Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Movie Utopia on Earth: The Show

Since 2003, Labor Day weekend has meant to me one thing and one thing only: The Telluride Film Festival and the memories of an incredible collection of absolutely fascinating, passionate, and intelligent people that convene upon the tiny Colorado ski town every year to create a cinematic utopia in the midst of picturesque crags, streams, and coniferous valleys.

To be honest, I don't like to think about my time at Telluride that much. It's a rollercoaster of emotions.  Mainly, painful, exhilarating nostalgia because going as a student is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Imagine having the time of your life and knowing that it can never be replicated. Sure, I can always pay the big bucks for a pass or get in with a film (my dream), but I can never go back as a participant in the Student Symposium. And every time I try to put my festival experience into perspective, I get too emotionally overwhelmed.  After seven years, this is my first attempt. Magical does not even begin to describe my experience and it’s a bit unnerving that when I jog my memory in the hopes of grasping it and making it tangible, the effort is futile. You can’t really relive memories. That’s why I’ve decided to share them.

Anyone who has ever attended the festival can attest to the affability of the locals, the friendliness of the festival staff, the dizzying altitude for those who come from sea-level places, the accessibility of life-altering films, and the jaw-dropping moments of passing one of your favorite stars on Main Street or sharing a cigarette and a chat with a world-renowned director. These moments are available to anyone willing to buy a pass and attend the festival.  However, the select few who are fortunate enough to apply to the student program at Telluride are in for the ride of their lives.

What follows is a pictorial recollection of my experience. It's been a while, so I may not get very detailed. I think the photos speak for themselves.  (Please excuse the quality. My idea of scanning is holding the print up to my computer camera since I don't have a proper scanner.)

It's a bumpy flight to one of the three airports near Telluride. I was lucky I got a flight from Denver into the Telluride airport. I sat next to an editor from Los Angeles who was a volunteer. Her job was to inspect the prints and make sure they were perfect for projection. She said she had been doing it for five years and that she would continue doing it as long as they let her. But the competition to be a volunteer was fierce. Her attitude was one I was to encounter over and over again throughout the week.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was bonkers for this festival. Even the dogs. But more about them later.

Once the 50 students got selected, an e-mail went out with instructions.  The students were responsible with arranging lodging and immediately e-mails started flying back and forth regarding renting a condo.  I hooked up with five other students, at random really, and one of them booked the place.  I was the first to arrive on Tuesday and had to go to the rental office to get the keys.  My roommates arrived one by one throughout the day. The condo was huge. There were only six of us but ten would have fit easily.  We hung out and got to know each other over pizza and beer. Most of them were seniors and one was a grad student.  Luckily, we were a good fit and there was to be no drama.

The next day we headed over to the tent to check in and pick up our badges and goodies; t-shirts, caps, a poster and junk from the sponsors. Do you recognize the tall guy in the puffy blue vest?

The Symposium covers the special pass (a roughtly $2000 value), a small stipend and food if you eat at the Canteen (bellow).  The Canteen is really for the staff and volunteers, but the students are allowed to eat there too.  It's a fun place to have your meals and socialize with the festival personnel over breakfast burritos and turkey sandwiches.

       The Canteen

Telluride is very different than Sundance or Cannes.  Somehow, they've been able to filter out all the silliness and industry bullshit associated with those two larger, manic festivals.  Telluride is by film lovers for film lovers. Period.  The press is present but is not ubiquitous because the festival program is a tightly-held secret that's not revealed until opening day. It’s easy to spot the biz types (they walk and check their smart phones at the same time) and there are clearly deals being cemented, but the focus at Telluride is on the films as works of art.

The best word to characterize Telluride is "intimate". The tiny mountain town, tucked neatly into a box canyon, happily absorbs the swelling crowd of film fans, and anyone new to town would assume this was business as usual, an amazing feat given the pace of the festival. The town is populated with quaint homes and with impeccable lawns and gardens. You really do get a feeling that everyone is the same and that you are genuinely welcome by the locals.  The students were treated like rock stars.  One look at our special orange badge was always followed by "Oh, you're a student! How wonderful!"

As a student in possession of one of the coveted festival passes, I was of course able to access any film by standing in line just like anyone else, but the profound difference between my experience and the experience of the average pass holder was my access to the student symposiums, which were intimate conversations between students and the artists, directors, filmmakers, actors and producers who were generous enough with their time to indulge our questions and passion for film.

The symposium went like this: After breakfast, the students headed to symposium headquarters aka the Elementary School, to discuss the plan for the day with moderators Linda and Howie. (Howie Movshovitz, film critic, professor at UC Denver, and radio personality, and Linda Williams, a professor at UC Berkeley.) Then we headed for an early screening or two, depending on the film schedule, and then back to the school to meet with the filmmaker(s). Then back to watch another film, then back to the school for discussion and so forth. The coordinators of the festival took great care to plan the screenings for all students participating in the symposium and we were discouraged from choosing our own adventures.  Who would want to miss a session anyway?
     The Elementary School

The only free time we got was standing line holding on to our “Qs.” “Qs” are slips of paper that represent seats in the theatre and are offered to pass holders and patrons who wait in line to see the films. Everyone stands in line, even Werner Herzog. However, standing in line is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the festival. I seriously doubt you can watch Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard make out on a bench or have a deep conversation about Ozu with a 10-year old and his grandma anywhere else. That kid kicked my ass, but I’ve caught up. Someday, we’ll face off again. Yeah, Tommy Filmsnob, I’m looking at you brat.
Linda, Ken Burns, and Howie

On Wednesday night, as tradition dictates, the students, staff and volunteers were treated to a surprise preview screening of Lost in Translation at the Palm Theater. Everyone loved it, except guess who? I think I’m still the only person in the world who hates Lost in Translation. A couple of 22-year old Ivy Leaguers fervently tried to convince me of the depth of the film and when I told them that I thought it was nothing more than a few shots of Scarlett Johansson in her underwear and a bunch SNL Bill Murray skits, they literally wept for me. I wondered if I was that silly when I was 22. Being around so many quarterlife-crisis sufferers made me happy I was not in my twenties anymore. The next morning Howie and Linda revealed that Sofia Coppola turned down an invitation to attend the symposium. Well, her people turned us down for her.

    Opening Night Feed

On Thursday evening the festival hosts The Opening Night Feed on Main Street. It’s a catered event with open bar for the pass holders. You stand or sit on the street, eat, drink and talk film with everyone from Leonard Maltin to any filmmaker or movie star who happens to be there that evening and then head over to a screening.

The enigmatic Peter Sellars, an artist who has become a mainstay at Telluride, was a powerful speaker whose inspiring voice set the tone for the students' Telluride experience. He encouraged us to approach him on the street and to speak with him about our individual projects, an invitation more than a few of us accepted.

My rommate Joe Swanberg before he was Mr. Mumblecore

It’s really hard to get a handle on the programmers’ impeccable taste. Especially with the shorts. One thing is for sure, Telluride movies are always discoveries.
Ken Burn's documentary was not on our schedule, but he loves the symposium and talking to students so he took Sofia Coppola's place.  I say we lucked out.

The symposium is sponsored by people with deep pockets. Husband and wife mega-producing team of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall paid for it for ten years. (2003 was the tenth and last year before they decided to give someone else the chance.) Every year they brought a mystery guest and we got Tom Shadyac. They were all great and had plenty to say about the business and filmmaking. They told us going to film school was waste of time. That it was good for making contacts, but little else. That it was better to study something else, to travel, to live life and to make films. They confessed that if you could write, you could write your own ticket in Hollywood.
Shadyac, Marshall, Kennedy

The Opera House is one of only three existing year-round theatres in the town, so six more have to be constructed for the Festival. A Victorian-flavored theatre emerges from the town's Masonic Hall, a high school auditorium is transformed into the state-of-the-art Palm Theatre, the middle school gym becomes the Meliés-inspired Galaxy, intimate spaces on opposite sides of town form the Pierre and Backlot Theatres, and the Mountain Village Conference Center becomes Chuck Jones' Cinema. There's even an open-air cinema built in the park to enjoy the films and the cool mountain nights. (I had the great pleasure of watching Buster Keaton's The General al fresco.) Each distinct theatre has its own special character which fleshes out the whole of the film-going experience. That's just another special part of The Show.

Gondola ride to Mountain Village and the Chuck Jones Cinema to see Gus Van Sant's Elephant. By great coincidence, I rode up with Rolf de Heer, Australian director of Alexandra's Project, which we had just seen and discussed with him back at the school.  The film was very interesting and controversial.  People everywhere were arguing about it. To me, the most interesting aspect was how he stretched his budget by combining inventive use of 35mm and video.  Half the film takes place in a television monitor and you don't really notice it. I told him and he smiled and thanked me.  He wasn't very friendly but I think it's because he's shy. During the symposium he seemed a bit wooden and not very comfortable discussing his work.

Turns out Stephen Sondheim is a huge film buff so he was invited to be the guest director.

            Linda, Sondheim, Howie
 Krzysztof Zanussi with Sondheim at Q &A for The Contract

Sondheim programmed Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Contract, one of his favorite films. No, it’s not a musical. Zanussi was a discovery for me. Up until 2003 my knowledge of Polish film was limited to Kiewslowski, Holland and Wadja. Sondheim worked us up by telling us that there was a shot in the film that would make us gasp. It was funny that the shot went over some of the students’ heads.

Krzysztof Zanussi

2003 was a very painful year and the anxiety surrounding the zeitgeist was certainly up on the screens. Political and social issues were in the center of things, with Errol Morris’s Fog of War leading the way.

When Linda and Howie told Morris that Herzog was next after him, he said “Interesting” and let out a guffaw (that's actually him reacting in the picture below). Then he told us the story behind the shoe dinner. When they met, Herzog told Morris he would never make a film, and that if he did, he’d eat his shoe. Morris then proceeded to make The Thin Blue Line and well, the rest is cinematic history. They passed each other on Morris’s way out, and they just mumbled a “hello.”

 Morris reacting to being told Herzog was meeting with us after him.

To say that our session with Werner Herzog was fascinating would be a gross understatement. When someone asked what would be his advice for young filmmakers starting out he told us to stay fit. To play sports like basketball. O. K.

Elephant blew us away.  When the film was over, there was complete silence.  We didn't talk about it until we got to the school and we met with Van Sant. Talk about being a great director who can get great performances out of anyone. That kid was wooden and as dumb as they come. BTW: Gus Van Sant has seen my vagina.

Dogville was my favorite film of the festival with Elephant a close second. Lars Von Trier does not fly, so instead we got Chloe Sevigny, fresh from her triumph at Cannes with The Brown Bunny. We were told to be nice because she was very shy and not to ask her about the blow job. I don’t know about nice, but she certainly wasn’t very bright. She didn’t add much to the discussion and seemed very uncomfortable. This is probably the only negative thing I have to say about the festival.  Damn you Lars.

Denys Arcand after screening of The Barbarian Invasions, which I loved, loved, loved.  He didn't meet with us because his English is bad. At least that's what Sofia Coppola's people said.

I had never seen A Face in the Crowd, but after I felt like W's people must have studied it to get him elected.

 Legenday screenwriter Budd Schulberg being ushered to his screening of  A Face in the Crowd.
The festival concludes on Labor Day with a picnic on the lush, green lawn of Telluride’s Town Park amidst the picturesque, snow-topped San Juan Mountains.

The cutest thing about Telluride is that dogs are allowed everywhere except governmental offices.  There are dogs in stores, boutiques, restaurants, bars...everywhere you look... dogs, dogs, dogs. It's awesome.

The Dogs of Telluride at a bar.

We managed to fit in bar hopping on our tight schedule. We just had to reschedule sleeping until the festival was over. I must admit I had trouble staying awake during those early morning screenings. I literally passed out during the first five minutes of Dans La Nuit.

I look drunker than I am. Honest.

Anyone recognize this guy (below)? I forgot his name. He went to U.S.C. for undergrad and was getting his masters in film at Columbia. He kept on saying how he needed to be a rich, hot shot producer so that he would get a gorgeous trophy wife. I'm just wondering if he ever got his wish.  Let me know.

An intense passion for film sustained me (and everyone else) through the whirlwind of films, discussions and sleep deprivation that Labor Day weekend in 2003.

Linda, me, Howie 
Fifty very lucky students, from around the globe, are chosen to participate in a rigorous five days of screenings and cloistered seminars and I was one of the incredibly lucky ones. If you’re a college student and love film, I suggest you apply. The application process is quick and easy, but you have to write an essay. The essay question really doesn’t vary that much from year to year. It’s basically a variation of “If you could take only one film with you to the future, or deserted island, or the like, which one would you pick and why?"

And no, it doesn’t have to be an obscure or foreign film. Several students in my group wrote about Spielberg films and I think someone wrote about Back to the Future. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s an honest essay that conveys a point of view and a passion for film.

I’ve seriously considered changing my name and going to college again just so I can apply and have that experience just once more. But for now, I can’t wait to go online tomorrow and find out what films 50 new lucky bastards will get to see this weekend. Oh. The. Envy.

 Good bye Telluride. Hope to see you again some day


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