The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
I was looking through my electronic files and came across a journal I kept during the Telluride Film Festival ten years ago in 2008. And since this is the beginning of the fall festival season with film festivals soon to start at Telluride (August 31-September 3); Venice (August 29-September 8); Toronto (September 6-September 16); and Chicago (October 10-21), I thought I would reprint it.—Chaz Ebert
THURSDAY: AUGUST 28, 2008
It is the 45th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and it is on this day that Barack Obama accepts the nomination to become the first African-American President in the history of the United States! I am elated. The tide of joy and goodwill is overwhelming at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. Telluride’s director, Gary Meyer, understands why I am here, at the Democratic National Convention, and not there in Telluride for the Filmmakers Welcome Dinner. I suspect other festival goers are here as well to bear witness to this historic event.
FRIDAY: AUGUST 29, 2008
The Telluride Film Festival is truly a celebration of the art of film. It too is celebrating an anniversary, its 35th. It will rightfully end up in the cultural pantheon of our nation as a repository of cinema gems. I’ve loved coming to this festival since Roger introduced me to it in 1990. One of the highest praises is that directors and filmmakers attend this fest even when they don’t have wares to display.
But being greeted at the Montrose airport by a volunteer reminds me of one of the other great features of the festival. It has some of the friendliest and knowledgeable volunteers. They are presided over by Barbel, who values their contribution to the festival. In addition to the films, the temperature of a festival’s culture can be taken by its volunteers. Telluride’s culture of friendliness and pleasure in the cinema starts right at the top and permeates throughout. This was the rule with the founders, Bill and Stella Pence and Tom Luddy, and it continues with co-directors, Gary Meyer and Tom. You can feel it from the moment you step off the plane.
For the first time ever, I missed the Patron’s Guest Brunch at the Farny’s Skyline Guest Ranch. I missed the revelry of the cowboys and cowgirls on their horses, and the gathering of directors and actors and producers, and Luddy running around giving you what feels like a secret insider’s view on what movies not to miss. One year I stood talking to Peter O’Toole and Salman Rushdie and unbeknown to me someone was taking our picture. I jumped, startled at the sound of the camera. Rushdie, after all, was still under the indictment of a religious fatwa and I thought he had been discovered and was being attacked. Fatwa now rescinded, I suspect he is attending this year’s festival in peace.
How was I to start the festival without the welcome provided at the brunch? This is the first opportunity to meet other guests and talk excitedly about the anticipation of the “surprise” programs since the festival doesn't release it's full itinerary until you're practically here. It’s the first opportunity to see the genial genius, Ken Burns and his family and talk about his new 12 hour documentary on Jack Johnson or Frank Lloyd Wright or baseball or the Civil War. The first opportunity to be greeted warmly by Peter Sellers with his hair cut like the bottom of a broom. His opera, “Dr Atomic” was a smash hit at the Lyric Opera and I can’t wait to see what new creation he’s brought to the festival. It’s the first opportunity to get cool swag from the sponsors and tote those heavy bags down the hill to the waiting buses. It’s just the coolest start to any festival, and I missed it.
Not to worry, THE official festival kickoff takes place on Colorado Avenue and is open to all. Its name says it all: “The Opening Night Feed.” It’s a feast of food and people and wine and good cheer. Its energy is contagious. I observe that Telluride during the festival has the tallest gathering of men and women outside of the NBA. Long hair, suede vests, bandannas and sun bronzed skin. Some ride in on horses, others on motorcycles. Not a sight you’re likely to see at many other festivals. However, the rest of us enter like mere mortals.
A woman from Ohio informs me animatedly that Greg Kinnear is back with a new film, "Flash of Genius." I question whether it is like his debauched portrayal of the actor, Robert Crane in "Auto Focus," but am told that it is about an ordinary guy who invented the windshield wiper and had it stolen from him by Ford. I join a conversation about the very anticipated tribute to Jean Simmons and we conclude that is reason enough to attend this year. She will be presented with a Silver Medallion following the showing of a selection of clips from her films "Black Narcissus," "Elmer Gantry," "Great Expectations," "Hamlet," "Guys and Dolls," and of course, "Spartacus." True to its independent roots, the festival will also present a tribute to the young director, David Fincher. He of "Zodiac," "Fight Club," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Game," "Se7en" and "Alien 3."
The throngs of festivalgoers are polite and curious and excited and happy. They reaffirm the feeling of hope I felt at the Democratic Convention. Is this a new day for America? I think the altitude is getting to me. Better go back to the River Club and take a nap. It is too difficult for me to tell whether my emotions are welling because I’m happy to be here after the historic nomination, or whether 9500 feet above sea level is taking its toll on my exhaustion.
The nap helps. The Festival comes right out the gate with an astonishing performance by Kristin Scott Thomas in Philippe Claudel’s directorial debut, "I've Loved You For So Long." Shorn of makeup and glamour, Scott Thomas broods as a woman who goes to live with her sister in a small town outside of Paris after being imprisoned for 15 years. She is distant and closed off and can’t seem to find a good reason to rejoin the human race. This is an obvious Oscar nomination. When the movie is over people sit in their seats for that respectable moment longer that tells you the film has made a big impression. The woman in front of me observes that Elsa Zylberstein affects just the right note as the sister who is walking on eggshells while trying to please a big sister she scarcely knows. What a joy this first day is.
SATURDAY: AUGUST 30, 2008
Paul Schrader’s film, "Adam Resurrected," has created the first big controversy of the festival. I eavesdrop on the groups spilling out of the Sheridan Opera House. I yearn to hear the reactions to this very strange film. There is an unanimity of opinion that Jeff Goldblum gives one of his best performances ever. He has the very difficult task of playing an entertainer who ends up in a mental institution after surviving the holocaust by pretending to be a dog. He becomes a hypochondriac with all kinds of imagined illnesses, but his sickness is really in his soul. He is struggling with the guilt of how he could have sold himself so cheaply. Would it have been better to die.
Opinions, however, are divided over what the film means and how successful it was in conveying that meaning. For those who read the original book by Israeli novelist, Yoram Kaniuk, on which the screenplay is based, it means one thing. Those who hadn’t read the book say the movie has to stand on its own, and on that basis, it means another. This is one of the marks of a successful festival movie; you want to see something out of the ordinary that makes you think and that can lead to philosophical discussions about life and death and insanity and choices. The conversation drifts off as some of the women pass holders realize Jeff Goldblum is STANDING RIGHT THERE. He smiles that big open smile and makes himself available for questions. First question from a gold passholder: “Why are you so adorable”? Momentarily questions of life and death and insanity are put on the back burner.
Further down the street I accidentally walk pass the Nugget Theater because it is almost unrecognizable in its new spit-shined state. It has been spiffied up with a burgundy and olive striped awning and crisp gold lettering on a shiny glass window. It looks quite welcoming. Coming out is the screenwriter-director, Larry Gross. As he stands squinting into the sunlight someone asks his opinion of “Adam Resurrected.” “It is GREAT!” he roars. “So bold and daring and brave!” Everyone stops. There was no doubt or hesitation from him. This is a quintessential festival moment, to hear the impassioned and articulate defense of a movie that has people on the fence. He continues, “Libidinous instincts can help keep us alive. It is definitely one of the most interesting movies in the festival.” At that moment it doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree. Festivals are for high emotions.
Back at the Sheridan Opera House the filmmakers and invited programmers and guests gather for the Class Picture. How I wish Roger were here. He is making a remarkable recovery from all his medical woes, but the doctor said it is not a good idea for him to test the altitude this year. I am standing next to Jean Simmons. She is grateful to be there and is very gracious. I look admiringly at her, she is 80 years old and still very beautiful. Whats more, you can see that her spirit is alive. Over there is Danny Boyle, here with his new movie, "Slumdog Millionaire." I haven’t yet seen it but there are whispers that it is Academy Awards material. Joy and hugs from Leonard and Alice Maltin and their daughter Jesse. People think Leonard and Roger are rivals but they are really good friends.
One by one more arrive. Tom Luddy; Gary Meyer; Ken Burns; Paul Schrader, Jeff Goldblum, Yoram Kaniuk, and the movie’s producer, Ehud Blieberg, who also produced "The Band's Visit." Telluride Guest Director, Slavoj Zizek, who has been called the Elvis of philosophy; Jan Troell, who is known as one of the great Swedish directors but is not as well known as Ingmar Bergman. Fortunately he is being saluted with a tribute and the showing of his films. There is the legendary former film critic, Richard Schickel, who is also being honored with a tribute. Milos Stehik of Facets Multimedia introduces me to Felicite Wouassi, the African star of "With a Little Help From Myself." She blushes in modesty when someone tells me I must see her performance. Michael Barker, head of Sony Pictures Classics, is always a delight to see. His movies usually end up being some of the most talked about, and he’s here with "Waltz with Bashir," "I've Loved You So Long," and "O’Horten."
There are film critics Todd McCarthy and Scott Foundas from Variety, who are on the job, and other critics who come whether or not their newspapers want them to cover the festival. It dawns on me that Telluride is also a critic’s festival. These critics come because they know they are likely to see something wondrous. This is a festival with a long memory. Some of the guests honored with retrospectives receive their best honors at Telluride. Roger still recalls the night Abel Gance looked out of his window at the Sheridan Opera House while they were showing his "Napoleon" on a big screen across the street in Elks Park.
After the formal pictures are taken someone shouts, “Now lets give Thumbs Up to Roger Ebert!” A tear hesitates from my eye as the camera snaps the photograph in honor of Roger. This is also a festival of family. They don’t forget their family members. I love them. Roger will feel touched that he was remembered.
Over a meal we discuss "American Violet." Beth and Helaine Miller from Boston tell me its like "Erin Brockovich" in its arc. It’s based on a true story in Texas where African-Americans are falsely accused and imprisoned for selling drugs. The accusations are all made by an out-of-control prosecutor who takes the law into his own hands. I remember being so incensed over this story that I cut the articles out of the New York Times. I wanted to do something about it. I was happy to hear the innocent were freed. The Millers tell me that although Alfre Woodard and Charles Dutton give fine performances, the most moving part of last night was seeing the real mother and her four daughters.
Here’s the perennial dilemma of the festival-goer, we have missed the beginning of the concert and film by the great Senegalse musician, Youssou Ndour, so we walk over to the Galaxy to see Max Ophuls film, "Lola Montes," instead. There is always an abundance of goodies at the festival and part of the stress is how to get it all in. The answer is, you can’t. "Lola Montes" is bold filmmaking, sumptuous and surely decadent by the standards of 1955 Paris when it was made. It was filmed in luridly colorful Cinemascope and starred Martine Carol and Peter Ustinov. We are treated to a beautifully restored 35 mm print with footage added that had been cut out more than fifty years ago! The design of the Galaxy theater reminds me of a psychic’s acid trip and was the perfect venue to see this extraordinary film.
SUNDAY: AUGUST 31, 2008
The far end of town forms a postcard backdrop of majestic mountains soaring over this miner's village. This year the mountains are lush and green. In past years they have been snowcapped. Is this the result of global warming? I put that question aside as I discover one of the newest projection rooms, Backlot. It is described as the theater that shows movies about movies, or movies that relate to films.
It is very small, and word has gotten around about the movie "Prodigal Sons," so there is a standing room only crowd. In fact, about an eighth of the crowd has found spaces to sit on the floor. I snuggle in not knowing what to expect. It is a documentary about three brothers growing up in a small town in Montana. One of the brothers is coming back for his high school reunion. Uh-oh, the brother who comes back is not at all like he was when he left. Most surprising is how the classmates accept him as he is. Would I be giving away too much to say he comes back with softer skin, much longer hair, and looking very natural and lovely. One of his brothers can’t accept him, however, and this creates the tension in the film. The disapproving brother, Marc, pursues his own genealogical roots and stunningly discovers he is related to a great giant of the cinema. You cannot predict the twists and turns this family’s lives take.
We walk into the lobby and there is the family! Without thinking, I go over and hug the mother. Fortunately she is warm and receptive to hugs. Then I hug the filmmaker, Kimberly Reed, who is also open and receptive. I ask about Marc and am told that alas, he has problems that prevent him from traveling. And in fact, he has been institutionalized. This family has been through so much and there is an air of raw vulnerability about them, but there is also an air of resilience and unmistakable family unity.
While queuing for the next movie I learn I can catch a quick bite at a little Mexican restaurant located nearby down a flight of stairs. For some reason it isn’t as crowded as the other places but the food is good and service is quick. I have vowed not to make all my meals sandwiches, frozen dinners or popcorn.
Mike Leigh once told me that Telluride is one of his favorite festivals, if not the favorite. And it’s not surprising. He is revered here. The UK was slow in recognizing his genius, and he still finds it hard to raise money for his movies. But here he is with "Happy-Go-Lucky." How odd to have a Mike Leigh film with the word “happy” in the title and even odder for it to be about a character who is truly happy. I kept waiting for the “catch” when Sally Hawkins’s character, Poppy’s life turns disastrous. But it doesn’t happen. Leigh moves the story along with the development of his characters. It was almost sacrilegious to hear someone say Poppy was too damned chirpy and annoying! One could imagine this dialogue coming straight from a Mike Leigh movie. Hilarious.
MONDAY: SEPTEMBER 1, 2008
Labor Day, and I have to miss the picnic. Its ironic that the year I am keeping a journal is the year when I have spent the shortest time at the festival. But that’s life. My flight is early and I have to get back to Montrose to get a flight to Dallas that will take me to Chicago. I walk back to the area near the Labor Day picnic just to say goodbye to some of my friends. I am reminded of the year when Annette Insdorf chaired a panel of directors at the picnic, then followed it up with a surprise wedding to her beau, Mark. I spy the area where I sat in the park eating ice cream with Roger and Gary and his family and being content that all was right with the world. An image flashes in my mind of Darryl Hannah’s stepfather, Jerry Wexler, walking up the ski slope when the picnic was held on top of the mountain. Everyone else took the ski lift. He looked so strong and healthy. It’s still hard to believe he isn’t with us any longer. He and Sue used to host a big breakfast at their compound and talk around the table was as much about politics as film. Jerry would have been very happy to see Obama receive the Democratic nomination for President.
I take in images like snapshots in my mind so that I can share them with Roger when I get home, and so we can plan our trip there next year.
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