The Telluride Film Festival

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Telluride Film
Like cinema
itself, the Telluride Film Festival seesaws on a delicate question: How does
any movie stand a chance when competing with the most spectacular of nature’s
beauties? I had never been to the Colorado Rockies before, much less this annual
cinematic aerie, so I was primed to be wowed. And wowed I was–as much by
the backdrop as by any celluloid nugget glistening before it.

There are cheaper ways to
get intoxicated, though. If the thin air doesn’t set your head spinning–as
it does mine the first couple of days–all you have to do is look up. Or
for that matter, look around and watch other people looking up: as in New York,
you can tell the tourists by the craning necks. Except here the skyscrapers
are vaulting, evergreen-studded mountains that frame the town in a narrow oblong
valley. Off in the distance at one end is a waterfall that seems to trickle
from the sky. At the other end, the gap between mountains forms a proscenium
for the most extravagant sunsets I’ve ever been stunned by on leaving a
movie theater.

Fortunately, Telluride contains
a halfway house of sorts for those torn between nature and cinema. Called the
Abel Gance Open Air Theater, it is named for the Promethean visionary of early
French cinema who in 1979, at the age of 90, sat in a window of the New Sheridan
Hotel and watched his panoramic epic Napoleon, a film he and the world
hadn’t seen in 50 years, projected for a delirious crowd in Telluride’s
central square. Though the square has shrunk since then (it’s still big
enough for a full-sized movie screen), the festival’s nightly outdoor shows
memorialize Gance’s visit.

The first night I attend,
there are chilly, rain-speckled gusts blowing down from the mountain, making
the whole experience akin to an all-natural version of Sensurround. It couldn’t
be more appropriate; the film on display has its face to the elements too. George
Butler’s The Endurance recounts the ill-fated 1914-’16 voyage
of explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew into the wastes of Antarctica and
a lengthy imprisonment by ice. Although the expedition’s harrowing story
has been told countless times before, including in shipboard photographer Frank
Hurley’s amazing 1919 film South, Butler’s documentary (which
integrates Hurley’s footage with freshly shot views of the polar region)
offers the most sumptuous and captivating account of it I’ve yet encountered.
Among mythic man-versus-nature collisions, the fate of Shackleton’s ship
not only resonates as loudly as that of the Titanic, it comes to us via
a trove of awesome and authentic images that easily surpasses the documentation
of any comparable disaster.

That haunting evidence,
and Butler’s intelligent mounting of it, makes for an extraordinarily powerful
film. As far as I’ve been able to determine, The Endurance doesn’t
yet have theatrical distribution, but it certainly deserves it; few documentaries
pack such dramatic punch and unforgettable imagery–outdoors or in-.

While most festivals offer
sightings of filmmakers as well as films, the population of Telluride–festival
and town–is small enough that the ratio of auteurs to filmgoers
may be higher than anywhere in the world. Those fielding questions or hanging
around Colorado St. this year include Ang Lee, Al Pacino, Barbet Schroeder,
Phil Kaufman, Paul Schrader, Edward Yang, Patrice Leconte, Amos Gitai, Ken Burns
(who premieres his 20-hour documentary Jazz), Werner Herzog and Stan
Brakhage, as well as the subjects of four tributes: the Korean master Im Kwon
Taek (his Chunhyang opens in the U.S. early next year), writer Elmore
Leonard and actors Stellan Skarsgaard and Norman Lloyd (who once dangled from
the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur). Other actors on
hand to support films include Boesman and Lena’s Danny Glover and
Angela Bassett and Shadow of the Vampire’s Willem Dafoe.

Telluride is also small
enough that a popular film has the chance to generate considerable buzz between
its first and last screenings. This year, word of mouth’s prime beneficiary
was a stark and haunting new movie from Iranian Kurdistan. One of two films
that seemed to announce a new generation in Iranian cinema when they shared
the Camera d’Or (best first film) prize at Cannes earlier this year, Bahman
Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses chronicles the perils faced
by Kurdish children involved in smuggling goods across the mountainous Iran-Iraq
border. Like many Iranian films, it seems modeled on the unvarnished humanism
of Italian Neorealism, yet its skill and passion clearly belong to an original.

Ghobadi, who is 30, grew
up in a Kurdish village and worked on two recent films set in Kurdistan, as
an adviser on Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and as an
actor on Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards. Making his first visit
to the U.S., the outgoing director told filmgoers that he found Telluride a
ringer for the mountains of his native region. Ghobadi has much to look forward
to: the first Iranian film shot mostly in Kurdish, Time for Drunken Horses
opens in Paris this week, and is a leading contender to become Iran’s nominee
for the 2001 Best Foreign Film Oscar.

The other film receiving
the kind of passionate response that guarantees sold-out extra shows was Edward
Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two), the winner of the Best Director
prize this year at Cannes. As a longtime admirer of Yang’s work, I was
pleased to see the enthusiasm that Telluride showered on Yi Yi, a complex,
meditative and ultimately very moving tale of an extended Taipei family experiencing
various highs and lows over a period of several months. Effortlessly blending
the serious moods of the director’s films of the 80s with the analytical
comedy he explored in the 90s, the new film evidences the brainy rigor that
characterizes all of his work, yet it’s also his most relaxed, warmly emotional
film to date. It drew a particularly effusive appreciation from Werner Herzog,
whose Aguirre, the Wrath of God Yang credits with inspiring his career.
(Both Horses and Yi Yi open in New York in October. The latter
will be Edward Yang’s first film to receive commercial distribution in
the U.S.)

Among the European films
at Telluride, there were both classical and avant approaches on view. The former
was impressively represented by Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of St. Pierre,
an elegantly austere 19th-century drama about a drunken sailor who commits a
crime on a French island off Newfoundland and the couple who try to stave off
his execution as the village awaits the arrival of a guillotine. Though the
film doesn’t quite match either the romantic sweep or the intellectual
acuity of The Return of Martin Guerre, it’s in the same, recently
beleaguered French tradition, and it benefits greatly from its terrific cast;
besides Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, who play the altruistic couple,
the movie features director Emir Kusturica as the convict. I’d never seen
Kusturica onscreen before, but this performance could give the hulking Serb
a whole new career. His work is both imposing and impressively controlled.

Among trendier Euro excitements,
Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive, one of the latest products
of the Dogma 95 hype machine, offers a busload of international actors playing
tourists who get stranded in the North Africa desert and decide to battle their
mounting desperation by rehearsing an impromptu version of King Lear.
While the film occasionally lapses into banefully obvious and overheated melodrama,
it doesn’t do so nearly as often or as egregiously as many of its Dogma
cousins, and its sensuous digital photography equals any previous Dogma production.
But the movie’s chief asset is the strong work Levring gets out of a cast
that includes Janet McTeer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Davison and Romaine

Given the rate at which
much European cinema is disappearing before the onslaught of Hollywood, it’s
little surprise to see European culture being appropriated by sojourning American
filmmakers, a phenomenon exemplified with differing results by two films at
Telluride. As he did in Henry & June and The Unbearable Lightness
of Being
, Phil Kaufman brings a kind of respectful California earnestness
to spicy material in Quills, an account of the latter days of the Marquis
de Sade. Ultimately, the film doesn’t have much that’s really provocative
to say about its extremely provocative subject (who’s well played by Geoffrey
Rush), but Kaufman’s assured handling makes the most of the period setting
and a cast that also includes Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine.

Extravagantly clueless by
comparison, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire deprives legendary
director F.W. Murnau of his sexuality, and thereby robs its own account of the
making of Murnau’s vampire classic Nosferatu of both heat and resonance.
Veering awkwardly between spoof and spooky homage, the film has one virtue in
the hammy fun that John Malkovich and, especially, Willem Dafoe have in playing
(respectively) Murnau and his creepy leading man, actor Max Schreck.

I came out of Shadow
of the Vampire
ready to return to the attractions of nature, but fortunately
the Abel Gance Open Air Theater offered another agreeable compromise. The weather
on the festival’s final night was chilly but clear when I caught Ang Lee’s
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Knowing the film is a martial arts extravaganza
that’s aimed at being a crossover from arthouse to general audiences, I
was expecting a bright, flashy and relentlessly paced Hong Kong-style action
film. But, aside from a number of spectacular fight scenes, Lee’s movie,
which centers on women warriors played brilliantly played by Michelle Yeoh and
Zhang Zi Yi, is dark, brooding and eerily mysterious.

Will it work with American
moviegoers to the point of drawing multiple Oscar nominations to a Chinese-language
film? I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that, but I found the film one of Lee’s
most fascinating and accomplished works to date, and I wasn’t alone. The
crowd under the stars in the theater named for Monsieur Gance cheered it repeatedly.