Telluride’s 35th year had a hard act to follow after last year’s roster of Academy Award nominations and winners — “Juno;” “The Counterfeiters;” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly;” “I’m Not There;” “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days;” and “The Band’s Visit,” to name a few.
This summer was a festival of mostly world cinema — less of a star-studded event than last year, when Penelope Cruz could be spotted on Colorado Avenue in her cut-offs, and Sean Penn, Werner Herzog, and Jennifer Jason Leigh were walking around town. There are always celebrities here, however, and this year’s included old-time Hollywood star Jean Simmons, Telluride regular Laura Linney, actor Greg Kinear, author Salman Rushdie, Swedish director Lars Troell (“The Emigrants” and “The New Land”), documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, “Zodiac” director David Fincher, director Mike Leigh, and numerous other directors and writers from many different countries.
I had a brief conversation with Linda Jones, daughter of the late famous cartoon creator, Chuck Jones, who has a theater named after him in Mountain Village, which is reached by a free gondola from the valley floor.
It was touching when Laura Linney made a surprise appearance to welcome Jean Simmons, now 79, for a tribute for artistic achievement and retrospective of her films. Linney has a home in Telluride and is married to a local businessman whom she met a few years ago when she came here for her own tribute. Simmons, wearing a black velvet pantsuit and dangling diamond earrings, talked about her life before and after she came to Hollywood from England in the ’50s to become part of the studio star system. Originally a dancer, she has starred with more leading men than almost anyone in Hollywood — Olivier, Brando, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Clark Gable.
“It’s weird to watch oneself a long time ago,” she said. “It’s like seeing another person. I don’t know her. I wonder why she did it that way.”
The overwhelming favorite with the most buzz was Danny Boone’s (“Trainspotting”) “Slumdog Millionaire,” based on the novel “Q&A.” The secrecy was so high during this sneak preview of the UK movie that we were told that detectives with infrared goggles were on hand to assure that there would be no taping or photography. The film was to premiere officially at the Toronto Film Festival the following week. The word of mouth praise spread so quickly that additional showings were scheduled to accommodate those who didn’t want to miss the film.
Filmed largely in the slums of Mumbai, which I walked through on my trip to India last winter, “Slumdog” tells the story of Jamal, a young orphan seeking wealth on an Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” He reveals the story of his brutal life and enduring love through his answers to the questions asked by the slippery emcee. The police — who don’t believe that this lowly tea server in a call center can know all the answers — decide to rough him up. The audience is riveted through the film’s exciting trip through modern India, with its tremendous gaps between socioeconomic classes, children begging in the midst of traffic, and even a visit to the call center where Jamal works. It is also a love story that takes you through the trash heaps of India as well as to the luxurious side of life in that country. Watch for it in the theaters around Thanksgiving.
I agree with filmmaker Ken Burns, whom I sat next to for a screening of the silent film “The Last Command,” a Josef von Sternberg masterpiece from 1928. “What else can you do on a Labor Day weekend,” Burns remarked, adding that he’s been coming to Telluride for 20 years — he’s got nine on me! “This is the best film festival on earth,” he said — and he probably attends all the major ones — Toronto, Cannes, New York. “Because the Hollywood presence is low this year, partly because of the long screen writers’ strike, we’re less distracted by the celebrity culture and can really enjoy more classic and world cinema,” he said. “The strike was a blessing for Telluride.” He told me that already at the festival he’d really enjoyed “Hunger,” the Irish film about the IRA strike in prison, and the two Indian films, “Slumdog” and “Firaaq.” Burns is quite down-to-earth, and when I called him Mr. Burns when thanking him for our conversation, he said “It’s Ken next time!”
Salman Rushdie was on hand to introduce “Firaaq,” the directing debut of well-known Indian actress Nandita Das. The film deals with the 2002 Hindu Muslim riots in Gujarat and is a pastiche of interwoven stories that involve the viewer in the lives of the characters. At the 9 a.m. showing, Das said, “It’s amazing that you all get up so early to watch movies,” and added, “Telluride is truly a film-lover’s festival with a loving audience; I feel the warmth, and it’s like I know everyone.”
On another note, there was a lot of violence this year — abusive husbands around the world including Ireland, Sweden, and India. I’m glad there were no Iraq or Afghanistan movies — I’ve seen so many — but we had violence in India, Belfast, Denmark, Lebanon, and Korea. We also had two 11-year-olds who leave their dysfunctional families in an Irish village in “Kisses” and have adventures on land and sea before they’re returned home.
My four top picks, in addition to “Slumdog Millionaire,” are:
“I’ve Loved You So Long.” Directed in France by the novelist Philippe Claudel, this film stars Kristen Scott Thomas, hardened and withdrawn after spending 15 years in jail for committing a horrible crime. She moves in with her happily married sister, a bourgeois academic, and gradually, through experiencing family life and friendship, comes back to life.
“Prodigal Sons.” Telluride was the world premiere of this documentary about a middle class Montana family — the parents a physician and a teacher, a true story so bizarre that you couldn’t imagine it as fiction. In an early review, Variety said, “Tennessee Williams looks like ‘Sesame Street’ compared to this.” There’s a gay son; a transsexual son — a football hero who becomes a gorgeous woman who prefers a female partner; and a brain damaged adopted son who traces his roots and finds he is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. This is a startling look at gender and the past that explores family relationships unflinchingly. In the process the film takes us to Croatia, where Orson Welles’ long-time sweetheart invites the family to meet the newly discovered relative.
“Lola Montez.” I was mesmerized at this groundbreaking l950s endeavor of Max Ophuls, which has been restored and remastered with the help of his son, Marcel Ophuls (“The Sorrow and the Pity”), who taught film at Princeton in the 1970s. “Lola” is reminiscent of the old MGM musicals, though far more flamboyant, and could be the inspiration for Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas shows, Moulin Rouge, and other extravaganzas. This engrossing story of a poor girl (Martine Carol) in search of the impossible dream as she travels the world, conquering powerful men, but, eventually broken, winds up in a garish circus production, is hosted by a fiery Peter Ustinov.
“Waltz with Bashir.” I loved this Israeli/German film, which explores the repressed memories of a veteran of the first Israeli/Lebanon war. Writer/director Ari Folman told the audience that this is his personal story of exploring and bringing to light the reality of a tragedy that was affecting his life. Folman uses animation in a most expressive way, which seemed so life-like in the interaction of historical and personal memory that I was unaware of the form.
Other notable films are:
“Hunger,” a prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival, is the first feature from UK visual artist, Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the actor who died in 1980). The film follows the hunger strike of Bobby Sands and other political inmates of Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in 1981. The brutality of the prison guards was a bit much for me and others, some of whom walked out. But it is an important film that develops many historical truths.
The Danish “Flame and Citron” was well received. Nine years of research was needed to unearth the details of the activities of these two resistance fighters in 1940s Copenhagen. Director Ole Christian Madson told the audience, “All of Europe is seeing World War II in a different light; thus these new films are exploring that period.”
“Flash of Genius,” a sneak preview of Greg Kinear’s new film, tells the true story of a David who took on the Goliath of the Detroit auto industry.
Mike Leigh introduced his “Happy Go Lucky” as “fun with a little pain thrown in.” This piece of fluff deals with a hyper upbeat schoolteacher, Sally Hawkins, who makes a lot of lemonade.
“Revanche” is a melodramatic thriller from Austria that takes us into unexpected emotional territory and traces the characters’ uneven arcs of redemption.
At Telluride you simply can’t see everything. I was sorry to miss “The Rest is Silence,” the biggest production of Rumanian cinema. I will be sure to look for this one in the theaters. “Gomorrah,” the story of the Camorra crime family in Italy, adapted from the bestseller of the same name, is being called the best depiction ever of the Mafia on screen, more than equal to “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” and the Sopranos. Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected,” a black comedy, received mixed reactions from the festivalgoers I talked to.
Telluride is not for the timid or slow moving. Type As see more movies. You can enjoy the gorgeous mountain scenery during the wait in line and walking or running between theaters. Everyone is your friend here. Conversation flows, and it’s always about film. The festival sold out early this year, despite the cost and the difficulty of getting there. For me, it’s 12 hours door to door.
Says critic Richard Schickel: “At other festivals they’re interested in movie star sightings and trade gossip. Telluride is one of the last bastions of serious film festivals, where people come and isolate themselves, immersed in movies for a few days.”
“We have the best tech staff in the world,” said the manager of the Galaxy, one of the largest venues at the festival, converted each year from a school auditorium for this one weekend into a planetarium/ theater in the mountains. On the subject of technology, Dell provided a lounge equipped with computers and computerized kiosks throughout town with tips on seat availabilities at the various venues.
Overheard on the gondola from a newcomer: “I’m blown away by Telluride — it’s beauty and friendliness.”
Scenes of indulgence in the upscale Mountain Village: a free bungee jumping trampoline for children. And down below, a nine-year-old entrepreneur driving a small electric car, selling lemonade and homemade cookies to waiting filmgoers.
My reservations are in for next year — my 12th. Stay tuned!