Sometimes you have plans, and then you change them at the last minute. I woke up this morning and decided I wanted to see True Story rather than the film I had been planning on. So off I traipsed.
True Story is based on the, well, true story of Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), the New York Times reporter who was fired for fabricating some material. He returns home in disgrace to Montana, only to discover that someone has been using his identity in Mexico, and that the thief is also a man accused of murdering his wife and three children. His real name is Christian Longo (James Franco), and Finkel goes to meet him in prison, only to get sucked into a back-and-forth match with Longo over the relationship between truth and storytelling.
This wasn't the best movie I've seen at the festival, but it's worth noting that it's the third one that's explicitly about journalistic ethics, and particularly how we manipulate and shape the truth to get people to read our stories. (The other two are The End of the Tour and Best of Enemies.) This is something I think about all the time, both because I studied creative nonfiction in graduate school (a fraught term if there ever was one) and because I write for the Internet, and I know, as well as you do, that if I want to get a lot of hits all I have to do is write something slightly hyperbolic. True story: I fight that urge a lot, as do most of the writers I know who both have integrity and would like to pay their bills.
That said, the film itself leaves a lot of things wide open in what I think is a pleasing fashion, and serves up real humans who are using the truth for all kinds of ends. Franco is (I say somewhat begrudgingly) absolutely terrific in it, and Hill is always good. And Felicity Jones—recently nominated for an Oscar for her work in The Theory of Everything—sneaks up on you as Hill's wife. It's a film that is worth most anyone watching, and especially anyone who has to work with shifting definitions of truth in their daily life. (Fox Searchlight has the film.)
After conducting some interviews downtown, I headed back up to one of the big theaters to see Prophet's Prey, a documentary by Amy Berg (who made Deliver Us From Evil, the documentary about priests and child sexual abuse) about the FLDS, which is the fundamentalist break-away from the Mormon church—the branch that believes that the LDS church was corrupted when it abandoned the doctrine of polygamous marriage in the nineteenth century. The author John Krakauer accidentally stumbled across the FLDS while driving through Utah and started to investigate, which eventually landed the FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs, on the FBI most-wanted list (literally next to Osama Bin Laden) and then, eventually, in jail.
The film is really a history of Jeffs, chronicling his rise to power and his terrible abuses, particularly child sexual abuse as he married girls as young as twelve. A number of his relatives—and wife #65—talked to Berg for the film, too. It's more or less a real-life horror film. It's hard to watch. And even harder to watch in a crowd of Utahns, some of whom have undoubtedly been touched by the incidents far more than those of us who have flown in from the coasts.
The temperature in the room was heated afterward, with everyone asking what they can do to help end Jeffs' reign, especially since he is still running the church from solitary confinement in Texas, and people are legitimately concerned that blood may be shed at his command if he remains unchecked. (The answers had a lot to do with where he gets his money—all businesses owned by FLDS members apparently funnel all profits back to the church, which means to Jeffs.)
I sat quietly, though, thinking about the abuses of power that I've seen over and over this past year in our own branches of Christianity, with leaders deposed for moral failings that range from abuse of power to abuse of children. And it is troubling to me to consider what it is in human nature that can lead us to follow someone blindly and do things to their own harm that don't make sense, especially in a religious context. As a Christian, and as someone who has in the past been part of spiritually abusive groups, I was left wondering how we can more carefully combat that in our own world—it starts with eschewing rampant church celebrity culture, I think—and how we can also care for survivors. The film is chilling on its own, but this seems important. (The documentary will be on Showtime.)
Finally, I wound up on a whim in Listen to Me Marlon, a film about Marlon Brando—or really, kind of a Brando-on-Brando documentary, an autobiography of sorts, in which Brando provides all the narration. The title is doubly meaningful: "listen to me, Marlon," he seems to entreat us, but he also recorded self-hypnosis tapes to help himself calm down, which play as a framing device through the film.
The film is a stunner, a patchwork of images, clips, narration, stories, interviews, and more that look at the youth, rise, fall, and obsessions of Brando, who is arguably the greatest actor of all time. He substantially changed acting forever (something the movie explores), but is also a tragic figure, someone whose life was marked by both a deep sense of justice and hatred for those who misuse power, and by a lot of messy relationships from childhood onward.
Listen to Me Marlon winds up being more a map of the inside of Brando's head than anything else, bookended by computer-generated images of his face from digital scanning. His face has different expressions, and on the computer screen sometimes it talks (pixellated as it is)—but nothing can quite capture the essential Brando-ness of Brando, and I think that's the point. No actor can really get away without always being judged on the face, but what runs below the skin is always more complicated than the image that's projected. And Brando got that, in his privacy obsession; he just never knew what to do with it. (The documentary will be on Showtime.)
It's the last day tomorrow—unless I get stranded in Park City due to the feet of snow being dumped on my home in Brooklyn. Talk about irony.
(You can follow me on Twitter, too—at @alissamarie.)