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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The 30th Anniversary Party

A few weeks ago I was reading the book commemorating the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse.  It’s a beautiful compendium of photographs and memories from the Chez Panisse family, illustrating the force of that restaurant and Alice Waters and the tremendous effect they both have had on what we eat and how we do so.  I think I’ve loved alice since she first entered my frame.  But now I think I’ve fallen absolutely in love with her.  As well as with her fantastical mercurial impossible visions that again and again have become her and our reality.

And I especially love the delightfully sour entry by her former general manager describing his experience at the 30th anniversary celebration at Berkeley back in 2001.  A small meal for 150 became a feast for 600 chefs and patrons and filmmakers and artists – a soft leisurely afternoon beneath the Berkeley campanile that would evoke the spirit of the Pagnol films that long ago had inspired Waters. In the planning phase, Gilbert Pilgram, the former general manager of the restaurant (and eventual owner of Zuni) kept asking how they would manage the clean up and Alice repeated with ever more irritation that “it was taken care of.”  After the big fête, everyone else had retired to the after party and Pilgram was left largely alone with a handful of Tibetans and sullen teenagers to clean up the mess.  Very little had been taken care of.  And so they toiled away exhausted and alone until the sun rose the next morning.

We may not be able to have a decent life without Alice.  But we can’t have life at all without Gilbert Pilgram.

Berkeley

My father came here once and he camped out in the Doe library one foggy summer in the 1960’s searching the stacks for archival material about mining journalism in Nevada during the great silver rush.  He found a forlorn journal kept by a woman named Martha Galley in which she recorded her lonesomeness, the absence of her husband and the death of her children.  The last thing my dad did in this world was try to publish it, but by then it was too late and he was already out of time.

My grandmother and my aunt came to join him.  When my grandmother was a little girl in Philadelphia near the turn of the century she was run over by a carriage and it broke her back.  After that she was hunched and stooped and couldn’t play with the other kids and so she set to walking and that she did, up to ten or twenty miles a day.  Tilden Park? she once asked me.  Do you know Tilden Park?  Up in the hills?  Every day I would walk from the Rose Garden all the way up the hill to Tilden Park and back down again, she said.

My grandmother was in her sixties at the time and she would walk all the way to goddamn Tilden Park.

I went to Berkeley once.

I had completed my sophomore year in college and all I wanted to do at that time was run fast and far away.  I studied Russian during the summer and I stayed on for the fall.  I worked at Blondie’s pizza, sometimes prepping in the back, sometimes delivering on a scooter at night.  Once I didn’t strap the pizza boxes on right and they flew off the back all over the road.  I ended giving them up for free to the college kids who had ordered them.

I liked the feeling of riding that scooter fast through the night.  The scooter was red.

I found out that summer that my girlfriend was fucking some other guy.  It was my fault, she said.  I wasn’t there for her, she said.  It didn’t matter.  We didn’t have a good relationship anyway.  I’d cheated on my first girlfriend to go out with her.  None of us were any good.

I was living with a guy named Don at the time, right up there near Tilden Park, and I couldn’t stay down in town past three-thirty because that’s when the Livermore shuttle took it’s last run.  I didn’t want to walk up that hill.  My friend Kenny wondered what my problem was, why couldn’t I walk up a hill? he asked.  You walk up that hill, I told him and he tried and he scarce could do it.

Don was dating Maddie Wegner that summer.  He was madly in love and he confided in me that he loved her so much, that she was the one and he was going to propose to her.  He had it all planned out.  He bought her a ring and later in the summer when they were going to be driving through South Dakota, one sunset evening he was going to propose to her.

And that he did.  Except that she had no inkling he was in love with her.  She sat there with him somewhere in the midwest, embarrassed in the waning light, looking at the ring he held in his hand.  He was a nice boy, she said.  A sweet boy.  And that’s where she left it.

I would get out at the Livermore Center and walk the deer trail along the hillside and would hunker down by the wind organ and watch the sun make it’s way toward the horizon and at times the colors would be so profound that I would laugh and howl as if I’d lost my senses.

But now, on that afternoon, the one that matters most to us, my daughter and I and the bird arrived unclean and tired and needing food. We cut into town and found the Bread Board across from Chez Panisse.  We ordered pizza topped with goat cheese and peaches. We ate it sitting on a grassy divide in the middle of the road. The flavors were rank and disgusting and it made me such.  Mazie hardly touched it.  For Poe it was much the same.

All journeys, all races run, pass through a place of dissipation and I guess for us maybe this was it.  Mazie and I ate what we could in this place transitional and transcending as it has always been, and we piled then into the car and we headed north taking wrong turn after wrong turn after wrong turn until we found ourselves passing across the Delta, that swampland once parceled to the wanderings of Jack London and the tin boot fortunes of China camps, and rogue vagrants and bums and residents who had but fled all there was to flee from.

On this evening the light glinted flat across the misty water, posing an ephemeral halo for the yawning dilapidated penitentiary, and for Saint Quentin himself, I guess, tortured and beheaded as he was.  And now what stores of the unrepentant, lead and gold alike, were bound and locked tight within his chest, doing time for whatever crimes done unto?

Unseen, hardly a mote we were, Mazie and I and our companion bird passed across those mud flats, past chambered prisoners and flocks of crane set to taking flight.  By them all we passed.