On the nearly one hundred year old Sheraton Opera House building where the Telluride Film Festival began 32 years ago hangs a sign that reads simply, “SHOW.” The sign has been there since before organizers Bill Pence and Stella Pence, who founded the event with Tom Luddy, first came to this mountain town in 1972. Somehow the word came to represent this festival, having been used on the first fest poster and then etched onto the silver medallion that organizers award honorees each year. “It’s the essence of what we are all about,” Bill Pence told indieWIRE, “We look upon ourselves as ‘The Show’.”
So how fitting that this year the legendary Mickey Rooney was in Telluride to receive a special award from the festival. His “let’s put on a show” musicals with Judy Garland, including Busby Berkeley‘s “Babes on Broadway” from 1941 (which was a surprise screening here Sunday) embody the spirit of staging an event, in the case of that particular film cleaning up a dilapidated theater to raise money for needy children.
“Babes on Broadway” is one of 360 movies that Mickey Rooney has appeared in over the course of a more than 80-year career on screen. Introducing the showing Sunday, he smiled and said, “Let’s put on a show, and away we go!”, before taking a seat in the front row with his wife to watch most of the motion picture. Filling in time during an unexpected break in the film that resulted in a five-minute delay, Rooney answered a couple of questions from the audience, and then barked out, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore!”
Indeed, the black-and-white film’s stunning musical numbers are cinematic delights, and the climactic, extended minstrel-show number, with Rooney and a young Judy Garland performing in black face, is a shocking sequence that shows just how much movies and popular representations have changed over the course of Rooney’s career.
Three particularly clear examples of how much has changed in this country could be seen in a group of Telluride debuts that explore rural and urban America, mainly in the 1960s: Ang Lee‘s “Brokeback Mountain“, Bennett Miller‘s “Capote“, and Martin Scorsese‘s “No Direction Home.” Each is set around the same time in this country and offers contrasting explorations of life in America at that time.
Miller’s “Capote” begins in 1959 when the successful fiction writer Truman Capote is drawn to the story of a tragic murder in small town Kansas. Traveling there with confidant Harper Lee, who has just finished her own “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Capote leaves behind the glamour and privilege of his life back in Manhattan to get into the minds of the killers and the townspeople. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s nuanced performance brings Capote to life and offers a powerful exploration of the author and his subject, set during a time in this country when such crimes did not receive daily national media exposure, and exploring the complicated motives behind Capote’s relationship with one of the killers. In 1966, Capote would publish his “In Cold Blood” to wide acclaim, the book praised as the first “non-fiction novel”. And the same year, back to his modern urban life in New York City, Capote would throw the famous Black and White Ball for a glittering array of socialites. Miller’s film, written by longtime friend Dan Futterman (and based on Capote biographer Gerald Clarke’s writings), was a big hit with audiences here in Telluride this weekend, one of the numerous films that seemed to have industry and local attendees buzzing based on informal polling. Sony Pictures Classics, which took on the movie after the demise of United Artists, will release it in theaters this fall following screenings at the Toronto and New York film festivals.
The anticipated “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee from a script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (based on the short story by Anne Proulx), was another exceptional film that audiences seemed to really like here in Telluride. Despite being branded “the gay cowboy movie”, audiences here seemed to take the film’s graphic sexual moments between two men in stride, in particular connecting with the beautiful and sad love story at the heart of the film. Cowboys Jack Twist (Heath Ledger) and Ennis Del Mar (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet and fall in love with each other in 1963 while assigned to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Lee’s movie powerfully explores their relationship over two decades, looking at both the way their secret and unsatisfying love is shaped by external factors and the impact the relationship has on their wives and families. Heath Ledger in particular is outstanding as the tortured silent-type who can’t deal with the complicated love he feels for another man. “Brokeback Mountatin” is a striking, distinctively American, love story set in a time and place that wouldn’t abide such a relationship. Decades later some of the same prejudices could be seen in the state; Anne Proulx’s short story which inspired the film was published in “The New Yorker” just a year before Matthew Shephard was brutally killed in Wyoming for being gay. Following a request from the Venice Film Festival to let that European event have the official world premiere of the movie, organizers in Telluride bumped a preview screening here Friday by an hour so that Italians would technically see it first. Focus Features will open the film in December; it will next screen at the Toronto International Film Festival.
A completely different look at 60s America can be found in Martin Scorsese’s striking new documentary about Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home,” a surprise screening here Saturday evening. The nearly four-hour film will soon air on PBS, prior to a subsequent DVD release. Scorsese has created an engrossing work, essentially narrated by an insightful interview with Dylan, that explores not only the musician’s own work but also music by many other leading artists of the period. The film contrasts Dylan’s life growing up in rural Minnesota with his experiences performing and living in downtown New York City where he moved in 1961. His 1963 album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, established him as a powerful, poetic voice of resistance at a time when parts of the country were facing major change. Weaving in historical images of 60s America, the film offers a unique window into the era and would be of interest to viewers who may not even know (or love) Dylan’s music.
Among the other films that seemed to strike a chord with viewers here in Telluride included Hany Abu-Assad‘s “Paradise Now” about a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers struggling with their assignment, James Mangold‘s “Walk The Line” about Johnny Cash and June Carter which was a crowd-pleaser on Sunday, Cillian Murphy’s starring role as a transvestite in Neil Jordan‘s “Breakfast on Pluto” adapted from Patrick McCabe‘s book, and Liev Schreiber‘s directorial debut “Everything is Illuminated” starring Elijah Wood, based on Jonathan Safran Foer‘s novel. Also quite popular were three programs of work by younger directors in the Filmmakers of Tomorrow section which screened shorts in three categories: Student Prints, Calling Cards, and Great Expectations.
Festival attendees embraced the new Palm Theater this year, a large permanent venue for year-round events that was equipped with the festival in mind and funded through an initiative guided by event organizers. Meanwhile, numerous moviegoers were turned off by the festival’s obsessive focus on keeping cell phones and other devices under control inside venues. Publicly declaring (on numerous occasions) that Telluride theaters are “sacred spaces”, staffers aggressively (and sometimes rudely) confronted customers who seemed to be using a mobile device, even loudly barking out orders to turn phones off to people waiting patiently outside a theater. In one extreme example, a staffer who was on stage to introduce a jammed screening publicly singled out an audience member thinking a light from a phone was visible in one of the front rows. The customer was merely momentarily using a schwag keychain flashlight to read a festival program. While in another instance, musician Lou Reed was quickly scolded by a theater staffer when he noticed his phone was on while watching Laurie Anderson discuss her new short film. “I am trying to turn it off!” he barked back at the staffer. The aggressive implementation of the ban seemed to create an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between festival staff and guests, with uncomfortable staffers complaining anonymously to indieWIRE that festival brass had inexplicably asked them to take a confrontational stance with event partrons.
Aside from that, the Telluride Film Festival remains a jewel of a weekend festival, offering a necessary respite from film events that increasingly seem to stray away from focusing exclusively on films and filmmakers. With a brief four-day fest that offers a relatively short list of films, and no crowded party scene to speak of, its easy to get lost in the movies. As one longtime festival attendee explained while waiting on line Sunday to see a silent film, “Telluride is like New Year’s Day taking place over a weekend, it’s a perfect way to kick off the fall movie season.” She added, “I can’t imagine anything that would prevent me from attending year after year.”
[Again this year, indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez published updates on his blog during the Telluride Film Festival.]