I'm not exactly in Telluride to watch films at the festival, but since I'm here, why not? Before the film festival started proper the town had already started showing films. The evening had in store some nice delirium, an outside screening of Jan Troell's solemn A Frozen Dream (1997) preceded by the unexpected programming choice of three eccentric animated shorts, one deadpan American indie, and an equally dead—this time braindead—movie highlight montage.
Even before the feature started the evening was usurped by the Fleischers' pre-Disney, 1933 version of Snow-White, proof, like much of the Fleischers' work, that people in the 1930s not only had a level of truly bizarre—and popular— humor and fantasy which was way ahead of their time (and probably ahead of ours), but that psychedelic cinema existed decades before the 1960s. Come for Betty Boop frozen in ice (in a mini-skirt of course), stay for Koko the Clown (voiced, classically, by Cab Calloway) breaking the already much-broken and hay-wired story to take some time out to sing and dance (the latter rotoscoped beautifully, and is decidedly surreal next to the amorphous, unnatural transformations of Fleischer animation). Dark and weird this adaptation is, pulling in twisted undercurrents of the Grimms’ story repressed by the Disney version, and certainly never imagined by that earlier pair of brothers. And still, in the weirdness bordering on the creepy, the short is terrifically funny, and uses animation as a free spirit of motion, throwing down a gauntlet for the malleability between reality and the fantastic that has been picked up, among others, in more a more sedate form by Hayao Miyazaki.
The second Betty Boop cartoon, the one note (but what a zany note!) The Old Man of the Mountain (1933), is founded on the single notion that Betty Boop is unbelievably sexy, even here as a tourist guide who has to convince a gigantic and disturbingly perverted old man of the mountain to stop, uh, being so disturbingly perverted. (In one unbelievable but oblique gag, it is revealed that the ghoul has sired several old-men-of-the-mountain babies with an unmarried and very upset mountain town inhabitant.) Thankfully, the local area's animals, who are as in love with Betty as the old man himself, but are far more respectful (the old man rips off Betty's dress, only to have it slap him in the face), team up to save our heroine. Moral: gorgeous women attract the best and the worst.
This inanity was preceded by the classic Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953), Chuck Jones' Daffy+Porky+Marvin short that is probably ingrained in the minds in a good 100 million Americans. Less expected was Dean Parisot's Tom Goes to the Bar (1985), which looks ripped out of the Jarmusch catalog of deadpan, black and white early indie stuff, except that Parisot is a contemporary, not a follower. How the guy who made this work of small jokes (Tom Noonan as a pollster for cleaning products, philosophizing hung upside down his favorite bar), earnest, straight-faced humor, and deep-seeded melancholy didn't explode with a similar career would be interesting to find out. (Though some credits, Galaxy Quest and Curb Your Enthusiasm among them, hint at Parisot still going strong.) Surprisingly, for what seems a bit like a stunt-gimmick short, if one of surprising sadness and impeccable, actorly comedy, the film’s real triumph is carrying the tangible air of that-kind-of-bar, a bit down and out, a bit local, somewhat of a tavern, and somewhat forlorn. Its depression, wry idiosyncrasy, and hazy familiarity form the low-key richness behind the jokes.
The less said about the generic montage film Precious Images (1986) the better, though maybe it's cloying, pompous title hints at why this thing, with its abominable music cues and envious rights-to-the-archives selection of clips, won an Oscar for live action short.
Washing the taste out of one's mouth for that programming gaff was (finally), Troell's feature, a documentary on the Herzogian subject of the Swedish 1898 hot-air balloon expedition...into the arctic!
A tale of human folly and insane ambition it may be, but Troell takes the story a different direction. Pulling from diaries, photographs, letters, and archeological material found on an uninhabited island nearly thirty years after the balloon team disappeared into the great white North, the film lets the archives, mysterious and scientific, cryptic and factual alike, narrate the adventure.
The atmosphere, distanced sixty years from the archeological (or perhaps we should say forensic) find, and thirty more years since the balloon was swallowed up in the cold, is one of a dreamy, hypnotic retelling. Monologues in Swedish—perhaps the most introspective sounding language—and photos both remarkably preserved and corroded by time and the elements conjure up a story that seems at once extensively scientifically logged (a great tangent explains that the cryptic symbols embedded in the adventurer's photographs tell the coordinates, date, and time of each exposure) and strangely indistinct. Troell mysteriously keeps the exact purpose of the mission vague, so when the team's balloon seems to prematurely touch down disaster seems imminent after only 60-some hours of flight—until we learn that the team may plan to spend the entire winter holed up in a self-made ice house.
It is as if there are two parallel tracks, strangely but beautifully unreconciled: the exact, scientific and material details of the expedition, and something more vague, which dissipates through gaps in the documents, perhaps in Troell's censure, and in the whiteout of the arctic itself. A recurring image is of a perfectly preserved photography gradually falling away into a white, blizzard-like canvas, all the potential accuracy of the photo slowly, hypnotically being swamped by time, and nature, and an erratic grasp of the facts. A final note: it would be amiss not to praise A Frozen Dream's soundtrack of classical music with original work done by Lars Åkerlund and Sebastian Öberg, which merge creepy sonic motifs—the filling of the balloon with hydrogen, the sound of construction, wind and other ambient sounds—with haunting orchestral pieces. As with Troell's subtle, dreamy use of momentary live-action recreations of seemingly innocuous moments in the tale, the soundtrack weaves a story of a baffling endeavor using the real and the imagined alike to express all that was certain and uncertain about the singularity of three men and a balloon sent into the inhuman wilderness.