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by Eugene Hernandez
September 5, 2006 7:37 AM
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DISPATCH FROM TELLURIDE: Imagined Reality on Display at Weekend Telluride Fest; Pences Say Goodbye

Colorado Ave. on the opening night of the Telluride Film Festival, site of the annual kick-off feed. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

The 33rd edition of the Telluride Film Festival (see indieWIRE's recent lineup story), which took place over the past few days in the small Colorado mountain town, will not only be known for launching such films as "The Last King of Scotland," "Fur", and "Little Children" or honoring Penelope Cruz and Walter Murch, it will also be remembered as the final festival for event co-founders Bill Pence and Stella Pence. On Sunday, the Pences surprised attendees by revealing that the will retire from the event that they created in 1974 with James Card and Tom Luddy. Gary Meyer has been named to take over alongside Luddy immediately, while the new leadership duo begin searching for a new managing director.

At a surprise Q & A session on the final morning of the fest, documentarian Ken Burns sat alongside Bill and Stella Pence explaining that the last thing the married couple wanted was to have their departure detract attention from the fest's films. As they fondly discussed founding this quirky, somewhat old-fashioned and quite popular film event, it became clear that some of the films themselves were chosen to mark the occasion. Paul Fejos' 1929 silent classic "Loneseome," which Bill Pence introduced Sunday afternoon, is the film credited as launching the Telluride Film Festival. It was James Card of George Eastman House who lobbied the Pences (Bill was a partner at Janus Films and Stella owned the Sheridan Opera House) to join Luddy (from the Pacific Film Archive) in launching the event after screening the film in front of a warm audience at Telluride's Opera House in the early 70s. Sunday's screening, accompanied by a live performance from the Alloy Orchestra, drew a standing ovation punctuated by tears, as moviegoers witnessed the tender story of a young lonely man and woman in New York City who discover that true love is closer than they ever might have imagined. "The ending will send you soaring," Bill Pence told attendees before the showing. Indeed.

Telluride Film Festival co-founders Stella Pence and Bill Pence, pictured Monday at the festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Screenings of classic films are the foundation of the Telluride Film Festival, offering an opportunity to see and discuss films that are nearly forgotten. William Wyler's 1936 film "Dodsworth", provoked a discussion about Hollywood at the dawn of its Golden Era, with Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. (son of the film's legendary producer) sharing insights and historian Robert Osbourne offering a detailed background on the picture. The story of a middle-aged couple who embark on a post-retirement romantic adventure to Europe, the film's exploration of divorce may have lead to its less than stellar box office, but it has since been rightfully re-discovered on DVD.

Of the new films that screened for the first time in public, three movies offering a fictional look at the lives of real-life figures were among the most popular, and they were hotly discussed and debated. From a questionably accurate kiss between Truman Capote and convicted killer Perry Smith in Doug McGrath's "Infamous" and the invention of a young Scottish doctor who becomes the leading advisor to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald's "The Last King of Scotland" to the creation of a mysterious long-haired figure as the inspiration for photographer Diane Arbus in Steven Shainberg's "Fur," invented reality in each film offered unique insights into famous figures.

Featuring Forest Whitaker in the lead role as Amin, Macdonald's "The Last King of Scotland," set to be released by Fox Searchlight on September 27th, was perhaps the best received film at Telluride '06. Since the vast majority of Telluride attendees have the same level of fest pass, the 30 minute-plus waits in line for a seat is the best way to get the buzz on what to see. In the case of "Last King," Macdonald's first narrative feature was informally hailed as the best of the fest by numerous attendees. Set to screen as a Special Presentation this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, the thrilling historical drama is based on Giles Foden's book of the same name, which uses the story of the fictitious Scottish doctor (played by James McAvoy) to explore the rise of Amin, particularly in relation to the influence of British officials. Expect Whitaker to garner significant awards buzz as the film makes its way to Toronto.

Doug McGrath's infamous look at the life of Truman Capote notably follows Bennett Miller's "Capote" which Sony Pictures Classics launched in Telluride last year, en route to five Oscar nominations and an Academy Award for lead Philip Seymour Hoffman. Widely buzzed about in film industry circles, the feature explores the exact same period of the legendary author's life - his writing of the landmark In Cold Blood about the murder of a family in rural Kansas. McGrath's star-studded "Infamous" uses a clever mockumentary approach to set up the story and its punctuated by a number of humorous scenes, delivering an entirely different tone from Miller's "Capote," That said, watching the new Capote film with the previous one so fresh in one's mind makes for tough-going and leads to too many unintended comparisons between the two movies. In Telluride, where last year "Capote" was warmly embraced by attendees, "Infamous" seemed to stir less enthusiasm among fest-goers. Warner Independent Pictures, which will release the Killer Films production on October 13th, will no doubt be bolstered by the fact some quite positive notices. The Telluride fest's Tom Luddy hailed the film and critic David Thomson, who was at the festival as an honoree this year, is already on the record saying that "Infamous" is "the best new film I've seen this year."

In an indieWIRE: Video clip available via YouTube, Doug McGrath (during a Telluride Q & A session) responds to a question about the experience of making his film about Truman Capote in the wake of the release, and subsequent success of, last year's "Capote.

In her fortcoming memoir A Killer Life, "Infamous" producer Christine Vachon, in a chapter entitled "A Tale of Two Trumans," writes that she hopes the forthcoming release of the film will address some of the "larger questions about 'In Cold Blood' and the liberties the film took with history." Laying out her two scenarios for the upcoming release of the movie, she writes in the book, "In the worst case 'Infamous' is ignored. We'll have spent three years putting together a movie that I'm incredibly proud of, and nobody will see it. 'Infamous' will be well regarded, maybe even better reviewed, but a smaller movie." And she continues, "In the best-case scenario we're the 'Armageddon' to 'Deep Impact' -- the second movie in line that ends up being an even bigger success. 'Infamous' captures a broader audience that 'Capote' only began to tap into."

Equally anticipated, particularly among insiders, is Steven Shainberg's "Fur," a strange and sometimes creepy new film that stars Nicole Kidman in the lead role as famous photographer Diane Arbus, who made her name by photographing outcasts. Reuniting the key team behind 2002's "Secretary," director Shainberg, writer Erin Cressida Wilson and producer Andrew Fierberg ave created a curious examination of Arbus. With a subtitle that promises "an imaginary portrait" of the photographer, the film delivers biography that evokes both "Beauty and the Beast" and "Alice in Wonderland," as Arbus falls under the spell of a masked figure (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) who himself is afflicted with a rare medical condition.

Picturehouse sought out Telluride as a way to create buzz for the delicate film in a controlled environment, according to insiders at the company. Forsaking a high-profile slot in Toronto, Picturehouse hoped to present the New York story at the selective New York Film Festival, but was surprisingly rejected and now the film will only open the first Rome Film Festival in October before being released on November 10th.

"There are all kinds of expectations when one hears about a Diane Arbus movie," explained Shainberg, in a morning coversation with indieWIRE this weekend, "And one of the things the film has to deal with is that kind of expectation of a movie that deals with her whole life...I would love to see that movie, I think her entire life is phenomenal. But, to tackle that cinematically was impossible in my imagination." Continuing, Shaiberg told indieWIRE, "This is an intimate portrait of her inner life and what she might have experiences in photographing a single subject. A movie about the taking of one picture."

In an indieWIRE: Video clip available via YouTube, Steven Shainberg talks with indieWIRE about why he decided to make the movie as an "imaginary portrait" of the legendary photographer Diane Arbus.

Given the awards season track record of Telluride titles, particularly last year when "Brokeback Mountain", "Capote" and "Walk The Line" went on to garner numerous honors, even non-industry attendees at the festival regularly speculate about the possibilities for the titles on the Telluride roster. Cannes '06 favorites "Volver" by Pedro Almodovar and "Babel" by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu captivated Telluride attendees this weekend, garnering considerable buzz and positive reactions among attendees, and each is expected to gain additional awards heat after the trip to Toronto in the coming days. The two films will open in theaters later this year, via Sony Pictures Classics and Paramount Vantage respectively.

Another Telluride film that may figure prominently this fall is Todd Field's "Little Children," which may have divided audiences, but it also kept them talking all weekend. The filmmaker's follow-up to "In The Bedroom," "Little Children" features a strong lead performance by Kate Winslet as a suburban mother who doesn't quite fit the mold. Set in a Massachusetts town, the film explores the community's often dark, erotic underbelly that is filled with many secrets. Patrick Wilson co-stars as a sexy stay-at-home dad who catches Winslet's character's eye. Their emerging relationship sets in motion a dark, sometimes quite comedic and incisive look at modern American lives.

This role of the festival in setting up certain films for award season acclaim that will be bolstered by upcoming screenings at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals may give some the impression that the Telluride Film Festival is primarily an industry event. Not so, says outgoing managing director Stella Pence. In fact, the majority of attendees are not in the business at all, and there are just a few dozen journalists who attend, many of them local. Acquisitions executives in attendance groused about the fact that once the secret lineup was unveiled the roster was populated with old films, movies with distribution and artier fare, rather than discovery titles seeking deals. Telluride planners wouldn't seem to have it any other way, because for four days it's not about creating a market for movies, but rather offering the 2,500 or so passholders 40 film programs that examine the art, rather than the commerce, of film.

"It has been said that Telluride is an 'industry' festival -- but that is not true," wrote Stella Pence in this year's edition of Film Watch, the defacto catalog of the festival offering screening info and essays about the movies. "Far and away Telluride is about people seeing movies, talking about movies, reading about movies, hating and loving movies. It is about just plain people who adore those special moments in the dark before the projectors begin to whirr, who feel a little thrill when the first (of what now is a million) film company logos flits across the screen, about people who sit just that extra moment in their seat when the movie is over, reluctant to come into the light, to dispel the spell."

ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of indieWIRE and posted updates from the Telluride Film Festival all weekend on his blog.

Photos from the Telluride Film Festival are being published this week in indieWIRE's Telluride iPOP section (the area also includes photos from last year's event).

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