This will not be a typical festival review, in that it will not offer in-depth commentary – or even a “best of” roundup – on a sizable selection of what was programmed over Labor Day weekend in the mining town-turned-ski resort of Telluride, Colorado. For reasons I relate below, having seen relatively few films I would be hard pressed to offer even a top five. Of those, only a couple are worth singling out, although one is a masterpiece – indeed it’s at the top of my year’s best list, and a safe bet to remain there at the end of 2018. So as not to close on as kvetching a note as the rest of this report will take, I save my remarks on it for the conclusion. If it seems surprising – ungrateful even – that reportage from Telluride would take a peeved tone, I hasten to add that it was a dreamy few days spent in an undeniably stunning setting. Emphasis on “dreamy” – for there is something distinctly unreal about the place, and its illusory quality takes alternately alluring and discomforting tones. Film critic Sam Adams is quoted on the Festival’s website likening Telluride to “Shangri-La for cineastes”, and both the town and the festival prove more aspirational fantasy than attainable reality, although the thin air and blithe encouragements from friendly locals to join them in their idyllic (semi-)retirement might delude you into temporarily imagining otherwise.

Being a mere mortal, my festival attendance was partly subsidised by my academic institution and by an accumulation of frequent flyer miles. I arrived to find my connecting flight out of Dallas-Fort Worth oversold, with US$1,000 vouchers on offer to anyone willing to depart a day later; despite an anxious-looking would-be flyer who appealed to us pleadingly, repeating “One thousand bucks!”, there were no takers. The flight was full of festival-goers, identifiable by their attire (Western wear as envisioned by LA/NYC residents) and reading material (a guy toting a Joseph Cotten biography I recognised from his small part in an indie film). When the flight attendant inquired over the loudspeaker as to the whereabouts of a passenger named “Werner”, it seemed conceivable that she might be referring to that Werner, although celebrities and other well-heeled attendees tend to touch down at Telluride’s tiny regional airport, its landing strip notorious among pilots. We were en route, instead, to the next closest flight option, Montrose, from which a 90 minute drive takes you out of town (where signs proclaimed “We buy antlers!” and announced “grouse, dove, and goose” hunting season underway), past kitschy teepee motels, rock shops, and jerky huts, then by an ominously desiccated recreational lake, before ascending to Telluride’s nestling point at 8,750 feet (2,667 meters). Those prone to altitude sickness, take notice.

Upon entering Telluride town limits we were treated to the Disney-perfect image of a baby elk nursing in a pasture, followed by an equally enchanting downtown complete with an impeccably curated main street devoid of chain stores, footpath winding alongside a serenely rippling creek, and verdant slopes as backdrop. By booking early, I was fortunate to find “budget” accommodation in a rustic if centrally located inn (where a sign at the entryway warned, rather alarmingly, “Keep doors closed: Bear season!”); the only cheaper options were shared Airbnb lodging and a campsite outside of town, though there too limited supply led to surge pricing. One valley over, accessible by a 13-minute gondola ride with staggering views that never get old, is the Mountain Village ski resort, which townspeople seem contemptuous and vaguely ashamed of even as they acknowledge, as one local confided, that “It’s made Telluride what it is.” Disembarking the gondola, the difference is immediately discernible; one is surrounded by an eerily desolate characterlessness reminiscent of The Good Place or the village from The Prisoner. Mountain Village is home to the Chuck Jones Cinema, a conference centre ballroom retrofitted to serve as the festival’s largest venue – though with its lack of stacked seating and undersized screen, also one of its worst. For those festival-ing sans pass, however, its size made it among the best bets for entry. Even then, we got a taste of what we were in for when the first screening – the four hour 20 minute documentary Watergate (d. Charles Ferguson) – was a sell-out. Admittedly, it was the only film playing in its time slot, but at that running time and with a cloudless late summer afternoon as competition, it was already proving true what they say about Telluriders being avid cinephiles.

Which brings me to the reason I saw so few films: as a first-time festival-goer, freelance film critic, and one of the 99 percent, I had neither press accreditation nor a purchased pass – and at Telluride, these two go hand in hand. Unlike virtually every other festival, Telluride requires journalists to purchase a pass – and a “Festival” level pass at that, priced at US$780 – only then to be considered for press accreditation. The website has this to say: “We love to have members of the press attend. We just don’t provide free passes. This keeps things fair all around.” In practice, of course, this is as fair as a flat tax – only journalists sponsored by major media outlets can afford to spend that much in hope of scoring a press pass. That determination is made sometime in July by the Press Office, though apparently not in close communication with the Box Office (surprisingly for such an intimately scaled festival), since all passes were sold out by late March. Since the (oddly retrograde) website left that largely indiscernible, my first-timer fumble became apparent two months too late, after I had booked my travel and accommodation.

Assured by a festival representative that “Each year we have many journalists who successfully cover the Festival” without formal accreditation, I forged ahead…and straight to the end of the line with the other “ticket-buyers” – the festival staff’s term, demarcating us from the privileged caste of “pass-holders”, a strict division that extends from the festival queues to the Netflix-sponsored Labor Day picnic (from which we were excluded). Had I managed to secure either the Cinephile (US$390) or Acme (US$580) pass – the latter reportedly sold out in 48 hours – perhaps I’d have gained entry to sufficient screenings that festival “coverage” could conceivably have been in my grasp. I’ve since learned there’s a notification sent (only) to previous pass-holders alerting them when passes will go on sale, and as added enticement for enduring more grouching to come, next year’s date will be revealed alongside my fave-of-fest film at review’s end.

Instead, and perhaps for the best, I saw fewer films but got a fuller glimpse (literally and figuratively) of this real-life Galt’s Gulch. The optimal vantage point for both was the gondola ride, which made for many instances of cross-cultural (if not cross-class) encounters, from a documentary filmmaker there with a film and accompanied by his mother/(unofficial) publicist, to the former Gary Hart campaign strategist with whom we discussed the Hugh Jackman-starring biopic The Front Runner (d. Jason Reitman) screening at the festival, to the Netflix jet’s flight crew, discrete when probed about their passenger list. Alas celebrities were mostly shuttled around in SUVs, though catching sight of Laura Dern crossing through Mountain Village made the sighting feel even more uncanny. While festival mealtime typically consists of protein bars devoured on the go, another upside (albeit added expense) of getting closed out of screenings was the opportunity to explore Telluride’s impressive culinary scene – I would single out for special praise the Friday farmer’s market along with (surprisingly uncrowded) local eateries The Butcher & the Baker, Caravan, There, and Wood Ear. Everywhere the locals were welcoming; if there’s any resistance to the relative hordes that descend at festival time, it wasn’t evident – perhaps cinephiles prove a less intrusive presence compared to the winter sports crowd.

Telluride as seen from the gondola.

Because no film festival would be complete without some overly complicated ticketing system, something called “Q” cards were (sometimes) given out at (some) screenings and venues, with the ostensible purpose of preventing queue-jumping. Curiously, at the Chuck Jones Cinema alone these cards were called (also curiously) W-2s, but everywhere they appeared to be only sporadically in use. Meanwhile, the much-touted festival app SHOWSeats, which was supposed to give real time updates on theatre seat counts, worked as inconsistently as the Wi-Fi in Mountain Village, where the staff was forever struggling to complete ticket transactions on finicky iPads. Perhaps its clearest idiosyncrasy is that Telluride does not announce its line-up until the day before festival’s start (of course, filmmakers and guests receive invites many weeks earlier). This gambit by festival organisers to enhance the mystique of “the Show” – as they call it – would make it hard for film-goers to hit the ground running at a larger-scaled festival, where the trend is towards programming that is increasingly micro-categorised (by series, by competition eligibility, and now – with the entry of TV, animation, and VR – by form) and maddeningly convoluted as a result. While it was a relief to dispense with the unwieldy schedule-coordinating and tyranny of choice, finding myself shut out of one film often meant there was no alternative screening I could make. Noting a number of time slots designated “TBA”, reserved for repeat showings of popular films, I received still more sanguine assurances that these would be a sure bet for entry, as would most any screening on the festival’s final day – when, supposedly, the crowds would have cleared out – but neither tip panned out on my attempt at seeing Cannes Prix d’Or winner Manbiki kazoku (Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda).

Q cards sporadically in use at Telluride’s Palm Theatre.

Never guaranteed of gaining entry, I adopted a diet of smaller films in larger venues. Hearing there were nightly free screenings in the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema, I imagined an expansive space and screen on par with those at Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato and Locarno, but Telluride’s Elks Park – a scrappy plot in the middle of town – would be ill-equipped to project Gance’s epic Napoléon (1927). With locals in possession of folding chairs staking out turf early in the day, there was no easy access here either – little matter, given the cool Colorado night air and a line-up more family-friendly than cinephile-oriented, including Disney’s Never Cry Wolf (Carroll Ballard, 1983) and rock-climbing documentary Free Solo (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2018). The one pass still available, the US$100 “Late Night Pass”, granted entry to each night’s final film – bucking other festivals’ trend of midnight screenings, these were at the saner hour of 10pm – at two venues, though one was the Chuck Jones Cinema, apparently the only way to entice people to Mountain Village at night.

With no apparent irony, New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott proclaims in his own blurb on Telluride’s website, “The ethos is open and egalitarian” (how many hours did he spend standing in line, I wonder?). To be fair, Scott’s remark refers to Telluride’s offering “no prizes, and therefore no juries; no market, no press screenings, no red carpets or paparazzi photo calls.” However welcome the absence of much of the normal festival apparatus, there is nonetheless ample milking of star wattage – more so in recent years, according to some regular attendees overheard discussing how Telluride, being “at war with Toronto”, which follows closely on its heels, had upped its celebrity quotient in its competition with that festival’s imposing line-up. Knowing better than (and not caring enough) to attempt entry to the Emma Stone and Alfonso Cuarón tributes or the First Man (d. Damien Chazelle) premiere, the only big ticket item I was genuinely sorry to miss was a conversation between Salman Rushdie and Ralph Fiennes (if only to discover why they’d been paired). I was sorrier still never to have crossed the threshold of the Sheridan Opera House, a storied theatre built in 1913 but, with only 230 seats, always sure to sell out.

Although Telluride is known for being a leading indicator of that most middlebrow of cinematic accolades – the Best Picture Oscar – it would be inaccurate to charge the festival with anodyne programming. Doing festival reportage, it’s always tempting (and probably better avoided) to look for patterns among the films programmed – yet I couldn’t help but see economic disparity and precarious lives as common themes. Overheard in line, someone referred to this year’s programming as “the festival for wrongfully imprisoned white people”, owing to its featuring such ostensibly gritty Oscar bait as The Old Man & the Gun (d. David Lowery), Trial by Fire (d. Edward Zwick), and White Boy Rick (d. Yann Demange). In fact there was some truly, if excessively, hard-hitting stuff, as day two of movie-going unfurled a line-up of such unremitting audience-baiting that my own avid cinephilia was tested.

The day started and ended with Cannes award winners: first Girl (d. Lukas Dhont), which culminates with an off-screen (but no less cringe-inducing) scene I would be insensitive to spoil; then Gräns (Border, Ali Abbasi), a “troll love story” metaphorically set in xenophobic contemporary Europe and combining Law & Order: SVU-style prurience with schlock horror (its all-too-graphic birth of the troll spawn I wish I could un-see). In between, we were treated to a sadistic shorts program co-curated by Barry Jenkins, his much-noted no-show rumoured to be the result of the festival’s having rejecting his latest feature, If Beale Street Could Talk – if true, it seems unfair for him to have taken it out on the audience. Fortunately, the visual displeasure dispersed by day three, with the treat of Rachel Weisz’s second turn this year – after Disobedience (d. Sebastián Lelio) – as a (soft) butch lesbian, jockeying with Emma Stone for the favour of Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s queerly revisionist The Favourite.

In this age of ubiquitous stay-at-home viewing, filmmaker Q&As are increasingly proving the raison d’être of film festivals, with the high point here being Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride one-upping each other’s reminiscences of their respective bromances with Orson Welles, in the discussion that followed the U.S. premiere of Welles’ finally completed last film The Other Side of the Wind. Agreeing with the consensus that it is a fascinating mess, its shambling charms were for me most evidenced in John Huston’s outsized (as ever) performance, in the barely tongue-in-cheek Antonioni parody that comprises the Oja Kodar sequences, and in Welles’ vibrant use of colour cinematography – his only time doing so (by choice) in a fiction film.1

Also on hand was Olivier Assayas with his latest feature Doubles vies (Double Lives, formerly titled Non Fiction) which he predicted “will be thought of as very French because there’s a lot of talking”, and which is a far more modest work than his last two outings, Personal Shopper (2016) and the revelatory Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). Before it screened, Assayas gave a touching tribute to his early champion Pierre Rissient, who died the day before he was to have previewed the film, and to whom this year’s Telluride festival was dedicated. Though by all accounts a patron saint of emerging filmmakers and a cinephile extraordinaire, hearing Rissient repeatedly remembered for his axiom, “It’s not enough that you like a movie, you have to like it for the right reasons,” has me thinking he was something of a snob as well.

Another shorts program (also co-curated, more mercifully this time, by Barry Jenkins) yielded the fascinating 50 minute documentary Braguino (d. Clément Cogitore), filmed in remotest Siberia, about an off-the-grid paterfamilias with a gaggle of tow-headed kids so angelic he could have put together a pop band and won the Eurovision Song Contest. Instead, the family ekes out a mosquito-engulfed existence on the tundra, periodically bullied by menacing hunters who descend in helicopters. Braguino delivers its own gut punch with an unflinching sequence of a bear being butchered, before cutting wryly to one of the blonde tykes outfitted in the latest in ursine footwear. Evocative if uneven, Braguino along with the six-minute, camera obscura-inspired Dark Chamber (d. Ottó Bánovits) that preceded it, were the most memorably inventive and moving of what I caught in Telluride, save for that masterpiece I mentioned at review’s start…

Tundra fashion in Clément Cogitore’s Braguino.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Zimna wojna (Cold War), a shoo-in for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination – though probably not a win, since Pawlikowski already has one for Ida (2013) – has been justly celebrated as an impeccably crafted, emotionally restrained yet still heartrending roundelay spanning 15 years and four countries in just 91 minutes of screen time. Equally warranted, much has been made of its breakout performance by the captivating Joanna Kulig, whose Hayley Mills-meets-Brigitte Bardot looks belie a Jeanne Moreau-like intensity – at one point, her character Zula plunges into a river à la Catherine in Jules et Jim. This is echoed later by her drunkenly swooning off a Paris café bar after ecstatically dancing to “Rock Around the Clock”, a sequence that Larry Gross, in the festival program, rightly promises “will forever alter your chemistry.” Luminously shot in black and white, 4:3 ratio (as in Ida), not even the dispiriting surroundings of the Chuck Jones Cinema could rupture its achingly romantic spell, enhanced further post-screening when Pawlikowski spoke eloquently about the film’s inspiration being his parents’ only minimally less epic love story. It’s film-going experiences like these, especially at a time when physical and political borders are blinding us to our common humanity, that are faith-restoring far beyond the boost they provide my flagging cinephilia.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) as lovers struggling to connect in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War.

And so with Border, Dark Chamber, Girl and now Cold War, another theme emerged of characters chafing against restrictive social barriers, both literal and figurative. Not unlike the invisible dividing line between East and West that Cold War’s Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) crosses in early 1950s Berlin, Telluride’s appearance of openness conceals its hierarchy and (for most) inaccessibility, and so also makes it unmistakably a microcosm of the U.S., if not the world. Belying A.O. Scott’s and festival organisers’ celebrations of egalitarianism, the expense of attending and the restrictiveness of its pass system makes Telluride an exemplar of top tier festivals’ reliance on exclusivity and scarcity as both enticements and barriers to entry. It attests to the considerable charms of the festival and, still more, the town that I would eagerly return despite the frustrations. Yet as in all plutocracies (of which the U.S. is currently one), challenging the upper crust comes with risk, and I’m concerned that my ultimate goal in attending the festival (and the reason I received institutional funding to attend) – to canvas opportunities for my students to participate in its college programs – will be hindered by my criticisms here. Having heard that pass-holders are privy to an email list announcing when the next year’s passes will go on sale, I inquired about being added only to be informed, with (by now familiar) friendly intractability, that “our system only allows us to send notices to folks who are already in our pass database.” This is how privilege is perpetuated, I suppose. For what it’s worth, next year’s passes go on sale 1 March, with the Ferrari-charged Patron Pass (US$4900) available 1 December. As the eternally insouciant Ferris Bueller once said, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

Telluride Film Festival
31 August – 3 September 2018
Festival website: https://telluridefilmfestival.org/

Endnotes:

  1. Welles’ financiers forced him to shoot The Immortal Story (1968) in colour.