TELLURIDE '99: Telluride's One Big Family Picnic of Film
by Anthony Kaufman
"We don't do a Sun dance," joked documentarian Ken Burns on the last day of the 26th Telluride Film Festival, referring to the startling turn of sunny weather that began as soon as the festival started. "It had been raining for two months up until Friday," added Burns, who could only attribute the good weather to a film goddess benevolently watching over the festival proceedings.
As the 4-day festival wound down to a close on Monday, the 2000 plus attendees gathered together for a Labor Day Picnic like some family reunion. There was uncle Werner Herzog sitting on a hay stack, big brother Burns chatting with a couple of attending documentary filmmakers, the bad son James Toback talking to some pretty girls, and a host of other extended family members exchanging the names of their favorite films and feasting hungrily on the ice cream buffet that included every topping you could possibly desire.
Judging from word of mouth and added screenings to compensate for high audience demand, Allison Maclean's "Jesus' Son" was on the top of most movie-goers favorites lists, with industry insiders hedging bets on a major prize for the Lions Gate film at the Venice Film Festival. Soren Kragh-Jacobson's "Mifune" -- slated for a February 2000 release in the U.S. via Sony Pictures Classics -- was also an oft-mentioned title, as were Patrice Laconte's "The Girl on the Bridge" (Paramount Classics), Pip Karmel's "Me Myself I" (Sony Pictures Classics), Damien O'Donnell's film adaptation of the popular play about a British-Pakistani family, "East is East" (Miramax), and Israeli-director Amos Gitai's Cannes entry, "Kadosh" a dramatic story of women suffering in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Adrienne Shelly's "I'll Take You There" was also popular, along with Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" (Sony Classics).
But new films are not the only pleasures to be found in Telluride. Silent films scored with live music accompaniment (Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet doing "Dracula," two famous pianists playing to William Wyler's "The Shakedown") and revival screenings of older films (Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Dust in the Wind," Marco Ferreri's "La Grande Bouffe") were as much the talk of the town as the new features. Popular documentaries included Anthony Wall's "The Brian Epstein Story" and Ilona Ziok's "Karussell," which Seventh Art Releasing will distribute in the U.S.
Many remaining entries drew diametrically opposing responses from festival-goers. The biggest example being Georgian-born Otar Iosseliani's new film "Farewell, Home Sweet Home" which indieWIRE was told to be a "must-see" and a "must avoid". Nearly universally panned was "Black and White" from James Toback, a member of the Telluride family to be sure (he has screened "The Big Bang" and "Two Girls and a Guy" here), but his latest film is a complete mess -- with perhaps only one redeeming moment: a scene between a flagrantly gay Robert Downey Jr. picking up a genuinely homo-and-white phobic Mike Tyson.
This notion of the "Telluride family" is central to getting a taste of the 26-year-old festival. You find faithful attendees from Florida, Hawaii, Ohio, Virginia, etc. in every movie line, people who came here 10 years ago and became instantly hooked by the laid-back atmosphere, majestic mountain beauty and eclectic film programming. Sometimes it occurred to me like a smiling spiritual cult as much as a family. Apparently, much of this year's positive spirit comes from Guest Festival Director Peter Sellars. A ubiquitous figure at the festival with his spiked up hair and constant hugging of people, Sellars was described by Ken Burns as "Guest Director as rock star and holy man." A Buddhist, a theater genius, and maybe the most warm-hearted individual that you'd ever come across, Sellars charmed the crowd, (except in the tribute to Catherine Deneuve where many were frustrated by his questions like "What do you eat?").
"There was something extraordinarily special about this festival for me," said Burns at a public conversation with Sellars. "And a lot it had to do with this Guest Director." Burns told Sellars, "You have changed the molecular structure of this festival in ways that will last through the years for a half-life than none us will live to see the end of." Later joking, "I'm going to get to the Pink Panther films in a second." (That's Peter Sellers.)
Not at any festival have I seen so many people filled with warmth for their fellow neighbor (or for that matter, a paraglider plopping onto a nearby grassy field while waiting in line for a film). Industry-ites spoke of their appreciation for a festival where they could casually talk and get to know directors, talent and "build relationships." Every filmmaker indieWIRE spoke with could only share positive opinions of the festival. At his tribute, summing up the sentiment of Telluride attendees, David Lynch received applause and hoots when he proclaimed, "I want to thank Bill Pence and Tom Luddy for setting up this festival and keeping it going for 26 years and celebrating the art side of film instead of the commercial side. Long live Telluride!"
Post Script: For those interested in joining the Telluride cult in the next millennium, consider this advice. 1.) Reserve accommodations well in advance, unless you want to camp outside. As well as air travel. 2.) Don't stay in the Mountain Village, unless you're prepared for the 20-minute gondola ride to and from your condo, which can really take a bite out of your day 3.) Don't buy the $250 ACME pass. If you're going, you might as well shell out $500 for a Festival Pass and gain access to all the screenings. 4.) If you're on a budget, consider Toronto, it ain't as pretty or friendly as Telluride, but it's much cheaper and easier to get to.