Friday, August 29, 2008

America's Burning at the International Venice Film Festival (and it's a good thing)

(VENICE, ITALY) Burn After Reading... The Burning Plain... If the hot films I'm seeing here in Venice are any indication of the direction America is heading, then we could be about to rise from the ashes. I am cautiously optimistic for the future -- not just for the United States, but for the world. Both movies are intelligent, and have great roles for women, but The Burning Plain takes motion pictures to another level in terms of structure.

[Disclosure: I have not been to the movies for years, nor do I read newspapers, nor do I watch television, and I live on an island set 500 years in the past. I just found out who Charlize Theron was last month when someone lent me The Italian Job . So, my opinion is a bit like a caveman's. On the other hand, I did live in Hollywood for most of my adult life, and have a little insight into the Biz. And I know my own journey as a writer, and as a human being, which seems to have coincided neatly with The Burning Plain; I am thinking the same thoughts; I have arrived at similar conclustions. So THAT IS WHY I AM TOTALLY EXCITED AT THE STRUCTURE OF THE BURNING PLAIN!]

Outside, I just ran into Roderick Conway Morris, who writes for the International Herald Tribune, and whom I've known for a long time. I respect Rod's work so much that I based a character in Harley's Ninth on him, and imitated his style in the newspaper article at the end of the book. I always read what Rod writes about the film festival. When I asked him which movie I should see, he replied, "'The Burning Plain. But I imagine you've already seen it." Rod was with his wife, Christina, who also has an excellent mind. We all confessed we were deeply moved.

To read Rod's column at the IHT, click here:

Now, here in the present, once again, I am writing to you from the press room at the Casino. We sit 10 writers around a large table with laptops that the film festival provides; there are 7 tables, so there are 70 writers' brains burning in one big room at the same time... and there are other writers in other rooms with their own laptops, and writers on the stairs and writers, writers everywhere. Then there are filmmakers roaming the area, and producers, and directors, and actors, and production people, and everyone coming and going... and the buzz is... well... we are all deeply moved, and it doesn't matter what country you are from.
Speaking as a novelist... to me, it seemed that Guillermo Arriaga broke through a Time barrier... it is easier to illustrate with film, than with a novel.. having the present, the past, the future, all exist in the present, like life. Arriaga is a screenwriter, of course, and this is his directorial debut. During the press conference he said that "directing the film was the best time I have ever had in my professional life."


The questions were mostly thoughtful and interesting. I don't want to give much of the film away, but I do think I should tell you that some of the same characters are played by different actors at different points in their life -- as young adults and grown ups -- and that... Time is constantly shifting. There are no flashbacks, really, and there is NO NEED FOR THEM! It is seamless.
Other colors Arriaga uses to paint is how our parents' stories leave imprints on our Selves. How we are made of a combination of actual elements: earth, air, fire, water. How we act upon each other with these different elements. How death affects us. How lies affect us. How a life lived based upon a lie is doomed to crash. How the lies and secrets of parents leave deep impressions on the personalities of their children.
Here's my quick notes, mixed with thoughts:

Question to Arriaga: What was your impetus for making the film? How was the story born?

Arriaga: The story was in my head for 15 years. I always had a dream to write a story set in the desert. The landscape has in influence on people. Each story is composed of the four elements: Water. Earth. Air. Fire. (Note from Cat: And it is intense, the elements, especially the Fire and Water.)

Arriaga: It's a story of a woman named Sylvia and her emotional journey. Why people are so damaged.
Question to Charlize Theron: Why do actors like to play flawed people?

Theron: Why are people so flawed? Everyone is flawed to different degrees. There is something very real... why do we watch a film? It moves you. We see ourselves in that moment. Pain... or joy... our condition connects to the moment.

Charlize Theron was asked about producing and acting in the same film. She said it was about creativity. She said she felt she had a natural ability to perform the business side of film. She is fascinated about how film survives; how it struggles, and what it takes to make a good movie. She likes to meet people who are like-minded, and who want to walk the same road. After hearing her speak, I was impressed not only by her beauty, but with her intelligence and strength. She's got it all: talent, beauty, intelligence -- and is incredibly sexy, as well. I admired her gutsy performance.
Someone asked Arriaga about Time; about how he had deconstructed Time; about how the past was mixed with the present; mixed with the future.

Question: What is your personal relationship with time?

Charlize Theron laughed: From someone who doesn't even wear a watch!

Arriaga: We don't live life in a linear way. That is how we live in real life. Cinema is starting to find its own language, its own medium. (I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW EXCITED I AM TO HEAR THIS! For me, it's like a musical score; how you can change Time and remain in the same piece. It is about time we deconstructed Time! All right, I'll try to be quiet and let Arriaga speak:)

Arriaga: We are each inhabited by many people. We are dust. We are our own corpses. We evolve through several beings... what remains of the human being through Time...
The young actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Kim Basinger's daughter was asked how it was to work with Basinger, who was not there. Lawrence said, "Working with Kim was like watching Monet paint a painting. She was smart, nice, gracious and generous. She was there 100 per cent for me -- she even would even be off-camera for me (when an actor who is not on camera acts the lines with another actor instead of having someone just read the lines). I have nothing but great respect for her."

Charlize Theron spoke about Basinger's honesty: Kim has the strength of the age she is now, with the left-over vulnerability of the actress she was in her 20s. There are some moments in the film when her whole body was shaking. You can't manufacture that. You can't act that. You can't fake that. We miss you Kim! We wish you were here!

Anyway, more from Arriaga (and I must paraphrase here). He spoke about how we will never know who we are until we have a relationship with someone -- that we can see our identities by the way we relate to others, and how others relate to us. Every time someone dies, part of our identity is lost. How does that loss affect my identity? In this culture, we refuse death, we run around avoiding death. We must accept that we are fragile and that we are going to die.

Arriaga spoke more about the four elements, and how the human being's relationship with space is what makes the person -- the desert for the sun and the extreme cold, and the non-stop Portland rain -- all the cold, wet, gray affects people's moods.

The young actor, J.D. Pardo, said while shooting, he realized how much that we, human beings, are connected to nature.
Other colors Arriaga uses to paint is how our parents' stories leave imprints on our Selves. How we are made of a combination of actual elements: earth, air, fire, water. How we act upon each other with these different elements. How death affects us. How lies affect us. How a life lived based upon a lie is doomed to crash. How the lies and secrets of parents leave deep impressions on the personalities of their children.

Charlize Theron said that the name of the film was originally The Four Elements. Personally, I think that would have a been a more fitting title. And easier to remember than The Burning Plain.

In any event, the film is truly brilliant, no matter what the title is. Much thanks to Guillermo Arriaga for deconstructing Time for all writers... and for everyone, everywhere.

Ciao from Venice,

Click to go HOME:


  1. Love the update from the Film Festival, I've been wondering how things have been progressing up there. I'll cross my fingers that this film makes it down my way to Rome. Here's also hoping we'll be able to pull off a decent film festival of our own down here considering the politics of it all.

  2. Ah, what would Italy be without politics, Jennifer? I've accepted it's part of the land -- like the food, the water, the air, the politics... it's in the blood, and there's nothing to do about it except swim:) Just to get to this point where I am able to blog it was a feat that I should win an award for -- but it got done!

  3. Too true, I have learned it's one of Italy's particulars charms, and certainly keeps things interesting!