By Meredith Brody
I really didn’t know if I was going to the 48th Telluride Film Festival this year. I had a pass in hand, but booking flights, finding a place to stay, and especially reserving a rental car seemed beyond me.
I’ve gone to Telluride practically every way possible. I’ve flown into Albuquerque or Salt Lake City and driven a rental car up to the Rockies; flown into Montrose or Grand Junction and taken a shuttle; flown into the tiny Telluride Airport itself (something of a thrill ride, descending between mountain peaks) and taken a taxi.
Even, for a few years, joining festival creator-and-director Tom Luddy as he drove a vanload from Las Vegas to Telluride, stopping at the Grand Canyon and paying homage to John Ford in Monument Valley en route. The best year featured a constant stream of film-buff talk with Bertrand Tavernier and Stephen Frears (ou sont les caravans d’antan?—I wrote about it for Indiewire).
In recent years I’ve decided the best option has been flying into Durango, picking up a rented car, and driving to Telluride, an easy route that takes a couple of hours. On the way back, in previous years, after an overnight stay in Durango, I’d fly to Toronto, whose Festival starts a few days after Telluride ends.
I recommend Durango, as it has the multiple advantages of a cute Old Town with a number of antique shops and eateries, and a convenient row of cheap motels. And it has a couple of multiplexes, useful since I’m still on that addictive Telluride 4-or-5 a day movie jag. In 2016 I remember seguing from Suicide Squad – which I enjoyed, especially the wonderful Margot Robbie – to Hands of Stone, which I also enjoyed, especially the wonderful Edgar Ramirez. I vaguely remember thinking I could sneak in a third title, too, but that way lies madness.
Somehow I’ve never timed the flights in or out to take advantage of the famed Durango narrow-gauge railroad tours. But I haven’t ever ridden the Niles railroad either, and that’s just down the road from where I live.
But the last couple of times I reserved a rental car in Durango, there were annoying two-hour-and-more waits until enough cars trickled in to serve the waiting hordes. When I asked why, I’d get a shrug: “It’s Labor Day weekend.” Yes, and I made this reservation months ago – it’s not like it’s a SURPRISE to you. And they’d try to foist a huge van on me (haha, an “upgrade”!) A cursory search online this year revealed seriously higher prices than before. Could I do this?
Discussions with a friend who was also on the fence about going suddenly crystallized when he found one shareable room – at a fairly outrageous price, but still the cheapest option out there. We were going! AND we were going to drive there – in a straight shot, more than 18 hours. What the hell.
It would be the first time I had left the Bay Area since October 2019. Damn, I hadn’t even gone to San Francisco between February 2020 – when I attended the “Mostly British Film Festival,” at the Vogue – and June 20, 2021, when I took BART in — with three other people on my car! — to see Monika Treut’s wonderful Genderation, her follow-up to the prescient trans doc Gendernauts, released in 1999, at the Roxie. My first press screening in SF was for Annette, on August 4th. I figured, correctly, that if I saw Annette on the big screen at a screening, there’d be a MUCH greater likelihood that I’d stay the course, rather than the ease of switching it off if I watched it on TV. (I saw four friends at Annette that I hadn’t seen since “Mostly British.” Annoyingly, they all looked as if they had aged much less precipitously than I had.)
We left for Telluride around 8 pm on Tuesday night, and I took the first turn behind the wheel, having already driven about an hour northwest to my friend’s house. The first hour took us back in the same direction – exquisite planning.
And then seemingly endless hallucinatory hours tooling along in the dark, when it appeared, every time I glanced at the speedometer, no matter which of us were driving, that we were going 90 miles an hour. The prettiest hours were spent traversing the otherworldly Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in the early morning.
We stopped for brunch in Salt Lake City, at Finn’s Café, a Swedish spot found online as we approached the town. I commented on the vibrations I was feeling from some sort of machinery humming under the floor of the place, but my friend didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. I lucked out with my pyt y panna, a tasty Swedish beef-and-veg hash topped with two properly poached eggs, but my friend wasn’t as happy with his Swedish omelet, filled with Havarti cheese and slightly whiffy, watery shrimp that might even have been canned.
I had specifically requested a route that avoided the more spectacular and scary twisty and precipitous mountain roads – I especially remembered my heart being in my mouth on the first year’s drive from Albuquerque. But every year, at some point during the drive up the Rockies from wherever we’d flown in to, I would turn to my companions and say “We must REALLY love movies.”
The route from Durango is gentle. And my friend assured me that he’d picked out a similar non-stressful route. But at some point, he later told me, his GPS chose another one, which he realized when our estimated arrival time suddenly was much earlier than it had been before, at which point it didn’t make sense to double back.
The last hour had very alarming stretches, with high cliffs and steep drop-offs. It didn’t help my nerves when a driving rain started. I’m sure it didn’t help my friend’s nerves when I would charmingly bark “Slow down!” or “Two hands on the wheel, please!” (The things you learn about each other when locked up in a car together for a day.)
Anyway it will come as no surprise to you that we arrived, safe and relatively sound. We drove right to the far end of Telluride, because I was worried that my Covid test result from Kaiser – required to be taken within 72 hours of arrival, in order to receive one’s pass, along with a double-vaxxed ID card – wouldn’t arrive by the morning, when I was due to pick my pass up.
There was a commercial testing van that I’d made an online appointment with, and there was a long bedraggled line of people waiting, in a light rain. It seemed people were waiting for hours. There was only one person performing the tests – and he didn’t seem to be in any hurry, either.
I gave up after 45 minutes, as we needed to both check in to our room and get in another line to pick up my friend’s pass. The wait had been enlivened by a nice chat with a lovely woman to whom I gave a broken umbrella – retaining a tired but slightly more useful one for my own use. She turned out to be Tabitha Jackson, the new director of Sundance, whose English accent led me to declare to her a completely nonsensical list of “Why I Was an Anglophile as Well as a Francophile,” including the intelligence that three of the four books I’d brought along on the trip were of English origin. (Stop the presses!) Despite my bizarre confidences, she still seemed to be happy to see me when our paths crossed over the ensuing weekend. (Often enough that I was afraid she’d see me as a stalker!)
After checking into to our rather basic but well-located room, we got into another long line to pick up my friend’s pass in Brigadoon, the big tent located near the gondola ride up the hill to Mountain Village. During the festival, free sponsor schwag and Festival merchandise is available in Brigadoon. It was Old Home Week: after 2020, during which the Festival was completely planned but cancelled at what felt like the last minute, people were overjoyed to see each other. I chatted with Scott Foundas of Amazon and producer Ted Hope.
Afterwards my friend and I went to the closest restaurant, the Oak in the Camel Hotel, where I’d traditionally had a last-night-dinner with friends on Labor Day for years. I felt like comfort food, and ordered their justly popular fried chicken and mashed potatoes. But while I was waiting for my food, I suddenly realized that my feet were buzzing, just as they had at breakfast in Salt Lake City – worse, actually — and that it had nothing to do with machinery humming under the floor.
I suddenly became convinced that the buzzing was a symptom of Covid. My mind spiraled: I’d exposed my friend over the last day in the car. I would have to be quarantined or somehow get back to the Bay Area on my own, at great inconvenience and expense. I gulped back my (corked) glass of wine and surreptitiously checked symptoms of Covid on my phone (‘buzzing feet” did not appear) while trying to appear normal (or “normal”) to my friend.
I can’t say I really enjoyed my dinner. My appetite vanished. (Although the mashed-with-skins-on red potatoes were truly comforting and delicious. I packed up most of the chicken.) On the way back to our room, we ran into an ebullient Barry Jenkins, excited (as we were) about the films he’d programmed as Guest Director. But I went to sleep with a heavy heart indeed.
Surprise! When I woke up, the mysterious buzzing had disappeared. I chalked it up to a combination of constant pressure on the accelerator while driving (we had ended up with a pretty even split, 8 hours for me, 10 for him) and, hey, general stress. (I understand it’s been going around.)
And I set off for my first day of the Festival feeling even better than I would have if I hadn’t had a sudden and acute paranoid episode the night before. (When I make observations like these, another dear friend used to call me Pollyanna Borgia.)
The first order of business after picking up my pass was to get in line for the busses taking people up to the Patron’s Brunch. We waited in the small park outside the Sheridan Opera House, built in 1913, where the festival was born in 1974. I ran into many regulars and friends, including the screenwriter Larry Gross, festival Rose Kuo, and their son, who I’ve seen grow up over the years; writer/scholar Leonard Maltin; and Director of the New York Film Festival Eugene Hernandez, who I’d also watch grow up over the years at Telluride, but who annoyingly seemed even more boyish now than before.
The brunch is a perk for people who pay extra for special passes with such privileges as getting into screenings first. The brunch was always pleasant, but a number of years ago the famed Alice Waters revamped its menu to feature beautiful local produce and cheeses. It is not an exaggeration to say I look forward to it all year long: even the eggs are stellar. (But there were no onions for the bagels and local smoked salmon this year! What’s up with that? In fairness I must say that this year’s pastries were especially delicate and flaky.)
Another perk for the Patrons is the eclectic goodie bag they receive. I’m not on the goodie bag list, but one year I was the surprised recipient of several small enameled cast-iron casseroles, as people either didn’t have room in their luggage for them or figured they had enough cookware at home. This year I spied one treat I wanted: a card of enameled pins of TCM’s host lineup! Nobody offered me one, alas. But if you are also intrigued, it’s available online for $29.95 (plus $4.95 shipping and the usual tax. Ask me how I know!)
Usually the brunch is a very social event: lots of chatter about the movies in the lineup, catching up with friends who live far away, glimpses of the directors and stars who are here with their films. But this year, things were noticeably subdued. I missed absent friends, especially Bertrand Tavernier, to whom this year’s Festival was dedicated, and who I’d met at the Cinematheque Francaise when I was a student in Paris. I missed Pierre Rissient, another old friend from the Paris years. At the last Telluride we’d attended together, in 2017, eight months before he died, at the traditional last-night-dinner-at-the-Oak, Pierre had misunderstood a question I’d addressed to somebody else and grew briefly but alarmingly furious with me – good times! Ah, the contrarian, pugnacious Pierre. Telluride once printed a t-shirt with Pierre’s famous dictum: “It is not enough to like a film. One must like it for the right reasons.”
Luckily I managed to see him one more time in Paris in February of the next year, an entirely pleasant, even delightful, encounter, on a big old-home-week day with the wonderful Mexican filmmaker, cinema programmer, and archivist Viviana Garcia Besne, whom I met at Telluride in 2009 when they showed her documentary, Perdida, about her grandfather’s movie studio. We visited Telluride regular Serge Bromberg in his new and stunning Lobster Films offices, had lunch with director Mark Rappaport (whose movie From the Journals of Jean Seberg had played in Telluride in 1995), and then spent the afternoon with Pierre.
So the brunch felt bittersweet. I didn’t quite feel like I was there. I didn’t see many stars around, either. I only remember glimpsing Gaby Hoffman, who was there with Mike Mills, director of C’mon C’mon. Even that sighting had an edge of melancholy: Mike Mills’s father, museum curator Paul Mills, had been a big fan of my mother’s paintings. After Beginners, the movie he made about his father’s late-in-life coming out, I complained to Mike that “Christopher Plummer is nowhere near as handsome as your father!,” and he replied, “I know, but Paul Newman is dead.”
And now so was Christopher Plummer, and also, this year, my mom.
I left the brunch early, taking the bus down the mountain to attend the first screening of the day, the combined press/Patron showing of Encounter, the film scheduled to be shown at Telluride’s Tribute to Riz Ahmed, where he would be presented with the Festival’s Silver Medallion. It was shown in the Werner Herzog Theater, one of my favorite theaters in the world: exquisite sound, thanks to the Bay Area’s own Meyer Sound, and perfect projection.
I was a bit perplexed by the choice of film. A combination of sci-fi thriller and family melodrama, it was initially interesting and well-acted – I’m often amazed at the brilliant child actors one sees, and the two boys playing Ahmed’s sons were certainly stellar examples. Encounter reminded me that, as in director Michael Pearce’s previous movie, Beast, he can sustain suspense and dread and keep you guessing. And as the culmination of a tribute to Ahmed, after a clip reel and a conversation with the actor (beamed in from London, where he was working), I’m sure it would have worked well.
It just seemed a little conventional and not as thrilling as a “Telluride” film can be, when the movie and your psyche and that of the audience seem to be even greater than the sum of its parts. But, ever eager to blame myself, I thought my expectations of transcendence were obviously way too high. Plus my nerves were still thrumming from the headlong drive and my nutty conviction, only a few hours before, that I was Covid Mary.
Now, with the 20/20 hindsight of seeing 20 more movies during the next 4 days, I can think of several movies that would have excited me more as the first movie I saw at the first in-person festival I’d attended after a difficult year-and-a-half of only attending The Film Festival In My Bedroom. But choosing such films are tricky, and Telluride neatly sidesteps the problem many festivals have by not programming an official Opening Night or Closing Night film.
The day did not pick up noticeably afterwards, alas. I didn’t have much time to spend at the Feed, a dinner spread out over Telluride’s picturesque Main Street, Colorado Avenue, open to all Festival attendees, and my headlong rush through the several blocks didn’t reveal many friends. (And, not to seem churlish, the meal this year – when I’m sure they were faced with all sorts of supply-chain problems, not to mention pesky Covid protocols for its preparation and serving – was not up to the standards of previous years. But alcohol – local wine and beer – was flowing freely…although I learned years ago that in the interest of remaining alert, not to mention awake, I don’t drink during film festivals.)
I rushed off to see the Tribute to Peter Dinklage, featuring a screening of Cyrano by the eclectic Joe Wright, in the Palm, one of Telluride’s larger venues. The room was quite full – the largest crowd of people I’d been with in, yes, almost exactly two years – since Telluride itself in 2019 — but reassuringly all double-vaxed and with that extra reassurance from the negative-Covid-test-within-72-hours mandate.
Dinklage proved to be even more charming and funny during his twenty-minute interview than he’d been onscreen.
But Cyrano, which initially elated me with its candy-box colors and swooping camera moves, proved to be too much for me: as it wore on, all the shots looked alike to me, all the songs sounded the same. In this version, written by Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt, Dinklage’s stature replaces the exaggerated nose that is sported in the Depardieu and Jose Ferrer versions, and in my favorite, Steve Martin’s Roxanne.
Lazily I stuck around in the Palm to watch the last movie of the day, The Rescue, the new documentary after the stunning, Oscar-winning Free Solo, by directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, about the dozen young soccer players and their coach who were, yes, spoiler alert!, rescued from being trapped underground in a Thai cave that was filled with water.
It’s a harrowing story, especially for a claustrophobe like myself, who would no more go spelunking than I would climb up a steep mountainface using only my hands and feet. (Or, come to that, tools and ropes.) It’s a well-told tale, although the footage, much of it not shot by the directors, isn’t as gorgeous as that of Free Solo, one of its most notable pleasures. (Here’s Pollyanna Borgia again: since the cinematography isn’t one of the stars, the movie will lose less of its allure on TV than most films do.)
The unexpected stars of the movie are the diffident, courageous, soft-spoken and unprepossessing middle-aged English rescuers, a group of amateur cave-divers (who knew that such a hobby existed?) I was extremely star-struck when I walked out of the theater and saw a couple of them standing around with the filmmakers, although I wondered why they hadn’t been introduced during the screening. (At subsequent ones they were.)
So. An uneven day. But, like Scarlett, I reminded myself, Tomorrow was Another…
Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes to EatDrinkFilms including her“Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Some of her EDF pieces are found here.
One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four-five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year. Somebody has to do it.