At Telluride your day actually begins late the night before, when you can access the full schedule online, or are handed slips of paper with the completed TBA (to be announced) slots filled in as you stagger out of a screening after midnight (my preference). The big news Friday night was that on Saturday Danny Boyle would return to the scene of his 2008 triumphant premiere of Slumdog Millionaire with 127 Hours, with star James Franco and the real-life person upon whom the film is based, Aron Ralston, author of the almost-too-perfectly-titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place, in tow.
On Day Two, I’m on the march. Beginning with Mark Cousins’ beautifully-shot The First Movie, in which he shows movies to children in a remote Iraqi village and incorporates footage of their own movies, taken with tiny digital cameras he gives them – afterwards I show him “the tracks of my tears.” Then half of a characteristically quirky effort from Werner Herzog, who calls the Telluride Film Festival his spiritual home as he introduces Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. It’s Herzog’s re-edited, 96-minute-version of a four-hour documentary about life in Siberia by Dmitry Vasyukov, provided with a new narration written and voiced by the dark-chocolate-throated Herzog.
I’m enjoying its view of centuries-old craft such as canoe-building and animal-trap-setting, ameliorated by snowmobiles and helicopters, but I surprise myself by checking my watch and heading over to Rotaie, despite having seen it in mid-July at the exquisitely-programmed San Francisco Silent Film Festival, accompanied by the excellent Stephen Horne. I justify myself by asking (a) “When will I ever have a chance to see this again?’, and (2) (old gag) here it’s accompanied by Berkeley Pacific Film Archive favorite Judith Rosenberg. A perfect little film (“I think all movies should be 74 minutes long!”, announces its presenter, Paolo Cherchi Usai) about the fall and rise of an impoverished couple who take a gamble on life together – I hope it appears magically on DVD soon.
I catch the end of a conversation with Olivier Assayas and Edgar Ramirez moderated by writer Greil Marcus – they tell me I missed a questioner who began by asking Assayas, director of some two dozen films, “I haven’t seen Carlos. Have you directed any other movies?” I accompany them to A Letter to Elia, an extremely personal documentary about Martin Scorsese’s relationship with both the films of Elia Kazan and the man himself, co-directed by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Kent Jones. Concentrating most on America America and East of Eden, and neither skirting nor quite fully confronting the issue of Kazan naming names during the blacklist, it’s a fascinating mashup of the preoccupations of two masters. Another master, Bertrand Tavernier, voices his own complicated response to the film during a panel discussion afterwards, channeling the angry voices of such blacklisted friends as John Berry and Abraham Polonsky.
The tribute to the still-beautiful, still-voluptuous, chain-smoking (well, not onstage) Claudia Cardinale is most satisfying in its selection of film clips, including 8 ½,Big Deal on Madonna Street, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Cardinale apparently liked everbody she worked with, who were all “fantastic” or “incredible”, from Visconti (“he called me Claudine”) to John Wayne (“he gave me his chair, inscribed “The Duke,” which I still have”). She is apparently not yet in her anecdotage.
A hastily-put-together, somewhat-incoherent clip from her most recent and uncompleted film, Joy de V, directed by first-time filmmaker Nadia Szold, oddly focused mostly on a young male actor in fake priest drag, with Cardinale heard in voice-over and seen in only a few brief glimpses. My cinephile badge might be revoked -- I couldn’t quite get into The Girl with the Suitcase, a film I admired while watching it, rather than adored, despite the beauty of both Cardinale and the impossibly young Jacques Perrin.
From Italy in the 60s to the global financial meltdown in the new millennium – Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is as elegant and surprising (how does he get those interviews?) as his previous documentary about the Iraq war, No End in Sight. (I imagine he will now get as many refusals as Michael Moore and Mike Wallace, as witnessed by the many “declined to speak to us” noted in Inside Job.) The facts he marshaled are horrifying enough, even without the smug and contradictory words of traders, hedge fund operators, and the official regulators who did not regulate.
The shot heard round the world on Saturday night: Darren Aronofsky was returning to the site of his triumphant 2008 not-quite-a-premiere (it showed previously in
CannesVenice) of The Wrestler with Black Swan, with, alas, no stars in tow. (A picture of Natalie Portman in full-on extreme ballet makeup is irresistibly reminiscent of Moira Shearer at her most RedShoesian.)
At Telluride, one is always torn between seeing never-to-be-repeated programs that are unique to the festival or watching a big hot new movie that eventually you can access at your local multiplex merely by handing over a handful of shekels. (Granted, in Telluride you’ll probably have the chance to tell one or more of its creators exactly how you felt about it.)
On Day Three I realize I will spend most of the day in the past, even before Festival Co-Director Gary Meyer suggests such a strategy while introducing Serge Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme 3D at 9 a.m. Its revelations included four brief, miraculous, sexy, paper-print 3-D shorts from 1913, and 3-D movies made unwittingly by George Melies when he created a dual-camera interlock system in order to have a second negative to send to America. Then a somewhat disappointing program entitled Treasures from the UCLA Film Archive, which contains treasures indeed but this day showed mainly oddities.
The 89-year-old Ricky Leacock, frail but charming, spoke sweetly after Moana: A Story of the South Seas about his apprenticeship with Robert Flaherty, “the most amazing man I ever knew.”
It feels natural to segue from a 1926 black-and-white silent to a 1927 one, the lively Chicago, based on the play by Maurine Watkins (remade in 1942 by William Wellman as Roxie Hart), shown in original roadshow version, complete with ten-minute introduction, accompanied by a new original score from the Colorado-based Mont Alto Orchestra. A glance around the Galaxy auditorium reveals such hardcore film buffs as director-screenwriter Larry Gross with wife Rose Kuo and son Julian, Bertrand Tavernier, and Kent Jones and Bruni Burres.
But the pull of a tribute to Colin Firth, combined with a screening of The King’s Speech, takes me to the 20th century, the 1930s to be precise. Laura Linney, another full-service Telluridist (it seems she picked Firth and director Tom Hooper up at the airport, and helped them with their luggage), presents Firth with his silver medallion. After the moving film, Firth, an excellent interview, speaks of his triangular bromance (his word!) with Hooper and Geoffrey Rush, who plays the unorthodox Australian who helped King George VI overcome his crippling stammer. Firth claims that his preferred mode is laziness (scheduling 4 to 5 hours a day to stare into space), and that his career has resulted from projects enticing enough to pull him away from inertia into serial obsession with creating a character.
All too soon, it’s the last day of the Festival – Tom Luddy has often said he wanted Telluride to be a sprint rather than a marathon (as the ten-day or longer film festivals feel), but this year it seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye. Bertrand Tavernier’s swashbuckling, heartbreakingThe Princess of Montpensier, set in the 16th century, boasts an extraordinary young and beautiful cast (including Gaspard Ulliel, Raphaël Personnaz, and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), alongside the well-known (and equally beautiful) Lambert Wilson, and the arresting actress in the title role whose casting Tavernier credited to his wife Sara, Mélanie Thierry. I especially liked the witty inclusion of a recipe for eels, which Tavernier shared with me as we strolled towards Telluride’s traditional Labor Day picnic in the park--it was cribbed from Alexandre Dumas. No eels, but grilled Omaha Steaks, chicken, Caesar salad, potato salad, and the famous ice cream sundae bar, awaited us, as well as a final panel discussion, moderated by Annette Insdorf, featuring Olivier Assayas, Colin Firth, Tom Hooper, Darren Aronofsky, and Mark Romanek, entitled “If You Could See What I See,” about translating a script into visual terms and conceiving the look of a film.
I had intended to see Jan Troell’s 1966 Here’s Your Life, even knowing it was almost three hours long and might induce drowsiness, especially with a stomach full of steak and chicken. The movie gods decided for me: I arrived, breathless, at the Pierre too late to be admitted, so I walked into the adjacent Palm theater and saw the terrifically lurid Black Swan (so shoot me, or stab me with a fragment of mirror!). Aronofsky thanked Telluride for its exquisite sound and projection (I heard later that he had not been thrilled with the equivalent technology at Venice, where it opened the festival, calling them “amateurs”). I don’t like the phrase “guilty pleasure,” but I could see where it could apply in this case. Natalie Portman spent a year getting up on her toes, but Vincent Cassel was born ready for his Balanchinean role. I always thought that Ms. Portman had stepped into Winona Ryder’s shoes, so that bit of casting seemed foreordained, and Mila Kunis is always surprisingly accomplished. I think Madame Alexander should do a boxed set of Black Swan dolls.
Having slid into new-release territory, I stayed there for the last two films of the festival: an endurance double-bill, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, based on an unbelievable-but-true story about prisoners who escape a Siberian work camp in 1940 and walk through Mongolia, over the Himalayas, and into India. Oy! Not since Stalag 17 or The Dirty Dozen has a more ragtag bunch of guys (and one gal, the transcendent Saoirse Ronan) been assembled: Irish Colin Farrell as a Russian criminal, Ed Harris as an American engineer (don’t ask, he worked on the Moscow subway, it seems), Romanian Dragos Bucur playing what I would swear is a Jewish tummler, and Brit-in-real-life Jim
Sturgess, as an idealistic Pole determined to forgive his wife for betraying him. Satisfying if predictable (in time-honored Stalag 17/Dirty Dozen fashion).
I stayed at the same venue and saw 127 Hours, thereby freeing up ten or eleven bucks (and a couple of hours in Toronto, where much of the Telluride lineup is to be found, tucked among 250 additional titles). James Franco is (predictably) good; Boyle managed to find a way to keep us diverted during the 93 minutes/127 hours of a man trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place, with filmic excursions both literal and metaphoric. (Those who met Aron Ralston around town said that Franco perfectly captured his bouncy boyishness, still intact even if his body is not quite.)
Joining some Telluride stalwarts – Mr. and Mrs. Luddy, Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Fitzgerald – for a traditional final meal, this year at an Italian place called Rustico, I ordered veal scallopini with wild mushrooms and realized when it arrived that this was the first time in four days that I’d sat down in a chair, addressed a plate with a knife and fork, and had a real sit-down meal. I’d been feeding off cinema. As I walked home, I passed The King’s Speech, playing al fresco in Elks Park, and realized that I was just in time to watch the final eponymous scene once again. Guy Pearce and Eve Best popped up for one last instant as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (I could see them in a spinoff), and I remembered that I’d forgotten (!) to Google her to see where I knew her from. (I just did, and it’s Nurse Jackie, which I wouldn’t have gotten from her Duchess of Windsor in a million years, despite both being brittle, thin, and chic).
On the morrow, I head to Toronto, for ten more (though very different) days of immersive filmgoing, where, in addition to 127 Hours, I can strike all my Telluride films off the list as well as the "secret" first film I saw, which was Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go -- which let me go partway through its narrative, although I very much appreciated that its story was set in the recent past rather than the usual sci-fi future. (Which always arrives way too early – vide 1984.) I’m told that “the novel is better,” which one is almost always told.
But what could be better than the question asked me by an acquaintance as we walked away from the screening in the velvet night air, after watching clones created to provide organs for their originators: “Is that a real program?”
And Telluride, for four days in September, is a combination of Shangri-La and Brigadoon.