Telluride-bound: Why I’m headed to Colorado this year

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For the last couple of years, September has, along with the beginning of the school year, meant one thing: the Toronto International Film Fest has again reared its head. This year, though, things turned out differently. Way back in April, I applied to be one of fifty students admitted to the Telluride Film Festival’s Student Symposium, a process that involved writing an essay. The essay question: “If you were being sent into the distant future, and you could take just one film with you, which would you take, and why?”

The following was my response:

My choice of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1984) is a personally loaded one. I first saw Brazil when I was about fourteen years old, growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where there was only one video store worth frequenting – Halifax Video. (That’s still the case.) I was quickly developing elitist tastes in music – much to the derision of most of the other kids I grew up around – but I hadn’t seen many films that had left too great an impression on me.  I can’t remember what motivated me to pick rent Brazil on VHS, as I knew nothing about it – maybe it was the image of a stone-carved Jonathan Pryce’s head exploding with light, maybe it was the neon title design, maybe it was just random choice. Regardless, Brazil is the first film I can remember considering as a great one – a feeling that only grew when I caught it again on television again at the age of sixteen, and again when I picked up a copy of the three-disc Criterion edition.

There are potent reasons – personal and historical – to take that particular edition with me into this hypothetical time machine. I take “distant future” to mean a time when all I know and love (and hate) has long ago passed away into the ether. I’ll have no family, no friends, no surviving cultural associations – essentially, no identity. Brazil is a big part of who I am as an appreciator of film, in that it enhanced my awareness of the individual aspects of filmmaking, as well as feeling thematically relevant in my own life. It made me learn that a film could be imperfect and subjectively transcendent all at once. If I have to start over, I’ll want something to remind me of how and why I fell in love with the medium.

In this future, is there even a film industry anymore? The industry has changed so much just over the course of my lifetime that I suspect it will have morphed into an unrecognizable form by this time. That’s another reason to take Brazil – specifically, the Criterion 3-disc version – along. Whether or not one is a fan of Terry Gilliam – as, frequently, I myself am not – the story of Brazil’s production and dissemination acts as an incredible snapshot of studio intervention, and that battle is thoroughly documented through the alternate editions of the film, the accompanying documentary, and the other extras. If there are no features still being made, it’ll serve as a reminder that, at one point in the medium’s history, its artists were afforded the right not just to produce them on a grand scale, but were sometimes even able to assert control over them in the face of the monolithic financial entities that helped to fund them.

And, of course, measuring the future dystopia presented in Brazil against the one I’ll find myself thrust into might well provide a much-needed distraction.

Not the most inspired prose ever, admittedly, but apparently it was enough (along with a very kind letter from a professor) to get me into the Symposium, for which I’m very grateful – I doubt I’d be going at all otherwise.

First, the festival itself. Friends of mine had frequented it in the past, and had only exultant things to say. Every year, cinephiles trek out to this remote mountain town (pop. around 2,400, 8,750 ft. above sea level) for a four-day binge of movies and movie culture. The new features that screen there are generally North American premieres – a couple of weeks before their glamorous repeat performances at TIFF and NYFF. (Last year, these included Carlos, Incendies, Inside Job, Le Quattro Volte, Another Year, Of Gods and Men, Poetry, and Tabloid, among others.) That’s in addition to the generous heaping of tributes and retrospectives, including pristine new prints of previously unavailable films – actually, the fest was originally envisioned back in 1973 as a means of highlighting movies that might otherwise be lost to history. Oh, and nearly all of the filmmakers attend, along with a whole lot of their personnel.

The Symposium, which actually starts a day before the fest proper does, is its own beast. A fest-programmed mix of movies and full-length talks / Q&As with filmmakers, Symposium activites generally get started around 7-7:30am and carry on until the last movie of the day ends – anywhere between 11pm and1am. Last year’s speakers included Errol Morris, Michael Ondaatje, Lee Chang-dong, Mark Romanek, and Bernard Tavernier. This year, it’ll include…actually, I have no idea.

That’s the other thing about Telluride. Only the programmers know what’s going up on those screens until the day before the fest gets going – attendees simply go on faith that they’ll be getting a selection of the best films of the year, every year. (To illustrate how that faith was built, let’s choose a year at random: 1998, for example. Happiness, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, Central Station, The Dreamlife of Angels, I Stand Alone…) Members of the press are welcome, of course – but they have to pony up for tickets just like everybody else, a policy meant to lend an egalitarian atmosphere to the fest. (Actually, as far as I can tell, the student guests are the only attendees who get to sample the fest’s fare for free.)

Film critics and cultural commentators who frequent Telluride tend to highlight it as film-nerd Valhalla, an event of pure cinema appreciation and enjoyment, with a minimum of corporatism and hype. In just a couple of days (assuming all goes well), I’ll be on hand to see if that’s really the case. I’ll be writing daily missives on the films, the talks, and the atmosphere, starting on the night of September 1st. See you on the slopes.

Simon Howell

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