San Juan Mountain High
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that the Telluride Film Festival and I are not entirely disinterested parties. In 2004, when festival co-director Tom Luddy asked me to help organize that year's career tribute to the great Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, I accepted the assignment and, in September, attended the festival for the first time — which, as anyone who has ever been to Telluride will tell you, is all that it takes to get hooked. That year, in addition to Angelopoulos, there were tributes to Laura Linney, French screenwriter Jean-Calude Carrière and the legendary casting director Fred Roos (complete with in-person appearances by George Lucas and Harrison Ford); a retrospective of films by the forgotten Czech director Gustav Machaty; a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's silent Blackmail, with live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra; and the world and/or North American premieres of Bad Education, Finding Neverland, House of Flying Daggers and Kinsey.
And those were just the movies! For half the splendor of Telluride is the place itself — an idyllic box canyon town located at an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet (some festival guests have been known to need supplemental oxygen), where Butch Cassidy scored his first major bank robbery and where Ayn Rand got the inspiration for the town of Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged. It is one of the last corners of the known universe untouched by The Gap, Starbuck's and those other totems of globalization. And it is a place where romance seems to hang in the air: On my first visit, I met a girl who I ended up dating for the next six months and who remains a close friend; on hers, Laura Linney fell in love with a festival volunteer with whom she now lives, in Telluride, whenever she's not making a film.
In 2005 and now 2006, I've had the great good fortune of being asked back to Telluride, as the contributor of essays to the festival program, the presenter of certain films and the moderator of post-screening Q&As. But lest you think I'm completely on the take, allow me to clarify: For my work here, I am rewarded with a festival pass and a hotel room, but everything else — including a plane ticket roughly the cost of a round-trip to Europe — is on me. (And if you think I feel any persuasion to be kind to the new films I see here, remember that it was here, in 2004, that I famously said "no" to British director Sally Potter's film Yes.)
That's part of a longstanding Telluride tradition by which all festivalgoers are created equal and freebies are doled out to almost nobody — especially journalists, publicists and industry executives. That, plus an annual Labor Day weekend date nestled smack between Venice and Toronto, has allowed Telluride to keep itself intimate (attendance hovers around 3,000 — roughly the year-round population of the town itself) and immune from the hype and media frenzy that attend that other mountain-town festival located just across the border in Utah. Oh, and did I mention that the festival doesn't even announce its program until opening day? And that, even afterwards, there are additional "sneak previews" and "surprise screenings" yet to be unveiled? (In 1994, Telluride audiences queued up for just such an event only to find themselves in the first public audience for Tim Burton's Ed Wood.)
Simply put, there aren't many (or maybe any) film festivals that one would pay out of one's own pocket to work for. But Telluride (now in its 33rd year) is worth that, and then some. In a mere three-and-a-half days, one can take a more extensive cinematic tour — from the very birth of cinema to neglected modern masterpieces to the very latest from the world's leading directors — than is possible at most festivals that run two or three times as long. And one can do it amongst a community of fellow film-lovers, who make little distinction between, say, Brokeback Mountain (which had its North American premiere in Telluride last year mere hours after making its world premiere in Venice) and a rare screening of The Sentimental Bloke, one of the only surviving works of the silent Australian cinema (and one of the indisputable highlights of this year's program). So, like the town against which it unfolds, the Telluride Film Festival is a remnant of another era — when movies were shared cultural experiences rather than disposable pop commodities — and a beacon of hope in what are dark days for American film culture.