On Monday evening in Telluride I was faced with a tough viewing decision as the festival drew to a close. Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow,” a selection programmed by Alexander Payne that was hailed by many as the best film of this year’s fest, or a program of rarely seen short films unearthed by Serge Bromberg. Seeking guidance from a friend, I was advised, “No matter what you choose you’ll be missing out on something great.” Well, that’s reassuring. And so it goes at the Telluride Film Festival, the annual Labor Day weekend showcase of upcoming releases and classic cinema that gives a few thousand attendees the chance to discover something they’ve probably never seen before, whether that be a long lost classic or a world premiere.
McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow,” a great choice for a holiday afternoon, is famously known as the film that, “would make a stone cry.” That was Orson Welles accurate assessment, because by the end of this essential mid-30s melodrama, many attendees were sobbing. Fest organizers had rolls of tissue for folks as they left the theater. The story of an aging couple who are facing separation after 50 years together because they can’t afford to pay their mortgage, it depicts a harsh American economy that tragically turns its back on the couple – and their five kids aren’t much help. Errol Morris, in an interview last year listed “Make Way for Tomorrow” as one of his favorite movies, calling it, “The most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly.” The film remains unavailable on DVD in the U.S.
An appropriate weekend match for McCarey’s rarely seen classic was Jason Reitman’s latest, “Up in the Air,” a surprise sneak that was seen for the first time this weekend in Telluride. The present day story of loneliness in modern America stars George Clooney as a high flying mercenary who handles mass layoffs for corporations that are hitting hard times during this economic crisis. A lone wolf, who cares more about his frequent flyer program than anyone in his life, inevitably he faces aging alone until he meets someone (Vera Farmiga) who challenges his core beliefs. The most mature of Reitman’s three features, with an ending that has some moviegoers wishing for a happier resolution, the film includes powerful documentary interviews with Americans who’ve lost their jobs this past year. Reitman’s slick and funny story yields some emotional tugs that gain power over the course of the picture. Expect it to screen to a rapturous public response when it has its official premiere this week at the Toronto fest in Reitman’s native Canada.
In fact, of the new films that screened in Telluride this weekend, Reitman’s “Up In The Air” seemed like the big hit. Some come to Telluride hoping to get a first look at a film like “Slumdog Millionaire” last year or “Juno” the year before. This year John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (with star Viggo Mortensen on hand to receive a fest award), Werner Herzog’s version of “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (and a sneak of his other new film, “My Son, My Son”), Todd Solondz’ “Life During Wartime,” Anne Fontaine’s “Coco Before Chanel,” Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” festival honoree Margarethe von Trotta’s latest, “Vision,” and the new British “Red Riding” trilogy were the new films on offer.
Cannes films and classics seemed to be the most popular movies of the weekend. Audiences seemed quite taken with Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” drew positive buzz, particularly for its lead performance by newcomer Katie Jarvis, who made her first trip to the U.S. for the festival. On Satuday morning, she joined young up-and-coming British actress Carey Mulligan for a conversation at the fest.
Also from Cannes, Michael Haneke’s exceptional “The White Ribbon,” winner of the Palme d’Or and Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” appreared to garner more mixed buzz based on informal conversations with various festival-goers.
Overall, the festival felt a bit quieter this year, making it even more enjoyable. Many screenings seemed to have scattered empty seats, making it easier for passholders to get in. Organizers spoke last week about the challenges of putting on a fest this year amidst the economic downturn and a drop in corporate support. But, attendees didn’t notice a difference in terms of the wide array of offerings and high quality tech specs of the event. Organizers staged a trio of top notch social events for filmmakers, attendees and special guests, embracing a move to embrace locally sourced foods and ingredients.
In fact, eating was a big topic this weekend. A highlight for foodies was Ermanno Olmi’s Italian documentary, “Terra Madre,” about the slow food movement. And who better to present the film than Alice Waters, the American food activist and chef known for her Berkely restaurant Chez Panisse and her recent success lobbying First Lady Michelle Obama to plant a garden at the White House. Begun in Italy more than a decade ago by Carlo Petrini, the movement is the antidote to fast food, marked by a focus on locally sourced ingredients and farming.
“Consuming less can be living more beautifully,” advocated Waters, talking about the movement. She stumped for her goal of radically remaking American school lunch programs and said that she came to support slow food simply by looking to eat. Along the way she learned about more sustainable and healthy approaches to cooking. “We are taking [eating] out of a place of fueling up and putting it in a place of beauty,” she smiled. Praising recent films like “Food, Inc,” Waters said she hopes that more filmmakers are inspired to make food themed movies.
Alice Waters was among the many who gathered early Saturday morning in Telluride for a screening and discussion saluting the late film critic Manny Farber. The crowd at the Sheridan Opera House watched Jean Renoir’s rarely seen 1935 film “Toni,” a favorite film of Farber’s that he frequently taught when he was an instructor at UCSD. Hailed as a forerunner of neo-realism, the film was yet another classic highlight of the festival in a year at Telluride where old films rivaled new.
Farber, the accomplished writer and painter, who died earlier this year, was first saluted on stage by his wife and collaborator Patricia Patterson who recalled Telluide co-founder Tom Luddy sharing film prints with the couple, eventually becoming a close friend. Farber is a beloved and influential writer among many film critics for his direct approach to criticism. Writer Robert Polito lead a discussion about Farber that was pegged to the publication of his new anthology, “Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Faber.”
Listening to writers and festival attendees rave about Manny Farber offered new perspectives on both movie watching and film criticism, enriching the Telluride experience this year.
“Manny was for other writers and other critics both intimidating and inspiring,” praised writer Greil Marcus. A guy named Jack, a former student of Farber’s, stood up near they end of the salute to praise his former professor. He told me that being taught by Farber was “mind expanding.” He would give his students new ways to look at films.
“Do not analyze (a film immediately),” Jack stood to tell the audience, echoing what he said Farber advocated about the first viewing of a movie. “Step back, get seduced by it, let it affect you.”