Standing at the front of a jewel-box theater in Telluride over the weekend, Alexander Payne called a 12-minute movie about a cat on the run “one of the first examples of pure cinema that I know.” He was gushing about The Perils of Priscilla, a 1969 short by Carroll Ballard that Payne said he has watched some 30 to 40 times—more than any other movie.
The Perils of Priscilla screened in a program of nearly lost and now restored short films by Ballard that were a highlight of the 41st Telluride Film Festival. The evening, bookended by speeches from both Ballard (now 76 years old) and Payne, was anchored by Seems Like Only Yesterday, a short 1971 nonfiction essay that preserves the insights of a dozen Los Angeles centenarians. Wary about the future and recalling life in the city before sidewalks and telephones, the aged American’s remarks are paired with aerial shots of urban sprawl, imagery from contemporary TV commercials, and views of city streets packed with billboards and strip malls. Ballard said he sought to capture the dramatic changes experienced during the lifetimes of his elderly subjects. Funded by a grant but never aired because public television executives feared rights issues stemming from Ballard’s use of real TV advertisements, the 45-minute film was shelved and screened just once at the Pacific Film Archive back in 1981 before its single Telluride screening.
“To me the meaning of the movie was impossible without [showing] the media,” Ballard explained as he defended his use of the TV clips. “The media was what was driving things in those days.”
While Ballard’s forgotten films were showing to a few dozen people on Saturday night, a few blocks away hundreds of Telluride attendees packed the well-appointed Werner Herzog Theater, a temporary venue built on top of an ice skating rink at the center of the large town park.
At Telluride, movies start as a whisper, as festival co-director Julie Huntsinger observed on the first day. “They may become a shout elsewhere,” she added, referring to the looming Toronto International Film Festival, where this year organizers took measures to limit the number of high-profile movies that would debut prior to Telluride and Venice.
Even so, Telluride audiences got an end-of-summer look at some studio films that will be unveiled in theaters this fall, including Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and John Stewart’s Rosewater, to Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild and Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.
Birdman, a darkly comedic look at the life of an aging actor, led the weekend as the best of the new narrative movies on offer at Telluride. Michael Keaton’s often unhinged performance as a self-centered former action film star trying to stage a Raymond Carver story is matched by Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly mobile camerawork, which is stitched together to create the illusion that the film is playing out in one continuous take.
All weekend, Telluride attendees—a mix of tourists, cinephiles, retirees, Hollywood insiders, and awards-season bloggers—seemed to be buzzing about Birdman. Additional screenings were added to accommodate interest in the movie.
“What have you seen?” is the standard greeting among strangers in the small, well-heeled Colorado mountain town. Passholders waiting outside anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes use this pickup line to spark a conversation and get crucial tips. Although such exchanges are common at most festivals, because Telluride’s organizers unveil the lineup on the eve of the event and often announce screening times on the fly, attendees are constantly looking for guidance from each other.
Instead of big films getting all of the attention this year, an animated short about a singing volcano and an array of new documentaries were among the other highlights at this idyllic movie marathon.
Ethan Hawke’s documentary about a reclusive pianist, Seymour, and Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Reaper, about serial killings in an underprivileged area of Los Angeles that were ignored for decades, were two Telluride titles that earned well-deserved attention ahead of Toronto, where they will compete for attention with star-driven offerings among the nearly 200 new films screening at that fest.
Yet it was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence that seemed to stoke the most intense discussions in the wake of its screenings in Telluride, just as its predecessor, The Act of Killing, did at the festival two years ago.
The Look of Silence
While The Act of Killing revealed the dark hearts of killers, this companion film hones in on a family who are grappling with the murder of a sibling by an oppressive regime in a country that has yet to acknowledge its genocide. Adi Rukun, a soft-spoken optometrist, confronts criminals with a quiet confidence that is disarming due to his measured but assertive manner.
Over the weekend, Oppenheimer emphasized that he hopes to foster reconciliation in Indonesia and predicted that his film will have a big impact in the country once it is screened and made available to a local audience. But Rukun and his family are in such danger as a result of participating in the film that they have moved to a different area of the country, far away from those who killed their loved one.
“I dream of an Indonesia where we can live without fear,” Rukun said over the weekend in remarks translated by the filmmaker as the two sat on stage next to Werner Herzog, an executive producer on both of Oppenheimer’s films. Rukun seemed ill at ease in front of the adoring Telluride crowd, staring down at his lap as Oppenheimer and Herzog spoke in English. He only raised his head when asked a direct question.
“I am happy to have this opportunity to represent survivors in general,” he said, adding that he hopes this film will pressure elected officials in Indonesia and the United States to acknowledge the genocide and facilitate an era of healing and truth about nearly 50-year legacy of pain and murder.
Until his country accepts its history, he concluded, “People cannot mourn, and the dead cannot be released.”
An unexpected Telluride breakthrough offered a respite from films that took on weighty topics, yet it was no less moving. Lava, a seven-minute musical short from Pixar, won over audiences at multiple weekend screenings. Even after seeing it multiple times, I found its charms impossible to resist. On the final day of the festival it was added to a free outdoor program of films in Elks Park at the center of town.
The origins of the short lie in an impulsive purchase. Director James Ford Murphy, the head of animation at Pixar, bought a ukulele while in Hawaii on his honeymoon two decades ago. Moved by the distinctive local music played on the little wooden instrument there, he sought to create verses he could set to that sound.
The endearing story of a lonely, yearning volcano named Uku who sings of his hope to find “someone to lava,” the short’s island landscapes were inspired by the state’s sweeping geographic wonders. During a presentation in Telluride, Murphy shared early sketches and helicopter footage set to the rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
“What if I could write a song that makes me feel the way that song does and feature it in a Pixar film?” James Ford Murphy remembered thinking, as he detailed his own ambitions for the short, which will debut in theaters next summer with a new Pixar feature.
When pitching the project at the animation studio a few years ago, Murphy picked up his little ukulele and sang the song for Pixar chief John Lasseter—just as he did on the final night of this year’s Telluride festival, outside on a chilly evening before the final film program of the weekend.
His advice to the audience was short and sweet, just like his new film.
“You can’t be afraid to make a fool out of yourself,” he said.