Telluride Film Festival: Day Zero (Travel on 8/28)
Notes By Meredith Brody
The Southwest landing at Denver is so hot, bumpy and sharp that both the steward and the pilot feel obliged to joke about it: “We’re like the Broncos,” the attendant says, “we’ll take our touchdowns any way we can,” and the captain intones, in a distinctly un-Chuck-Yeager-like voice, “I’m Senator Joe Biden, and I’m putting the hammer down.”
I’m not entirely thrilled that I’m scheduled to hang out in the Denver airport for five hours awaiting my flight to Telluride, but there are unexpected pleasures: it’s the last day of the Democratic convention, and I hear Wesley Clark (Gen., retired) being paged on the airport intercom. Also stuck in the Great Lakes charter lounge en route to the festival is Mike Leigh, whose plane from NY was late, forcing him into standby for Telluride. We converse as though we were old friends, despite the fact that at our last encounter – I interviewed him at the San Francisco International Film Festival – he more than lived up to his reputation as, well, a cranky curmudgeon who does not suffer fools gladly. Not my happiest conversation, though it went well in fits and starts. (N.B.: If posts from Telluride sound like an exercise in extreme name-dropping, let it be said that one of the attractions of this particularly intimate festival is its engagingly egalitarian air. Festival-goers are encouraged to accost filmmakers in the street, before and after screenings, or while standing in line, and for a few days the lions lie down with the lambs and everybody, well, chats away like old friends.)
Actually the first person I see in the lounge IS an old friend, Phillip Lopate, the New York-based writer and critic, and I’m both thrilled (because I had no idea he was going to Telluride) and appalled (because I’m so happy to see him that I fear I might let his filmgoing agenda influence, not to say deform, mine, over the next several days). It turns out he’s accompanying Paul Schrader, director of Adam Resurrected, and Yoram Kaniuk, the 85-year-old Israeli author of the novel upon which it’s based. Paul’s travel book is Berkeley professor’s Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, and we’re soon joined in the waiting room by Salman Rushdie, who I last saw a couple of weeks ago at a dinner Vikram gave at Berkeley’s Vik’s Chaat. But, unlike Leigh, Rushdie betrays no flicker of recognition – despite having been quite happy to sign and date a shyly-proffered copy of The Enchantress of Florence there for me. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask him to add “At Vik’s Chaat, over lamb curry, tandoori chicken, and raita.”
In my conversation with Leigh in San Francisco, I’d had the temerity to compare Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky to the films of Robert Bresson, because its heroine, Poppy, seemed to me to be a secular saint.
“I don’t like Bresson, “ Leigh snapped. Which is his right, of course. But I was tempted to interrupt his happy chat with Paul Schrader in order to mention that Schrader had once written a book entitled Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu Bresson Dreyer. (Leigh is entirely used to being compared to Ozu, as it happens. And one of my favorite Leigh quotes is “I didn’t understand how influenced I was by Olmi [another frequent comparative reference] until I actually saw a film of his.”)
I’m a little embarrassed that my plane literature is the September issue of Vogue, while Schrader is sitting across from me immersed in Chandra and Rushdie is, well, Rushdie. (Even the engaging but slight book I read on the plane from Oakland, Lee Israel’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, would cut no ice with this crowd.) And Phillip has pulled out an advance copy of Two Marriages, his newest book, officially published on September 2. Like a proud Jewish mother, I try to sell it to Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, who is more enthusiastic about reading it before I utter the deathless words “There’s a movie in it.”
Apparently the heat of the day requires a close watch on the weight being loaded onto the tiny planes, and several people become apoplectic when they learn their luggage will arrive the morning after they do, in order to load the maximum number of people on board.
I notice that the filmmakers are not among the complainers (“Give me a name of a person I can call or email or write!”), being perhaps more resigned to the vagaries of travel, since many of them tread the festival circuit for up to a year after finishing their films (the movie gods willing). When I try to cheer Leigh up during his wait – “This is what happens when you make a wonderful movie” – he sighs, “It also would happen if I’d made a crap film.” (I don’t think he ever has, actually.)
As it happens, Rushdie and Leigh are on my flight. (I can see the headlines if the plane crashes: “Rushdie, Leigh, 14 Others Perish.”) Our plane is delayed so long – even after pulling away from the gate, we seem to be on the tarmac forever, waiting our turn in line – that I’m afraid we might miss the landing window at the tiny Telluride airport, the highest commercial airport in the US, which has no landing lights and is perforce required to shut down at dusk. We’re told that one of the reasons it’s taking so long is that because of the Democratic convention, they’re limiting takeoffs to the west.
We land amid the “picturesque views of the San Juan mountains” (not to say heart-stopping) promised on the Telluride Airport website – if you sit right behind the pilots, it looks like you’re in a rather nerve-wracking video game. I’m not a player – but I like it.
In a relatively few minutes I find myself ensconced in the cozy living room of a friend of a friend, listening to Barack Obama speak, leafing through one of the festival’s publications, wondering how many of its more than 50 programs I can see over the next four days, and how many of Obama’s promises he can keep over (hopefully) the next four – or eight – years.