Things to do before you die: skydive, take a hiking trip to New Zealand, visit the seven wonders of the natural world, attend the Telluride Film Festival.
Much has been written about the Telluride Film Festival, now in its 33rd year, and all those articles tend to repeat a familiar refrain: the festival is all about the movies, the setting is second-to-none, everybody loves the experience.
All of those things would be true. It’s hard to write anything about Telluride that hasn’t already been written. It’s difficult to say anything profound that hasn’t already been said. It’s simply a fact that there is a constant cooing about the festival’s character that would be nauseating if it weren’t true.
Telluride, Colo., sits in a box canyon at the foot of the San Juan mountains at an elevation of 8,750 feet. It’s an elevation that’s sent more than one Telluride guest home with altitude sickness. During Labor Day weekend, the population of the town triples and film lovers from all over the world enter to spend five days (usually Thursday through Monday) watching film from 9 a.m. to 1 the next morning. In those five days, attendees often take in up to five films per day and more than 20 films during the entire festival, if they have the stamina.
It would take a platoon of reporters to cover the festival thoroughly. It’s impossible for any one attendee to see all of the film offerings. It’s also impossible to write about the films at Telluride before the festival because the films organizers do not release the list of films until the day the screenings begin on Friday. One of the most exciting aspects of the festival is running to the organizational center, known as Brigadoon, and getting the festival schedule.
As any regular attendee will tell you, half the fun of the Telluride Film Festival is seeing the films; the other half is discussing them with other attendees — talking about them while waiting in line or while sitting on the Gondola. It is a primary element of the Telluride experience. Unlike Sundance or Cannes, the festival is almost entirely about the films and the love of film. Paparazzi are discouraged. Deals aren’t made. Before each film, the audience is urged to shut off all cell phones or risk the wrath of their fellow moviegoers.
Far from standard Hollywood fare
There are big movies at Telluride, but rarely does the festival invite the blatantly commercial. Last year, “Walk the Line” was the closest thing to mainstream the festival offered. This year, director Mira (“Monsoon Wedding”) Nair’s “The Namesake” and director Philip (“Clear and Present Danger”) Noyce’s “Catch a Fire,” both surprise additions to the festival, were the closest things to standard Hollywood fare. Like most Telluride offerings, buzz on both was positive and shows were packed.
If such a generalization is even possible, the average Telluride movie tends to be intellectually stimulating, sometimes exhausting. In 1996, I saw “Breaking the Waves,” “Slingblade,” and “Secrets and Lies” consecutively. Given the difficult nature of the subject-matter and the total running time of well more than seven hours, the experience was dubbed by me and some friends as the “suicide trilogy”. This year’s entrant into that pantheon of stimulating, challenging films was Todd (“In the Bedroom”) Fields’ “Little Children,” which features Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, and in one of his rare roles since “Breaking Away” in 1979, Jackie Earle Haley. The film explores the intertwining relationships of several different characters who are all having difficulty transitioning into adulthood in one way or another.
It is Telluride’s raison d’etre to challenge the filmgoer. Over the years, they have done just that. Sometimes the goal is merely to challenge and other times it is to downright shock. Telluride has shown Gaspar Noe’s “I Stand Alone” and “Irreversible.” It has shown “Gummo.” All of them have sent people running and screaming from theaters.
Bucking the trend of Telluride’s seriousness this year was “Severance,” which one staff member described as “Evil Dead 2” meets “The Office.” Although that description, like most brief movie descriptions, was a bit simplistic, the film revels in turning horror film conventions on their heads as a group of office mates finds themselves terrorized by a renegade group of European military types. While complaints at Telluride are rare, over the years the festival organizers have responded to suggestions for some lighter fare and audiences have been treated to such films as “Rushmore” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
One of my fondest memories of Telluride involves having a conversation with director Ang Lee, who was standing alone outside one of Telluride’s many theaters, waiting for a ride. Another of my best memories is approaching Terry Gilliam and convincing him he should spend some time with a friend of mine, arguably his “biggest fan.” That Gilliam not only did that, but did it with the sort of exuberance one sees in his films, is my most cherished memory of Telluride. It’s one of the things that separates it from other film festivals.
Actors, directors — the people who provide the ink that the festival book is written — are largely accessible to the average person.
A Telluride favorite
One of those accessible people and one of Telluride’s favorites is documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who usually attends Telluride every year whether he has a film or not. This year, he showed the first part of his documentary “War,” an extensive 15-hour film on World War II that examines the effects of the war on four American towns. Afterward, he did a Q-and-A, which is common at Telluride.
Like most years, the festival featured a number of tributes.
This year honored Penelope Cruz, film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, and Australian director Rolf de Heer. Like most years, Telluride featured several programs of short films, called “Student Prints,” “Calling Cards” and “Great Expectations.” Like many people, they’ve become my favorite experiences of the festival. Like many of the other films in the festival, it’s unlikely one may have an opportunity to see them again. Only recently did one of my favorite Telluride films, “Lea,” become available on DVD.
There were far too many films at Telluride this year that I didn’t see and such is the case every year, for every attendee. Forest Whitaker was getting some Oscar buzz for his performance in “The Last King of Scotland,” a fictional film about Idi Amin. “Fur,” an imagined story of photographer Diane Arbus, split audiences, as did Nicole Kidman’s performance. “Infamous” brought the second film about Truman Capote’s experiences writing “In Cold Blood” to Telluride.
“Capote” debuted last year. “Babel” from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who have collaborated on the well-received “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros,” got good buzz as well.
The Telluride Film Festival may be as much about the experience as it is about film. Some people see a film or two and go mountain biking and hiking in between. Some people eat, sleep, and breathe cinema for 16 hours each day.
Others relax and see films at their whim. Ultimately, there is no one Telluride Film Festival experience. What’s universal is that those who go there regularly need it like some people need a cup of coffee in the morning.
The Telluride Film Festival is one of the world’s premiere film festivals, a cinephile's dream, and an experience not to be missed.
Jason Katzman is co-creator and writer for Shadowculture's Mr. Cranky.