottom line is that the acting is good and I think it is important for all of us to revisit the roots of the women's lib movement. It's important to study our recent American history and recognize how much has changed and how much hasn't. Billie Jean King was fair and kind and tenacious in her demands for equality, balancing poise and strength in a way we should all take notes from today. That being said, I found the filmmaking itself a bit lackluster. Of course, the story is great and the actors are fabulous, but the film rang shallow as if it were trying to incorporate too many aspects of King's personal life and career and in effect, detracted from the stakes of the Battle of the Sexes, the setting of her time, and even the depth of her womanhood. In my opinion, the filmmaking and script missed the mark and regurgitated a story that many knew. It lacked the gusto and inspiration I'd expected.
Lastly, we decided to cap off our Telluride experience with a Werner Herzog film from 1970. It was called Even Dwarves Started Small. There is no denying that Werner Herzog is an iconic, versatile, dedicated, and talented filmmaker, however, his films run the gamut of genres and Even Dwarves Started Small may belong to a category of its own. One of the most horrifically discomforting, morbidly funny, tragically wrong, and absurdly uncomfortable films ever made, this film was visually scarring, thematically terrifying, and potentially quite inhumane. I'm still unsure as to what the story was about. It was more of an experimental display of Herzog's twisted nightmare, but in it's most simple form, it's a film about midgets that are kept at an institution for little people. A band of them revolt, wreak havoc, and cause mayhem on the institution's grounds. They smash things, set things on fire, abuse their peers, and display the most barbaric and eerily childlike mob mentality. This group of clearly oppressed (or disturbed) midgets destruct with reckless abandon at the stark institution in the middle of a barren, rocky dessert. If you want to enter a special level of hell, do watch the film. It will make you squirm in your seat and coat you with a level of shame you did not know was possible. It's appalling to watch fellow humans endure lead tortuous lives and commit such heinous acts, even if it is supposedly a fictional film. That poor camel!
My first Telluride Film Festival experience was magical. We had a Cinephile pass which, while limiting the selection of films we could see, steered us clear of the blockbusters and sent us to films with extraordinary artistry and powerful storytelling. On Day 2, we saw three films and a Q&A panel with some extraordinary women. We began the day at Hostages, a Georgian film about the Georgian hostage crisis in 1983 during the demise of the Soviet Union. It was a beautiful film and we had the honor of getting to stop and talk with the director (Rezo Gigineishvili) and the lead actor (Irakli Kvirikadze) not only about the making of the film, but about the power and importance of the story. We talked to them about what freedom means and about the parallels between Soviet times and the current political climate. It was one of those moments where film was a catalyst for coming together and discussing things that matter.
Next, we headed to the outdoor theater along Telluride's Main Street. We, along with seemingly every person in Telluride, gathered to attend a Q&A with Natalie Portman, BILLIE JEAN KING (!!!), Angelina Jolie, and Alice Waters. They talked about America, sustainability, femininity, humanity, artistry, and kindness. It was an insightful and exciting hour of listening to real life Wonder Women talk about their mindsets, values, and goals. Next, we headed up the gondola to the Chuck Jones Theater to see First Reformed. Out of respect for its immensely talented writer-directer Paul Schrader and fabulous lead actors (Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried), all I can say is that the opening shot is beautiful and the rest of the movie is, well, quite confusing and disturbing. Proceed at your own risk, but First Reformed is a disorienting cross between the delirium of Birdman, the pace of Silence, and the despair of the apocalypse, perhaps.
The last film we saw on Saturday was a welcome surprise. We were planning on seeing Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, but we got impatient and spontaneously decided to see if we could get into the 10pm showing of The Rider right around the corner from where we were biding our time with coffee. It turns out that our late night impatience was divinely ordained. It has taken me three days now to even begin to put to words my take on The Rider. The opening shot alone took my breath away. It's a story of America's heartland in some ways, a story of hope, a story of loss, hardship, and passion, a story of South Dakota cowboys told by a female filmmaker from Beijing, and its a documentary-ish film in which the characters are played by non-actors. It's full of contradictions and yet, it's those contradictions that make the film so compelling. Director Chloe Zhao fell in love with these Native American cowboys, their compassion, love of horses and rodeos, their hardship, their spirituality, their raw way of life, their connection to nature. For four years, she earned the trust of this tiny South Dakotan community and ended up creating a film that not only pushes genres but challenges the audience to feel in ways they perhaps haven't before. It's moving. It's grand. It's tender. I cried. A lot. The lead character (Brady), played by a real life cowboy named Brady upon which this story is based, is a top rodeo rider who suffers a severe head injury. I had no idea what kind of film I'd sat down for, and there I was, a girl in the audience who was able to go to Telluride because of a brain injury that had ended my volleyball career and left me with a free Labor Day weekend. It was fate. Brady struggles with identity and loss, disability and family dysfunction. His disabled sister is one of the most beautiful characters I've ever seen represented on film and even as Brady fights his own battles, he makes room in his life to tend to his little sister and his best friend, Lane, who is severely disabled in body and mind from a bull-riding accident. I'm not a country girl, but I am a girl who loved to play volleyball, who loved to jump and compete, who slowly watched my dream of being the best in the game slip away and my life change forever. Brady's story resonated with me. From the story, to the story of how the film was made, to the artistry of the film itself, The Rider is a must see. Prepare to cry.
Yesterday was Friday, September 1st, the beginning of a new month and the start of the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. Having begun our day with a five hour screening of director Errol Morris' made-for-Netflix genre-bending documentary mini-series called Wormwood, we totaled 585 minutes of film yesterday spending 13 hours in and sprinting between theaters. Wormwood, while unclear how it will translate to the "home theater" of Netflix binge watching, was one of the most captivating and powerful displays of filmmaking I've ever seen. Combing collage, compelling cinematography, documentary interviews, and fictional narrative scenes to expand the story, Wormwood is not for the faint of heart. Morris tells the story of a former Army scientist, Frank Olsen, who fell from the 13th floor of a New York hotel in 1953. Twenty-two years later, a journalist uncovered a story linking Olsen's death to an unlawful CIA experiment with LSD suggesting that Olsen may have been killed and that the CIA was probably involved. Olsen's son, Eric, finds himself embroiled in pursuit of the truth of his father's death. For over forty years now, Eric has chased that truth and in the process has uncovered secrets that he never could have imagined. LSD, germ warfare, CIA scandals, Hamlet, murder, and exhumations, oh my!
After a wearying five hours at Wormwood, my mom and I queued up to see Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club Encore, a director's cut remake of Coppola's 1984 hit. Having cut down the original film given the complicated circumstances surrounding the film's production in 1984, Coppola painstakingly tracked down lost footage and recut the film to better reflect what he had originally intended. The Encore included the moving Stormy Weather scene, a more robust representation of the lives of the black Cotton Club performers, and even more tap dancing. The Encore is a joyful and at times gory portrayal of 1920s Harlem culture, the Cotton Club, and Harlem mob society. It's a technical miracle and true treasure to see this film restored and recut in such a meaningful way. The highlight? The Q&A afterwards with Coppola and Maurice Hines and Gregory Hines's son. It was a historical moment seeing the impact that The Encore had on its surviving cast members, Coppola himself, and the audience.
After seeing Coppola's film, we sprinted to the gondola and rode up the mountain side to reach the Chuck Jones Theater to see Lady Bird. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (better known as an actress, perhaps), Lady Bird is a witty, delightful, and relatable film about a Sacramento high school girl (Saoirse Ronan) and her overworked, under appreciated mother. Addressing the topics of identity, ambition, mother-daughter relationships, growing up, parental sacrifice, and belonging, Lady Bird had me laughing out loud at times, crying at others, and almost always nodding in recognition of those quintessential coming-of-age moments we know all too well. This film is a must-see for any mother with a daughter and any daughter with a mother, and it's even better if you can see it with your mother/daughter. Gerwig's film is candid and nostalgic, filled with friendship and angst and more than a few perfectly hilarious moments of high school musicals, Catholic school shenanigans, and the imperfect definition of home.
Lastly, we rode the gondola back down to town in the dark at 10pm with six film-loving strangers. The gondola got stuck and for about five minutes we sat in total darkness suspended above the side of the mountains with six people we didn't know and couldn't even see. We chatted about schools and films and places and eventually the gondola started back up. Half of our gonodola car ran with us to make the 10:15pm showing of Loving Vincent, a film entirely hand painted with oil on canvas about Vincent Van Gogh's legacy and death. Written and directed by a husband-wife team from Poland, Loving Vincent is an artistic masterpiece that not only illuminated and honored the revered Van Gogh, but is in its own right an ambitious artistic success. A team of over 125 artists over the course of nine years painted this film, a labor of love that perhaps best reveals the impact that Van Gogh has had on the world. It's a cheery and honest film that probes the mystery surrounding Van Gogh's death and helps to paint a picture of the artistic genius that leaves you moved and appreciative of the challenges artists often face in order to pursue their work.
* I apologize for typos. I am writing from a coffee shop and typing on my iPhone.