By Indiewire | Indiewire September 2, 2003 at 2:00AM
A Festival of Despair? Darker Telluride Program Draws Crowds in 30th Year
by Mary Ann Sabo
You just have to love a film festival where 500 moviegoers slough through an early-morning downpour to share cinnamon rolls and coffee with Ted Turner before a screening of Buster Keaton's 1926 silent film classic, "The General." Not to mention a festival where the presence of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara draws lines as long -- if not longer -- than those for unscheduled showing of Scottish actor Ewan MacGregor's latest movie, or where Salvador Dali collaborated with Walt Disney to produce a surrealist manifesto in the form of a six-minute animated short and where the indefatigable Peter Sellers manages once again to be everywhere.
That was this year's Telluride Film Festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary with a four-day program of foreign films, student prints, animated features, documentaries and black-and-white classics. Icelandic teen-agers shared the screen with Irish thugs, 16th-century Dutch painters, Buddhist monks, mountain climbers and Turkish photographers in more than 50 feature-length films and shorts that drew thousands of film aficionados to a picture-postcard village snugged in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
A few like George Mansour, a film buyer from Boston, have attended nearly all of the festivals -- one of only two he commits to each year. "Getting to Telluride is like getting to Russia," he quips. Even with a decent connection into Denver, the venue still requires another seven hours by car -- or a brief flight on one of the numerous puddle jumpers that gets you close to Telluride but still requires an hour shuttle ride "up the mountain."
The faithful who make the annual pilgrimage find the festival reward enough for their efforts. For one weekend each year, Telluride becomes a mecca where cinephiles can indulge their common passion with like-minded communicants. Hundred of volunteers spend weeks transforming school gymnasiums, a conference center and the community's Masons Hall into makeshift theatres.
The result? Eight impossibly wonderful venues that will screen four days of films, most of which will never see the inside of a Cineplex once they are released.
The festival, while small by the standards of Cannes, Toronto and other significant festivals, is structured so that film goers must make tough choices. As festival co-founder Tom Luddy told an audience at the beginning of the weekend, "If you see everything you want to see, then we've failed."
Film schedules are released on the opening day of the festival with great fanfare -- and to huge demand. Passholders grab handfuls of programs, which offer a synopsis of each film along with a detailed schedule, and begin planning the logistics of the weekend. Screenings are on a first-come, first-served basis, which translates into lots of time waiting in line.
As any veteran will tell you, the trick is to choose those films that aren't popular enough to make a TBA -- or to be announced -- screening on the last day of the festival and see them first. Films that are likely to be repeated -- those with long lines and good buzz -- should be saved for Labor Day, the closing day of the festival.
Such determinations can be difficult, though. One of the requirements to screen a new release in Telluride is that the film can't have been shown previously in North America -- making accurate pre-information about the movies on the scarce side.
Telluride has its own informal vetting system: queues outside of films where buzz about must-see movies is traded freely -- right along with glasses of chardonnay, hummus and pita bread, Sno-Caps and dried mangoes. Unlike last year, where Michael Moore's documentary "Bowling for Columbine" and Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," emerged as festival favorites on the opening night, no must-see movie materialized this year.
Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," scheduled this year as an invitation-only, pre-festival screening for patrons, failed to live up to the "favored son" status bestowed on it by this slot. The movie explores the isolation and disenfranchisement felt by two Americans -- he an aging television star played by Bill Murray and she a neglected young wife played by Scarlett Johansson -- whose paths cross for a few days while both are in Japan. A quiet look at the many faces isolation can wear, the film ultimately failed to engage many of the Telluride viewers, who pronounced it "worth seeing, but...."
Unfortunately, that was the case for several of the movies that showed initial promise. While in-line reviews of "Dogville," the new Lars Von Trier film starring Nicole Kidman, received enthusiastic praise from some festival goers, most were more tepid in their response. The film didn't score enough buzz to be slotted as a TBA on Monday, which is not a good sign.
"Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "Shattered Glass" proved to be two of the more accessible films premiering over the weekend. "Girl" is an adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's much-acclaimed novel that depicts the social mores of 16th century Dutch society through the eyes of a young serving girl who works in the household of master painter, Johannes Vermeer. The film, like Vermeer's painting, is richly colored and deeply textured.
At the other end of that spectrum lies the oh-so-contemporary "Shattered Glass" the story of a journalist for "The New Republic" who fabricates more than half the articles he penned for that august magazine. Both are well-suited for wide commercial distribution -- which is not always a compliment in Telluride vernacular.
Several of the smaller, foreign films offered delightful -- and sometimes disturbing -- glimpses into how life is lived beyond our borders. "I'm Not Scared" is an Italian charmer that tells the story of two 10-year-old boys: one the son of a wealthy Milanese family who has been kidnapped, the other the son of this kidnapper. Told against the exquisite backdrop of an impoverished rural village, the store is lean and spare -- and beautifully woven.
By contrast, "Osama" is a horrifying glimpse of life as a woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. A widow, deprived of earning a living as a physician under the new government, cuts her daughters hair and forces her to masquerade as a boy -- with disastrous consequences.
Peter Sellars introduced "Osama" the final morning of the festival, saying "As you may know, we spent most of last year invading Iraq -- but before that, there was a country called Afghanistan." He drew the honor of introducing the film after the U.S. State Department denied a visa request for Afghani director Siddiq Barmak -- along with a few catcalls from the audience for some of his comments about U.S. foreign policy.
That's another of the wonderful requirements of Telluride: the directors or actors of each film being screened must attend the Festival. While exceptions are made in cases where visas are denied or illnesses arise, most films joyfully comply -- and that's an added pleasure for festival goers, who were treated to comments from director Gus Van Sant before his debut of "Elephant," an extended conversation with actress Toni Collette, who was honored with an acting tribute this year, or glimpses of Chloe Sevigny, Werner Herzog and Ken Burns mingling with the crowds.
Celebrities seemed to be in shorter supply this year than last -- a bit of a surprise, given the hoopla over the 30th anniversary celebration. The films themselves were, on the whole, darker than they have been in years past, prompting one festival goer to nickname the gathering "the festival of despair." And no clear "must-see" film emerged to lead the pack.
Still, it's the experience of Telluride as a whole that draws film buffs like Keller Doss back year after year for his self-imposed "annual retina fry." The Texas native, who has made the 700-plus mile trip on his motorcycle to attend 10 of the last 11 festivals, can't imagine being anywhere else over Labor Day weekend - as long as they keep making popcorn.
[Mary Ann Sabo is a writer for the Grand Rapids Press.]