Travel

The 45th Annual Telluride Film Festival

The 45th annual Telluride Film Festival (our personal 23rd) began for us under cloudy skies and on a less-than-ideal note. A few days into March have been our accustomed time for buying our Festival passes. But on visiting the website I learned to my dismay that all these passes had sold out on the first day of sales (March 1). Thus began a five months-long residence on a wait list, which we were only able leave on receiving the offer of three CINEPHILE passes. These half-price ($390) passes largely confine one’s entry to a list of world cinema and retrospective offerings and limit access to many of the Oscar-bound films that have recently come to define the Festival. Since we love classic, world cinema, and documentaries, and we can wait until the Oscar contenders arrive at the Cineplex later in the year, this seemed a satisfactory solution to our problem.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 31

Unfortunately, our Festival’s start was marred by our limited passes. We were shut out from the Festival’s customary opening tribute event, this year to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. In its place, we chose GREAT EXPECTATIONS, a triad of shorter films by promising student filmmakers. The first, CE MAGNIFIQUE GÂTEAU!, is an imaginative if sometimes perplexing animated film offering different takes on Belgium’s terrible history of African colonization. The second was a very brief (six minute) short, DARK CAMERA that begins as a camera obscura view of a roadside scene but turns into something even darker. The third film, BRAGUINO, follows dwellers in a small community in remote Siberia who find themselves in bitter conflict with a neighboring group. Although the ethnographic interest of the film as a glimpse into our own more primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle was high, the film was repetitive. One scene—a close up struggle involving the baiting, shooting, and butchering of a colossal bear—is the stuff of continuing nightmares. Tired from the drive up, we left before this final film ran its 50 minutes length. RON’S GRADES FOR THE THREE: B+, B+, B-

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 1

Unfortunately, our bad start continued into the next morning with the premier screening of Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Welles began the film 48 years ago but died in 1985 leaving its completion to Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe McBride, and others. Bogdanovich also stars in the film, which centers on the seventieth birthday party of an idolized but fading director, probably representing Welles himself, as played by John Huston. The ethos seems to be late 60s, with women in the film (and the film within the film) presented through Hugh Hefner-like lenses. The jumpy, handheld cinematography, poor lighting, and utterly confusing narrative make it hard to discern the film’s point, beyond its aging star’s own alcohol-fueled despair. In this viewer’s opinion, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND was best left unfinished. RON’S GRADE: C

Mary Jean, my sister Roberta, who was accompanying us, and I were in near despair ourselves, when our luck (and the day’s rainy weather) changed. In keeping with our passes’ focus, our next film was a riveting documentary, MEETING GORBACHEV, directed by Werner Herzog and André Singers, with Herzog serving as an informed and penetrating interviewer of the Russian premier, now 87 and battling illness. Archival footage takes us back to the terrible days of the cold war when Russia was led by a succession of geriatric ideologues and nuclear warheads were poised to obliterate the human race. Into this world, steps Gorbachev as a deeply human being, whose arms reduction efforts make the world at least momentarily much safer and whose failed reformist domestic policies provide a glimpse of what Putin’s kleptocratic Russia might have been. Gorbachev is shown during a visit to his childhood home, where he warmly embraces an aged aunt and, while walking in the garden, turns to reach out to a wandering cat. MEETING GORBACHEV is the story of our lives and also the surprising portrait of a decent man. RON’S GRADE: A

One excellent documentary was followed by another. REVERSING ROE, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, takes us from the pre-Roe v. Wade days of coat hanger abortions to the imminent reversal of Roe as a result of Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. What is most remarkable about this film is its ability to maintain balance while also signaling the importance of women’s reproductive autonomy. Pro-life protesters and politicians are respectfully allowed to voice their concerns about abortion but we also follow a courageous Midwestern abortion provider, a women physician, who must travel greater distances as more and more clinics are shut down by imposed restrictions having nothing to do with women’s health. The camera is also present as Texas state senator Wendy Davis undertakes a physically grueling, hours-long filibuster to halt passage of a harshly repressive bill that would close most Texas abortion clinics. The halt Davis achieved was only temporary, and the law that ultimately passed is a harbinger of what may lie ahead for over thirty states if the new Supreme Court upholds other enactments like it. The film was followed by a moderated discussion with Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, producer Eva Longoria, and Senator Davis.

Although there is much to worry about at the present moment, the response of the hundreds of young people in the audience, a majority of them women, to the panel’s remarks offers hope that the national commitment to women’s reproductive autonomy that Roe established will not be lost. REVERSING ROE will be available in mid-September on NETFLIX. Not to be missed. RON’S GRADE: A

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

Our good luck and documentary focus continued with this morning’s showing of BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ. Although Edison, the Lumières, and Méliès are often credited as the creators of cinema, their efforts were largely pictorial. It was Alice Guy-Blaché, who began her career as a secretary at Gaumont (then a camera distributor), that introduced narrative and story-telling to the movies, producing and directing hundreds of films, first at Gaumont and later at her own New Jersey-based Solax company. Many of these works, filmed on perishable nitrate, are lost, and Alice’s career has been almost entirely erased from male-authored film histories, with her own most creative works often wrongly attributed to male filmmakers or male subordinates. Documentary, filmmaker Pamela B. Green spent almost two-decades tracking down Guy-Blaché’s life and movies. BE NATURAL not only traces Guy-Blaché’s accomplisments, but also presents Green’s research in the form of a detective story, putting clues together that recover this almost lost pioneer of cinema. RON’S GRADE: A

Midday offered our first fictional movie, although one consistent with the world-cinema theme of our pass. Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (Oscar winner for IDA), COLD WAR traces the intimate side of the years whose outer passage MEETING GORBACHEV presents. It is 1949 and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a talented musician, is tasked with forming a dance company to celebrate Polish rural culture. In the course of recruiting he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a lovely young singer and dancer. For both, it is love at first sight. When the troupe, with its growing success is asked to add homages to Stalin to its repertoire, Wiktor has had enough and during their performances in Berlin he arranges his and Zula’s rendezvous to defect. But Zula is a no-show, and Wiktor leaves without her, embarking on a modestly successful career as a jazz musician in Paris. In a much later meeting when the troupe comes to Paris, Zula explains why she missed their rendezvous: “I was not good enough.” Zula realized that she could only star as one member of a company, a socialist talent, while Wiktor could survive artistically in the individualism of the West. Despite the real and legal walls that separate them and the existence of other relationships, Wiktor and Zula’s continue to harbor a burning love for one another, and this leads them to tragic decisions. As in IDA, Pawlikowsksi uses brilliant black and white cinematography to etch a post-war world as chilling as its politics. I predict that COLD WAR will receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. RON’s GRADE: A

Over the years, I have come to believe that the French love three things: Intellectual debate, good food, and marital infidelity. NON FICTION, the latest work by Olivier Assayas (CARLOS, IRMA VEP), our final film of the day, both celebrates and subverts all three of these French favorites. Publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet), is in a funk: his industry is being assaulted by competition from digitized works, including such horrors as books that are nothing more than a collection of tweets. His marriage is not in much better shape. Both he and wife Selena (wonderfully played by Juliette Binoche) are engaged in complicated affairs, and Serena, too, suffers career blues, playing a cop in a second-rate TV policier, although she insists, “I am not a cop. I’m a crisis manager.” Enter Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a moderately successful novelist that Alain has published over the years, but whose latest novel, a thinly disguised work of “auto-fiction,” Alain has painfully decided to turn down. Léonard’s characters’ real identities are apparently obvious to everyone, except perhaps Alain. The only character not involved in an extra-marital affair is Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), Leonard’s wife, but her job as chief-of-staff for a socialist politician is as insecure as her boss’s future in a rapidly changing political environment. Amidst all this change and threatened loss, the characters debate and debate. Do E-books make sense? Is texting “literature”? Does the Socialist Party any longer appeal to millennials? And on and on and on. If this sounds dull, it’s definitely not. NON FICTION depicts a group of intelligent people living and thinking their way through—and even surmounting—some of the changes that affect us all. The food, too, has changed, as the standard elegant dinners that epitomize so many French films are replaced by self-served takeout that’s more convenient for the working women. NON FICTION is a delightful visit with France’s intellectual middle-class at its best. RON’S GRADE A

Following the showing, Olivier Assayas (right) took questions.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

The last day of this year’s festival began with our fourth and final documentary, ELDORADO by Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof. Beginning in the trackless wastes of the Mediterranean, with the bodies of refugees bobbing in the water, ELDORADO follows the efforts of thousands of these people to reach the “golden land” of Northern Europe. We’re awed by the humanitarian performance of the Italian navy, rescuing desperate people from the sea or from small boats, and treating them with respect. But this respect does not continue: because of stringent European regulations most end up being imprisoned in camps for months on end before being deported back to their country of origin, or, worse, before falling into the hands of Mafia capos that exploit their labor. Throughout, ELDORADO interleaves this modern tragedy with the story of a young Italian girl, Giovanna, who was taken in by director Imhoff’s family during the Second World War after her Italian city was bombed. The Swiss response to war refugees like Giovanna contrasts brutally with the treatment of their modern counterparts. True, most of these are economic immigrants who fail to qualify as refugees from persecution. But the film points out that many Swiss also had to leave their country for the United States during the nineteenth century to escape rural poverty and famine. ELDORADO is thus a moving call to rethink our immigration policies globally. RON’S GRADE A

The next film on our list was SHOPLIFTERS, director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s well-received-in-Japan depiction of a family of petty thieves who exploit their children by using them to steal. When we received Q’s (line positions) numbering 115-117 for the 230 seat Sheridan Opera House, our long wait in the rain seemed worthwhile. But at the last moment over 150 Patrons (bearing $4,900 passes) and other privileged Festival donors showed up, and we and many other Q-holder were sent packing. This was a Festival low-point which, with the bad weather, stirred thoughts of whether this might be our last Festival.

But a break with several glasses of wine and our eventual admission to the last film of the day at the Nugget Theater dramatically shifted our mood. THE WHITE CROW, directed by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays a supporting role as a Kirov Ballet mentor speaking wonderfully expressive Russian) moves back and forth in time as it recounts the life of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev from his birth on a train in 1938, through his years of training that lead to his role as a principal dancer in the Kirov company, and, finally, to his 1961 defection from the Soviet Union during the company’s visit to Paris. Oleg Ivenko plays the adult Nureyev in all his sexual ambiguity and artistic genius. Brief but stunning dance scenes make clear why Nureyev is proudly confident that he can successfully escape the deadening confines of privileged Soviet society and flourish in the West. From childhood to defection Nureyev is the “white crow,” the exception who stands out from the mass. In the film’s final scenes Nureyev’s defection is treated in thriller fashion, and one feels affirmed in the belief that France has often been at the center of what we think of as the free world. RON’s GRADE: A

On balance, this was for us an excellent Telluride Festival. True, there were dark moments, some caused by our Cinephile pass, such as our exclusion from the customary opening night tribute. But that same pass steered us into some of the best documentaries and foreign films we’ve ever seen. Telluride remains as vibrant as ever. True, too, there has been a turn to Oscar-destined, Hollywood films’ premiers, which can easily beguile Festival attendees. Among them are Melissa McCarthy in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, Hugh Jackman in THE FRONT RUNNER and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE. I regret not being able to report on many of these films. To amplify our choices next year, we’ll probably seek Festival passes. But our experience with our modest Cinephile passes this year taught us not to lose sight of why we first came to Telluride twenty-three years ago—the opportunity to see movies that show cinema at its best and that rarely come to commercial theaters.

Farewell Telluride:

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