Festivals: Telluride 2018
Veteran attendees of the Telluride Film Festival, which recently had its 45th edition, often spend their Labor Day weekend rushing from venue to venue in search of surprising, small gems. Sure, the festival is known for debuting high-profile fall films and has garnered a reputation for selecting among its films the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, but it is the smaller, often quirkier Telluride entries that many cinephiles find rewarding here. Executive Director Julie Huntsinger calls these less in-demand films “Tom Luddy specials,” after Telluride’s co-chief and founder, a former head of the Pacific Film Archive and a producer who has long attended every installment of the festival. (Luddy was unable to attend this year due to health matters, but he vows to be back next year.)
Festival-goers clamored to attend early weekend showings of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s white-knuckle mountain-climbing movie Free Solo, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s timely Roe v. Wade examination Reversing Roe, and John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm, a charming portrait of a couple aiming to leave city life to restore ailing California farmland, emerged as must-see docs. Yet it was the more offbeat Tom Luddy specials that again made the fest memorable. Luddy and Huntsinger saved one such program, a screening and conversation, for just a single show on Telluride’s very last day: a new documentary about a silent screen icon, made by an iconic American auteur—Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster, about silent comedy legend Buster Keaton.
Now nearly 80, Bogdanovich developed a taste for silent cinema as a kid when his dad would take him to MoMA to watch silent movies. “Comedies in the ’20s and the silent era were often sentimental and mawkish,” Bogdanovich said during an on-stage conversation with historian and writer Leonard Maltin after his film screened. Bogdanovich, who authoritatively and entertainingly narrates the doc, says he was drawn to the characteristic, mysterious stone-faced expressions of Keaton, who has been called “the Mozart of physical comedy.”
The Great Buster follows the comedian from his very early career, all the way back to when he was the youngest member of popular vaudeville act The 3 Keatons. Bogdanovich shows us early footage of little Buster, dressed identically to his father, tossed across the stage by his dad—the images can be as wince-inducing as they are funny. The film then charts Buster Keaton’s rise to fame as a sidekick to silent star Fatty Arbuckle, whose fame faded in the wake of salacious scandal, while Keaton’s star ascended quickly. Produced by industry veteran and cinema owner Charles Cohen, Bogdanovich’s documentary could inspire new generations of viewers to explore Keaton’s films, a number of which are in Cohen’s collection.
Known for his work at that other mountain film festival in neighboring Utah, Robert Redford, who recently announced his retirement, was a popular presence in Telluride this year. He was at the event presenting what he said would be his last on-screen performance, in David Lowery’s true crime story The Old Man and the Gun, in which he plays an elderly bank robber who wants a final piece of the action. Lowery’s film is a joy to watch because its actors, also including Sissy Spacek as his love interest, seem to relish their time on camera together.
“The whole idea of the outlaw, that has always appealed to me,” Redford explained during a discussion after the screening of The Old Man and the Gun, which opens on September 28. “In my career I’ve always made a point of going in the opposite direction.”
“It’s time for me to move into retirement,” Redford added, without a hint of wistfulness or nostalgia. “I think I’ve been doing this since I was 21, and I have put my soul into it, and I said to myself, ‘That’s enough. Why don’t you quit while you are a little bit ahead? Don’t wait for the bell to toll, just get out.’ I couldn’t think of a better project to go out on than this film.”
Clocking in at nearly four and a half hours, Charles Ferguson’s documentary Watergate seems a rather daunting prospect at a film festival where screening time can be precious. Yet its subtitle—How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President—was enticing for Telluride festival-goers given the current state of affairs in Washington, D.C. Mixing archival footage and re-enactments featuring dialogue from actual audiotapes of Richard Nixon and his associates, Ferguson’s film details the events of the early 1970s DNC headquarters break-in and subsequent cover-up by the President. It also offers an apparent roadmap for what many expect may be the route our country may take once again.
Watergate drew big crowds and then packed the small park in the center of town where Ferguson and some of his subjects gathered for a panel discussion.
“We were all totally transfixed by Watergate,” Ferguson noted when asked about his own fascination with the scandal, “Because it was the most amazing real-life thriller.”
His sentiments and stories about his two years researching the era provoked numerous comparisons to today’s headlines. “The country shut down. We were transfixed,” he said. “It was my substitute for reading Sherlock Holmes stories. I came away from this experience feeling that our system, even during Watergate, was fragile.”
CBS News veteran Lesley Stahl was a young journalist at the time of Watergate and was assigned to cover the break-in. She joked that a major network giving the story to such a newbie was a sign of how little merit the news seemed to have at the time. She quipped that in the early days of the investigation, only she and Bob Woodward from the Washington Post seemed to be tracking the story closely.
Yet a major difference today, as detailed by those on the panel, is the manner in which the media is being demonized by the current President. Nixon criticized the press in recordings that would only surface later. Donald Trump does so daily in public.
Stahl said that she had pressed Trump, in an off-camera conversation during a post-election interview in November 2016, to explain why he was so critical of the fifth estate. “‘You know why I do it,’” she said that Trump told her. “‘It’s because I am trying to discredit you, and when people write negative things about me people won’t believe you.’”
“That’s a quote,” Stahl reiterated.
“Were it not for the remarkable courage of these people, we could have ended up in a very different place,” Ferguson noted of the events chronicled in Watergate. “We tried just to let the audience make up their own mind. Anyone will come away very sober about what it says about our current condition.”
Lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, a special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal, also spoke of the parallels during the panel.
“Everything that was below the surface in Watergate has an echo today. Everything is now discussed openly. This is an attack on the bedrock of our democracy,” Ben-Veniste said. “It’s gonna take a massive effort by individual Americans to reject what Trump is saying about Americans. We will need to see tens of millions of Americans in the streets to make a difference.”
Watergate screens September 29 and October 8 in the New York Film Festival.
Eugene Hernandez is Deputy Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Co-Publisher of Film Comment.