Now that I’m home from my eighth visit to the Telluride Film Festival, I am convinced that for five days every year I am in an altered state of consciousness – high on films, camaraderie, and the spectacular San Juan Mountains, not to speak of the actual high of riding the gondola up to the theater at Mountain Village, with an altitude almost 10,000 feet above the box canyon that is Telluride.
The party starts on the bumpy ride in the small propeller plane from Denver airport, which takes its 30-plus passengers, who have arrived from various parts of the country, to Montrose, where vans and rental cars complete the 1.5-hour drive on curving two-lane mountain roads to Telluride.
Food and sleep take second place to the film screenings despite the fact that Telluride boasts some excellent restaurants. My only real meals after Thursday evening’s salad at a local tavern were the Friday night opening banquet and the Labor Day picnic – both included in the $650 price of the festival pass. Determined to attend as many of the 40 programs as possible, my modus operandi is to grab an apple, slice of pizza, or other snack while waiting on line. Other festivalgoers subsist on hot dogs, muffins, popcorn, candy bars, and coffee.
While I go to Telluride alone, because no friend or relative is interested in seeing four or five films a day, I never am alone. The conversation at the theaters, waiting in line, walking in town, everywhere, centers on film – what you’ve seen and what you think of the films. Almost everyone is a repeat visitor – I’m practically a novice at eight years.
There are other activities in this mountain paradise and some film-goers take time out for hiking, mountain biking, golf, shopping or just strolling along the San Miguel River path. The luxury resorts at Mountain Village offer massage and other spa services as well as gourmet dining.
The festival screens 20 new films carefully selected by a panel that includes a guest director – this year author Don DeLillo. In addition, there are retrospectives, tributes to living stars, some older films of historical interest and panel discussions with industry luminaries. A small group of talented student film-makers is on hand and several programs feature their work.
Tom Luddy, festival co-director, noted that managing to see 1/3 of the 40 programs was laudable; I made it to 15. My acquaintances, the Hogans, from Hunterdon County, told me they’d done 19.
Telluride is unlike the other major film festivals – Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Sundance – because it is small, friendly, un-businesslike, and manageable in size. Celebrities blend in readily with festivalgoers and no one requests autographs or calls attention to them. Because almost everyone is in jeans or shorts, sans makeup or coiffed hair, it’s not easy to differentiate the stars from the non-famous. Celebrities who were there to talk about their movies included Andy Garcia (Lost City), Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations with Other Women), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), William H. Macy (Edmond), Mickey Rooney and Charlotte Rampling (special tributes for their long careers), and Telluride regulars documentary maker Ken Burns and the directors Peter Bogdonovich and Peter Sellers.
At one film, I sat next to Neil Jordan, director of The Crying Game, and our conversation before the lights went down dealt with American politics, the calamity in New Orleans, and his jet lag from the long trip from Ireland. Jordan was there to introduce his new comedy, Breakfast on Pluto. When I said I was from Princeton, he told me that Paul Muldoon and he are good friends.
Telluride, an old mining town, is about the size of Princeton. Featuring Victorian-era architecture, the town is a National Historic Landmark District. The enhanced miners’ cabins are now million dollar homes and a new luxury resort, Mountain Village, has been built on top of the mountain.
The town is easily and enjoyably walkable for most people. A sixth theater, a conference center the rest of the year, is at Mountain Village and reached by a free gondola ride up the mountain. One little gem,tThe Opera House, dates to 1913 and is sometimes called "The Victorian Lady." Professional state-of-the-art screening and sound equipment is brought into two school spaces and dismantled after the festival. The Minnie (135 seats) returns to life as a climbing gym and the Galaxy (500 seats) is once again the middle school gym.
The Abel Gance Open Air Cinema shows films free to townspeople and festivalgoers every evening. Our own Palmer Square filmings outdoors this summer reminded me of this scene – except for the surrounding mountains.
I discovered Telluride in 1998 when I signed up for a Smithsonian tour to the film festival. I’ve been hooked ever since and expect to attend every year so long as I can walk.
To me and many others I spoke with, this was the best year in many at Telluride. This was not a happy festival. Laughs and light entertainment were not prevalent. But if art is something that changes one, the films I saw qualify. The viewer is brought into the characters’ conflict, emotion and pain and is changed internally by these experiences, whether the scene is Wyoming, Cuba, Budapest, Ethiopia, Israel, Auschwitz, Palestine, or New York City.
Three of the 15 screenings I attended had personal relevance to me. Live and Become is the masterpiece of Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu, who spent five years researching Operation Moses, the airlift that relocated the persecuted Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the mid-’80s. It’s a fictional story about one Ethiopian boy who was substituted for a Jewish boy who died in Africa and follows his life as he is adopted by a French Leftist Israeli family, and grows up conflicted and determined to find his mother in Africa who sacrificed him so he might live. He becomes a doctor and marries an Israeli girl.
I was drawn to this film because my young friend, Joyce Miller of West Orange, was a volunteer with Operation Moses and later created a cottage industry making baskets for the Ethiopian women who were resettled in Israel. The 400 or so bleary eyed filmgoers who attended the 8:30 a.m. showing on the last day of the festival were unanimous in their praise for this work. This masterpiece covers every possible aspect of what was going on in Israel, not only with the Ethiopians. I cannot to praise it enough.
The distributor told me that he’ll start by showing this in black and Jewish institutions and on college campuses before it hits the theaters. He is hoping it will resonate with positive political action with regard to today’s famine situations in Africa. I’ve already contacted Esther Robbins in the Middle East Department at Princeton about this film.
Andy Garcia’s Lost City took me back to the Havana I visited as a student in 1957 before Castro came into power. Garcia, who left Cuba at the age of five, spent 16 years working on this love story to his native land. It is based on Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s novel "Three Trapped Tigers: The Ulysses of Cuba." Garcia both directs and stars, playing a cabaret owner who tries to rise above the political fray but finds his family, his business, and his life torn apart along with his country. Bill Murray is the Greek chorus who provides an absurdist commentary on history as it unfolds and Dustin Hoffman plays Meyer Lansky, who wants Garcia to bring gambling to his nightclub.
Fateless, the story of the travails of Gyuri, a Jewish teenager from Budapest in World War II, brought to mind the life of my friend Jasha Levi of Plainsboro who had to leave his home in Yugoslavia to flee the Nazis. While Gyuri was sent to a concentration camp, Jasha was saved from that fate by the Italians. But both returned after the war to the destruction of their cities and the loss of their homes. Jasha even came upon his family’s furniture going by on a horse-driven wagon. Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz adapted this screenplay from his autobiographical novel. Fateless is a haunting reminder of the impossibility of understanding the Holocaust. The hope for a future comes at the end when Gyuri, determined to build a new life, feels that he has endured the impossible – now he can do anything. And Jasha has lived a full and valuable life as well
So many films were special. Look for Brokeback Mountain, a heartbreaking story about two cowboys who are drawn together despite themselves to create a bond that lasts the rest of their lives. In this sensitive adaptation of a short story by Annie Proulx, we live through this story of the power and pain of then-forbidden love (it’s 1963 and they’ve had strict religious upbringing) that continues through the marriages of both men. In an exquisite background of Alberta, Canada doubling for Wyoming, the men live their own "same time next year", planning simulated hunting and fishing trips to get away from wives and children. Ang Lee directed Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in this intensely emotional outdoor movie.
Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an Academy Award worthy performance as the writer Truman Capote in Capote, which follows his six-year involvement in the story of the brutal murder of a Kansas farm family and resulted in his non-fiction epic, In Cold Blood.
In Conversations with Other Women Helena Bonham-Carter and Aaron Eckhart, a couple divorced for many years, meet at a wedding and spend a flirtatious and then passionate night remembering and regretting. An innovative split-screen technique allows the viewer to experience his and her points of view simultaneously. A stunning Bonham-Carter seems to be poured into her pink bridesmaid’s gown. I enjoyed the flashbacks to the youthful hippies the characters were when they met and fell in love.
Breakfast on Pluto, from Neil Jordan of The Crying Game, stars Cillian Murphy as a boy born to be different, an Irish transvestite. Back home I’d just seen Murphy in Red Eye where he plays a terrorist with a face that seemed elastic as it portrayed his varied moods. No role could be more different than his rendition of Patrick Brady in Pluto. Adorned in gorgeous costumes, wigs, and makeup, Murphy swaggers through a series of hilarious adventures through Ireland and London as he searches for his long lost mother. Liam Neeson plays a priest with a past and the film also features Stephen Rea and Brendan Gleeson. The film features a great soundtrack of smooth rock and other music of the 1970s.
Bee Season stars Richard Gere playing a professor of theology who studies Kabbala. He brings the mysticism home to his brilliant daughter who gets to the nationals in a spelling bee. Juliette Binoche plays the mother in this drama of family conflict, secrets, and pain.
Paradise Now tells the story of two suicide bombers and how they got there. I was eager to see this controversial film that shows daily life in Gaza under Israeli occupation. But while many at the festival considered this film was a masterpiece, I didn’t feel it captured the possible depth of its subject matter.
Three films I was sorry to miss that received positive word of mouth are Everything is Illuminated, Liv Schreiber’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s prize-winning novel; Walk the Line, a biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter that stars Reese Witherspoon; and Sisters In Law, a documentary about strong women and domestic abuse in Cameroon, Africa. I will make every effort to see these after they are released.
Among other films shown were Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan; Iron Island, a documentary from Iran; The President’s Last Bang from Korea; and several others that space does not permit me to describe. Can’t wait until next year.