You may have read about the headline-making films that played this past weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Many of them are certain to be contenders in the upcoming Oscar race; that’s why their studios and distributors jockeyed for position at this annual event. You’ll be hearing more about such terrific movies as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, and the performances of actors like Adam Driver, Renée Zellweger, Laura Dern, Jonathan Pryce, and Anthony Hopkins, to name a few.
But for my wife and me the festival has greater significance. It was forty years ago, in 1979, that we made the difficult decision to skip Cinecon—an event that I’d attended since I was 14 years old every Labor Day weekend—and make our first trip to Colorado, on the recommendation of the ultimate Cinephile, William K. Everson. It was an adventure for us New Yorkers. We’d had a tough year and we needed to get away and experience something different. Little did we know how much that trip would reshape our lives.
It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with Telluride. The scenery is truly breathtaking, and the festival is one-of-a-kind. From that point on we alternated years, attending Cinecon and even hosting it (along with Randy Haberkamp) in 1990 and 1991. But the call of Telluride was too strong to ignore and we haven’t missed a year since 1992. Over that time we’ve made wonderful friends, from house managers and volunteer drivers who always make us feel welcome. One of the nice guys scooping popcorn at Telluride went on to win make the Oscar-winning Moonlight (hello Barry Jenkins.)
Our daughter Jessie has grown up there. When she was 10 she sold lemonade with Ken Burns’s daughter Lily and Louis Malle and Candice Bergen’s daughter Chloe outside one of the screening venues—and turned over their earnings to the festival. That was also the year we allowed her to walk from our hotel to see her first festival film (Dancing at Lughnasa, with Meryl Streep). We never doubted that she would be safe on her own.
Attending the festival is a pricey proposition, but I’ve sung for my supper over the decades, introducing films and conducting interviews with Ms. Streep, Chuck Jones, Bertrand Tavernier, Richard Widmark, Peter O’Toole, Roger Corman, Alfonso Cuarón, and countless other movie notables. I was privileged to preside over a wildly ambitious 3-D program and a unique salute to Cinerama, arranged by our friend Chapin Cutler and his tireless team at Boston Light and Sound. Our first visit was capped off by an outdoor showing of Kevin Brownlow’s restored print of Napoleon with its 89-year-old director, Abel Gance, in attendance.
Telluride’s co-founders Bill and Stella Pence, Tom Luddy and James Card (who bowed out early on, passing his baton to Bill Everson), prided themselves on keeping their selections and guests a secret. Talk about a leap of faith: they wanted to attract people who loved movies—not just certain movies—and trusted them to put on a good show. In fact, SHOW is the visual symbol of the festival, and appears on the exterior of the 1912 Sheridan Opera House, a jewel-box of a theater that inspired the festival in the first place.
Although the festival has grown along with the town, it retains the casual vibe that set it apart so many years ago. There are no red carpets and no paparazzi. Stars who attend with their latest work are disarmed by the realization that they can walk the streets and even attend screenings without being hassled. Attendees quickly learn that if they don’t get a chance to ask a question of an actor or filmmaker at a panel, they might just as easily speak to them while waiting in line for coffee. As for us, we wind up talking to strangers all weekend long, asking for opinions on what they’ve seen and meeting wonderful folks who have no connection to the film industry. They just happen to love movies.
Under the stewardship of Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy (and, for a time, my old friend Gary Meyer), Telluride has become a valued destination. The eclectic mix of silent films, discoveries, and cutting-edge world cinema is as intoxicating as the beauty of the Rocky Mountain setting.
Last weekend I saw a tinted 35mm print of Victor Sjöstrom’s 1921 silent classic The Phantom Carriage, accompanied by the magnificent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and a preview of Davis Guggenheim’s compelling new Netflix documentary series Inside Bill’s Brain, followed by a discussion with its subject, Bill Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates. That’s about as wide a spectrum as one could hope to find at an event celebrating motion pictures. As he usually does, Ken Burns offered a sneak preview of his newest documentary series, Country Music, which I’d already seen in preparation for an interview Jessie and I conducted for our Maltin on Movies podcast. (Click HERE to listen to this episode.)
When we spoke to Ken during a recent, hectic trip he made to Los Angeles, Jessie realized that she’d never discussed movies with him before, only family matters. That’s how we know him, his children and grandchildren, from our annual reunion in the Rockies.