Telluride 2016 Journal
Things to Come
A few weeks having passed since Locarno, the overlapping festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto provide cinematic relief for aficionados of film culture who have survived the summer movie drought. Together, the trio tee up a roster of new films that will screen at other fall festivals—including the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s own New York Film Festival—and then open in theaters in the coming months.
The brief Telluride Film Festival, with its long but casual queues and distractingly beautiful Colorado mountain setting, offers attendees enough time to catch just over a dozen or so movies each Labor Day weekend. The program’s mix of new and old movies is famously revealed only when devoted attendees arrive for the annual event, and there’s a cult-like quality to the passion that has developed for the festival. Programmers present highlights from the festival circuit, a few high-profile movies (some of which may vie for end-of-year acclaim from critics and industry types), and retrospectives, restorations, and portraits of artists and insiders. Between screenings, attendees get together for dinners or at outdoor gatherings for picnics and panels.
“We have Cannes and you have Telluride,” actress Isabelle Huppert beamed at a Sunday event during the festival. She was in town with Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest, Things to Come.
This year, within the confines of this intimate event, the names Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were hardly heard, while those of Emma Stone, Barry Jenkins, Casey Affleck, Huppert, Pablo Larraín, Tom Hanks, and Carrie Fisher were uttered frequently throughout the festival.
A handful of movies struck a universal chord this year in Telluride: Jenkins’s second indie feature Moonlight, Kenneth Lonergan’s Sundance stunner Manchester by the Sea, and Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom’s Debbie Reynolds documentary Bright Lights were among the best of the bunch. Damien Chazelle’s hotly anticipated musical, La La Land, and a spate of upcoming documentaries—such as The Fire Within, California Typewriter, and The B Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography by Errol Morris—also stoked conversations. A program of old movies were presented by this year’s guest curator, director Volker Schlöndorff.
Moonlight, featured in the latest edition of Film Comment, quickly gained traction as the most celebrated movie at Telluride following its world premiere. The festival was an unusually fitting place for this American independent film to debut, because writer/director Barry Jenkins (who made the exceptional 2008 low-budget indie relationship drama, Medicine for Melancholy) has been a fixture at the festival for the past 14 years. A student attendee back in 2002, Jenkins joined the fest production staff in subsequent years and eventually began curating festival short films, introducing screenings, and moderating Q&As with other filmmakers.
Mesmerizing and moving, Moonlight examines—in three distinct chapters featuring three separate lead actors portraying a character at different stages of his life—the story of a young boy becoming a man in a tough Miami neighborhood.
Three years ago, Jenkins hosted a discussion following the Telluride premiere of 12 Years a Slave and not long after, Plan B, the Hollywood production company headed by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt (producers of the Steve McQueen film) got on board his project. On Saturday afternoon, Jenkins was back in the same venue with Gardner, Kleiner, cast and crew. Introducing the screening, theater, and opera director Peter Sellars spoke of the significance of the film’s subject matter and its unlikely yet timely exploration of otherwise marginalized African American lives.
The standing ovation for Moonlight began as soon as the credits rolled. Telluride audiences are typically generous and responsive, yet such extreme expressions are rare at the festival. The ovation continued a little while even after moviegoers had exited the theater to line up for the next show. The crowd cheered as Jenkins and his cast and crew exited the venue and made their way to the sidewalk. To receive such a response at a place that has shaped his professional life, was clearly meaningful to Barry Jenkins.
At a post-screening celebration inside a local Italian restaurant, hosted by the film’s distributor A24, Kleiner and Gardner told me that they were simply blown away by Jenkins’s script (which takes as its source material a play by Tarell McCraney). The duo said they rarely read scripts that good. Backing the movie, which had been shopped all around town in Hollywood, was an easy decision, they emphasized.
“The way I make movies has been directly influenced by the movies I’ve seen at this festival, going back to 2002,” Jenkins told theater and opera director Peter Sellars in an interview. “I never thought when I first came to Telluride that I would ever show a film at this festival. And showing a film that is a part of me that has been completely separate from my life at the festival—it just feels right.”
Telluride is programmed and organized in Northern California’s Bay Area, and this year, festival co-directors Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger were taken with a film that came from just next door: Berkeley. California Typewriter, a new documentary feature by Doug Nichol, started as a short about a repair shop owned and operated by a local family who fix the seemingly obsolete machines of the title.
“I followed where it led me,” Nichol explained in an interview. Starting out as a director of music videos and documentaries, Nichol shot the 1991 Madonna movie Truth or Dare as well as the video for Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore,” among others. The story of the Berkeley family shop—which is called California Typewriter—led him to make a feature film.
The exploration of the typewriter’s origins and its obsessed aficionados also led Nichol to Tom Hanks, a proud collector of the devices. Hanks’s Hollywood office is filled with typewriters, and he uses one to write thank-you notes. In California Typewriter, the actor underlines how such dispatches are far more meaningful in ink on paper than quickly punched out in an email message. And if a friend expresses a fondness for a typewriter, Hanks continues, he’s likely to ship one off to the individual. But he’ll also demand that they use it.
Nichol interviewed other typewriter obsessives, including musician John Mayer, writer and actor Sam Shepard, and author David McCullough and spends time observing the shop’s proprietors as they struggle to keep their niche Berkeley business afloat.
In this digital era in which most people who carry a virtual keyboard in their pocket swiftly fire off short messages, California Typewriter makes the case for the tactile, analog process of using two hands, spools of ribbon, paper, and a bit more time to express and share ideas.
Tom Hanks featured even more prominently in another Telluride entry. The actor is the title character in Clint Eastwood’s latest, Sully, a portrait of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger—the US Airways pilot who surprisingly landed a packed, malfunctioning passenger jet on the surface of the Hudson River back in January 2009. All 155 passengers survived the experience.
“Landing a plane on the Hudson takes a certain amount of skill and a lot of luck,” Eastwood noted in his introduction to the movie in Telluride. “Kind of like making a movie.”
In the film, Eastwood revisits the details surrounding the mechanical failures (caused by a flock of birds) that forced the pilots to make split-second decisions about the fate of their flight. The U.S. government investigates Sully, questioning whether he made the right decision. But the movie also hones in on the actions of numerous everyday New Yorkers who leapt into action minutes after the plane came down. In that way Sully notably becomes an examination of individuals versus institutions.
Introducing the film’s Friday presentation, Eastwood literally tipped his hat to French film critic Pierre Rissient. Eastwood was wearing a baseball cap owned by Rissient, who was seated in a wheelchair halfway back in the spacious Herzog Cinema, a converted town hockey rink that ranks as one of the best places to watch a movie at Telluride. The Frenchman was waiting to watch the movie for a second time over the weekend, this time with its special effects finished. The two bonded years ago, and so he always gets an early look at an Eastwood picture and advises the American filmmaker during the editing process.
Just before Telluride, La La Land opened the Venice Film Festival with its tale of a struggling actress played by Emma Stone, opposite Ryan Gosling. Decades earlier, Debbie Reynolds faced a similar struggle before becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1950s and ’60s in such musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, How the West Was Won, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
While pursuing her career in Hollywood, Reynolds lived across the street from her mother, who didn’t want Reynolds to go into showbiz. In archival footage in the revealing documentary Bright Lights, which screened at Telluride, Reynolds’s mom dismisses her daughter’s dreams. Yet Reynolds yearned for her own daughter, Carrie Fisher, to sing, dance, and perform on stage.
In Bright Lights, Reynolds is seen whizzing through a Las Vegas casino on a motorized chair, down aisles of slot machines past unsuspecting gamblers. Wearing a fancy hat and draped with a colorful shawl, she’s on her way to her final Vegas show before retiring as a performer. That her farewell performance seems to be taking place in a rather modestly sized house underscores how her star has faded since the days when her late husband Eddie Fisher’s affair with and subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Taylor was red-hot tabloid gossip.
The directors of Bright Lights, Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom, were invited into Reynolds’s home in making the film. In fact, they were invited inside two homes. Carrie Fisher, Reynolds’s daughter, lives just a brief walk down a short path, in a house adjacent to her mother’s. The compound where the two live is colorfully decorated with kitsch and memorabilia. The two bicker but also share loving exchanges, and they’ve clearly become good friends. Reynolds’s son Todd Fisher rounds out the family, and the trio are also surrounded by a few assistants, additional family, and Carrie Fisher’s ever-present sidekick, a loyal dog named Gary.
Bright Lights is both hilarious and touching, a portrait of a strange but tight-knit family and a compelling look at the personal impact of being a Hollywood legend. More than once I thought of Norma Desmond while watching Debbie Reynolds try to hold on to her beloved career. She seems wistful for the Tinseltown of yesteryear. Collecting old costumes and setpieces from classic films, Reynolds once hoped to open a Hollywood museum. Her dream dashed, she ended up selling off the collectibles to cover debts.
While Bloom and Stevens’s documentary details the rise of the family, it hardly shies away from the less flattering moments in their lives, from Carrie Fisher’s addictions and mental health struggles to the family’s financial challenges and the effects of a father’s infidelities. One Telluride attendee likened Reynolds and Fisher to a contemporary Big Edie and Little Edie from the landmark documentary Grey Gardens.
Or, as Todd Fisher, keeper of the Reynolds family’s own archive, said on Sunday at the screening: “We wear our underwear on the outside.”