em>SF Weekly food and film writer Meredith Brody is at the Telluride Film Festival, where she brings our culture blog "All Shook Down" this collection of anecdotes and notes from high up in the cool Rockies. Hit it, Mer. -d2
When I checked in at the Telluride Film Festival charter flight desk at the Denver airport, the airline representative looked at me with some interest. “Your seat mate,” she said, “is Sean Penn.” As I suspected, however, Mr. Penn did not show up. (It’s much easier for movie stars to get re-booked on 20-seat planes than it is for mere mortals.)
I was relieved, for two reasons: the moment I heard I was to be sitting across from him, the name of all of his directorial projects disappeared from my mind, limiting the prospect of small talk. Plus, I said to a friend, the possibility of the headline Sean Penn and Others Perish had flashed across my mind. To which he’d replied, “But it could have read Sean Penn Rescues Seatmate."
The Telluride Film Festival, started 34 years ago, is famously intimate, famously short, and famously selective. Its programming influences not just upcoming commercial and arthouse releases, but Oscar campaigns, critical reputations, even DVD selections. The extraordinarily beautiful setting, high in the Rockies, amid a postcard-perfect 1850s Main Street town, along with the high ratio of extraordinarily helpful and accommodating staff, make true believers of the attendees, who keep on coming year after year, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that, unlike every other film festival in the world, the lineup is not announced before the festival begins. And every year the passes sell out.
I only knew one movie for sure that was going to be there, and that only because I’d been asked to write an essay about it for the Film Watch, a festival publication: King Vidor’s 1925 The Big Parade. Well, the Sean Penn (non)sighting meant that Into the Wild, based on the Jon Krakauer book, was also going to be there. But the unveiling of the schedule traditionally takes place on the morning of the Friday before Labor Day. I received the densely-printed little pamphlet at a brunch held at a ranch high above the valley, whose food was even better than usual, due to the fact that Alice Waters had consulted on the menu, which resulted in servers pointing out that the fruit salad was all local fruit, the cheeses came from Durango, and the dazzling red, orange, and yellow tomato salad were heirloom varieties.
But even more dazzling was the list of films, even though I knew I could attend only a fraction of the programs. In addition to the 25 or so new films that Telluride programs (this year including the Cannes Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days from Romania, the Cannes Best Director winner The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel, and the Cannes Best Actress winner Secret Sunshine, from Korea, as well as new movies from Todd Haynes, Wayne Wang, Anand Tucker, Werner Herzog, Barbet Schroeder, and Noah Baumbach, among others), the Festival offers silent films with live musical accompaniment, revivals programmed by a guest director (this year Edith Kramer, Director Emeritus of the Pacific Film Archive), and conversations and panel discussions.
And the Festival gives tributes to three filmmakers. This year: the actor Daniel Day Lewis, the composer Michel Legrand, and the Indian director Shyam Benegal. And just to up the ante, this year Telluride added a new, jewel-box theater to its lineup, housed in the Telluride Wilkinson Library, called the Backlot, featuring ten new documentaries about movies.
After the brunch I saw The Band’s Visit, a sweet, charming, funny first film, about the adventures of an Egyptian police band, the Alexandrian Police Orchestra, who arrive in Israel to perform at an Arab cultural center and are stranded, first at the airport, and then in a cheerless desert village: something of a fairy tale, given that there are no Egyptian-Israeli cultural exchanges in real life, and the young director Eran Koirin is not even sure if the film will be accepted in the Cairo Film Festival.
Then there is the Opening Night Feed, a dinner party that takes over the main street, this year Indian-themed in honor of Benegal: overflowing trays of vegetable curry and butter chicken. And then hard choices: eight different venues, offering everything from Hayne’s I’m Not There, in which a number of aspects of Bob Dylan are incarnated by everyone from Cate Blanchett to Heath Ledger, to a documentary, Chris and Don about the long partnership of the writer Christopher Isherwood with the painter Don Bachardy.
I go for the only-in-Telluride option, the tribute to Daniel Day Lewis, held in the Sheridan Opera House, the original home of the Festival. After the hour of clips, which arouses an irrational desire to see all of his movies again, especially San Franciscan Phil Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Day Lewis comes out, looking boyish, hot, and sexy in tight black jeans, a red plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up to show tattoos that I’d thought were just make-up for various roles but turn out to be real, gold hoop earrings, and a black porkpie hat pushed back on his head. People whisper that he’s 46. Hard to believe. (Even harder when it turns out they’re wrong. He’s 50.)
His silver Telluride medallion is given to him by Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom he’s working on There Will Be Blood, based on an Upton Sinclair novel about oil. Day Lewis says that his young son (with Rebecca Miller, Arthur Miller’s daughter, who directed day Lewis in The Ballad of Jack and Rose) is obsessed with Giant, or more specifically the lavish buffet breakfast in Giant served in Virginia horse country, and that recently he’d taken the child to a hotel and his only question had been “Will breakfast be like the one in Giant?,” and Day Lewis had said yes, it would be, not knowing – and it had been. General hilarity (the Day Lewis charm is infectious). And then as a special treat the screen was lowered and we saw twenty minutes of There Will Be Blood. The tattooed boy disappeared: on the screen was a powerful man.
The last program of my first day: a screening of Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, a long-in-the-works documentary about the legendary French publicist, producer, director, distributor, and all-around movie god, made by Variety critic and author Todd McCarthy. Rissient, who has a Telluride cinema named after him, Le Pierre (or, as he calls it, Zee Pierre), is in attendance. On screen, he’s feted by Clint Eastwood, Bertrand Tavernier, Quentin Tarantino, and Jane Campion. I stagger off to bed, ‘round midnight. The first screenings begin at 8:30 in the morning, but it’s impossible to plan your day before you get the exciting little slips of paper that hold surprises. Not everything is revealed in the printed program. Certain time slots are TBA, and I’m anxious to learn what they will hold.