FESTIVAL: Business Be Damned!; Telluride Builds on its Rep as an Aesthetic, if Pricey, Oasis of Cinema
by Diana Hotlzberg
(indieWIRE/ 09.06.02) -- This was my first time at the Telluride Film Festival, which celebrated its 29th year with the event held August 30 through September 2, and it impressed me on many levels. First of all, in the many years since I'd been to Telluride, I'd forgotten just how beautiful this town is. It's breathtaking. At the risk of sounding sappy, magnificent mountains appear whichever way you turn. Adding to the effect, it snowed on the highest peaks just before the festival began and snowcaps remained for a few days. The main strip in town looks like a movie set and retains a Wild West-meets-hippie feel, even though the buildings now house a mix of upscale shops, restaurants, bars, gourmet coffee shops, galleries, and real estate agencies advertising homes I can't afford.
Telluride is a highly regarded festival that caters to real cinephiles. It discourages the development of a marketplace, and has a large, loyal following of film lovers of all ages, several of whom told me they come back year after year. The fact that it's pretty expensive to attend, is not the easiest place to get to, and the line-up is announced only one day before it begins was never mentioned by anyone. It seemed that most attendees enjoy the element of surprise, which is only possible if there's trust involved. And trust they do, as great films are premiered and showcased each year, this being no exception.
Co-director Bill Pence commented, "This year, perhaps more than ever, the program touches on the themes we have always held dear at the festival. This year's schedule explores the work of filmmakers who many consider mavericks, affectionately spotlights several well loved classics, presents works by long-time friends of the festival, and features films that explore issues that profoundly touch our country and the world."
I think it best to mention upfront that I didn't cough up the price to buy a festival pass and neither did indieWIRE (and the festival doesn't provide free pass badges), so I often felt like a vagabond begging for discretionary tickets. The festival's press team thankfully gave me four, and Sony Pictures Classics and Miramax each provided a few for their films. This report is, therefore, a tad more limited than I'd have liked. But I did catch many of the highlights, including:
"Cuckoo", a North American premiere. In this World War II era story, a Finnish soldier drafted into the German army and left behind to die by his unit and a Russian soldier accidentally strafed by his own bombers are both nurtured by a Lapp widow who is eager for male companionship. Written and directed by Alexander Rogozhkin, this is an original, poetic, and poignant anti-war film.
I also adored "Rabbit-Proof Fence" (North American premiere). Australian director Philip Noyce said, "This film got started when my phone rang at 3 a.m. in LA, where I was living in a golden cage, and a woman on the other end said she'd found the best script for me." It tells the true story of three (of thousands) half-caste Aboriginal girls in the early 1930s who were forcibly taken from their families and placed in a government sponsored retraining program, and of their determination to return home. It's an incredibly moving, dramatic, and well-acted account of an unconscionable time in Australia's history..
Paul Schrader's new film "Auto Focus," a world premiere here, is an irresistible character study of the adult life of television star Bob Crane ("Hogan's Heroes") and his friendship with John Carpenter, who lures him into the kinky underworld of sex, lies, and videotape. It stars Greg Kinnear as Crane and Willem Dafoe as Carpenter, who both do a wonderful job, yet it's Kinnear who really shines. It's a dark story that deals with a lot of issues, including sexual addiction, corruption of celebrity, dual moralities, the history of electronic technology, and co-dependence. Paul Schrader said at the screening, "Both men needed each other. They thought they would enrich each others lives, but it actually destroyed them." He told the audience that Robert Crane Jr. helped provide research and fill in the blanks, but that Crane's second family is suing them. Crane's son from his second wife, Scotty, apparently sells his father's porn on the website bobcrane.com. Go figure.
"Respiro," a North American premiere, won the grand prize at the 2002 Cannes' critics week. It's about two wild pre-adolescent boys who race around a gorgeous Sicilian island making no distinction between work and play until their games and adventures overlap with the island's superstitions and rituals. Valerie Golina stars as their provincial, emotional mother, whose extravagance makes her an outcast on the island. The director said that Golina is the only professional actor in the film; all the others are people who live on the island.
"Talk to Her" (North American premiere) is director Pedro Almodovar's latest inquiry into the laws of desire. It focuses on two men who become unlikely friends as they bond over the similar misfortunes of their amores. Almodovar deals brilliantly with masculine romantic and erotic ardor in this film, and he blends comedy, tragedy, and the notion of coincidence seamlessly. I loved it!
David Cronenberg brought his latest film "Spider" (North American premiere), which is an examination of a man who battles his mental demons from his past as he attempts to interact with fellow occupants of a halfway house. Cronenberg, still known as the "Master of Horror," has shifted style over the years. There are no great mechanical effects in "Spider", and as Cronenberg said during a short conversation with an audience, Ralph Fiennes' body is the special effect. When asked by the audience how he finds his subjects, he said, "It's like walking around with an electrical plug in a room full of sockets. You try them all and suddenly, in one of them, there is electricity and you know that you have to do this." Even though his films deal with very serious matters, Cronenberg said he has fun making them. "Doing films like 'Dead Ringers' and 'Crash' is a lot of fun for me, great fun. The movies are maybe depressing as hell, but for me my sets are GREAT fun! Someone once told me once that Bergman's sets were also great fun." I am a true fan of 'Spider's' three stars: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, and Gabriel Byrne, and they all delivered. But the film was so austere and detached that I had problems getting into the story, which in the end left me cold.
Back on a positive note, only a handful of theatrical documentaries attract worldwide attention each year, and "Lost in La Mancha", which had its North American premiere at Telluride, is definitely on the road to be one of them. Originally meant as a "making-of" doc of famed director Terry Gilliam's version of the legendary tale of Don Quixote, "Lost In La Mancha" soon becomes something else: a captivating tale of the perils of moviemaking. Co-Directors Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton place viewers smack in the middle of the pre-production and production process, and their thoroughly engrossing and entertaining film is reality TV in the best sense of the term. Just before the first screening began, an amazingly upbeat and funny Terry Gilliam piqued everyone's interest when he said to the audience, "Very few filmmakers have the chance to stand on the sidelines and capture the Titanic sinking."
"Bowling for Columbine," another doc that had its North American premiere in Telluride, is to me without a doubt the best movie Michael Moore has made to date and a film every American should see. He set out to investigate why so many Americans own guns and use them on each other, and in so doing addresses the issue of gun control in a thought-provoking manner. Moore also explores why so many Americans are gripped with fear, and how this fear leads us to acts of violence, both domestically and internationally. Given these heavy themes, one wouldn't imagine they could be so entertained and surprised in the process. But I was and it is. My only issue with "Bowling For Columbine" is that it's so dense (with enough material for two films) that I'm not sure how much viewers can retain. But audiences here certainly loved it.
During Moore's funny and lively conversation held in a small park off Main Street with the self-proclaimed "elitist snob" Christopher Hitchens (writer for Vanity Fair and author of several books), he said that United Artists, the films U.S. distributor, was recently told by the largest movie theater chain in American that they will not show "Bowling for Columbine" in their theaters. They obviously think it too controversial -- what a sad reflection on our country. But with UA behind it, I'm sure this doc will make it to a theater near you when it's released next month. Moore said it's doing gangbuster business in France, where it won a special award at Cannes in May.
"Only the Strong Survive," the latest doc by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, (which I believe premiered at Sundance earlier this year), uncovers what's happened to some of the greatest soul/R&B singers from the 1960's and early '70s. Rather than going the historical route, the filmmakers weave together 10 legends that are still performing and sounding great. Even if you haven't heard of Sam Moore, Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles, Jerry Butler, Mary Wilson, The Chi Lites, or Wilson Pickett, this film is most enjoyable. As Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) said at the screening, it "caught the soul, caught the spirit, and above all got the love."
Without a patron's pass I was denied entry to the tributes, so I can't offer reports of this years esteemed honorees: Peter O'Toole, Paul Schrader, and D A Pennebaker. No pass unfortunately also meant no entry to the Labor Day documentary panel. Held in the town park, "What Is Real and False in Documentaries" had a wonderfully diverse group of panelists: Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Michael Moore, D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Steven Cantor (director of "Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving", which had its world premiere there). I stood outside a chain link fence (not unlike the "Rabbit Proof Fence") for about 20 minutes straining to hear, and I managed to catch some things worth mentioning before I split: Michael Moore praised Ken Burns for always addressing the issue of race in his films, and never shying away from these injustices. This surprised me, not because of the sentiment, which I agree with wholeheartedly, but it was interesting to hear Moore offer up such a compliment to Burns, whose films couldn't be more different in style from his own. Pennebaker said the best story ideas come through the front door to Chris and him, and that getting great stuff on camera is often chance. He said he could never be a fiction-film director, since he wouldn't be able to stand going through more than one take. He also said that he doesn't like most documentaries, and considers his films to be "cinema direct."
The co-directors of the festival, Bill Pence and Tom Luddy, along with guest director Alberto Barbera, revered critic, author, and former director of the Venice Film Festival as well as the Torino Film Festival, certainly assembled an eclectic mix of premieres, international films, retrospectives, documentaries, tributes, and even an homage to the late pioneering animator Chuck Jones. So many different programs were offered that there was something for everyone. Other program elements included: Barbera's presentation of a selection of lost classics of 1950s and 1960s Italian cinema; the first showing of the new high-definition digital presentation of "Singing in the Rain"; and, to mark the golden anniversary of Cinerama -- the revolutionary wide screen process -- David Strohmaier's new documentary "Cinerama Adventure" (world premiere), which I heard was to be followed by a re-creation of the Cinerama process (as close a simulation as Telluride technology was able to create) with excerpts from the 1952 film "This Is Cinerama" and other Cinerama features.
All in all, "Telluride" was a great festival, in a gorgeous location, and the weather was fab. But without the expensive pass, it was difficult to work. If I'd had $1,200 to spare, I'd have swung for the Patron Pass to have the ability to walk in and out of everything that suited my fancy.