There may be no single person who better embodies the Telluride spirit than Pierre Rissient, a lifelong cinephile who has attended Telluride for nearly all of its 33 years and whose resume is as varied as the mountain climate. One of the storied film buffs who inhabited the hallowed halls of Henri Langlois' Cinematheque Française in the 1950s, Rissient has gone on to work as a filmmaker (he was assistant director on Godard's Breathless), distributor (of many neglected classics of American cinema that had never been released in France), publicist (in partnership with future director Bertrand Tavernier) and festival consultant (a capacity in which he has been responsible for discovering and/or popularizing the work of such disparate filmmakers as Jane Campion, Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien). At Telluride and other festivals around the globe, he is simply "Pierre," a larger-than-life presence known for his vast T-shirt collection, his exhaustive knowledge of movie arcana and for impassioned maxims like, "It is not enough to love a film; one must love it for the right reasons!" Yet for all that, Rissient has remained — largely by choice — something of a shadow figure, forever in the background, rarely awarded credit for his work.
In the words of chief Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, Rissient is "the least known enormously influential person in international cinema," but maybe not for much longer. Two years ago, McCarthy began work on a feature-length documentary about Rissient, scheduled to be completed in 2007. And this year, in Telluride, a selection of excerpts from McCarthy's film (including testimonials by the likes of Campion, Kiroastami, James Toback and Clint Eastwood) was shown at the grand opening of Le Pierre, a festival theater newly redesigned in Rissient's honor. The event will, I suspect, be remembered as one of the great Telluride evenings, right up there with the time Abel Gance came to town to show his silent epic Napoleon in its original three-screen projection format; or when Peter O'Toole and critic Roger Ebert engaged in an impromptu exchange of quotations by Yeats during O'Toole's career achievement ceremony; or, last year, when an 85-year-old Mickey Rooney fielded questions from the audience during a projection breakdown at a screening of the 1941 Rooney–Judy Garland musical Babes On Broadway. (And to commemorate the occasion, what else but specially designed T-shirts featuring Rissient's unmistakable profile in a white-line caricature?)
At the ceremony, Telluride co-director Bill Pence described Le Pierre as "a temple of cinephilia," and if that's true, then Rissient is certainly its high priest, its rabbi, its Sufi. For above and beyond his omnivorous appetite for cinema in all its forms, there is the fact that Rissient has been an extraordinary eyewitness to cinema history. In his years as a publicist and distributor, he befriended many of the then-surviving titans of the Golden Age of Hollywood, from John Ford, Otto Preminger and Raoul Walsh to blacklist victims Abraham Polonsky and Jospeh Losey. And on any given day, he will happily regale you with stories of their professional and private lives. Get on Pierre's good side and he may even tell you about the time the legendary German émigré director went to a Hollywood Blvd. porn theater to see Deep Throat.
But at 70, what impresses most about Rissient is his nearly childlike enthusiasm for the undiscovered, whether it be a forgotten relic from the margins of movie history (during a recent trip to L.A., he enthusiastically rushed to a screening of the 1953 3-D musical Those Redheads From Seattle) or a new work by one of the emerging talents of world cinema (at Cannes this year, he was a virtual one-man publicity machine for the superb documentary film Serambi, by the young Indonesian director Garin Nugroho). As Rissient told me himself in a 2005 interview — and I now know him well enough to know I should let him have the last word — "I am and always have been hungry for discoveries. Not only films, but the culture of other countries discovered through film. And that, in turn, has been a way of discovering myself and extending myself."