Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Telluride Film Festival Diaries
A Telluride Diary

by Susan Viebrock

Writer Joyce Mayard digs the mountains at the festival

A Gallimaufry of Fun, Romance and History, Flavored with Oriental Spices

"The Telluride Film Festival is always a learning experience." (Roger Ebert)

Bloodshed and blitzkrieg rack Bosnia. Westside Story visits the streets of Russia, where more than 8,000 gangs are operating. It's all relative in Iraq, where Sadam's family is defecting. Back in the USA, last week federal prosecutors moved to bring the first indictments in the Oklahoma City bombing case against Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The image on the world screen is not pretty.

But the picture in Telluride for the 22nd Telluride Film Festival is mostly sweetness and light (plus art and China). Bill and Stella Pence, along with Tom Luddy and '95 Guest Director Philip Lapate, screen hundreds of films each year for their event and generally a zeitgeist emerges from the world of cinema. Last year, for example, the destruction of the family was a big theme. For several years, some of the best films have often been the most difficult, controversial and darkest. This year, lots of the movies are very upbeat. Says Stella: "It's as though there was a declaration to forge ahead in the face of disaster." Cosmetics generally sell very well during in down and difficult times, because they are a relatively inexpensive way to feel better fast. Perhaps the film industry is prescribing a hint of blush.

Some of those romantic and/or comic titles are "Augustin," "Carrington", "Persuasion", "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," "Lieberman in Love," and "Pie in the Sky".

"Things To Do In Denver When You Are Dead" is a bit of local color set in the mile-high city. Retired gangster Jimmy The Saint (Andy Garcia) has been living a quiet life in Denver running a video service that records parting words of advice from the soon-to-be deceased. He is called out of retirement by The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken, who must have made a left turn out of "True Romance" wearing the same old Armani). Jimmy decides to round up his ragtag band of former cronies to assist in the caper and at the 11th hour, they blow it. Now it's a race against the clock for the five ex-gangsters who try to make sense out of their lives, as their time runs out. The cast also features Christopher Lloyd, William Forsythe, Treat Williams and Bill Nunn, along with Gabrielle Anwar, Jack Warden,Steve Buscani and Josj Charles. The movie from Miramax marks the feature film debut of director Gary Fleder and writer Scott Rosenberg.

This year's festival should be no different than the 21 before, which is to say very different from all other film events (except perhaps, Pordenone) Twenty-two years ago, there was no Montreal or Sundance. And today, Telluride remains the sole festival in the world to acknowledge the past as the basic grammar upon which the language of present and future moviespeak is based. Only Telluride goes to the great expense of importing film and talent from places as far away as China, because it is very important for the Directors to establish an artistic as well as screen presence.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema. On December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers projected moving pictures images to audiences at the Grand Cafe in Paris. Festival audiences have the opportunity to see a recreation of the famous "First Picture Show" and other selections from among the 1500 films made by Louis Lumiere between 1895 and 1903. The "Lumiere" films will be presented by director, Bertrand Tavernier ("Round Midnight," "Coup de Torchon").

Tavernier's own "Fresh Bait" also has its North American premiere at the festival. In December '93, two boys and a girl committed a cold-blooded murder to steal from their two victims - they needed 10 million francs to open a chain of ready-to-wear shops in the U.S. "because you make it there overnight." These kids are totally amoral - things fill the holes where their souls used to be. Tavernier directs with great restraint, avoiding all psychological explanations because: "Certain things are in the realm of the unfathomable."

In honoring history, this festival also honors filmmaking as an art, rather than a business. In this vein, the Surrealists as a group are among the three tributees. As Festival Director, Tom Luddy explains: "This unique tribute pays homage to four artists who cut against the grain of mainstream filmmaking...We salute Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and Guy Maddin as the cinema turns 100 and threatens to become one giant international English-language 'market-driven' and audio-visual assembly line."

Last year, the hit of the festival was one of the seldom seen treasures of the silent screen, "Lonesome," made in 1928 by Hungarian born director Paul Fejos. The movie was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, comprised of instruments like horseshoes, cowbells and pieces of washboard. It was a world premiere of a co-production with the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which this year brings us "The Man with the Movie Camera," made in 1929.

"Man" ranks among the icons of Soviet constructivist cinema and is a monument to body/machine aesthetics. Alloy's "symphony" is a strange and wonderful combination of musique concrete, early radio broadcasts and popular tunes.

Frank Borzage (1893-1962) was an American director of the studio era. As Guest Director Phillip Lopate explains: "Borzage loved lovers; he saw romantic love as a force that could bring out the best in the most ordinary or flawed people. Typically, Borzage characters are magnetized by sexual attraction but encounter immediate impediments to their lust, and, through this struggle, their feelings deepen. Physical love becomes the path to spirituality."

Borzage had great insights into the feminine psychology and he became known as a great director of actresses from Janet Gaynor, to Helen Hayes, Loretta Young and Margaret Sullivan. He also made some sophisticated comedies, such as "Desire," with Marlena Dietrich and "History is Made at Night," with Jean Arthur. His movies will be presented by Silver Medallion Recipient, Andrew Sarris.

Sarris is a film critic, teacher and author. As Lopate explains: "Sarris is unique in his role as a bridge between silent and sound film; between formalism and humanism; between journalism and academic scholarship; between French and American outlooks; and finally, between masculine and feminine perspectives...Sarris is a self-confessed romantic, whose tastes run toward the redemptive and transcendent: Ophuls, Borzage, von Sternberg. He is, in print and in person, a good who would always rather find something to admire than to hate. This generosity, too, has shaped the way we look at movies, in our best moments."

Lopate himself is widely regarded to be one of America's most brilliant essayists. He has published novels and poetry anthologies and as professor of English at Hofstra, holds the prestigious Adams Chair . He has also written extensively on cinema for "Film Quarterly," " Film Commentary," " Vogue" and "The New York Times."

The second tributee is Zhang Yimou. Ten years ago when it showed Chen Kaige's "Yellow Earth," Telluride introduced the new Chinese cinema. The cameraman for the movie was Zhang, who won the award for cinematography at Cannes that year. He is one of the graduates from the Beijing Film Academy (class of '82) whose work has altered the way the cinema world regards Chinese films.

In the last decade he has been involved with seven features. In '88, Telluride featured the U.S. premiere of "Red Sorghum," his directorial debut and his first collaboration with his leading lady, Gong Li. He made "Ju Dou" with her in '90 and "Raise the Red Lantern" in '92.

With his most recent film, "Shanghai Triad," Zhang departs from allegorical histories and moves towards genre. "Triad" is a gangster film set in deco, decadent Shanghai of the 30s. It is the story of a young country boy who is placed in the care of his uncle, a mob boss's lackey. Gong Li is a moll and cabaret singer.

For the Directors, Zhang has emerged as a recognized leader of artistic films and ranked by critics and film scholars as one of the greatest film directors working in the medium today. And Chinese cinema is one of the few subcultures to have maintained its identity in the face of the Hollywoodization of movies internationally.

In addition to the tribute, there are two brand new films out of China premiering in town. One is a comedy by Nin Ying, "On the Beat" the second, is the visually spectacular "Warrior Lanling."

"Lanling" is an ancient myth, which takes place in pre-Confucian China. It is about a boy, Prince Lanling of the Phoenix Tribe, who is too pretty, too androgynous to lead his people. (Bad timing. Centuries later, he would have been idolized the leader of a rock band.) But with a mask he carves for himself from magic wood, he is able to slay his enemies. His new identity quite literally grows on him and becomes his worst enemy.

"Lanling" is an epic folk tale (and probably the most expensive film ever to come out of China), filmed in seemingly inaccessible, breathtakingly beautiful places. It was directed by Sherwood Xuahua Hu, who studied film and theater ( for awhile, with Joe Papp) in China and New York. The spectacle will appear as one of the featured selections in the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema.

On Friday night the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema will show "The Tit and the Moon," by Catalonian director, Bigas Luma. It tells the story of a young boy who is sort of part of a traveling circus. His mother has just had a baby and is breast-feeding. The boy becomes obsessed with the breast. The film is light comedy about coming of age, very reminiscent of the movies of Fellini. It is not recommended for children, only because most children would not find the subject matter of great interest.

Saturday is Sam Waterston's "The Journey of August King" and Sunday in the park is Phil Kaufman's "The Wanderers," about Bronx/Italian high school life in the early 60s.

The festival's third tributee is John Schlesinger, who made his first film at age 11. In the 60s, he directed "Billy Liar" ('63), "Darling" ('65) and "Far From the Madding Crowd" ('67), after which he emigrated to America and made his best known movie, "Midnight Cowboy" ('69).

Like other emigre directors - Wilder, Lang and Hitchcock - Schlesinger was an astutely objective observer of American life, particularly the seamier side of the street. Other equally dark and controversial films followed "Cowboy, " including "Sunday Bloody Sunday" ('73), "Day of the Locust" ('75) and "Marathon Man" ('79).

Back in England he made two spy movies for the BBC "An Englishman Abroad" in '83 and "A Question of Attribution" in '91, which were also sophisticated comedies.

Hot off the presses is his "Cold Comfort Farm," also a sharply honed comedy, eccentric and full of wicked wit. The story, based on Stella Gibbon's 1932 novel, is a spoof of the soul-searing stuff of the pastoral landscapes of D.H. Lawrence, Mary Webb, even Thomas Hardy. The cool and clever Flora Poste finds herself suddenly orphaned and with no money. Undaunted, she tells one of her socialite friends that she plans to claim her rights and seek refuge with her rustic relatives, the Starkadders at the titular farm. Once there, she is determined to create order out of chaos.

Sponsored by Steven Spielberg, "The Filmmakers of Tomorrow" program was begun in '93 to showcase the (shorter) work of promising film students. Last year, "Resumes" was added as a category to include directorial debuts by people who either have completed school and/or may have already worked in the industry. This year, a third category "Great Expectations" enhances the weekend's programming.

"Expectations" are featurettes (30-40 minutes), each made by students, who show great directorial assurance, vision and artistry. These include "Jirohachi," a grand samurai tale in the tradition of Kurosawa, by Tsukuru Imanishi; "Scarborough Ahoy!" about a man and woman who take a holiday and build a unique friendship, by Tania Diez; and, "Shooting Creek," a story of a Reb soldier and a journey to a friend's funeral with a Confederate flag, by J.T.S. Moore.

The Festival Directors are particularly proud of "Filmmakers of Tomorrow," because it provides these emerging artists with an opportunity to introduce their new works to professionals and non-professionals alike in well turned out venues, using the best possible equipment.

The Telluride Film Festival is a not-for-profit or 501(c) (3) corporation, which operates under the name of the National Film Preserve LTD. It's mission is to celebrate the art of film. Year-round, the Festival has only three full-time employees, swelling to 400 mostly volunteers in season.

The Festival costs over $1 million to mount each year, partly because of the prodigious task of moving celluloid and bodies from all over the world to a very remote location. And, because there are only two small permanent theaters in town, the Festival has to build its own theaters. No other festival is in a similar construction business. The Festival is now in the process of replacing The Strand Theater (the old middle school/high school) with The Max. The goal for that construction is $200,000, 60% of which has been raised.

Ticket sales generate about $500,000. The balance comes from corporate sponsors, the NEA, CASE and philanthropists who support the mission. The Festivals must gather deep talent, since it does not have deep pockets.

Besides Bill Pence, who is also Director of Film, Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, the principal team (all the other hard-hitting players are listed in the official program guide) includes Stella Pence, General Manager; Tom Luddy, Festival Director and also Producer at Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's studio; Production Manager, Jim Bedford, who handles operations; Lynn Rae Lowe, Director of Events and Design; Joe Anne Erickson, Management Consultant; and this year, Guest Director, Phillip Lopate.

The Film Festival is one of those rare moments when the town of Telluride willingly forsakes forays into the great outdoors and returns to its mining roots in search of gold - on the silver screen.

[Editor's Note - Susan Viebrock has been the arts and entertainment critic and features writer for the local Telluride newspaper called The Daily Planet since its inception three years ago. In addition to features and reviews, she writes a weekly column about regional artists and artisans ("Doers," a parody of the old Dewars Scotch ads); a monthly feature about food ("Eat it"); and another about travel adventures ("Going Places"). In other words, she covers most events that do not involve hurling oneself off a mountain.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence in art criticism, Susan has worked in London and New York. After several years in publicity and promotion (including a stint in the rock `n roll business at Buddha Records), she became a bureaucrat. Her career at Citibank in new business development lasted for 10 years, until she married a cowboy/pilot and moved out West.]

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