Telluride Film Festival 2006

Hilary Hart September 5, 2006

The Telluride Film Festival is a challenge to get to. It’s pricey to eat and sleep in town. It’s oxygen-deprived, and the program remains a mystery until the last minute. But people come to the Telluride Film Festival from all over the country and the world simply on faith. They hope that they will get a first look at the new crop of Oscar contenders and buzz generators out of the Cannes Film Festival (this year: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s "Babel" and Pedro Almodóvar’s "Volver"), as well as a once-in-a-lifetime look at treasures from the past and mistakenly overlooked works, all presented with the utmost attention to enlightening context and quality projection.

I’ve come to the festival for 17 years now — the first three times as a passholder, and the last 14 years as staff. This year I was assistant manager at the Galaxy theater. I definitely plan on returning again. If I were forced to choose only one word to best describe the Telluride Film Festival it might well be "class." The directors of the festival have chosen a different word to define what they do, however, and their word is "show" — as in "Let’s put on a show," and "Let’s be the best in show." Going into its 33rd year, Telluride has earned a remarkable reputation for putting on a very classy show every Labor Day weekend.

Most people seem to have gone to the festival for the first time because a friend who is a regular attendee invited them to go or recommended it to them. Hooked, they return year after year because they enjoy spending the end of summer holiday with a community of friends and strangers who are equally passionate about film. Telluride is unique among festivals, because three decades after forming, three of its founding directors, Bill and Stella Pence and Tom Luddy, are still running the show. And although the festival has grown and evolved, it has never strayed from its balanced dedication to cinemas of the past, the present, and the future. The 20 new titles share precious space on the highly selective three-and-a-half-day program with retrospectives and rediscoveries.

This year the passes sold out months in advance because of the high percentage of films from the 2005 festival that went on to Oscar glory, including "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote" and "Walk the Line." It’s also possible, but riskier, to buy tickets at the door to individual shows that still have room left after all the passholders have entered.

The great natural beauty of the historic mining town, in a beautiful red rock, box canyon is a show in itself. At other film festivals, the distractions include the quest for swag, contentious distribution deals, parties populated by the likes of Paris Hilton and headline grabbing celebrities, at Telluride it’s the scenery. Walking from theater to theater, festivalgoers are treated to glorious sunrises, spectacular sunsets, occasional thunderstorms, rare snow flurries, hang-gliders soaring hundreds of feet above the valley floor, and at night a heaven full of bright stars and a silvery moon.

The Bay Area was well represented at the festival by co-director Tom Luddy, resident curator Gary Meyer, a smattering of Bay Area journalists, several students in the Student Symposium, 44 staff and volunteers, numerous cineastes, filmmakers Ben Wu ("Cross Your Eyes and Keep Them Wide") and Edie Ichioka ("Murch") and tributees Walter Murch and David Thomson.

Tributees Walter Murch and David Thomson (first and fourth from left) spend a moment with Telluride co-director Tom Luddy (second from left), Aggie Murch (third from left), and Lucy Gray (right). (Photo by Hilary Hart)

Friday’s Opening Night started with an early buffet dinner for all set up in the middle of town — literally — three blocks of the main street are cordoned off and stations serving food and drinks replace the traffic. Then everyone heads off to one of 7 single screen theaters, including an outdoor amphitheater where "The US vs. John Lennon" had its debut. "Fur" was the biggest draw on opening night and over 100 were turned away at the door.

Saturday morning, the real film buffs knew not to miss the tribute to editor/director/writer Walter Murch, a brilliant mind and captivating storyteller, at the Galaxy Theater (the elementary school gymnasium transformed into a sacred space for film). You knew that you were in the place to be when Mira Nair, Forest Whitaker, and Kevin Macdonald showed up to hear what the master had to say.

The big news came on Sunday when Bill and Stella Pence announced that this would be their last as directors of the festival. They will retire at the end of this year, and Gary Meyer, a cofounder of Landmark Theatres, will partner with Tom Luddy to program the 34th Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 31-Sept. 3, 2007. The current home office in New Hampshire will be closed, and all operations will be run out of expanded offices in the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley. Tom Luddy said that he feels a sense of bereavement as his 33-year partnership with the Pences draws to a close, but happiness for them knowing that they are looking forward to enjoying more time with their family. He said that the choice of successor to Bill Pence was another example of how frequently he and Bill had agreed when making important decisions — they both had one idea — Gary Meyer. Meyer, well known in the Bay Area, as the inspired programmer and dedicated operator of the beloved neighborhood theater, the Balboa, said that this new position was both exciting and scary, but that he wouldn’t have taken it without the amazing support team of staff and volunteers that keeps the festival running smoothly. No major innovations are expected for next year, just the necessary tweaks.

For the first time that anyone knew of, loud boos and chat calls were heard at the festival following the screening of a film, the Dutch short "When We Are Big." The chilling and unforgettable story infuriated some in the audience, but left others baffled by the filmmaker’s intentions.

Each night the festival directors review the day’s sellouts and schedule additional screenings of the most popular films to accommodate the demand. This year, the hits that earned repeat screenings included "Fur," starring Nicole Kidman; the classics "Dodsworth" and "Lonesome"; the rare 70mm print of Jacque Tati’s "Playtime"; the comedic horror film "Severance"; Kevin Macdonald