Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the current director of the Stanford Film Society, one young Samuel Pressman, asked Bertrand Tavernier and Stephen Frears to suggest some films he could book for the upcoming quarter. Dear reader, I was that fly – no cracks, please. Because the God of Cinema smiled down upon me and somehow decided to include me on a brief but delirious three-day road trip from Las Vegas to Telluride, Colorado, with stops at the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley en route to our destination, the 37th Annual Telluride Film Festival.
Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy, a veteran of many such trips, organized the caravan (we all shared expenses) and even drove the van -- a full-service festival director. I counted my lucky stars, even knowing that any catastrophe befalling our hardy crew of eight would result in the headline “Stephen Frears, Bertrand Tavernier, Tom Luddy, and Five Others Perish.”
In Vegas we kipped at the new, unbelievably lavish yet quirky Mandarin Oriental (perhaps the only hotel in Las Vegas without direct access to a casino!) and ate dinner at the justly-famed Lotus of Siam, one of the best Thai restaurants in the U.S. if not the world. (Don’t miss the stuffed chicken wings, green papaya salad, deep-fried whole catfish topped with chili paste and crispy fried basil, spicy sausage, crispy mussel omelet – though in truth it seemed that you could fling a dart at the menu and do no wrong.)
Leaving Las Vegas en route to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, we talked and talked and talked about movies and books and TV, as well as listened to selections from Mr. Luddy’s unbelievably eclectic iPod (Toots Thielemans, masterful Belgian harmonica player previously unknown to me; In Their Own Words, BBC recordings of Virginia Woolf, Arthur Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, and others; and, of course, plenty of jazz, including Afro-Cuban, since Luddy produced two documentaries about Afro-Cuban musicians, including Cachao: Uno Mas, upcoming on PBS’s American Masters). Maitre Tavernier and Master Frears discussed, among other topics, screenwriters who became directors, whether successfully (a great run in the Thirties: Sturges, Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder) or un (Charles Spaak, Henri Jeanson, Jose Giovanni, to name only three). It seemed that I must rush out and buy the complete works of the Australian writer and literary critic Simon Leys, heretofore unknown to me, as well as the novels and short stories of Gerald Kersh (I had Night and the City at home, but not Fowlers End, a comic novel set in a cinema that Tom Luddy pressed upon Frears, along with the bound galleys of David Thomson’s new fifth edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film).
Arriving at the less-touristy north rim of the Grand Canyon, we walked out a quarter-mile to a view turnout. Luddy pointed out an outcropping where film critic Michel Ciment, on a previous caravan, attired in linen suit, tie, and leather wingtips, had murmured “Astonshing!” and then preceded to sit and read a copy of the French newspaper Liberation for an hour, completely oblivious to the sight, while numerous tourists ebbed and flowed around him.
On our return to the WPA-era lodge, ingeniously placed as though it sprang organically from the rocks it was perched on, we found our own perch to await sunset. Whereupon Sammy Pressman asked his innocent Film Society question and was bombarded with an apparently endless response of Tavernier’s, Frears’, and my favorite movies, which I believe was captured on sound as well as scribbled desperately by Sam on a flyer he pulled from his backpack. At some point I’d like to redact the list fully; at this remove, I remember Andre de Toth’s Pitfall and Ramrod, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued and White Heat, Jules’ Dassin’s Night and the City and Thieves Highway’ , William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (which had already merited quite a spirited discussion, hours earlier, in the van), a number of titles of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well, Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets and It Always Rains on Sunday, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, Elia Kazan’s Wild River. Dozens if not hundreds of titles were tossed out, followed by spirited discussion pro and con. Finally I asked Sam if he had a copy of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema. “No,” he said.”I’ll get you one, and mark it up.” If it seems that we were light on non-English-language films, that was not the case. The only lacunae I found was in the area of musical comedy (some Lubitsch was proposed), for which I say a personal mea culpa and add Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. And for the rest of the trip Tavernier, especially, would tirelessly return to the question.
On the morrow we drove to Monument Valley, home to so many iconic films of John Ford as well as scenes in How the West Was Won, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Thelma and Louise, Back to the Future III, and Forrest Gump. Intrepid Mr. Luddy drove the van along many rutted dirt roads among the iconic buttes and red rock outcroppings – such astonishing natural beauty that it brought tears to our eyes – as well as our cameras.
That night we ate Navajo tacos along the slow-moving San Juan River. In the morning we would make a brief detour to view yet another picturesque spot where the river had carved out an astonishing number of switchbacks en route to Telluride, moving magically (and cinematically!) from a dusty desert landscape to its lush green meadows set among towering rocky mountains. The iconic SHOW banner already spanned Colorado Avenue, Telluride’s Main Street. The next few days would be devoted to a rollercoaster of screenings and seminars. Even though I knew that a variety of Festival officials, while introducing films, would encourage us to take a break from relentless movie-watching and drink in the natural beauty all around us on a stroll or a hike, the lure of the screen would keep me indoors. I had been privileged to travel a few hundred miles in the company of fellow obsessives, en route to an annual gathering of that peculiar tribe, the movie buff.