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Telluride Day Two: From Nick James and German Silent Expressionism to Goodbye First Love and Clooney

by Meredith Brody
September 4, 2011 5:05 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Meredith Brody continues her Telluride diary.


The problem with writing about your day’s worth of movies and serendipitous festival sightings and conversations is that distance lends charms; yesterday I may have felt slightly cranky exiting Bela Tarr’s shaggy post-apocalyptical shaggy-horse-story The Turin Horse and running into people laughing and crying after seeing hot-off-the-presses The Descendants, or slightly jealous of the blissed-out audiences levitating down the hill from seeing Wim Wenders’ Pina, in the beloved Galaxy theater that is specially kitted out this year with a state-of-the-art sound system as well as 3-D with top-of-the-line glasses (one friend complains that they’re so heavy they wear a groove in her nose). I’ve wanted to see Pina since it premiered at the Berlinale in February and several people told me it was their favorite movie of the festival.
Thompson on Hollywood
Today, after an only-in-Telluride orgy of cinephilia, I look back much more fondly at the assortment of exotica I’ve managed to ingest. The film-going day begins at 9 a.m., lining up at the Sheridan Opera House for the Special Medallion for a “hero of cinema” to be awarded to the British film magazine Sight and Sound, in the person of editor Nick James, who tells the audience that he’s in a state of bliss induced by being driven around Utah for several days by Tom Luddy, so he apologizes for any incoherence. In short order we’re shown a rather daring choice of accompanying film: a TV movie, in actuality, Penda’s Fen, made in 1974 by Alan Clarke for the “Play for Today” programme that also famously helped launched the careers of Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, and Michael Apted, among directors, and Dennis Potter, Andrew Davies, and Stephen Poliakoff among its writers. (Last year, when I was being driven around Utah by Tom Luddy myownself, Stephen Frears spoke movingly and affectionately and frequently of his good friend “Clarkie,” who died in 1990, only 54 years old. Telluride showed six of his films in 1992.) Penda’s Fen is an unclassifiable amalgam of religion, mysticism, politics, family dynamics, public school philosophies, homosexual panic, and Sir Arthur Elgar: an engrossing oddity.

Afterwards, gathered on the lawn outside the Sheridan Opera House, we learn that presenting this 90-minute-long, 37-year-old TV movie on one occasion at a film festival is not as easy as borrowing a print; it took many months, many lawyers, many payments to a variety of entities, including a British musician’s union. Nothing, it seems, is easy.

I’m sad to have had to miss Greil Marcus’ conversation with Olivia Harrison (widow of George) and other colleagues from the Scorsese-produced 3 ½ hour George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, right across the square in the Corthouse, in favor of the Sight and Sound event, but happy to be able to tell Greil that James referenced his “old weird America” phrase and called Penda’s Fen an example of the “old weird Britain." Not for the first time Greil tells me his expects the phrase to turn up on his tombstone.

It’s easy for me to stick around the Sheridan Opera House for the noon screening of René Clair’s 1955 Les Grands Manoeuvres, introduced by Guest Director musician/author Caetano Veloso, who makes no apologies for choosing a movie from the director’s less-fashionable period, disparagingly categorized with other aging French directors as the “Cinema de Papa” by then film critics Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, rebellious sons eager to replace their cinematic fathers as soon as they could. There are the lush pleasures of the saturated colors of the vintage print, the lavish period costumes and sets, the physical beauty and assured acting of Gerard Philipe and Michele Morgan (and, in a secondary role, the flushed rosebud face of 18-year-old Brigitte Bardot. Reminders of Senso, The Age of Innocence, The End of the Affair, all wrapped up in a candy box.

Afterwards I rush over to the Palm, to see an obscure 1920 German film called From Morning to Midnight, accompanied bythe Alloy Orchestra, where I find myself standing in line behind Mark Cousins – I’ve already been sitting several rows behind him at the first two films I saw today. His 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey, unspooling daily in an art gallery on Colorado Avenue during Telluride’s wekend, is going to start its weekly run on Channel 4 in London tonight. He’s already thinking of an addendum: somehow, he says, Samuel Fuller never made it into the series, and he wishes he could shoehorn Penda’s Fen in there, too!

Mark points out that the schedule today so far hasn’t allowed us proper opportunities for eating: I surprise myself, whose love for food and film is probably equal, by saying “Eating is overrated!” (Only in this context.) We swap food-and-film anecdotes. When I say that I twice recently made myself proper English teas complete with finger sandwiches, scones, and crumpet, to be devoured while watching Downton Abbey in its entirety and then repeated for the new Upstairs Downstairs, he tells me that he and his girlfriend Jo have started a ritual of matching cuisines to movies – stirfries with a Hong Kong action movie, for instance – to entertain and nourish a teenaged cousin on a regular basis.

From Morning to Midnight is astonishingly, amusingly stylized in a German Expressionist style familiar from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but not much else, leaving one to wonder if there are other such films to be discovered. I’m eternally grateful to Paolo Cherchi Usai for bringing it to Telluride, but I don’t know why he feels the need to characterize it as “better” than Caligari, whose forced perspective and somewhat more supple acting seems equally interesting. Among my friends only I seem to want to talk about its caricatured anti-Semiticism, seen in the thieving banker and the yarmulked, bearded second-hand shop owner. Pierre Rissient is more interested in researching playwright Georg Kaiser and designer Robert Neppach. This one’s for you, Pierre, straight from IMDb: he has 88 titles as art director, 16 as producer, 9 as production designer, and 3 as director, but I’m more struck by this fact IMDb glosses as trivia: “He murdered his 33-year-old wife Marguerite Walter [daughter of composer/conductor Bruno Walter, as it happens] before killing himself.”

Barely time to take a breath, I pick up four different t-shirts from TCM emblazoned with femme fatale, Western, war, and romance themes, consume a hot dog, and get in line for the Palm 4:45 screening of Mia Hansen-Love’s third film, Goodbye First Love (she’s just thirty, and looks, perhaps, 15, the age of her autobiographical protagonist when the movie begins). It's a fresh, assured take on the girl-loves-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-loves-another-man, oops-first-boy-returns story, with seductive settings including Paris, a country house in Ardeche, and Berlin.

Afterwards I’m in position to attend the tribute to George Clooney. An only-in-Telluride moment waiting in line: whe I point out the beautiful sunset, the man standing behind me whips out his iPhone, scrolls through, and in a trice shows me an even better sunset – taken from exactly he same vantage point last year! I point out that tonight’s sunset, while less highly colored, is bigger.

Inside I find myself seated between Allan Arkush and Chaz Ebert, who he tells to thank Roger for suggesting in a review of his Rock and Roll High School that it should be shown at midnight – “and it has been for the last thirty years!” Chaz tells us that his doctors don’t want Roger returning to Telluride because of the altitude, but he’s going to the Toronto International Film Festival next week. Allan tells me that he ran into Clooney yesterday, who charmingly not only mentioned their collaboration on the doomed Bodies of Evidence but thanked him for protecting him during filming. “And we also talked about his cousin Miguel Ferrer, who I loved working with for six years on Crossing Jordan.”

After a graceful and witty introduction by Ken Burns, we are treated to a clip show that begins in 1998 with Out of Sight and ends in 2009 with Up in the Air. After the awarding of the Silver Medallion, Clooney exercises his considerable charm during a lengthy on-stage interview with Todd McCarthy. His famously self-deprecatory humor and flashing grin are ameliorated by a number of rather uncanny impressions: Roseanne saying, upon meeting him, “You’re handsome – why don’t you take me outside and make me stink?”; Walter Cronkite apologizing for a slipup when introducing the live TV showing of Failsafe by saying, basso profundo, “I fucked up;” imitating the honking, sea-lion laughs of Joel and Ethan Coen. A promised clip of the Clooney-directed-and-starring The Ides of March never materializes, but the conversation is paused for a powerful clip from the Alexander-Payne-directed The Descendants, playing several times this weekend. I haven’t seen the movie, I’m barely acquainted with its plotline, but I laughed, I cried.

I weigh the chances of continuing my streak of staying awake through the days’ previous five programs. I still have to write when I get home. And tomorrow I will get to see Pina, finally, at 9 a.m.! I walk home.

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