Film and TV

Denver Film Festival 2015 Opening Night: Low-Key Weirdness

The 38th edition of the Denver Film Festival started off quietly — and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

The opening night festivities were back at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House after taking place at the Buell Theatre last year, and while the red carpet was in place outside the venue's main entrance in advance of the 8 p.m. start (the inclement weather didn't roll in until later), it wasn't exactly packed with luminaries.

In fact, it wasn't packed, period.

Long moments went by without anyone strolling past the typical flock of photogs, and many of those who did were Denver notables such as Women+Film founder Barbara Bridges and former Denver Film Society executive director Tom Botelho rather than starry types from far-flung cinematic capitals. 

One reason: None of the main players behind Anomalisa, the film at the center of the night's activities, were in attendance.

In our preview of the fest, artistic director Brit Withey acknowledged that Anomalisa, a drama written and co-directed by quirky iconoclast Charlie Kaufman and told entirely through the use of puppets, was a challenging piece of work — and the oddness of the offering likely explains the relatively modest attendance. The lower section of the Ellie was approximately two-thirds full, with enough empty seats to allow admittance to riffraff like me, and the upper levels were largely unoccupied.

On the stage, meanwhile, festival director Britta Erickson held the spotlight without characteristic accompaniment. Most opening nights in recent years have featured addresses from a slew of folks, including sponsors and special guests. But because Starz isn't presenting the festival anymore (although it remains a significant backer), no executives from the cable channel sidled up to the microphone, and neither were there any celebrities for Erickson to introduce. She alluded generically to filmmakers and fest jurors in attendance, but the main person she named was festival founder Ron Henderson, whose love of cinema from Poland helped inspire the selection of that country as the fest's nation of focus for 2015.

The annual short film saluting festival benefactors was also less showy than its immediate predecessors, eschewing actors and comedy bits like those of the past in favor of allusions to memorable credit sequences from films such as Catch Me If You Can.

Along the way, Erickson quickly listed off numerous highlights of this year's fest before turning to Anomalisa.

She recounted a conversation with a staffer, who thought she was brave to put such an unconventional film in the festival's lead position — a compliment she quickly redirected to Kaufman and his collaborators.

Then, without further ado, she said, for what likely will be the first of many times over the next eleven days, "Roll film."

And that's when things got really strange.

The protagonist of Anomalisa is Michael Stone, an author (portrayed by David Thewlis) traveling to Cincinnati for a speaking appearance. And slowly, over the course of his flight, a cab ride and his arrival at the hotel where he's staying, it becomes clear that there's something different about the people he encounters.

Make that something not different.

Everyone he sees has the same facial structure. Some wear glasses, others don't, and there are variations in height, weight, hairstyle and so on. But all of them look essentially the same, and sound the same, too; they're all played by Tom Noonan, who doesn't alter his tone whether he's speaking for a man, woman or child.

No wonder Michael is so excited when he hears a unique voice — that of Lisa, brought to life by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa is visually unique, too, with a scar near one eye that she tries to mask with a sheath of hair, but which Michael cherishes as evidence that she's as individual as he is.

Yes, the two get together, in an explicit scene that takes puppet sex well beyond the level achieved by Team America: World Police (by Colorado's own Matt Stone and Trey Parker). The result may be the most depressing act of cunnilingus in movie history.

Kid stuff this ain't.

Happiness in such a scenario is tough to come by despite their coupling, and as the tale moves toward its conclusion, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson increasingly take sides when it comes to the question of whether the world Michael sees is real or a delusion. Indeed, the conclusion is disappointingly tidy and a bit pat, like a short story that opts for certainty over ambiguity.

A larger issue revolves around the amount of material on hand. The narrative is more linear than usual for Kaufman, who, since becoming a reviewer's darling with 1999's Being John Malcovich, has overused surreality to the point of willful obscurity. (That's particularly true of 2008's Synecdoche, New York, an exercise in pretentiousness whose critical and commercial failure explains why it took seven years for him to get another crack at the big screen.) But the film would have been much more effective as a thirty-minute piece rather than a feature requiring glacial pacing and padding aplenty to reach an adequate length.

Still, Anomalisa can't be dismissed as simply a worthy yet unsuccessful experiment.

The puppets' design is simultaneously moving and unsettling (in a good way), and while some attendees at the Ellie laughed regularly over the course of the film, I found Michael's journey to be profoundly, and memorably, melancholy.

That's not the kind of note most film festivals like to strike at the outset, but it's one that seems likely to resonate over the next week-and-a-half.

In its own quiet way.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts