This was my first experience at Telluride. I’ve been to little bits of lots of film festivals, from Berlin to Sundance to Portland and in between, but I’ve never gone to a destination just for a festival. I can now say that this is a great place to go, if you can get here.
It’s five to six hours of driving from Denver, so the place isn’t handy for anyone except the locals. This means everyone really wants to be there. The mood in the town is mixed. Important people are trying to get themselves in front of other important people. Townies are weary after a summer full of festivals (Telluride has officially blocked off one long weekend every summer for a Nothing Festival, where no major planned events take place whatsoever). And people like me are reveling in the chance to live for a few days in this amazing setting, in the midst of awe-inspiring scenery and colorful and expressive people who love film as much as I do but for their entirely unique reasons. I spent my four festival days sharing a condo with friends and going to films, which meant a lot of standing in lines and talking with people. Each of the people I spoke with was interesting, from the well-traveled mathematics teacher to the working Turkish student to the ten-year-old at a private school to the couple from Jacksonville, Florida — and the latter weren’t even there for the festival.
Although the films were the focus, the festival experience just reminded me how many stories there are in the world, on screen and off. Here are some of my most memorable moments in the festival’s films and at the festival.
Spirit of the Beehive is a 1970s masterpiece, recently found and slated for impending release on Criterion. Beehive is akin to a Francois Truffaut film in its acceptance of children’s points of view. After a young girl sees the film Frankenstein she coincidentally has her eyes opened to evils in her own world. Watching this six-year-old’s face as she takes in the enormity of how her life is changing is transfixingly beautiful and crushingly sad.
One salient factoid about this film is a stunning one: Beehive’s cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado, was going blind while he filmed this story about a girl who shelters a refugee. His sometimes somber and static images of light on stone or glowing through a window in the evening, give substance to the environment and the emotional moods of this beautifully textured and weighty film. The 2005 film Bee Season is likely to find a short broad release window in a theater near you before Thanksgiving. It’s a family picture: Richard Gere and Juliet Binoche show the strains of their own agendas on their marriage, while their daughter shows it’s quite possible that some of us are indeed sages. Flora Cross plays a lovely, self-possessed nine-year-old with great wisdom. She gets to travel once she unlocks the keys to the Kabballah, which her father has given to his daughter after failing to achieve magic himself. Birds show her how to spell and she wins spelling bee after bee.
Binoche is truly frightening as a mother who loses her center, disappearing into a secret world of her own making. Props to Max Minghella for his portrayal of the Hare-Krishna-obsessed older brother.
The film is by directing partners David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who have directed The Deep End and the eerie Suture. Here they’ve created a lush portrait of a privileged family that splinters under pressure. As with Spirit of the Beehive, the filmmakers’ willingness to take the child’s view makes Bee Season lyrical and profound.
Short but Not-So-Sweet Films
Monster is a short film by Jennifer Kent, who introduced it by saying, “I hope it scares you.” It did. Again, the filmmaker takes the child’s side: This time there really is a monster. The boy’s mother brilliantly goes through the stages of acceptance: At first she does not believe her child. Then she sees the creature for herself and recoils. Ultimately, she takes matters into her own hands and restores order, as every kid knows his mom should.
A creative young Spanish filmmaker imagined life backwards in The Natural Route, with his end being stuck in the womb “never to be heard from again.” His film was a charming and illuminating ride through life in reverse.
While Darwin Sleeps showed 3500 different insects, about one percent of the total number of unique insects on the planet, animation-style. As bugs morph into other bugs for a few minutes, their variety and similarities across species makes for a fascinating spin through natural history. (Director Paul Bush says: “No insects were harmed in the making of this film, by me.”)
The biggest buzz may have been for Capote, with Telluride attendee Philip Seymour Hoffman attempting to channel the flamboyant writer of In Cold Blood. Hoffman participated in a wonderful panel discussion about acting at the little park downtown. He and William Macy, Liev Schreiber, Helena Bonham-Carter, Aaron Elkind, and talked about how they build characters and about how they work best. (Charlotte Rampling, one of the festival’s honorees. was supposed to be there but didn’t make it to the panel discussion.) I also met the screenwriter on the street without realizing who he was. True dork confession: I wheeled my bicycle and went on for a minute about how much I like his TV show (he’s a regular on Judging Amy), but I was completely oblivious to the fact that Dan (aka Danny Boy) Futterman wrote the screenplay for Capote. I’ll never forget that fact now, will I?
Edmond also got a lot of buzz as a “disturbing” film, largely because William H. Macy was one of the Telluride Film Fest’s high-profile attendees this year.
The next-biggest buzz may have been about Brokeback Mountain, a film based on a short story by Annie Proulx. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about over this one, except the obvious fact that the two cowboys are gay. My litmus test : What if Jake Gyllenhaal’s character was a woman? The story would have been equally dull in spots and perhaps as truly sexy as this one is. But it was a slow and over-long film. I hate to say this because I usually like Ang Lee’s direction. I could talk about the film’s “stunning beauty” but it would just be a euphemism for “slower than a rock.” The new-age score just adds to the milquetoast feel. The story spans a decade over which two men, after falling in love one summer, drift apart and marry women. They are each other’s “other woman,” an unusual scenario in the 1960s and ’70s. But I found their unresolvable drama repetitive and wearying over time. While Heath Ledger’s portrayal of a homophobic gay man had my shoulders in knots, Jake Gyllenhaal’s fishwife of a so-called “fishing buddy” never convinced me, nor did Anne Hathaway as Jack Twist’s glamorous wife.
Sisters are Doing it for Themselves
My top marks for the festival go to Sisters in Law, a documentary about a courtroom in Cameroon where justice actually prevails, in the forms of lawyer Vera Ngassa and judge Beatrice Ntuba. I wish every world leader could watch their shining examples of how a couple of people — and a filmmaker — go about matter-of-factly making a difference in the lives of several desperately abused women and children. Over the course of the film, the court convicts three abusers, two men and a woman, to prison and hard labor. You may wish you had your hankie by this point. But the lawyer isn’t finished with these people: She visits the woman in prison later to make sure she has the medicines she needs, too. She has not a shred of that locking-the-door-and-throwing-away-the-key mentality I see so much of in my country’s tough-on-crime politicians and law enforcers.
In the question-and-answer session following Sisters in Law, director Kim Longinotto (Divorce, Iranian Style) was asked a question about whether having a film crew on hand influenced any of the outcomes in the three court cases followed in this film. She said she didn’t think things would have been done differently in the courtroom without her presence — and her large camera — but she said she couldn’t be certain.
Longinotto said instead that her influence was more obvious in that her bearing witness appeared to give these women and children some of the courage and strength they needed to persevere through the court system with their complaints about their attackers. Someone flattered Longinotto by asking whether this kind of filming could be institutionalized, since it is clearly such a source of justice and support for these women, and I thought, that’s what film is all about, isn’t it! Shining light on something that makes life better for people who see it, and the people who live it. Sisters in Law is a film far more suspenseful and satisfying than any episode of Law & Order, any Nancy Drew mystery novel, because these are real triumphs for real people.
Breakfast of Champions
I also thoroughly enjoyed Neil Jordan’s latest film, Breakfast on Pluto (most famous for The Crying Game). Young Patrick Braden spends much of his/her life trying to get everyone to call him/her Patricia “Kitten” Braden in this charmingly spun yarn about identity, friendship, and family. Braden is a tragic character whose hurts and joys are writ large on actor Cillian Murphy’s expressive and beautiful face.
The Gritty Details
After seeing a bunch of great films, we went to the bar at the New Sheridan Opera House for a drink. The Beeck Sisters, Robin, Kathy, and Shelly, were holding court there, with little breaks for promoting the next Boulder International Film Festival. They rushed out of the bar with postcards but twice found that the line of people they were expecting to find had already gone inside the theater. The Beecks returned to the bar, handed out some more postcards about the Presidents’ Day weekend festival, and went back out in the rain again. My little group left in search of some music to dance to, but after a few minutes’ walk in the rain with no luck we abandoned that idea. It seemed that there was not much energy for anything but film among most of this crowd.
Note that if you ever decide to brave the long trip for this festival, Telluride is still an expensive proposition. Prices for food, lodging, and drinks are as steep as the surrounding mountain faces. You can camp, but it’s fall and bears are stocking up on winter fat at this time of year. (Every camper I spoke with had bear activity in or near their camps. ) And if you don’t buy one of the passes, which start at $325 and sell out early, admission to the films is $20 each. I got into everything I tried to see; my friend wasn’t so lucky and passholders beat her to all the spots at Paradise Now, a film about Palestinian suicide bombers. (It’s likely she’ll get to see it anyway, as it’s slated for a November release by Warner Independent Pictures.)
But perhaps the steep prices are worth it: Every festival venue is well appointed, there are several large theatres, and everything is extremely well organized, from my perspective. But don’t leave your cell phone ringer on: A man sitting near me was ejected from the theatre for not turning his phone off and getting a call. The security guy stood over him until he left.