The 33rd Telluride Film Festival And The Sudden End Of The Pence Era

My Favorite New Film:

The way the Telluride Film Festival announced the retirement of Bill and Stella Pence, who helped put it together in 1974 and have kept it together for 33 years, was entirely in character: surprising, original, and artful, with no press conference. On Monday morning people checking the daily posting of reprises found it headed by an unscheduled event: “Ken Burns (Director of ‘THE WAR’) / Bill and Stella Pence (‘WE’RE TOAST!’).

What that meant was there would be an interview of the retiring co-founders by the public television documentarian. A news release said Bill Pence will be succeeded by Gary Meyer, a co-founder of Landmark Theatres, and Stella Pence’s successor will be chosen later. Co-director Tom Luddy continues. The release summed up three decades with a quote from the late Chuck Jones, the “Bugs Bunny” animator and longtime friend of Telluride: “In every major undertaking, there are two key components, hard work and love. But only the love must show.”

Ken Burns too is fiercely loyal to Telluride. Ever since it debuted his first series, “The Civil War,” he has previewed his major projects here. This year he showed the first episode of “THE WAR,” his still-in-production history of World War II from the viewpoint of people in four typical American towns. If the first episode is any indication, the series will be true to the Burns format: personal recollections alongside critiques by historians. The first episode is critical of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s fatal miscalculations in the Philippines and of the sluggish American response to the obvious Japanese military intent in the Pacific and German submarine attacks that debilitated shipping in the Atlantic, including direct hits — more than we were told — of American ships all along the Eastern seaboard.

War is a good topic on which to begin an account of what I saw at Telluride, hit and miss, because America, we are told, is at war. Bill Pence always kept the festival out of the business of political polemics (even though he practically created Michael Moore by debuting “Roger And Me”). There were no Iraq movies this year. But I couldn’t miss the irony of the Ken Burns project. Except for the common fate of soldiers, Iraq has little in common with World War II, when the danger to the nation was clear and present and closing in from east and west. The national leadership then was universally trusted. The definition of victory was finite and clear. The nation was not divided. The national mood now is more like the Sixties. The films: . . . .

THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON, a documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld is about the program of the Nixon White House and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to discredit and deport Lennon because of his activism against the Vietnam war and, more menacing, his plan to sing at a protest rally in Miami at the time of the Republican National Convention of 1972. We are reminded of the power of Lennon’s song, which became the mantra of American protest: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” The movie, to be released in December, obviously takes a position but presents a balanced story, with interviews ranging from G. Gordon Liddy to Bobby Seale, Geraldo Rivera to Walter Cronkite, Angela Davis to Yoko Ono Lennon. The widow “was very much supportive of the vision of this film,” Scheinfeld said, meaning among other things that she granted rights to use some 36 Lennon songs. Also, her reaction upon seeing the final cut was, he said, “Of all the documentaries made about him or the Beatles, this is the one he would have loved.”

There were cheers and applause — often in strange places, indicating arrival of a new generation. For example, where Gore Vidal says, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” half the audience roared as if they had never before heard the Samuel Johnson quote, which was a cliché in the Sixties. Shocking to recall that it has been nearly 26 years since John Lennon was shot and killed. And so, this film is something I will recommend to my daughters, who are curious about the Sixties. More than a bio-film about the short second life, in New York, of the most creative Beatle it is another war history. “We tried to sell this 10 years ago, and nobody was interested. We tried to sell it eight years ago. . . five years ago,” Scheinfeld said. “Finally in the post Iraq world some people began to see there is some relavance to this story.”

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, with Forest Whitaker as the mercurial African dictator Idi Amin, is the first fiction feature by the wonderfully deep but coherent documentary director Kevin MacDonald (“Touching The Void,” “One Day In September”). This was my Telluride favorite this year because I am partial to well written, well directed, well acted stories about true events. (Documentaries don’t have a monopoly on truth.) This is a fast-paced thriller set in Uganda from the time of the ascent of Amin as president-for-life in 1971 to the Israeli hostage crisis at Entebbe in 1976. James McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a newly graduated medical doctor who abandons a certain future in Scotland for an opportunity to do good and find excitement in Uganda. MacDonald directs McAvoy and Whitaker in a spellbinding psychological duet. We, the non-African audience, follow the story from the young doctor’s point of view, and the view is primarily of Idi Amin, whose character slowly and believably develops toward a “Heart of Darkness.” But this is not a colonialist adventure story. Anyone, “palace” journalists in particular, who has come under the spell of a charming politician with wit and moral certainty and a zest for life only to discover his dark shadow in the world “out there” can understand the decline and fall of the idealistic young doctor.

Idi Amin is more difficult. Whitaker, who played Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” and had key roles in “The Crying Game” and “Ghost Dog,” did not make a judgement about Idi Amin. He became him. In an interview session the actor told how he prepared months in advance by reading the novel by Giles Foden, then setting out to learn Swahili. “I tricked myself into believing that was my first language and that English was my second,” he said. The director did not want subtitles, so Whitaker worked out kind of African “Spanglish.” In Uganda his driver and personal assistant took him racing through town on a motorcycle, introduced him to families in their homes, and, “They taught me how to eat.” Whitaker, who was born in Texas and grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, said, “I am African-American. I am not African.”
Amin, who died in exile in 2003, is responsible for the deaths of perhaps 350,000 people in Uganda. As his delusions developed he conferred titles on himself, including “The Last King of Scotland,” which was a reference to Scotish royalty enthroned up by the British only to be assassinated. Whitaker recalled riding in a car with some older and younger government people. The older ones said Amin had killed or tortured someone close to them. The others thought he was a great man. The story itself, Whitaker said, is about the relationship of the two men who “were both corrupted by power.” Someone asked if this were not a kind of operatic theme. No, he answered, “the stakes are so high, involving life and death. We’re dealing with presidents. We’re dealing with war.”

VOLVER is the third film by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar to star Penélope Cruz, who received a Telluride tribute for her acting career so far. The movie is a well-plotted comedy with meaning. Three generations of women put away two generations of abusive men the old fashioned way: killing the bastards. But most of the film is fun and games with interesting characters. One is the only ghost I’ve ever seen who appears with suit case in hand, indicating expectation of a long stay. Cruz, the new Sophia Loren, is beautifully presented in a shamelessly pre-feminist way. One overhead shot of her cleavage as she, dutiful housewife, washes dishes drew satirical applause from several in the sophisticated Telluride audience.

DEEP WATER, directed by Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond, is a tragic documentary about a loser in a bizarre contest created by the London Times in 1969: a sailing race, non-stop and solo, around the world. Donald Crowhurst was the least qualified sailor of the nine contestants, but he was a talented engineer and designed his own craft. The story suggests the question: which is more reliable, brilliant theory or experience, science or common sense? Anyone who has gotten into something over his head can identify with Crowhurst and, perhaps, the choices he made. Hovering over events like fate, like a god, is the press, precipitating events from a hiding place, invisible to blame. It is, I thought, the same superficial press that promoted Idi Amin.

TEN CANOES is a story told by an indigenous Australian with a sense of humor. It’s acted by indigenous people and set in their Outback homeland. The director is the prolific and original Rolf de Heer, another of the 2006 Telluride tributees. Like all-Inuit “The Fast Runner,” which also premiered here, this film demands an altered sensibility. The narrator tells the story his way, and De Heer lets him. If you’ve got any respect for the wisdom of traditional cultures, you will listen. It’s worth it. Also, the scenery will grab you and you’ll learn how to make a canoe.

THE PAGE TURNER by the French director-writer Denis Dercourt is so elegantly set and edited, and Deborah Francois (“L’Enfant”) is so refined, that you don’t realize until half way through that this is a vengeance plot. Francois is demurely terrifying as the page turner for a concert pianist. The context is the ruthless business of fine chamber music in upper class France. Such movies are not likely to get very far in the American scene. One of the most beautiful films last year at Telluride was Eugene Green’s 2004 “Les Ponts des Arts,” about a young singer in the world of baroque music. Even the DVD is unavailable in the U.S.

GHOSTS OF CITÉ SOLEIL is a fractured documentary shot in a slum of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that may be the most muderous place on earth. Director Asger Leth of Denmark said he was in a suicidal mood when he got the idea of shooting it. This was during the army coup that sent president Jean-Bertrand Aristide into U.S.-assisted exile. In view of the dangerous environment, Leth deserves an award for surviving if nothing else, and his confusing hand-held camera shots can be excused. The film follows two brothers who are rival gang leaders. They give convincing testimony that Aristide employed them and other “ghosts” in a violent campaign to intimidate his opposition.

VENUS, by British director Roger Mitchell is a sad movie. The great Peter O’Toole is so convincing in the role of an old and failing stage actor that I couldn’t help but think this will be his last starring role. True to the Freudian “reality” of our sad Western culture, his character approaches death with only one thing in mind: sexuality. His erotic obsession with a young hospice care giver (Jodie Whittaker) aptly named Venus gets him into some comic but humiliating situations. In the Buddhist reality of Eastern culture, this is suffering, samsara.

LONESOME, a beautifully restored Hollywood film produced in 1928 at the threshold of “talkies,” is a classically simple love story about two lonely people finding each other, losing each other, searching and finding again. The Alloy Orchestra, created by the film festival, performed live in the tradition of silent films. Pence, before his retirement was announced, presented the film himself at the 650-seat state-of-the-art “Palm” theatre, which is the largest of seven venues. He noted that it was screened in the beginning, in 1974, in a basement auditorium. There seemed to be a slight catch in his voice