THR's Chief Film Critic Reveals 'Only in Telluride' Memories

Roger Ebert, left, with Peter O'Toole
Roger Ebert, left, with Peter O'Toole
 

Although its remoteness, altitude, lack of suitable screening venues and unfamiliarity may have made Telluride seem an unlikely spot for a major film festival when it launched in 1974, with tributes to the unlikely combination of Gloria Swanson, Francis Ford Coppola and Leni Riefenstahl, several factors combine to make the festival so special: The distance and difficulty of the old mining town's location are more than made up for by the setting's brilliance once you get there; the intimacy of the place and relative paucity of publicists and handlers allow for easy interaction with other guests as well as filmmakers and actors, who are generally inaccessible elsewhere; the fact that it was founded by archivists and history-oriented individuals -- the George Eastman House's James Card, Bill Pence of Janus Films and his wife, Stella, who bought the Sheridan Opera House, and Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive (joined by historian/teacher William K. Everson in 1977) -- guarantees a continuing fidelity to vintage cinema as well as the new; and its brief weekend-long duration means that the mediocre filler with which lengthier festivals are inevitably stuck is avoided. (Indeed, Luddy and his current co-directors, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger, say that there were at least 20 additional submissions this year that they were forced to reject but would proudly have shown.)

STORY: Telluride Celebrates 40th Birthday by Opening 650-Seat Werner Herzog Theatre

One further factor that may have played a role in Telluride's distinctiveness is that those running it have inhabited an East Coast-Bay Area axis, with an increasing but still, shall we say, selective relationship with Los Angeles and the Hollywood industry. Since 2005 and that year's extraordinary trifecta with the world premieres of Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Walk the Line, Telluride has more accidentally than intentionally become coveted as the place that debuts bold, powerful, somewhat off-the-radar year-end films that go on to awards glory.

But that was never something that crossed the minds of the festival brain trust during the event's first three decades, and while it's undeniably nice to suddenly be regarded as a kingmaker, organizers are all too aware that it's a dangerous game to get caught up in that sort of trendiness and industry crystal-ball-gazing. All the same, when you unearth or are offered the first screenings on the planet for films as different and unexpected and smart as Slumdog Millionaire, Up in the Air, The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Descendants, Shame, A Dangerous Method, The Gatekeepers, Frances Ha and, last year, Argo, who's going to say no?

STORY: Argo: Telluride Review

Because of this factor and the ever-intensifying awards-season buzzing that officially begins at this time of year, Telluride is considerably more in the spotlight now than it was on its 30th birthday, when Lost in Translation and The Fog of War were two of the big films, Stephen Sondheim was the guest director and Ken Burns and Sofia Coppola were among those on hand to help celebrate. This year it also is expanding its capacity considerably with the addition of a new venue, the Werner Herzog Theatre, which, with 650 seats, will be the town's biggest and is designed to address the complaints of patrons frustrated at not getting in to see important titles.

Looking back, perhaps the most celebrated Telluride moment for its organizers and the assembled film buffs came on a chilly night in 1979 when the 89-year-old French director Abel Gance peered out of his window at the Sheridan Hotel at the crowd in the park across the street watching his restored 1927 epic Napoleon on the big screen. For me, a similar buzz of film-buff bliss came in 2006 when I filmed a spirited discussion involving perhaps the three greatest film brainiacs I know: French cineaste Pierre Rissient, director Bertrand Tavernier and critic David Thomson, who spent 45 minutes under light drizzle talking about the finer (and less fine) points of the work of John Ford and Michael Powell in the deepest and most rarefied way I could imagine.

It was too involved to include in my documentary film about Rissient, but perhaps I should just post it online sometime, as it represented the kind of love of cinema, and keen thinking about it, that epitomizes the spirit of Telluride.

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