TFF’s Answer, as Always: The Program

08/28/14 | By | 193 More



SHOW TIME!  The 41st Telluride Film Festival is here, with free nighttime screenings in Tellurid Elks Park's Abel Gance Open Air Cinema throught Monday. Tonight's film is "Life Itself," from director Steven James. On Wednesday afternoon, plein air painter Robert Waxman caught the scene on Colorado Ave. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

SHOW TIME! The 41st Telluride Film Festival is here, with free nighttime screenings in Telluride Elks Park’s Abel Gance Open Air Cinema throught Monday. Tonight’s film is “Life Itself,” from director Steven James. On Wednesday afternoon, plein air painter Robert Waxman caught the scene on Colorado Ave. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

Apocalypse Now, Free, at the Herzog on Friday Afternoon

TELLURIDE – To dispense with the elephant in the room first: Telluride’s answer to Toronto is this year’s program.

That’s from Telluride Film Festival co-director Julie Huntsinger, who would really rather talk about almost anything other than the fact that the Toronto Film Festival threw down the gauntlet nearly a year ago by announcing to the world that it would not program any film on one of Toronto’s first four glamorous days if said film had already shown elsewhere in North America, even as a “sneak preview.”

Never mind that Telluride and Toronto occupy very different spaces in the film world, and in a sense should not be seen as competitors: this was about buzz. And Telluride’s string of premiering movies that went on to Toronto (or not) and then wider recognition was, clearly, hurting Toronto’s pride. Of course, Toronto’s declaration of war against Telluride created plenty of buzz of its own, with major stories in The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times, and in a way was flattering to Telluride, but also threatening.

And it presented a quandary, too, because Telluride has achieved prominence without expressly courting buzz, buzz being contrary to the Telluride ethos, which stipulates that the festival is first and foremost about the movies on the screens, and least of all about the hulaballoo that surrounds them.

But buzz has happened to Telluride anyway, for better or worse, which brings us back to Huntsinger and the only reasonable response she could offer to the Toronto-Telluride contretemps: “The program is our comment.”

To elaborate, “We don’t know what we don’t know,” Huntsinger said, meaning there might be movies she and her fellow programmers would have liked to schedule but never had a chance to consider.

“But we have the movies we want, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Passionate integrity prevailed.”

TFF’s mission is so simple, Huntsinger said: “to show good movies.” With the understanding that in this usage of the word, “good” means extraordinary, which is not really so simple at all, because if there is one thing that good and extraordinary movies do, it is to provoke discussion and debate. And that begs the question: Can a good movie be universally beloved?

And yet, Telluride pulls it off year after year, the simple programming of excellence, of movies that fit the not-entirely-definable festival ethos, and the explanation for how this trick is managed is not only reflected by this year’s program – “a quintessentially Telluride program,” says Huntsinger – but may be answered in a lot more depth by a film on this year’s program, The Fifty Year Argument, a documentary produced by Martin Scorsese about the venerable New York Review of Books.

The TFF and the New York Review originate in roughly the same period, just ten years apart, are out of the same intellectual tradition, and both have stayed true to their shared founding principle, which is to focus on content over glitz. The content is similar, too, a deep and thoughtful engagement with the world’s ever-evolving and always challenging political culture.

“What’s amazing about the Telluride Film Festival is how the core values have stayed consistent over the years,” said Jason Silverman, the festival’s publications director, who has attended well over half of the festival’s 41 editions, and who joined Huntsinger for the interview. “Things change, but not the core values. And the festival is a success, but it’s not commercial. The world has become ever more commercial and cynical, but Telluride is still above the fray.”

Huntsinger observed that as a second-generation festival director, she can, perhaps, be an even more fierce defender of the flame than the founders themselves.

“The festival has its own process,” she noted.

An example of change within the confines of tradition, the festival will as always offer three special tributes, but this year for the first time ever one of them goes to a film, a generation’s epic, Apocalypse Now, with frequent Telluride guest director Francis Ford Coppola here to present it. (Coppola was awarded a Silver Medallion at the first Telluride Film Festival in 1974.) He will be joined by the film’s renowned casting director Fred Roos, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Walter Murch; their moderated conversation is sure to be one for the film history archives.

A Gesture of Appreciation

In keeping with another TFF tradition that often goes under-recognized is that the tribute will be free Friday afternoon at the Herzog Theater in Town Park at 2 p.m., as a gesture of appreciation from the festival to the town. It is being shown at the Herzog and not another venue mindfully, because the town and TFF jointly created the conversion of the town ice rink into a film venue unlike any other, a venue that is epic in its own right, with unsurpassed sound, projection and audience comfort. Some of us who saw Gravity there last year (in 3D), in one of the venue’s debut screenings, are still finding bits of space debris in our hair.

Other tributes go to actress Hilary Swank, whose film The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, will premiere; and Volker Schlöndorff , who will present his new film, Diplomacy.

There will be something of a New German Cinema reunion with Schlöndorff joined at this year’s festival by Wim Wenders, here with a documentary, The Salt of the Earth, about one of the world’s great photographers, Sebastião Salgodo.  Festival stalwart Werner Herzog will be in town, and probably highly visible, as always, even if he doesn’t have a film on the program.  Even Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in 1982 and is the missing giant of the New German Cinema, will be represented, acting the title role in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, directed by Schlöndorff in 1970. This a prime example of what the TFF does so well: presenting the rediscovery of something that may have been at risk of being forgotten, and in a the richest possible context.

Or discovering something new at risk of being overlooked altogether which, by definition, nobody can predict in advance.

It might be a film that comes with some advance acclaim from the Cannes Film Festival, having won the Grand Jury Prize there, like Xavier Dolan’s Mommy; a Hollywood star vehicle like Wild, in which Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir relates a 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail; or the latest work by a master, perhaps Mike Leigh, whose Mr. Turner, about the 19th century British painter, is on the program. The list could go on, of course.

Overall, Huntsinger said, this is a quieter program than last year, not by design, but because in many films, including Mr. Turner, The Fifty Year Argument and even Wild, there is a lot of introspection.

“Last year there was a lot more volume and strong depictions and this year there is more poetry,” Huntsinger said.

As an example, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, from two years back, was a tour de force in bringing theatrical flamboyance in  a documentary to the darkest of subjects, the 1965 mass political murders in Indonesia. This year, his film The Look of Silence returns to the same subject, in a more traditional but no less powerful documentary, Huntsinger said.

Finally, in what will likely be a perfect demonstration of how the TFF walks the line between “good” films and buzz, and never mind what else will be premiering at some other major fall film festival, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater will premiere this weekend in Telluride. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an Iranian journalist, arrested and tortured, in 2009.

A low-budget independent production and directorial debut by a very famous comedian on a very serious subject: what better place than Telluride for a film of that daunting description to find its first audience? Here in Telluride, we will all know who Jon Stewart is, of course, and we will welcome him. We will be interested not in his celebrity, but first and foremost in what he puts on the screen.


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