I had a great last movie day in Telluride, seeing a documentary, two new features, and an hour of Mark Cousins’ 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey, interspersed with two actual meals. But looking back at the jam-packed schedule, I could have assembled several equally exciting programs. I had arranged to meet my friend Hilton Als at 9:15 a.m. for the new documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, before he was to flee the mountain at noon, which meant missing competing screenings of the Israeli film Footnote, the Iranian A Separation, and a 1972 Russian favorite of Tom Luddy’s, Happy-Go-Lucky, by (and starring) Vasili Shuksin, a Russian actor-director whose work I’ve never seen.
Difficult choices: both Footnote and A Separation are playing in the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, but so are over 300 other films competing for one’s attention. As it turns out, I adore the Diana Vreeland film: as a child my mother used to drop me off at the Berkeley Pubic Library while she ran errands, and one of my favorite pastimes there was to pore over the pages of old bound volumes of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. I was exposed to the legendary Vreeland and her mad pronouncements and extremely adventurous and colorful speech early on. And Hilton was the ideal companion, anointed as he was with his usual light but fragrant lemon verbena oil, both of us giggling in concert.
While walking towards the annual bucolic Labor Day picnic in Town Park, I ran across Cousins signing copies of his books from a card table set up outside of a bookstore. Well, book, really; he’d already sold out of The Story of Film, on which his 15-hour Channel 4 series is based, so I purchased one of the few remaining copies of his essay collection Widescreen: Watching. Real. People. Elsewhere.. His partner Jo and I walked down the block, where the series was playing in a gallery every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., intending to catch a few minutes. We walked in partway though the 70s hour, and I found it very sticky indeed. I love clip shows anyway, and this one is eclectic, with a global perspective: in addition to the usual suspects, I was seeing unexpected glimpses of both versions of The Message, about the prophet Mohammed – without actually picturing him, of course – and to-me-obscure Chinese and Indian titles. I stuck around for about an hour, until partway through the 80s, when the thought of grilled steak and chicken, followed by ice cream sundaes, was too delicious to ignore.
I loaded up a plate and found a space on the grass; earlier arrivals had staked out all the tables under the huge white tent. Somehow I found myself part of a Brit group, including Nick James, Christopher Hampton, and Cousins, discussing what was left out of Cousins’ Story of Film (“at hour 19, we had to lose Sam Fuller; I almost had to sacrifice Woody Allen, but put him back, eventually”). I told him I found his voiceover compelling, in an idiosyncratic tone almost as soothingly mesmerizing as Werner Herzog’s; “There were 500 pages of narration,” he said. We also talked about Sight and Sound’s famed hundred-best-films vote, a painful choice for cinephiles.
Somehow I’d thought that my next screening, Steve McQueen’s Shame, was at 3 p.m., but no, it was at 1:15, and on the other side of town. On the way out I managed, unwittingly, to jump the very long ice cream line and snag a bowl of chocolate and mint chip. For the first and only time this year I stuck out my thumb and got a ride with locals who were themselves trying to decide between seeing either We Need to Talk About Kevin and Shame at that moment.
I had heard from at least one scandalized lady that Shame was “nothing but pornography,” which sounded good to me. I was encouraged by lots of early full-frontal (and backal!) shots of the singularly well-endowed Michael Fassbender – a far cry from his buttoned-up persona, even during sexual congress, as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s elegant A Dangerous Method, based on Christopher Hampton’s witty play A Talking Cure. Alas, pornography is in the eye of the beholder. I found Shame to be much more psychological, emotional, and, yes, elegant again (in style) than pornographic.
Partly because I hadn’t yet ridden the 14-minute gondola up the hill to Mountain Village, watching the tiny village of Telluride grow even more toylike as it ascends, I went to the Chuck Jones Cinema to see Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. First there was a treat, a restoration of Carol Ballard’s 20-minute short, Rodeo, a highly-colored bull-riding ballet sponsored by Marlboro (glimpsed in one early shot of two rugged cowboys lighting each other’s cigarettes, and then forgotten). Listed among the half-dozen cameramen: Caleb Deschanel, now almost as famed for his two actress daughters, Emily (Bones) and Zoe (the upcoming New Girl).
Kaurismaki gathers together an idiosyncratic group of friends and enemies in a tiny neighborhood in Le Havre, reminiscent of, say, the 30s films of Marcel Pagnol (whose Merlusse and Harvest were programmed elsewhere in the festival). The charm is in the somewhat flat-footed, brightly-lit depiction of their timeless friendship and eccentricities; the thin plot, involving hiding a young immigrant from Gabon and sending him on his way to his mother in London, is entirely secondary.
I come down the mountain and was entranced by lots of heady conversation, including an unexpectedly heated aria delivered by one who shall remain nameless about the plot holes and inconsistencies in We Need to Talk About Kevin -- “I didn’t believe she was a travel writer! When did she write that book? How did they pay for that big house out in, what, Westchester? How was he supposed to have gotten Drano in his sister’s eye? Where were the multiple shrinks they would have dragged him to?” – all of which insights had also been stirring in my subconscious, despite the seductive power of the tug-of-war between the well-cast Bad Seeds (three miraculously physically well-matched young actors) and the always-compelling Tilda Swinton.
So I stay on until the thought of the van that’s coming to pick me up at 8 a.m. turns me homeward. But two blocks away from the restaurant I run into San Francisco filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), who’s walking on air because he’s just seen A Separation, which he calls “a perfect movie.” I insist on turning back and taking him directly to its director, Asghar Farhadi, still standing by the dinner table on the patio (where he was surprised to find he couldn’t smoke, even though we were, as he pointed out, outside).
About 15 hours later, I run into Farhadi in the Denver airport, at the gate for our flight to Toronto, where A Separation will be screened during the Toronto Festival’s opening weekend. His first question to me: “Is there a place in the airport where I can smoke?” He is so crestfallen when I say no that I offer him an inadequate substitute: hard candies, which he accepts with a resigned shrug.
The next day, when we run into each other outside TIFF’s year-old shiny venue, the Bell Lightbox, about 2000 miles from Telluride and light-years in atmosphere, we kiss on both cheeks like old comrades-in-arms. “Have you found any place to smoke in Toronto?” “EVERYWHERE,” he beams. And I beam at the thought that I can catch up on his movie the very next day.