40 Years of Film in Telluride


IMG_2951Tuesday morning, things are wrapping up, the crowds heading home.  And the Telluride Film Festival, now in it’s fortieth year, still stands as the reigning queen of festivals.  After five days of immersion in films and conversations and ideas, your head spins and you feel the need for some time to process.

The Festival is unjuried (no prizes given), is not a market festival (no sales or seeking distribution), the content unannounced (people come in from around the world not knowing what will be served up until the first day), no paparazzi or red carpet (this is about the craft and the story with a bit of buzz, so real conversation between filmmakers is possible), has a tradition of sneaking films (they don’t list some items in the program, allowing them to show films freshly canistered and scoop Venice and Toronto, showcasing movies before they’ve officially premiered) contains a healthy dose of film hauled from the vaults (you come here to see stuff you will never have a chance to see anywhere else), and it’s in Telluride (everything within a gondola ride or a couple block walk).

All this makes for Telluride to be a movie love fest.

What are these things we call films?  At one point I found myself lying on the floor of the Sheridan Opera House, surrounded by images and ephemera from the last forty years.  I listened to Werner Herzog’s solemn intonation and Andre Gregory expounding.  I overheard another person explain how she’s been visiting for a few years and TFF feels so intense and even emotionally transformative that she can’t stop coming.  It’s not so much a film festival as a body of people immersing themselves in collective dreams, then surfacing and recounting their experience.

TFF was once known for it’s informality and rough edges. This began as a festival about movies and about the love and communication between people.  As guest director last year, Alice Waters curated the Fanny Trilogy by Marcel Pagnol – the stories that long ago inspired her to start Chez Panisse, creating a space that would become a vessel for food and pleasure and love shared.  This year she was honored during a screening of a documentary about Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food.  Through her cooking and her involvement over four decades, Waters has been instrumental in growing and nurturing the Telluride gathering.  In the Sheridan Opera House on Saturday morning, she described the Festival as an international family reunion in which the artists and creators whom we love most gather each year to revel in each other’s company.  The festival counts as one of her many homes.

And It’s no wonder that many pass holders return year after year.

Back in the day, films projected in the quonset hut community center would be drowned out by rain pelting against the tin roof.  And in 1984 the rough informality allowed for a baseball game between team Paris,Texas and team Stranger than Paradise  in which Wim Wenders caught a flyball in the outfield and then left the game so he could go out on top.

Here viewers are willing to receive images in the purest, most trusting way.  And owing to the outstanding programming of the festival directors along with their collective willingness to take risk, the Telluride films have had a streak of Oscar runs (Slumdog Millionaire, The Kings Speech, The Descendents).  And Telluride has also had it’s share of delightful bombs.  Which is wonderful. The last thing we want to do is discourage people from taking risk.  Only in risk can a new world be created.

We don’t know the ultimate effect of Telluride’s market making power.  This year, the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, and JC Chandor pulled their films from Toronto so they could premiere at Telluride.  The buzz on Nebraska overshadowed the Silver Medallion Tribute to the Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof.  (Manuscripts don’t Burn).  But the spirit is still there.

Let’s hope that the crew out of Berkeley and the town itself will succeed in remembering who they are and from whence they come, and will continue to honor the power of the moving image.

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