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Experience of Telluride still like no other

By Lisa Kennedy
The Denver Post / September 5, 2010

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TELLURIDE, Colo. — Each Labor Day weekend, mystery and magnificence — naturally wrought and human-crafted — do an exquisite dance in this Colorado mountain town. This weekend is no different, as the 37th Telluride Film Festival, which started Friday, concludes tomorrow.

All these decades later, it remains remarkable that the internationally revered festival takes place in Colorado. The festival is a destination for out-of-state cinephiles more than it is for Coloradans. The town is a seven-hour-plus drive from Denver; and the lodging and festival passes are expensive.

Even so, nestled in the San Juan Mountains, the town imbues the festival with an aura that seems unabashedly particular to the Mountain West. You could no more take the event out of the former mining town than you could wrench the Cannes Film Festival from the French Riviera or Sundance from Park City, Utah.

Yet, says Charles Tabesh, head of programming for Turner Classic Movies, fest organizers “don’t aspire to be like Sundance. They’re about the love of film.’’ The cable network and longtime sponsor, says Tabesh, shares a sensibility with the festival.

“While there’s a commercial aspect to both of what we do, we’re not commercial in the same sense that other festivals or that other cable networks are. It allows each of us to take chances in our own way in what we program.’’

On the festival’s closing day, TCM will air its 24-hour “Salute to the Telluride Film Festival.’’ It’s a smart and representative mix of films Telluride has shown over the years, including a network premiere of “Make Way for Tomorrow.’’ Last year, Leo McCarey’s 1937 drama about aging was among guest programmer Alexander Payne’s selections. This year’s guest programmer is novelist and film aficionado Michael Ondaatje. The best-known movie adaptation of his work is “The English Patient.’’

“One thing that is unique to Telluride is that you can walk to everything,’’ Tabesh says. “You’re contained. You’re bumping into people who are there for the festival, too. You’re having conversations. The people who are there are very passionate and want to share their thoughts about the films.

“That’s something that makes Telluride different. They don’t aspire to be a major film market, to be the place where big deals are made. They’re important. They like to show off what they can do, but they’re not trying to make it about the scene. They’re trying to make it about the experience.’’

And it’s not easy separating the experience from its setting. Movies play in nine venues as light and shadow flicker across the mountain range. Search “San Juans’’ online and you’ll likely come across a book titled “The American Alps.’’ That’s apt. In a state rife with impressive peaks, these mountains vie for the grandest. And they gobsmack newbies and veterans alike.

Three years ago, painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel launched into a humbled assessment of the nearby vistas before introducing his humbling drama, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.’’

“As I sat at a friend’s house looking out the window, I thought if those young men who choose to become suicide bombers could look at these mountains, I don’t think they’d give up their lives so easily.’’

That same year, the public screening at the Abel Gance outdoor theater of “Into the Wild’’ was packed. How perfectly poetic to sit beneath beckoning if potentially surly mountains, watching young Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) answer and succumb to the call of the Alaskan wilderness.

A similar feeling was kindled during the final screening of 2003’s last night: Kevin Macdonald’s “Touching the Void,’’ that nonfiction wonder about a mountaineering disaster that occurred in the Andes. (Given these films, is it so wrong to hope Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,’’ starring James Franco as Aron Ralston, who famously cut off his arm to save his life, will sneak into the schedule somehow?)

Even when movies don’t actively engage the alpine surroundings — and most don’t — the environment proves a contemplative one for considerations of art over industry.

Festival cofounder and codirector Tom Luddy grasped this vital tension between art and the awesome from the start.

On Tuesday, the Bay Area-based Luddy headed out from Las Vegas (“a good meeting point for those flying in,’’ he says) with a vanload of friends and filmmakers.

Their itinerary includes stops at the Grand Canyon, Navajo country, and Monument Valley, where, he says, “we may ride some horses.’’ He’s been making the pilgrimage since the mid-’70s. The festival began in 1974.

In the past, he’s taken as many as five days to do the route and two vans to accommodate his guests. Even abridged, it’s a heady introduction to the West, one Luddy has shared with the likes of directors Andrei Tarkovsky, John Boorman, and Bertrand Tavernier.

It’s a road trip that may even prepare them for the splendor that is Telluride.

Of course, Luddy did not divulge the names of his passengers this year. Because as human-tweaked mysteries go, Telluride has its own.

Decades ago, honchos stopped revealing the program until the morning of the opening day. Ever since, festivalgoers buy their passes based on a seldom-abused trust that the mix of international titles and American indie fare, retrospectives, and tributes will stir passions anew.

Still, the festival Telluride is most closely kin to (in terms of cinematic passion) may be Cannes. The glitz-filled motion-picture bazaar takes place on the French Riviera, a setting “some would say is the most magnificent place in the world to be,’’ says Luddy. “Yet I can tell you, film buffs and critics scurry from hotel to movies, never fully getting where they are.’’

That’s impossible in Telluride, he believes. “The beauty of the place is just too overwhelming. It’s a magical place that makes it feel almost pornographic to do the business of film.’’ Art on the other hand, is a perfect fit.

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