Telluride Film Festival or Bust!
The Telluride Film Festival is known as the crown jewel of the nearly 2000 annual film festivals in this country. “It’s as if Cannes died and went to heaven,” says film critic and yearly attendee, Roger Ebert. High in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, nestled in box canyon embraced by a monolithic rock amphitheater, the Telluride Film Festival is four days of movie-going heaven. This is not a place where high-stakes deals are made and stars duck into to over-priced shops to avoid exasperating paparazzi. This is a place where one is just as likely to sit at a table across from a movie star or filmmaker at dinner as one is to find oneself standing beside them in line, waiting for a film to begin. The casual, relaxed Colorado lifestyle is king and it has bred an atmosphere of intimacy and informality that makes it a welcome breath of fresh air for the attending professionals bogged down by a much faster pace of life.
Unlike other film festivals, Telluride doesn’t announce its program in advance, preferring to let the films, rather than their publicity machines, take center stage. Films from around the world, new and old—many that you couldn’t see anywhere else and may never see again—are shown in outdoor parks, opera houses, lodges, theatres, and sumptuously converted school spaces.
Individual pass-holder tickets begin around $350 and go up to several thousand! We were festival goers on the cheep. We quickly identified those shows and lectures that were free, bought a limited, special pass that got us into all the of the festival’s midnight showings (quite an obligation when your campsite is an hour away!) and chose those films for which we were willing to stand in line for over an hour—the majority of the films—with the pass-holders, admitted for a $20 ticket only after they had been let in and there was still room.
For the first show of the first evening, we went with a classic. Film critic Leonard Maltin gave a brief introduction and history before the lights dimmed and the screen burned with a newly restored print of the original King Kong. Certainly hokey at times, the over 70 year old film that has inspired this Christmas’ Peter Jackson remake is still startlingly good and technically brilliant.
The midnight movies were held at the local high school’s theatre auditorium. The film was Edmond adapted from the David Mamet play by the same name. While waiting for the show to begin, I glanced over and recognized William H. Macy (Fargo, Magnolia, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) the film’s star, sitting a few seats over. I quickly went over and introduced myself. The film is an exceptionally brutal and dark comedy about a white-collar guy who decides to leave his posh but listless life behind and instead live honestly and authentically with his fellow man. Unfortunately, the world is not ready for such a soul and, it seems, neither is the man in possession of it. Bloody tragedy is the result.
William H. Macy
Saturday, we decided to start the day taking in a Q&A conversation with Leonard Maltin and Andy Garcia (The Godfather III, The Untouchables, When a Man Loves a Woman, Ocean’s 11) about Garcia’s directorial debut in The Lost City about a Havana night club owner caught in the middle of the Marxist takeover of Cuba. The conversation was informative and fascinating, even though I think I was the only one attending you didn't cheer when Garcia said he and others are trying to convince Francis Ford Coppola to make a fourth Godfather movie. What’s the matter with these people!?
Next on Saturday was Brokeback Mountain, a film which showed for the first time Friday night but whose screening was delayed by an hour after the Venice Film Festival, running concurrently, called to ask that it be bumped back so that the film could have its world premiere in Venice. Directed by Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) the ravishingly gorgeous film is about two rugged cowboys, Heath Ledger (A Knight’s Tale, Monster’s Ball) and Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Donnie Darko) who fall in love…with each other.
The final film of the day was the one I was the most excited about at the festival, Everything is Illuminated. The film marks the directorial debut of Liev Schreiber (Scream, RKO 281, The Manchurian Candidate), an actor whom, I think, is a titanic talent. Needless to say, when I saw him hiding in the shadows at the back of the theater, I had to meet him. As uproarious as it is heartbreaking, Everything is Illuminated, adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s prize-winning novel and starring The Lord of the Ring’s Elijah Wood is a quixotic, melancholy and quirky film about a young Jewish man’s search to discover how his grandfather survived the Nazi scourge in the Ukraine. But as the film unfolds, we learn that Wood’s search is merely a MacGuffin of sorts—the real reckonings and revelations lie with those he meets in the midst of his search. Easily one of the best films of the year and certainly my favorite film since this summer’s staggering, Crash.
It seems everyone was eager to get in on a conversation between William H. Macy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain) the next morning and the majority of them were pass-holders. So much for that idea. Still it wasn’t a total loss. We were still able to see Hoffman as well as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz) while we waited in line.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
While it would have been an engrossing conversation, it allowed us ample time to get in line early for a lecture by writer and director, Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon). Clad in a dress shirt complete with flowing cravat, Bogdanovich regaled the crowd to stories of his time spent with such legendary actors and directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Wells. His inimitable wit and his spot-on impersonations made for one of the festival’s most delicious treats. I later had a conversation with him about the actor’s personality vs. their persona at a coffee shop while he signed a copy of his latest book.
Our next attempt was to see Paradise Now, a film we have wanted to see for some time, about two Palestinian suicide bombers who plan on attacking an Israeli bus but begin having second thoughts. Obviously we weren't the only ones who thought it looked extraordinary. We never had a chance of making it into this one.
After the rain cleared, we saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s new film, Capote about the life of writer and socialite, Truman Capote. Sure to generate lots of Oscar buzz, this elegant and sumptuously made film focuses on the monstrously self-absorbed Capote’s writing of “In Cold Blood” about the brutal slayings of a Kansas farm family and the author’s subsequent years-long tortured relationship with their murderers. Very, very good.
I wish I could say the same for Sunday’s midnight movie, Bee Season based on Myla Goldberg’s novel. While a husband (Richard Gere of Pretty Woman, Primal Fear and Chicago) avoids his collapsing marriage by immersing himself in his 11 year-old daughter's quest to become a spelling bee champion, his wife (Juliette Binoche of The English Patient and Chocolat) begins a downward emotional spiral towards madness. It sounds like a perfectly acceptable story and the trailer seems to present a fascinating and idiosyncratic film about family love and hardship. Don’t let it fool you. Once you throw in some heavy-handed Kabalan preaching, a hotel exorcism, an inexplicable plummet towards insanity and an unbelievable experimentation with Eastern mysticism, you have a very beautiful and well-acted film that is nonetheless muddled and absolutely incoherent. This is the sort of film that had numerous story threads that should never have been intertwined. I spell this movie W-E-I-R-D.
The final day of the festival, Monday, we once again attempted to see Paradise Now. Once again, we were turned away. Scurrying to another theater, be made it into Iron Island an Iranian film dealing in metaphor with the totalitarian oppression of the religious regime and the brave but ultimately doomed defiance of the young.
Stuck with the prospect of a schedule listing a battery of films we’d already seen, we choose to attend “Great Expectations” next. No, it wasn’t a filmic adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, but rather a series of four short films from up-and-coming young directors. Hosted by experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (of the Qatsi trilogy—see my June blog, Frankenstein's Monster), this session yielded my absolute favorite film of the festival, Rain is Falling.
Filmed on location in Morocco, Rain is Falling is suffused with luxurious images which contain an almost mystic message that comes across perfectly and precisely without any dialogue whatsoever. A young, beautiful girl who acts with an almost eerie serenity, must protect her terribly ill mother from a torrential downpour which threatens to seep in from every nook and cranny of their mud and timber roof. It is an inspiring vision of selflessness in an overwhelmingly difficult situation. The director, German Holger Ernst writes, “The devotedness and elementary relationship of love and humanity lifts up the most simple action to redemption. Intuitive images weave themselves into a poetic narrative structure. Slowness and atmosphere build up to a cinematic climax, that uncovers the small, the beauty of the simple and natural, that may bridge human as well as cultural gaps.” Haunting and utterly masterful. You will probably never have a chance to see this short film and I assure you, your life is the poorer for it.
After “Great Expectations,” I attempted to get into Paradise Now one last time. Nada.