I’m reeling now that I’m back at sea level after Labor Day weekend in the gorgeous San Juan Mountains of Colorado — altitude almost 10,000 feet. During my 10th visit to the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day weekend, I laughed, cried, learned, and marveled through 19 programs.
This is a weekend of total immersion in film. Except for the opening night banquet and Labor Day barbecue/picnic/ice cream social, food is carried or grabbed and eaten while waiting to get into a theater. Sleep suffers but I don’t feel tired as the momentum of the program carries me through from the 9 a.m. screening to 11 or 12 at night.
The interesting community of film lovers who assemble here from all over the world is an extended family of people who know and love movies, many of whose annual calendars have included Telluride for 20 and even 30 years. I’m a novice in the group. Everyone talks to everyone — in line, on the street, getting coffee, in the van to the airport in Montrose — an hour and a half away — and on the small plane to Denver or Salt Lake City to make connections for home. There’s no caste system here, although the crowd ranges from film students — two I met came by bus from LA and Denver to save money — to luminaries who own multi-million dollar homes on the mountain and fly into the small Telluride airport in their private planes.
Unlike other festivals the program here is kept secret until the morning the festival begins. There are always some world premieres, some Palm d’Or winners from Cannes, and some sneak previews. Juno, one of my favorites, was completed just two days before the festival started. And the van that took me back to the airport was carrying several cans of film destined for the Toronto festival, which always follows Telluride.
In addition to new films, Telluride honors the past with an impressive array of restored and rediscovered older films. There are also panel discussions and interviews in the park during the day.
In the past there were always a few surprises that were universally admired and talked about throughout the weekend — films like Brokeback Mountain, Kinsey, Neverland, Capote, Lives of Others, Last King of Scotland, Namesake, and Babel, to name a few. But for this, the 34th annual festival, while there were several universal favorites, opinions seemed more varied. There seemed to be more smaller films, many of interest and value, and certainly worth a visit to Montgomery Theater or the Garden when they arrive here, but somehow less exciting than the blockbusters of the past.
Because Telluride is informal and low key, it’s easy to chat with filmmakers and stars who are on hand to present their films as well as to just hang out and enjoy movies. I found myself sitting next to Telluride regular Werner Herzog for the screening of the Korean film, Secret Sunshine. This year Herzog was there to present the world premiere of his documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, which searches for meaning among the scientists, wanderers, and bizarre creatures he finds in Antarctica. While waiting for the movie to start, I asked Herzog if he agreed that this festival didn’t seem to be up to the excitement of others. “There are vintage years,” he says. “There are never more than five great films in a year, and this may not be a good vintage.”
But that was Saturday morning. In the next two days, I felt things beginning to warm up.
Telluride is in a box canyon, about the size of Princeton, with six theaters equipped with state of the art screening and Dolby sound, two of which return after the festival to school gymnasiums and one is the Mason’s Hall. In addition there is an outdoor theater in the middle of town, similarly equipped technologically and another venue that reverts to a conference center in Mountain Village above the town which is reached with a spectacular free gondola ride up the mountain.
Through the miracle of film, I attended a sleezy abortion in Romania, a kidnapping in Korea, human trafficking in the mountains of China, teen-aged pregnancy in Minnesota, a rehabilitation hospital in France, an interview with Ingmar Bergman in the Faro Islands, and an encounter in New York with an amazing 92-year old actress-model. I “traveled” to Israel where a group of Egyptian musicians gets lost and experiences warm hospitality from local residents, to a Nazi concentration camp where a group of talented Jewish artists and printers are organized by their captors to make counterfeit pounds and dollars, to Iceland for a mystery dealing with genetic research, to China and Korea for fascinating human dramas reflecting contemporary issues and problems, and to France for a documentary about how the West used Nazi criminals to hunt Communists after World War II.
The word on the street was that festival organizers expected the hit of the weekend to be I’m Not There, the Todd Haynes movie which A.O. Scott of the New York Times has already referred to as “about (or not about, or inspired by, or having something to do with) Bob Dylan.” This was, to me, a deconstructed life of the singer which, with its six stars playing Dylan at different phases of his life (but not chronologically) with imagined scenes from history thrown in. It has been described as a Chinese box of allusion and pastiche. I felt it was like reading Finnegan’s Wake in Chinese. But the buzz says that Cate Blanchett’s Dylan is Academy Award material. If you were a fan of the singer and can understand the references to Billy the Kid, played by a bearded Richard Gere, a black pre-teen Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s Christian conversion, and all the other aspects of his life — and there were a few at Telluride who did — you’ll enjoy this movie. I left bewildered and mystified.
My recommendations for must-see films for the year ahead are four that were praised by everyone I talked to:
There was hardly a dry eye in the theater during When Did You Last See Your Father, based on the British best-selling memoirs of author Blake Morrison. Colin Firth plays Blake, who from childhood is squelched by a father (Jim Broadbent) who is a boisterous, devious egotist. As a sensitive boy and later happily married and a successful writer, he is always frustrated by the ongoing pain of the damaged relationship with his father. He returns to his childhood home as his father is dying for the confrontation he has never been able to have.
Director Arand Tucker told us that during the shooting “the crew was weeping as they talked about their own relationships with their fathers, alongside the talk of football and everything else.”
I almost skipped Juno when I read that it was about a 16-year-old who becomes pregnant. But the word of mouth was so great on this one that I succumbed. And I was glad. (After the initial screening, popular films are repeated to give you more than one chance to see them.) Juno (Ellen Page) is a smart, sassy 16-year-old with a head of a 40-year-old. Author Diablo Cody, discovered through her comic blog, has created a witty script with lots of twists and surprises, and we can’t help but love this dynamite girl who is able to figure things out, work it all out with her family.
The Counterfeiters is this year’s Lives of Others. The young Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky told the audience that his grandparents were Nazis, and that he had a great need to tell truths about that era. When he unearthed the little known story of Operation Bernhard, he knew he’d found his material. This is the story of an operation the Nazis set up to flood Britain and America with counterfeit money, thereby crippling the world economy.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Julian Schnabel’s heartrending film about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle Magazine who was left paralyzed and speechless after a stroke at the age of 42. Schnabel won the best director prize at Cannes for this movie, which flashes back to Bauby’s glamorous life, his loving family, and his hobnobbing with the fashion elite. Despite the subject matter, the film becomes uplifting as therapists devise a way for the patient to “write” his novel through a painstaking method of blinking his eye — an ability that he retains after the stroke — to indicate various letters of the alphabet. The well-known Max von Sydow plays Bauby’s father.
There was only praise for Persepolis, from the multi-volume graphic novel of that name. It is a coming of age story in an environment of political repression. And there was positive word of mouth for Sean Penn’s sad Into the Wild, the tragedy of a solo journey into a remote wilderness of Alaska. Jar City, the Icelandic crime story, has a genetic twist. My Enemy’s Enemy is the documentary I referred to earlier about how the West used Nazi war criminals to help in the fight against Communism.
Director Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, his wife, who co-stars with Nicole Kidman in Margo at the Wedding, were on hand for the introduction. Leigh looks about 12 years old! The film was a mishmash of sibling rivalry and neurosis that I found more annoying than interesting.
I went to two fascinating short films in a new Telluride venue, The Back Lot, an intimate theater built in the local library. Bergman Island was a lengthy interview in which Ingmar Bergman opens up about his passions, fears, and daily routines, with flashbacks of his work and the women in his life.
Hats Off is the inspiring story of Mimi Weddell, now 92, recently featured in New York Magazine, an actress and model who does commercials and has appeared in Sex and the City, Law and Order, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and other films. Weddell, who was in the audience, has more energy than a lot of 40-year-olds I know. The film shows her routine of tap dancing lessons, pilates classes, walking all over New York, attending auditions, and living an active, meaningful life. Leaving the theater, I walked up to her and asked her if she ever got depressed. She answered affirmatively and said that when she does she just bends down and touches her toes.