Telluride: the gold nugget of film festivals (1982)

[Originally published in The Weekly, October 13, 1982]

The distance from Denver had been grievously underestimated by the travel agency, so we made the last part of the long day’s journey to Telluride in moonlight. Around and above the blind valley in which the Old West ghost town nestles, the Colorado Rockies bulked darkly, only their horizon clearly traceable. In the morning we would wake to find them slashed by strata of Technicolor-red rock and bisected, a mile beyond the end of Main Street, by a thread of waterfall called Bridal Veil. For now, ahead of us where the town must be, there appeared a mountain several thousand feet higher than the Rockies’ local average altitude of 13,000 feet—a Lovecraftian mass glowing with a light of its own, and no less well-defined and solid-seeming for being a cloud. Any cinephile could have read the sign: Werner Herzog and Fitzcarraldo had to be waiting under that celestial special-effect. And as it turned out, this vision was also our first testimony that the experience of the Telluride Film Festival is much bigger than the sum of films available on its four separate screens.

By design and thoroughly persuasive execution, the Telluride Film Festival is like no other. For the past nine years, from Friday evening of Labor Day weekend through the following Monday, movie buffs from all over the globe have made their way to this isolated resort area in the southwest corner of Colorado. Here they catch the most provocative films of the coming season, make belated acquaintance with recently unearthed treasures of the past, and press the cinematic flesh of distinguished directors and stars. (The reconstructed Napoléon was first projected in the festival’s Open Air Cinema in 1980, with the 90-year-old Abel Gance in attendance. Last year, My Dinner with Andre, Wally, and Andre were all on hand.)

The festival is run by the same people who conceived it. Bill and Sheila Pence are passionate Colorado-boosters with a background in film distribution; Bill worked for Janus Films when that company’s holdings were the mainstay of repertory programming in the U.S. Tom Luddy, a tireless film enthusiast from the Bay Area, programmed Berkeley’s most aesthetically responsible arthouses in the 1960s, and put the Pacific Film Archive on the cultural map. And William K. Everson, the encyclopedic film collector and historian, has surely seen more movies than anyone else alive.

The directors weren’t aiming for size when they designed the festival—at least, not in the cast-of-thousands sense. The town’s inns, condominium complexes, and guest rooms can accommodate only several hundred interlopers, and the same is true for the festival’s screening facilities. The Sheridan Opera House, the central showplace, was built to 19th-century mining-town scale and cannot realistically be expanded. It holds barely more than 100 spectators, and some of them must be content with perching on chairs virtually in the wings, or jamming their knees against the railing round the shallowest of balconies. The Nugget Theater, a rough-wood-planked moviehouse about half a block away, which repeats most of the Opera House programs, is only slightly larger (and comes equipped, incidentally, with a single, coed restroom). The Community Center, a long Quonset hut located on one of the town’s few side streets, is nothing but a gymnasium with folding-chair seating and a basketball backboard cranked just out of projector range above the screen. It’s devoted mostly to retrospective programs that supplement the primary showpieces, plus Bill Everson’s special “finds”—this year, a sampling of what Britain’s Ealing Studios were into before embarking on their celebrated Alec Guinness comedies, and a double bill of forgotten B-movies based on writings by the newly popular James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett.

No one grumps about the funky facilities. Any discomfort is written off as a fair price to pay for Telluride’s expeditionary charm. Besides, the programming is always remarkable. The festival’s reputation is so secure that fest organizers can actually keep their schedule a secret until patrons have arrived in town.

This year we found—just to name some Opera House items—Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal; a new American independent film, Smithereens; “Miss Gish and Mr. Sjöström,” a session featuring Lillian Gish in person and on screen in Victor Sjöström’s 1927 masterpiece The Wind (backed by on-site piano and violin for tremolo wind effects!); a program of Canadian Film Board animation, with an in-person salute from the great Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones; a midnighter of “Two Rare Mysteries,” with Hitchcock’s Rope, out of release for more than two decades, going unannounced until it hit the screen; Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, as anticipated; Koyaanisqatsi, a non-narrative, ecological epic set to music by Philip Glass; Veronika Voss, the last completed work by the late RW. Fassbinder; Yol, this year’s grand prize-winner at Cannes; and tributes to Joel McCrea, veteran producer Pierre Braunberger, director Budd Boetticher, and South African playwright-screenwriter Athol Fugard.

Yet (he blushed) it’s easy to forget about watching movies in Telluride. You sit down in the New Sheridan Hotel bar for a quick drink between films, and remark that the place looks the way it must have when Butch Cassidy embarked on his outlaw career just down the street. Syberberg sits at the next table reading his paper in splendid, silvery solitude. Athol Fugard, in casual denim, crosses the street to continue celebrating his newly found rapture with St. Pauli Girl Dark. Producer Jon Davison strolls by, perfectly content to turn at a casual hail, draw up a chair, and answer your questions about why his and Sam Fuller’s White Dog is being withheld from release by Paramount. And as the sun rearranges the afternoon shadows on the mountainside opposite, you decide that, oh hell, that two-o’clock movie you had meant to see is going to get to Seattle sooner or later anyway, and why not have another drink?

Name-dropping, am I? Really, it doesn’t feel that way once you’ve been to Telluride. This festival is remarkably free of gamesmanship. The guests have the same air of no-sweat enchantment as the ticket-holders; none of them is accompanied by an entourage, and no one is running up to pester them for advice on how to get into the picture business. Once exposed to the Telluride experience, many a showbiz figure has made it a habit to return as just another festivalgoer. Herzog is virtually a member of the family, coming back each year whether or not he has a new film to show.

If Telluride becomes a tradition unto itself, that’s partly because the festival encourages such a familiar awareness of movie history as human history. Everson introduces the 1929 The Thirteenth Chair, the announced half of the rare-mysteries bill, by observing that it’s being shown on the 100th birthday of its director, Tod Browning, and its star, Bela Lugosi, who would later get together on a movie called Dracula. He notes, moreover, that he himself was born six months after The Thirteenth Chair‘s release, that he’s been trying to catch up with it ever since, and that the next 75 minutes (Rope will be playing first) are going to be more suspenseful for him than anyone else. You look at Pierre Braunberger, twinkling with a wit both Gallic and Hebraic during a seminar on producing, and realize that this vital, charming gentleman represents a living link between Renoir’s Nana and Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou at one historical extreme and Godard’s Vivre sa vie at the other. Budd Boetticher strolls into the Community Center under the end titles of Arruza, a film he gave eight harrowing years of his life to make, effortlessly hoists himself onto the edge of the makeshift stage, and allows as how any audience that has sat on folding chairs to watch his film damn well has a right to ask him anything they want. And Lillian Gish moves her fingers upon a crystal glass and compares how Mr. Griffith and Mr. Altman made pictures.

For me, though, Telluride ’82 will always be remembered first and foremost for Joel McCrea. Except for a negligible Western in the mid-Seventies, McCrea has been strictly a ranching man for two decades. A shy and thoroughly unassuming man, he didn’t know what to make of it when Telluride proposed to stage a tribute to his 50-year career. The day before the festival opened, he phoned to say he couldn’t come: he was sure there’d been some mistake, he wouldn’t be able to do whatever they expected of him.

He came, though, received a standing ovation in the Opera House, and was amazed when Lillian Gish, whom he clearly admired as much as any movie-lover present, came out of the wings to present him with the tribute medallion. The next day, a serendipitous threat of rain ordained that their noontime seminar was moved from the park to the old courthouse. McCrea’s Stetson, disposed on the judge’s bench, wordlessly invoked his last major appearance, in Sam Peckinpah’s beautiful Ride the High Country, as the good man who asked only “to enter my house justified.” People posed questions and Joel McCrea answered—after insisting that “I’d much rather listen to Miss Gish and learn something about the business.” He answered clearly, directly, often eloquently, without rehearsed pauses perfected in 50 press conferences, because ranchers don’t have press conferences. How did a cowboy star come by the elegant comic timing so evident in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story? “Well, you know, with Sturges’s dialogue you just couldn’t miss.”

Then someone asked about working with Hitchcock on Foreign Correspondent. No, he didn’t “treat actors like cattle,” he was a charming man. But McCrea remembered a scene when he and two other frockcoated actors had to chat casually while walking down a curved stair, McCrea on the narrow inside. “And me with my size-12 shoes, I finally slipped and ruined the take. Hitchcock, sitting down there at the bottom, said, ‘Jowull … comes daowwn the stairs … like a great … eloonnngated … baaag!’ And I said, ‘Well, I miss my horse.'”

He and his wife, actress Frances Dee, meant to scoot out of town after that. But somehow, they decided to stay. They fell in love with a festival documentary on black gospel-singing and excitedly asked whether they might help talk up its release in Hollywood. They strolled around Telluride. On the final day of the festival, they were ski-lifted, along with the rest of us, 4,000 feet up to a nearby mountaintop for the last of the seminars. Who knows? Maybe, next year, they’ll be back.

Copyright © 1982 by Richard T. Jameson