Film festivals are a mixed bag. They’re a treat for movie lovers: the sheer density of time spent watching vetted and culled films is a rush. But festivals are also unreal. Nobody talks about the bad movies, so all you hear is that everything is good, which is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Festivals are also exhausting. Sitting for two hours in a row, six times a day, is not good for ass, brain, or eyes. I had to stop wearing my contacts after Saturday because my left eye was swollen the next morning.
I think I’ve recovered - mostly - from this year’s Telluride film festival, which took place over Labor Day weekend. And here’s what I can tell you.
A friend of mine who programs a local film series goes to two film festivals: Telluride and Sundance. And while he won’t outright badmouth Sundance, if you get him started comparing the two, it’s clear his favorite is Telluride.
“The thing about Telluride is that it’s not competitive, it’s not a market. And it’s in a box canyon that you have to ride 8 hours in your car to get to.” These conditions, he maintains, make Telluride exclusive. It’s not exclusive as in “only the rich can afford to go.” In fact, many moviegoers camp in town for $15 a night or outside of town for free. The exclusivity is more self-imposed. Only fanatic movie-lovers endure the trip. Hollywood shills looking to do a little business will find Telluride more trouble than it’s worth, compared to Sundance, which is competitive, which is a market for films, and which is easily accessed by major highways.
Telluride, he says, is all about the movies.
As a final piece of evidence, he points out that unlike other festivals, Telluride actually showcases a lot of older films that otherwise would never see the light of a projector. “They do a good job of clueing people in to the past as well as the future, showing restored prints as well as current cinema.”
As we rolled into town, our carpooler dropped off t-shirts at the book store. He would be signing his book the next day, a celebrity in our own car. I caught myself eyeing people on the street, wondering if I’d see anyone recognizably famous, and then I mentally slapped my own wrist. “That’s not what Telluride is about,” I told myself. I remembered a fellow critic’s dig at people on a press junket eyeing him to see if he was Somebody Important, or just another schmo. I didn’t want to be the sort of person who looked at other people that way. (A day later, when I asked our carpool celebrity how his own “stargazing” was going, he said “That’s not what Telluride is about,” confirming my suspicions that it was uncool to gawk.)
So we rolled past the bookstore, and up to our condo. Standing right behind us, and checking an outdoor locker, was the director of one of my favorite films, a man I had interviewed and met in Boulder, Godfrey Reggio. Cool.
Walking back into town, we heard a woman telling her friends in a fawning voice, that she had heard Roger Ebert was staying at such-and-such a hotel, so they’d have to drop by to see if they could catch a glimpse. Not cool. (And what a hypocrite I am!)
Later in the weekend, the buzz on the gondola was that Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp were somewhere in town. Whether they really were or not, I couldn’t say, and I’d like to believe that I don’t really care, either.
Aggressive Art Appreciation
I suppose celebrity-watching is human nature. It seems irrational, but I’m sure there is some evolutionary reason why our brains seek out those with status. Maybe we hope to have some of it rub off on us (although that’s hardly ever true: if your friend says “I saw George Lucas having lunch with Harrison Ford” do you really respect them any more?)
But there is one aspect to film festivals that has been partially explained by behavioral psychologists, namely, art appreciation. Art appreciation is a status symbol, subject to the same evolutionary spirals that give us peacock tails, cuckoo birds, and harmless snakes that look poisonous. Those who “get” art also gain a certain status among their peers. Those who don’t get it are merely unwashed masses. It’s roughly the same brainwave what tells us that the naked emperor really does have a fine suit of clothes, but elevated to the realm of snobbery and hipness. There’s also a certain status in being the first to dismiss a work of art as passé. So recommending a “difficult” film to complete strangers earns you points, while dismissing the popular crowd-pleaser can do the same.
If the film festival were held for just you, you could approach each film on your own terms and like it or dislike it based on how it speaks to you. Thankfully, this is mostly how it goes. But it is impossible to completely ignore the “art-appreciation spiral” at a festival attended by so many hipsters, critics, and aficionados. Luckily, this can also be entertaining; it’s often fun to eavesdrop on a conversation (there are many opportunities for this at Telluride) where someone is clearly playing The Game, in addition to simply having a conversation.
How it Works
Another unique aspect to Telluride, as compared to other festivals, is that everybody pays to attend. Press do not get in for free. Only guests presenting films (presumably) get free passes — and even there I couldn’t say for sure.
The cheapest way to see movies at Telluride is to buy tickets for $20 apiece. Even if you manage 15 movies, some of them are bound to be free shows, so that’s less than $300. The disadvantage is that you get last choice of seats. You stand in a different line from the passholders, and only after they have filed in do you get to fight for seats.
The cheapest pass is the Acme Pass, at $325. It gets you into any movie at the Chuck Jones Cinema, a converted conference room that seats 500 patrons. But there are a half dozen other venues in Telluride, and the Acme Pass doesn’t get you in to them (with two single-use exceptions).
The Chuck Jones Cinema is not actually in Telluride. It’s in Telluride Mountain Village, which is a 13-minute Gondola ride over a peak and down into a modern little ski town. From the top of the Gondola you can see the picturesque town of Telluride to the north and the precarious-looking airstrip beyond Mountain Village to the southwest. If it weren’t for the gondola, you’d have a much longer ride in your car driving around the mountain from one location to the other.
The regular pass costs $650, and it gets you into any theater, any time, so long as you stand in line early enough to get a seat. Above that are the really expensive passes, costing thousands of dollars. These passes get you into any movie, and you get to cut in line. Not bad, if you can afford it.
But in the end, my wife, who bought tickets, saw as many movies as those in our group who bought the full pass. She attended some free screenings and spent only $140 on tickets, and saw just as many films. Then again, she also spent more time in line, and got turned away from a couple of movies that filled up.
Part of the mystique of Telluride is that they do not announce beforehand what films they will show, or which guests will be coming. We knew that Buck Henry would be co-programming this festival, but aside from that, we were in the dark until we arrived. After lunch on Friday, you could see crowds of people hovering around the information tent, waiting for the official schedule to be released.
In addition, only part of their lineup is announced on Friday afternoon. Each day at midnight (or later), the festival announces the next day’s “TBAs” — time slots at venues where titles had not yet been programmed. Our host and resident expert told us with just a hint of cynicism “The TBAs are part of the chaos that Telluride feels adds to the magic of the festival.” But as first-timers, the TBAs were more exciting and charming that annoying. Perhaps when I’ve attended for as many years as he has, I’ll agree that they are as much “chaos” as “magic.”
I’m not sure how many movies I actually saw. Some of them have faded completely from memory, while others are sure to haunt me for weeks. But of the ones that come to mind, here is a brief list:
The Crowd Pleasers
House of Flying Daggers showed at the free outdoor cinema on Friday (although I saw it at Chuck Jones on Saturday.) It’s the next film from director Zhang Yimou, whose Hero had opened in the U.S. just days before Telluride started. The two make a great pair of movies. Both are martial-arts historical epics with outstanding senses of color. Both also have strong emotional components, ending with larger-than-life loves driving near-mythical endings. Zhang Ziyi, a slight woman of just 25 years introduced the film in good, but broken, English. Seeing her in person, you’d never guess at the power she projects on-screen. The film’s title refers to the rogue house that hopes to overthrow the corrupt government. And although there are scores of extras — fighters who wield swords, throw daggers, and hurl brutal-looking bamboo spears — the film stays close to the personal story of two refugees, each with a secret that they’re will not share.
Bad Education is the first Pedro Almodovar film I’ve seen that hasn’t been tainted by hype from New York, L.A., and all the film festivals it played at before opening in Colorado. Maybe being among the first is the key to appreciating Almodovar’s films. All About My Mother and Talk to Her Were good movies, but failed to live up to the excessive hype they had garnered. Bad Education is also good, with interesting characters, snappy dialogue, and rich cinematography. Gael Garcia Bernal (who you’ll recognize from Y Tu Mama Tambien, and who also stars in The Motorcycle Diaries), plays both an actor/screenwriter and a character in the movie he wrote. The modern story involves the reunion of two friends who went to school together, one of whom was the favorite boy of a pedophile priest. The nested movie is about their childhood together, both at Catholic school, and later, in college, going to movies and hanging around the transvestite bars. As in most of Almodovar’s movies, there is enough shock value to annoy social conservatives, but with endearing, truly human characters whom we can relate to and love.
Being Julia, based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, may have been the best movie I saw at the festival. Masters of the Aggressive Art Appreciation Spiral were the first to scoff at this film as just another crowd-pleaser — mainstream America is sure to find it “artsy” but for the hard-core film crowd at Telluride, it may not have been artsy enough. Nevertheless, Annette Bening gave a wonderful and memorable performance as an actress who finds herself fighting for relevance among an ever-younger crowd of competitors. She draws life from her affair with young Tom, a man nearly half her age, but when he chases the next skirt to come along, Julia becomes jealous, and maybe just a bit disgusted by her own jealousy. When she calms her raging thunderclouds and shows nothing but blue skies, her friends aren’t fooled and start filling sandbags for the storm they are sure will come.
Yes is a movie by Sally Potter. If you know who she is, you’re likely to have an opinion about her, although this was the first film of hers I had seen. I went because I was intrigued by its gimmick — it’s a modern film written in verse. And although that’s what drew me to the film, I enjoyed it almost in spite of the formal speech. Potter said she started writing the film on September 12, 2001, in response to the attacks on New York and Washington. Her story is about an Irish-American woman (Joan Allen) who starts an affair with a Beiruti man living in London. And while the culture clash between “Western” and Muslim may have inspired the film, the personal relationship is what shines through. And even that central relationship isn’t what makes the film ultimately memorable and successful. It takes the class differences between the wealthy (Allen and her husband, played by Sam Neill) and the service workers to really give Yes its bite. The Beiruti’s kitchen co-workers argue politics and race, and the maid gives soliloquies into the camera about the equality of dirt, filth, and life among rich and poor alike.
Adam and Paul opened the festival for me. And while some people called it a downer, I found a lot to like in this light-and-dark film about a pair of Dublin junkies. Right off the bat we know that Adam and Paul are no good. They are so marked by drug abuse that they can’t even really function. They are unapologetically useless. We spend a day with them, watching them bum money and cigarettes from friends, participating in and committing crimes to earn money for their drug habits. And yet, through it all, they remain tragicomic figures, not entirely likeable, but funny enough and human enough to keep us engaged. After the film the writer/star said he was inspired by watching Dublin’s junkies, whom he had never seen growing up, and how childlike, sad, and funny they seemed. The director said they used guerilla filmmaking tactics, which was cheaper and easier than getting permission to shoot in Dublin. They even lucked out by following around a bigger, legitimate production; people just assumed they were part of that film crew and therefore, had permission.
Up and Down turned out not to be quite what I had expected after the first scene. A Czech film, it opens on a pair of bickering truck drivers smuggling refugees into Germany. But after an hour, the film was still introducing new larger-than-life characters, and the truck drivers were hardly a presence. The cartoonish color palette reminded me of Amelie, and two characters recall the baby-loving kidnappers from Raising Arizona. If Up and Down deliberately pays homage to these films, then it does them both justice. Style aside, the film actually has a lot to say about the immigrant experience and about the bureaucracy of living life through its likeable characters.
Student Prints is a show at any film festival that one approaches cautiously. On the one hand, students haven’t seen much of life, so their stories are often naive or obsessive. Student filmmakers cast their friends, which means the acting is often spotty and the casting is often completely unconvincing. But on the other hand, there are usually a lot of submissions, giving judges a larger pool from which to choose. And students are often more creative and inspired than their middle-aged counterparts. In the end, Student Prints was one of the better shows at Telluride. All seven short films were good, and about four were outstanding. Most notable was C-Block Story, made by Cristian Nemescu from Hungary, where apparently film students are allowed the use of cranes. It’s a small game of a film about naivete, love, and an elevator in a housing project. Also noteworthy is Amal, by Richie Mehta, from Canada, about an autorickshaw driver in India. The film takes the form of a fable, with an ending that elevates the film above the quality and competence of the rest of the story. Another favorite, En Spiritsaga, features an unlikely friendship between two high-school “bad girls” and a lonely man whose house they break into.
Wish I’d Seen
It’s impossible to see everything at Telluride, so I let myself see whatever happened to be convenient. But I heard about some films that I wish I had been able to see, and will likely look up at the video store next year.
Unforgivable Blackness is Ken Burns’ latest project, a four-hour documentary on boxer Jack Johnson, and on race relations in America in the first two decades of the 20th century.
Aaltra is dry Scandinavian comedy, apparently in the vein of Man without a Past or Songs from the Second Floor. Dry comedy is admittedly an acquired taste, but one that I have come to savor.
Million Dollar Legs may have been the funniest film to show at Telluride. It’s a re-release of a W.C. Fields comedy with some zany, but spot-on political commentary built into the script.
Keane is another movie with a gimmick, like Yes. It’s a schizophrenic film (shot almost entirely in closeup) about a schizophrenic man, and it got rave reviews from my condo-mates who saw it.
The Bad Ones
When people asked, I said there were no bad movies (was I playing the Aggressive Art Appreciation Spiral Game?). That’s not entirely true. There were movies during which I nearly fell asleep. I don’t say they’re bad because I couldn’t objectively say that it was the movies that put me to sleep and not my own exhaustion. Nevertheless, I saw some movies I wouldn’t recommend.
The person who told me that celebrity-watching wasn’t what Telluride was about was the same guy who told he had taken a picture of George Lucas. Lucas was in town to introduce the re-release of his first feature THX 1138. The new print was digitally projected with the highest of the high-end projectors. (Apparently the first show had a 3-second technical glitch, in spite of redundant backups, but my show was crisp and clear). But beautiful projection wasn’t enough to keep me awake. Earlier stories like 1984 and later movies like Logan’s Run were more entertaining and insightful than this bleak, emotionless film.
Overlord, released originally in 1975, was praised as being a surprising blend of fictional narrative film and historical footage of World War II. I found the blend to be less than seamless, and my initial doubts about using real war footage as a gimmick to tell a story were never completely assuaged. In the end, though, I wasn’t so much troubled as unimpressed.
The least crowd-pleasing show I saw consisted of two Russian films. One was an experimental short-subject movie called Proshaine that confused and annoyed the two patrons next to me, a fact they were willing to share with anyone in earshot. Apparently, these people had never seen experimental film before, and didn’t know how to take it. A film studies class would have helped them immensely. The second part of the show featured a more traditional narrative movie, Harvest Time, but it was slow moving, and again the clods next to me complained all the way through, rather than leaving.
Ironically, they made me like this program better than I would have because of their callous and rude behavior. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I guess I appreciated these films partly in order to put myself above the jerks next to me. Even knowing about the Spiral doesn’t make you less susceptible to it.
In a perfect world, Telluride would be all about the movies, and maybe my friend is right that, compared to Sundance, it is. But Telluride is still a film festival, and until its attendance dwindles to a single person, it won’t be “all” about the movies.