Thursday, September 17, 2009

Telluride Film Festival Part One: So It Began...

Editor's Note: Although the Telluride Film Festival 2009 ended a couple of weeks ago, the time for reflection is upon us via Brandon Colvin who attended this year's festival as part of the Student Symposium. Over the next week or so, we'll have several entries on the festival experience - the movies, the people, the lines...the whole Telluride experience. Congratulation to Brandon for being selected as part of the prestigious symposium. Even more fortunate, for the rest of us, is that we get to read all about it and experience it now!

by Brandon Colvin

On a chilly Thursday morning, waiting for a 6 AM flight from Nashville to Denver, I met Santa Claus. Conversing in between paragraphs of In Cold Blood, I discovered that for six weeks out of the year, the tubby, bearded, and balding Tennessean beside me was a mall Santa who loved playing jolly, jiggly dress-up for wide-eyed children, cynical parents, and people who just dig Christmas. I never caught his real name, but I did catch a nice little card he handed me, which featured a photo of the bulging traveler decked out in Yuletide gear with the word “Santa” in cursive script printed at the top. He explained that the shirt he wore in the photo was custom-made, costing hundreds of dollars, but then assuaged my growing concern for his economic well-being by noting that he made between $10,000 and $20,000 each year for his six weeks of Santa service. By trade, and for most of the year, he was a pipe-fitter, but that weekend – the same weekend as the Telluride Film Festival – he was attending a convention for “natural Santas” (those people who are biologically endowed with Claus-like qualities) in Colorado Springs. Hearing his story, it was hard not to smile, particularly when he urged a nearby dad to give the cards to his small children who then stared at the ho-ho-hoer with dumbstruck awe and curious terror. Surprisingly enough, however, this strange fellow in red suspenders turned out to be the least interesting person I was to encounter in the following five days.

North Pole be damned, the Telluride Film Festival has a more magical atmosphere than any place or event I have ever experienced, due mostly to the incredible collection of absolutely fascinating, passionate, and intelligent people that convene upon the tiny Colorado ski town every year to create a cinematic utopia in the midst of picturesque crags, streams, and coniferous valleys. Those festival-goers fortunate enough to participate in the Student Symposium – a collection of 50 college students culled from around the world, though mostly the US and Canada – reap the greatest benefits of the festival’s unparalleled opportunities for intimate contact with the most important creative and critical minds in film – including our fellow symposium members. Frequently, Telluride veterans – including faculty leaders Linda Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (1989), ed. Porn Studies (2004)) and Howie Movshovitz (Colorado Public Radio, NPR) – commented that interacting with the astonishingly perceptive group of students in the Symposium gave them hope for the future of film culture. I must say that I felt the same way. The group cohered immediately and friendships developed as we casually dined with filmmakers Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)) and Jay Rosenblatt (Human Remains (1998)), discussing everything from Tarkovsky to baseball to camping to Herzog. This was the giddy, cinephilic environment we entered on the first night, which was capped off by a screening of Lone Scherfig’s An Education.

Scherfig’s film, however, was a major disappointment. Ultra-conventional and exceedingly bland, An Education features a promising performance from star Carey Mulligan, but otherwise wastes a great cast (Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Sally Hawkins) on a typical coming-of-age story taking place in 1960s England as a young girl begins to question her conformist ambitions to attend Oxford after being courted by an older, worldly, and free-wheeling thief (Sarsgaard). Predictable, trite, and visually uninteresting, An Education is slight, forgettable, and lazy, surprising facts considering the exclusivity of Telluride’s selection process. The common response to the film seemed to be a tired shrug, a collective gesture of exasperation that led all of us to the tiny town’s quaint bars, and then to bed.

Waking up the next morning, I was greeted with brisk mountain air, drizzling rain, and what promised to be an incredible day. First on the agenda was a series of 45-minute seminar discussions with our first three notable visitors: film preservationist and archivist Paulo Cherchi-Usai; famed documentarian Ken Burns; and the festival’s guest director, Alexander Payne. Cherchi-Usai initiated our conversations by posing questions about the mortality of celluloid and its potentially waning relevance in modern society. In his process of questioning the role film archives should play, he stated, “If we preserve films, we should make sure that we are doing something that is useful or necessary to society.” In other words, without the demand for film archives, attempting to create them may be a futile task. Therefore, if we think them worthy, us film-lovers should create the demand in order to legitimate their existence. With a Marxist slant to his commentary, Cherchi-Usai berated capitalism’s influence on devaluing celluloid as a specific medium and disparaged its suggested role in preventing people from engaging in “slow looking,” or concentrated, focused, repeated observance of a film, by encouraging rapid consumption of as many films as possible – quantity over quality of viewing. DVDs, he explained, are a major obstacle to slow looking, something I disagree with both in principle and practicality. Many symposium members seemed to feel the same way, and, unfortunately, our discussion with him was cut short before any in-depth disputation occurred. Quite provocative, Cherchi-Usai thoroughly energized us for what was to come – the force of nature that is Ken Burns.

Contrary to the PBS-style mundanity of his widely seen documentaries, Ken Burns was a thrill. Moving from a basic discussion about the nature of truth and objectivity in documentary filmmaking (“Truth does not exist. Objectivity does not exist.”) to Aristotlean aesthetics (“Everyone is bound to the same storytelling laws. Believe or not, even Fred Wiseman.”) to ontological investigation (“How could I not be Ken Burns?”), the diminutive documentarian filled every minute of our discussion with thoughtfulness and candor. Though his stated ideas about the universality of storytelling and the complicated relationship between filmmaker and subject sometimes veered into contradiction and paradox, Burns never closed himself off to our prying queries and was quick to revise and clarify his responses. Listening to Burns – a self-proclaimed “evangelist” for film – was stimulating and motivating and truly set the tone for the intimate, direct nature of the subsequent encounters our group would have in Telluride.

Alexander Payne, however, was a different story. Dismissive, curt, and evasive, Payne turned out to be as cantankerous as his characters in Sideways (2004). The writer/director refused to participate in any sort of analysis about his process or his creation intuition, opting for glib statements such as “It’s just funny. That’s all” or his most frequent response, an annoyed “I don’t know.” Payne was adamant about the artistic superiority of television shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos when compared to the modern movie climate, presumably the reason for his most recent project, the HBO show Hung. Additionally, Payne discussed his love for cinema in vague observations, stopping every once in a while to highlight this or that obscure foreign film (many of which comprised his selection of films screening at the TFF), while also justifiably griping about the business side of the film industry. Near the end of our session, Payne finally grew comfortable and made his most valuable comments, mostly regarding film school. Noting the importance of experiencing and understanding film history and technique, the filmmaker remarked that it is important to have a solid idea of what kind of films one might want to make, that something concrete and meaningful must be conceived before running the gauntlet of production and distribution difficulties. Succinctly, Payne said, “You have to know what the hell you’re protecting” – advice I took to heart.

Following our afternoon seminars, we were whisked onto Main Street for a lovely taco dinner. Nearby, the line was already forming outside the Sheridan Opera House for our next event, the Telluride tribute to Margarethe von Trotta, followed by the world premiere of her newest film Vision. The film, a biopic chronicling the eventful life of 12th-century nun/composer/rabble rouser, Hildegard von Bingen (Barbara Sukova), was much less entertaining than the tribute that preceded it, which featured outstanding clips from von Trotta’s celebrated career and an onstage interview between the filmmaker and Annette Insdorf. Marred by mismanaged melodrama, stylistically disjointed cinematography, and a narrative arc that lagged and wilted, Vision was the second consecutive underwhelming film of the festival, a particularly sour fact considering the deserved recognition given to von Trotta.

Somewhat disappointed, my fellow symposium members and I scurried out of the Sheridan en route to the Gondola, a beautiful ski lift with enclosed cabins that silently carried us up the slope to Mountain Village, the sister community to Telluride and home of the Chuck Jones Cinema (named after the late great animator). The Gondola ride was eerily surreal and as we watched the lights of Telluride recede into the misty distance, my excitement for the next film began to percolate. The film turned out to be the absolute best of the festival: Michael Haneke’s Palm D’or-winning The White Ribbon.

To be continued . . .

An Education- C-
Vision- D


James Hansen said...

Its always odd when you show up at super selective festivals (Telluride and NYFF I think are the best examples) and then just sit through a giant pile of shit. Seems to happen every festival though. Always makes you wonder about what was getting rejected and why. I've got a little insight from my work with Richard Pena. One mans trash is anothers treasure...I guess...even in the same circles who select the films. It happens.

Totally agreed, by the way, on Telluride being one of the more magical places on least come film fest time. In the immortal words of Jack Sawyer, "We have to go back!"

Anonymous said...


I dig this.

Chuck W said...

I think it was pretty obvious that An Education was a total stinker once certain entertainment journalists and awards prognosticators started going bug-shit crazy over it. You know... the sort of dopes who value a film more on its awards potential than anything else.

Glad to see my suspicions have been confirmed (though I'll still see it, eventually, with an open mind).

Now tell us about The White Ribbon!

Brandon Colvin said...

I'm working on it. Should be finished tomorrow.

Glad to see you guys are intrigued!

Steve Langton said...

Great to be able to read about your festival experiences. Sounds a magical place for a fest. Look forward to the rest, including your thoughts on The White Ribbon. We're getting this at the London Film Fest next month.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks Steve! You're in for a real treat with THE WHITE RIBBON. What else is slated to screen there?