Watching Movies in the Mountains and Enjoying the ‘ride: the 2011 Telluride Film Festival

My arrival by car to the high altitude, low attitude Telluride Film Festival is understandably, even fittingly, late, given the fest’s relative proximity to the expansive, vermillion grandeur of Monument Valley, otherwise known as John Ford country. Loiter there, however, and you’re liable to miss the festival’s opening night rollout of Werner Herzog’s latest doc Into The Abyss or the Dardenne brothers’ Cannes honoree The Kid With a Bike, which proved to be the weekend’s hardest ticket, by virtue of popularity or having been slotted into the town’s notoriously intimate venues. One kiosk board went so far to anoint it “the new 400 Blows”.

On Main Street I witnessed a risible exchange – one not even the cine-literate Telluride is exempt from – in which a young man effusively intended to praise Herzog, only to mistakenly address Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who was calmly nonplussed. Telluride invites such confusion, playing the popular and the obscure, pitting a George Clooney tribute adjacent the magisterially bleak The Turin Horse (begging the question: how would you like to spend the next two and a half hours of your life?). Like its guest director Caetano Veloso – a totally welcome appointment in my opinion – the festival is decidedly august while resistant to claims that it isn’t edgy anymore. It’s fruitless to take sides or imply an Auteur-versus-Hollywood polarity, considering that the festival has historically been witness to much of the former’s transformation into the latter. But it does make sense to set an agenda that eschews the soon-to-be-released for the never-to-be-seen again, even if the modest Chilean Bonsai, with its punk Proustian attitude, never seems exactly antithetical to Alexander Payne’s project of familial folly (The Descendants).

It may be somewhat ironic that I’m competing with Colorado housewives for seats at the Dardennes’ film – where, oh where I wonder are these people when the film goes into theatrical release?! – but bless the Belgians’ expanding audience nonetheless. So I’m fated to watch Wim Wender’s Pina, in 3-damn-D no less, and fearing what may become of Café Muller’s sense of subversion in the hands of someone who’s lost his own anxiety at the prospect of a penalty kick. Some clever framing devices immerse us in Bausch’s production while affording some context from her resident dancers, and the 3-D elasticizes dance’s spatial dynamic, welcome or not, but there is little insight into the genesis of Bausch’s feverishly abstract, melancholic, and playfully choreographed theatre. An instructive aspect is cleaved open by the dance/film division: of how dance is powerfully suggestive and preempts the necessity of so much (film) acting, and how dancers are so often susceptible to bad acting. Bausch devotees may wonder just what this Wenders guy is contributing to a legendary artist’s aesthetic legacy, beyond exposure. Wenders fans, those of you who stuck it out into the ‘90s, may be chagrined by too many leaps into the unknown that aren’t padded with proper context (even if Bausch’s own elusive style would eventually solidify into an homage of itself).

Both Shame by Steve McQueen and The Forgiveness of Blood by Joshua Marston were highly anticipated if not heavily loaded in name alone. Perhaps against expectation, it’s the Marston that avoids a sophomore slump, however unfair to McQueen’s cool portrait of a putative sex addict; McQueen’s debut Hunger possessed an historical precedent that made it inexorable where Shame treads some obvious terrain and underserves its implied causticity. Improbably, The Forgiveness of Blood finds Marston filming in Albania with a native cast, but any risks of grubby exoticism are handily eroded by Marston’s direct approach (not for nothing was the director seen rushing to catch the Dardenne’s film). The conceit of an ancient village feud becoming restoked seems all too ripe for narrative exploitation, but Marston posits the crisis as inevitable, a generational conflict that can’t be reconciled. Eluding violence, while building on some miserable tension, the film then sits it out along with its young protagonists (the father having gone into hiding, leaving the son Nik to remain locked in the house for fear of reprisal while the daughter Rudina risks the daily rounds of delivering bread). A morality play that is faithful to its location while having broad implications about entitlement and retribution, Forgiveness delivers on Marston’s promising debut Maria, Full of Grace. And the ending, with an ever so slight turn of our attention, is deceptively crushing.

Young love, Paris 1999. Surprisingly there is no moratorium on the subject among French directors, not even the youthful Mia Hansen-Løve, who at 30 has three films to her credit that exhibit maturity beyond her years. Un Amour de jeunesse / Goodbye First Love, however loosely autobiographical, is no exception to the genre, but perhaps deceptively so. The contours here are easily recognizable: young Camille falls for boy-on-a-bike Sullivan, their affair culminating in a summer idyll at her parents’ country house. The ever-itinerant Sullivan returns to his native South America, leaving hopelessly romantic Camille hostage to her mailbox, naturally “melancholic” and increasingly desperate. Four years on and Camille appears to have healed the wound, her hair trimmed into a Seberg cut, trying out for jobs with Air France, and ‘discovering’ her passion for architecture (perhaps an attempt to imaginatively rebuild the empty house in which her first love contained her). Cue older teacher who insists that architecture is memory, and soon she’s helping with the drawings and moving in with him.

Whether her original love is unassailable becomes a narrative concern, though Hansen-Løve treats it all less like a hot coal and more like a fedora lost in the breeze (the Proustian object that comes to our attention but never lyrically returns to Camille). Herein lies the quiet force of the film, in its evocation of a parallel slipstream of time that may even be indifferent to its heroine, who seems to mature hazardously, wondrously before our very eyes (Lola Creton will be the next pouting-faced star of French cinema). Un amour de jeunesse plays like an old Françoise Hardy song, its lachrymose-by-numbers shape belying an ineffable sorrow of time passing, of love’s un-return.

Talmudic research in Jerusalem may not be the obvious thing on which to build a family ‘comedy’, but Joseph Cedar’s father/son rivalry Footnote rings universal in its depiction of a conflict as old as the hills, even if this one takes place in the university library and home study. A father’s intellectual integrity hangs on a footnote while his son ascends the academic ranks. Beneath the scholarly sheen the men are brittle with contempt, and Cedar draws out the paradox of familial love, of simultaneously endeavoring to destroy and protect your nemesis when they are ever too close to home. More diverting than trenchant, Footnote merits credit for its insistence on the symbolic power of language (not since Police, Adjective has the word figured so critically), and for Shlomo Bar-Aba’s hunched performance as the Emmanuel Levinas/Peter Falk-ish father.

Telluride may be guilty of (or credited for) picking Cannes’ still-ripe fruit, or of being a layover for Toronto fodder, but its archival tributes and revivals have a way of filling out the festival roster in inimitable style. A subtle cameo footnote in Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre (itself a sleeper of a deadpan comedy torn open by political compassion), Pierre Étaix was the revelation of the festival, represented by his arguable masterpiece Yoyo, in which a bored millionaire (Étaix) pines listlessly for a lost love, commissions a circus to entertain him, and discovers that the equestrian lead is her, and the youngest clown their son Yoyo. It is the physical, mischievous comedians (over the dramatically stoic actors) who transcend the inevitably archaic nature of their cinematic milieus, such that Étaix seems thoroughly modern, an oddly pertinent clown, and a vital link in a goofy chain that binds Fellini, Tati, Keaton, and Lewis. Brace yourself, slapstick style, for a forthcoming box set of Étaix from Criterion (Eclipse).

While throngs flocked to see “the sexiest man alive” for a post Descendants Q&A, there were those of us who might argue that the distinction belonged to the Brazilian singer whom Peter Sellars trotted out for a “conversation” at the town’s central park. If name-dropping Godard makes Clooney hip (as per Scott Foundas’ program boast) it makes Caetano, well, Caetano, an ‘aesthete without a shred of pretension…. a mover and maker in the world” (as per Peter Sellars’ program boast). No surprise that Veloso chose Vivre Sa Vie (Godard) and Glauber Rocha’s Cinema Novo icon Black God, White Devil for his guest program; more provocatively he chose a 1975 doc on Northeast Brazilian folk music (Nordeste: Cordel, Repente e Canção, dir. Tânia Quaresma) and Leonardo Favio’s subversively candied dance film Aniceto. Watching Marcelo Machado’s unfinished documentary Tropicália at the festival’s free Backlot venue was something of a guilty pleasure, but seeing Veloso then and just now made for a surreal time warp fitting of the Brazilian movement’s cunning. Saudade!

Parting Telluride’s aspen clime and into crimson canyonlands I was struck by the realization, appropriate to the scenery, that the images that most bore into memory after a 72 hour immersion in cinema belonged to a seemingly modest 1970 short by none other than Carrol Ballard (yes, he of Black Stallion fame). Rodeo is a lovingly restored, dizzyingly scored, nervously cool bit of direct cinema that plunks an unwieldy camera down a hole in the middle of a Rodeo and waits for some blood to spill. No rodeo clown, not even Etaix, could distract from the immediacy of the drama, as American as they come, blisteringly cinematic. That’s Telluride.

Jay Kuehner is a film critic and frequent contributor to Cinema Scope magazine.

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