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The Screens Are Empty In Telluride

Every Labor Day weekend since 1974, dedicated film lovers have gathered for the Telluride Film Festival. It's not happening this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, Telluride is where he fell in love with the movies.

The Telluride Film Festival is unique. The festival directors know it; the filmmakers know it; the loyal audience knows it, and it’s been that way since the very first Telluride Film Festival in 1974.

Telluride did not begin life as a funky little mountain town “let’s watch a few movies and hang around” event. It roared into the big leagues of the serious film world, when there were only a few festivals that mattered. That first Telluride honored three world-famous figures: Gloria Swanson, one of the great stars of silent film; Francis Coppola, who was young but already celebrated with The Godfather. And also, the infamous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, brilliant but despicable for being Hitler’s filmmaker, and then lying about it to the end of her life at the age of 101. For better or worse, the controversy over the Riefenstahl tribute put Telluride on the map.

With very few stumbles over the years, Telluride, for me and many others, has been the standard for what a great film festival can be. It’s a small festival; it runs just four days over Labor Day weekend, but it shows superbly-chosen new films, restorations of films from the past, and always two or three silent films unseen for decades.

This would have been a good year: tributes to young Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao and actors Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet. And important films, judging from the titles almost no one has seen. A Greek, Polish, Slovenian film called Apples, which festival co-director Julie Huntsinger says is wonderful. The fine Polish director Agnieszka Holland has a new film Charlatan about the dreary days of Soviet domination over eastern Europe. Both of these films are screening this week at festivals in Europe, though, where COVID-19 is under better control than it is here – Apples at Venice and Charlatan at the Transylvania Film Festival.

Telluride is the festival that introduced to America the still-wild-at-78 German director Werner Herzog. His new documentary, Fireball, is about meteorites, both big — like the one that created the Gulf of Mexico and killed all the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago — and tiny ones that contain mind-boggling information about the creation of the universe. Herzog narrates in his most distinctive and famous voice.

Herzog has a great eye for ethereal imagery. The patterns of color in what are called quasicrystals, found in tiny meteorites, knock your socks off.

With only two misses, I have spent every Labor Day since 1977 at the Telluride Film Festival. It’s where I got, and still get, most of my film education. Telluride isn’t a bunch of individual events; it’s one long continuing film party that surfaces only once a year but leaves me thinking about it until the next incarnation rolls around.

And my connection to the festival is an ongoing blend of movies and people and conversations. Telluride is where I first encountered the films of French director Louis Malle, Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, who was once a student in the festival’s program for college students in which I teach. The nearly forgotten silent clown Charlie Chase. Sharp-witted Kelly Reichardt whose rich and complex sort-of western First Cow played at the festival last year, got buried by the pandemic, but is now streaming.

In 1985, I sat with the fine director Robert M. Young, who has filmed for decades all over the world, as the festival honored Mexican director Emilio Fernandez, a phenomenon in the 1940s and fifties. After the film, an astonished Young said, “I’ve never seen this work before.”

That’s how it feels at every Telluride Film Festival. The festival will return, probably next year, but for the moment, its absence hurts.


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