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Exploring the Telluride Film Festival

What makes Telluride one of the world’s most important film festivals?

September 14, 2007

What makes Telluride one of the world's most important film festivals?

The town of Telluride, Colorado is an old western gem in a dramatic box canyon (the whole place is on the National Historic Register), and it is linked to a modern ski resort by a massive gondola ski lift.

The ensemble ranges in altitude from 8,750 to 10,400 feet (2,667 to 3,170 meters), so there are all sorts of admonitions to visitors arriving from sea level to avoid getting altitude sickness.

For 34 years, the festival has occupied a mere 84 hours over Labor Day weekend. Kicking off the fall festival season in North America (like Venice does in Europe), the challenge for its programmers is to choose the best among all the new movies available.

While there are over 3,500 film festivals in the United States today, an invitation from Telluride co-directors Tom Luddy and Gary Meyer is almost sure to be accepted — meaning that the festival doesn’t have to scramble to secure films.

Two other factors make Telluride exceptional: The program is secret until opening day — and there is no special dispensation for the press. Journalists buy their pass, pay their way like everyone else — and get no special benefits.

This means that directors and actors love to go to Telluride, because they are free to wander around unimpeded — and they do. This year, luminaries included Julian Schnabel, Sean Penn, Marjane Satrapi, Jennifer Jason Leigh and long-time friends of the festival Peter Sellars and Werner Herzog.

The secrecy is a marvelous gimmick that keeps the festival chefs in control of the stew without any outside interference until the moment of presentation. It is only possible, of course, if the audience trusts completely in the taste of the selection maestros.

Luddy and Meyer not only merit that trust, but they work with long-time advisor/curators who bring their expertise to the process. So the secrecy and resulting surprises have become part of the fun — and the mystique.

The frustrations of Telluride are all the great movies one hears about — while standing in line for others. Even at the rate of five a day, which is difficult because of the need to queue long in advance for each film, you’ll miss more films than you’ll watch.

So, here are a few snapshots from this year:

Julian Schnabel’s new film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not to be missed: A difficult subject done with such originality, sensitivity and grace. Dynamic 34-year-old editor-in-chief of French Elle suffers a debilitating stroke, and his subsequent life story is told in the first person. It is riveting.

Schnabel himself loves to be naughty. Onstage to introduce the film, he begins monosyllabically — an interviewer’s nightmare — but it’s just for laughs. His introduction to the film is unusually personal and revealing.

During the post-film Q&A, he lets us know how much he enjoys the fact that he really can do whatever he wants. After all, movies aren’t his prime activity. He really likes painting.

So calling a producer a moron in print isn’t a no-no for him. How refreshing! Plus, his talent is so genuine and inventive that producers will line up no matter what he calls them.

Marjane Satrapi’s animated version of her successful graphic novel Persepolis comes at a most opportune time, given the demonization of Iranians in the press today. It is the autobiographical story of a young girl growing up before, during and after the revolution.

It captures the universal story of an individual dealing with oppression. Satrapi is warm, outspoken, funny and very much a woman in charge. (Although she had offers from Hollywood for Persepolis, she chose to make it herself in France, pretty gutsy for someone who’s never made a movie.)

During the Q&A, a teacher who uses the graphic novel in her classroom asks if Marjane has any advice for her students. Satrapi says: Stand up for your ideas — and don’t be scared. The most important thing is personal thinking — to think for yourself.

Another audience member comments on how “American” she seems, which is exactly the feeling I had about the Iranians I met in Tehran last February during the Fajr Film Festival. They seemed much more akin to Americans than Europeans to me.

In the summer of 1929 in Berlin, the very end of the silent era, a group of young men, including Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, the brothers Siodmak and Edward G. Ulmer, got together to make a movie.

People On Sunday is an unromantic comedy of four young people (non-actors) on a Sunday outing, a novel blend of fiction and documentary at the time, which feels as fresh today as it must have then.

It was accompanied by the six-piece Mont Alto Orchestra, performing an original score they compiled from music libraries of silent movie theaters, the way this was done at the time. The music seemed perfectly in sync with the mood of the film.

The tribute to Michel Legrand, the French composer and jazz musician, was unalloyed pleasure. The compilation video of films he has scored included clips from masterpieces of the French New Wave (Godard’s Une Femme Est Une Femme, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 To 7).

And they include Hollywood films like Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (Oscar for Best Song: “The Windmills of My Mind”), Robert Mulligan’s Summer Of ’42, Barbara Streisand’s Yentl — and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City.

During the subsequent interview, Legrand said: “I never compose at the piano. I use a table. At the piano I have ten fingers, but in my head I have a thousand.”

The tribute concluded with the screening of his first directorial effort, a charming autobiographical film that wasn’t released in the United States entitled Five Days In June.

“When you begin a new discipline, you are at your best, because you don’t know very well what you are doing. Directing is the same process as conducting an orchestra: I’m the captain of my own ship, and I want to go on an adventure and see how far too far I can go.”