Survival — of body, intellect, and soul — was an overriding theme of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, held once again in a former silver mining town, 9,000 feet up amidst the peaks of the Colorado Rockies.
This 40th anniversary event offered more than 100 programs that represented 25 countries and included 27 new feature films, six revivals selected by celebrity guest directors, 33 shorts and student films, 12 seminars, and open conversations among guests.
Clear favorites among 4,000 festival goers were director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”; “Ida,” a moving Polish film that involves unsettling revelations and choices; “Nebraska,” starring Bruce Dern and directed by Alexander Payne; “The Past” by Iranian director Asghar Farhad (“The Separation”); “Burning Bush” from Agnes Holland; “Tim’s Vermeer,” produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Raymond Teller (of Penn & Teller); and “The Lunchbox,” from a first time writer-director from India.
In addition to Penn and Teller (the latter being a teacher in Lawrence and the two performing in the central New Jersey area early in their career), there were other area connections in the programming. One was “The Unknown Known,” a documentary by Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) about the life and career of the illustrious if controversial Princeton University alumnus Donald Rumsfeld.
The former United States Secretary of Defense agreed to cooperate for the Morris film but slips and slides through most of the interviews as Morris strips bare the contradictions, obfuscations, paradoxes, and cliches at the heart of “Rumsfeld’s Rules.”
One favorite I know my many Indian neighbors will view with nostalgia is “The Lunchbox,” which deals with the phenomenon of Mumbai’s usually faultless (except in this movie) system of delivering home cooked hot meals from a wife’s kitchen to her husband’s office.
I spoke with “The Lunchbox” director, Ritesh Batra, who told me that he originally developed this little film as a documentary at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, and that he embedded himself with the men who deliver the lunch boxes. It was then that he realized the potential for a love story between a lonely young wife and an aging widower, played by Irrfin Khan (“The Namesake,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), who enjoys her delicious cookery while her workaholic husband endures the commercially prepared food ordered by the older man.
Two of my cinematic heroes, Robert Redford and George Clooney, fight for their lives against the elements on the big screen.
Redford goes it solo in “All Is Lost,” in which his sailing vessel strikes disaster 1,700 miles from the Straits of Sumatra. With almost no dialogue, we are totally immersed in Redford’s plight as he battles — with believable expert seamanship and seemingly superhuman strength — against the menacing forces of nature
When asked at the Q&A after the screening who his double was, he replied, “Redford doesn’t have doubles.”
In “Gravity” George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are trapped in the immense emptiness of the thermosphere. Even with the threat of tragedy Clooney shows his cool, glib screen persona as he floats weightless through space. After premiering at Cannes this was the film’s first American showing.
“Gravity” breaks all barriers for special effects and is destined for box office success; however, the 3D production was an assault on my mind and body, and I could not deal with seeing another film afterwards.
Intellectual survival is the theme of three films. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” — filmed illegally on the streets of Tehran and in the Iranian countryside — is a contemporary and graphic story about the Iranian regime’s brutal repression of intellectuals. Iranian dissident writer-director Mohammed Rasoulof smuggled the film out of Iran for its premiere at Cannes, where he was honored with a special tribute program.
Filmmaker Agnes Holland (“In Darkness”) marked her sixth visit to Telluride and told the audience that her new film, “Burning Bush,” is a story “that was never told.” The four-hour HBO Europe documentary focuses on Prague Spring, the six-month Czechoslovakian student pro-democracy revolt eventually crushed by the Soviets, an event experienced by the director when she was a film student in 1968. The film — which included the families of students who sacrificed their lives for freedom — was an overwhelming favorite.
“Ida,” a perfect little film from Poland, takes us to the desolate landscapes and ruined surfaces of that country in the 1960s. There a young orphan raised in a convent and about to take her vows is sent to meet her only living relative, an aunt — a former Soviet judge reduced to a life of drink and despair — who tells Ida that they are Jewish. The two then embark on a road trip through Poland to discover the fate of Ida’s parents under the Nazis.
As Ida sees life outside of the convent for the first time during the journey, the film takes on a struggle for her soul. Director Pawel Pawlikowski told us that the star, Agata Trzebuchowska, had no intention of becoming an actress but was spotted in a cafe (a la Lana Turner at the soda fountain) and deemed perfect for the role.
“Palo Alto,” the debut film of Francis Coppola’s granddaughter, Gia Coppola, is adapted from a story collection by James Franco, who appears in the film. The buzz on the behavior of the film’s young characters — vice, sex, substance use, self destruction, and their oblivion to understanding their emotions — kept me away. I see enough of the East Coast version on the Princeton campus where I audit classes and have been a volunteer tutor. When the film comes to Princeton theaters, I hope it might inspire some intergenerational discussions.
While “Palo Alto” might be a coming-of-age movie, I call “Gloria,” from Chile, a “coming of middle age” movie. While perhaps lighter in tone, the heroine is a lonely middle aged divorcee who unhappily cruises the older singles scene and suffers tragic disillusionment before she reaches self-empowerment.
In “Bethlehem,” the struggle between Israelis and Arabs is depicted with more raw violence on both sides than in any of the other Israeli films I have seen. Written by an Arab-Israeli duo, with a cast of mostly non-actors, the film reveals an atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and mistrust as an Israeli secret service agent develops a father-son relationship with an Arab youth who becomes his “asset” in developing intelligence. The director told us that when you film in an Arab village, the crew usually boards with a local family who then provides all the extras.
Director Steve McQueen’s (no relation to the actor of the same name who died in 1980) “12 Years a Slave” (a world premiere) is based on a memoir by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnaped into slavery in 1841. McQueen graphically depicts the harsh indignities and rigor of slave life endured by this formerly distinguished husband and father, now forced into hard labor on the sugar cane and cotton plantations of early 1841 Louisiana.
Michael Fassbender is a cruel drunken slave master, and Brad Pitt the Canadian itinerant worker who shares his views on the evils of slavery with his boss. McQueen shows all the evils of slavery, ranging from the story’s kidnaping in upstate New York to the gut-wrenching horror of the ever present lynchings, beatings, and humiliation. We see, too, the humanity of the slaves toward each other under the system of oppression.
The folk music of the 1960s provides a lighter touch in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new Coen brothers’ film patterned after Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” Shot on New York City streets, in subways, and in interiors replicating the famous Greenwich Village clubs and coffee shops, the film features a folk music revival-era score.
Oscar Isaac, who gives a terrific performance as the song writer/musician in the title role, is perpetually down on his luck, sleeps on friends’ sofas, and has no money in his pocket, but owns boxes of unsold records. The film is rich in the Coen brothers’ usual twists and turns and, at least to this writer, their own brand of weirdness. But I enjoyed revisiting the Village haunts and Washington Square. Ethan Coen, by the way, is a Princeton University graduate, Class of 1979.
“Before the Winter Chill” from France introduces us to a perfect haute bourgeois couple, a surgeon (played by Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who reside in a home of exquisite elegance, where they entertain lavishly and are surrounded by lush gardens she designs and maintains. But chaos arrives in the form of a simple flirtation that moves into “Fatal Attraction” mode, taking us below the surface of perfection. Twists and turns galore keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” a world premiere, opened the festival for patrons and press on Thursday afternoon. Kate Winslet plays a depressed, lonely single mom who is taken hostage with her son in her own home by an escaped prisoner played by Josh Brolin. Brolin’s character may be author Joyce Maynard’s fantasy man: he can repair anything that is broken inside the house and out, teach the boy to hit a baseball, and even bake a mean pie.
The movie is based on Maynard’s book “To Die For.” The chemistry builds between the two, but there will be no spoilers here. Most filmgoers liked “Labor Day” more than this writer, who found it contrived and impossible.
“Slow Food Story,” the documentary from Italy, features the upbeat energetic extrovert Carlo Petrini, who invented the movement that now spans 150 countries with 100,000 members and has transformed gastronomy.
Film goers will enjoy Petrini’s pranks, politics, and passions as he promotes his tagline, “The Right to Pleasure,” and globalizes the food community into an Italian-led anti GMO (genetically modified organism) movement. “I have to thank McDonald’s,” he says in the film, “because they made slow food possible.” When he asked the manager of a McDonald’s in Italy what his own family eats at home, the reply was, “Slow Food, of course.” Petrini has created a university degree in gastronomic science and the Sixth International Food Congress inspired by his work took place in Turin in 2012.
I attended the Redford tribute which included an hour of clip from 15 of the many films he has made in his 51-year career and an interview by Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter. Dressed casually in black T-shirt, black jacket, light jeans, and cordovan boots, the star was introduced by Ralph Fiennes as “an actor and director who plowed his own way to fame.”
Redford grew up in Southern California. “I was never comfortable in any school,” he said. Planning to be an artist, he attended Pratt Institute in New York and then, before his film career, wound up playing TV roles on “Perry Mason,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Route 66” and appeared on Broadway in “Barefoot in the Park” and in “Little Moon” with Julie Harris.
“Tonight is special,” Redford said, “because it brings me back to my roots. Seeing the clips took me back to all the artists and joy that has been my life.” Responding to McCarthy’s questions he said that the most fun film for him was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” because it began his relationship with Paul Newman and that they played gags on each other throughout the filming. The most demanding, he said, was “Out of Africa.”
Other films I saw included “Satan Comes to the Galapagos,” a documentary about a free-thinking German couple who journey to the islands to escape from civilization in 1929, but civilization in the form of other settlers end their idyll in tragedy. “The Past” is an absorbing, complicated domestic drama that begins with the Iranian husband returning to Paris to finalize his divorce with his volatile wife (Berenice Bejo of “The Artist”) and finds himself immersed in a situation that includes two children, a boyfriend, the boyfriend’s comatose wife, and too much turmoil.
I did not agree with the majority’s love for Penn and Teller’s “Tim Vermeer,” the story of an obsessed inventor who takes a cue from David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge,” a book that argues that classical painters had used camera optics plus lenses and mirrors to accomplish their greatest work. Tim Jenison decided to test that technique to create a Vermeer. His friend Teller dared him to complete the project and filmed the tedious process over a 10-year period, amazing David Hockney when he discovers the speculation he had posed in his book is realized in canvas and pigment. To me, it was literally like watching paint dry.
Some of the other celebrities on hand included Brad Pitt, director Jason Reitman, Don DeLillo, Bruce Dern, Francis Ford Coppola, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, regulars Ken Burns and Werner Herzog, Salmon Rushdie, Penn and Teller, Leonard Maltin, Alice Waters, and too many others to list.
It is 13 hours from my door in Plainsboro to the hotel on the main street of Telluride just down from the gondola which takes you to the one venue (there are nine in all) up at Mountain Village, the last stop on this breathtaking ride. The event has been a highlight of my life for 16 years and reservations are already in for 2014. Besides, as filmmaker Ken Burns said to me one year, “What else is there to do on a Labor Day weekend?”