by Kristin Vogelsong
I traveled to Telluride, Colorado for the first time earlier this month for the town’s annual film festival. I journeyed there looking for inspiration, and my expectations were high. I was counting on cinematic artistry and natural wonder to come barreling toward me the moment my feet hit the dirt. I packed pads, pens, camera, digital video recorder- all in hopes of capturing something tangible- something that might ignite my own creative fire. Lucky for me, I found more than one something.
The Telluride Film Festival is one that stands apart from the others. Press was unnoticeable and the urgency around landing a distribution deal that exists elsewhere was nowhere to be found. By all appearances, it was merely (and impressively) a community of cinephiles assembling to celebrate and debate contemporary work. And by cinephiles, I don’t mean only those of us working in the industry. I met a librarian from San Francisco, local students, a Palo Alto tech-geek who has been a faithful attendee for a quarter century, an oil painter with a gallery on Colorado Avenue (Telluride’s Main Street), an extreme sports television producer, an advertising executive and her Wall Street fiancée both of whom began as volunteers years ago and now count themselves as paying festival goers. What struck me most was the sheer loyalty of so many of the attendees, who are a community in and of themselves. In fact, cinephile may be too broad a description for this group; a better one might be Telluridist. One local teacher presented me with a detailed account of a Brooklyn writer and three year veteran who gained a sort of fame by purchasing the least expensive pass yet finagled his way into some thirty screenings the year prior; a number most likely exaggerated as the festival only runs four days.
So what is it that keeps these Telluridists coming back? With two direct flights via prop plane from Denver daily, Telluride is no easy destination to reach. Yes, the Western style downtown nestled into the green mountainscape is idyllic beyond measure, but there’s something more…something dare I say magical about the place during this time year. Without a doubt, the beating heart of the festival lies in the artists themselves. I sat cross-legged on a grassy field a few feet from Colin Firth, Werner Herzog, Danny Boyle and Peter Weir listening intently as they discussed the value of a close up (a tool Mr. Herzog strongly believes to be overused), the rehearsal process (or lack thereof), and the neurological side effects of creating a character’s physical disability, such as a stammer, in the name of a great role. A question from the audience never went unanswered and most of the filmmakers loitered in lobbies following their screenings to speak directly with whomever wanted to pay them a compliment or present them with a late thought-up inquiry.
Following what turned out to be the unofficial US premiere of Black Swan, a petite young woman in her twenties shot her hand in the air to ask Darren Aronofsky the first question of the Q&A session. Her mouth opened, but instead of words a well of emotion burst forth shocking us all, her included. She just barely managed to get out, “thank you.” It was a surprising reaction to a psychological thriller, but Mr. Aronofsky, ever congenial with his easy Brooklyn manner (that may sound counterintuitive but I assure you it’s accurate) thanked her right back, acknowledging “this is why I do it” and added, “we’ll talk after.” He meant it too. Later, I discovered that she was a dancer and actress. Presumably, the film had struck a chord, perhaps gaining an emotional clarity that she hadn’t possessed before. Afterall, that is what the best art does, holds up a mirror and reveals a part of ourselves or our world that we have left unnoticed or worse ignored.
A Letter to Elia, a documentary by Martin Scorsese and co-director Kent Jones, was representative of the theme of artistic influence that ran throughout the weekend whether intentionally or not. The film serves as a message of thanks from one great filmmaker to another. It highlights the personal and artistic influence of controversial figure Elia Kazan and his films on a young Martin Scorsese, before the ambition to become a director was even a whisper in his great mind. Mr. Scorsese narrates the film with an uncharacteristically slow, effective pace and vulnerable demeanor. He talks about going to see Kazan’s films during the onset of adolescence, and how they articulated something about his own life that he could not yet name. He felt understood much in the same way, I would imagine, as the young lady in the Black Swan screening. East of Eden was a particularly important experience for Scorsese, who spends a great majority of A Letter to Elia discussing it. He admits, “I stalked it” and confesses to seeing it fourteen times in various theaters around New York City. The film is not a retrospective of Kazan but a grateful acknowledgement by Scorsese of the influence those films had on the direction of his life. It brought viewer, panelist, and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who witnessed the tragic effects of Kazan’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee first-hand, to tears. A Letter to Elia addresses the blacklisting that Kazan took part in, but only to examine the influence the events had on his body of work. Scorsese believes that Kazan’s best films came after this period of time. The issue of betrayal becomes paramount in his pictures following the testimony. Clearly influenced by the events of his own life, the director increasingly looks inward to tell stories with heavy personal meaning to him. It was then, Scorsese argues and most would agree, that Kazan transformed from director to artist.
The concept of artistic influence was touched on by directors responsible for two of the highest profile films in Telluride, Black Swan and The King’s Speech. After the sneak peak of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky repeated the oft-mentioned notion that “nothing is original.” He went on to say that he, like most other artists, is influenced by various sources, in this case the most obvious being Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, but also Dostoevsky’s The Double and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. He explained how he “puts them into a blender and makes (his) own smoothie.” What comes out is unique- he’s made the story his own- but the underlying ideas at play have been contemplated by countless artists and thinkers before him, since the beginning of storytelling itself. In the case of Black Swan, because the original work Swan Lake plays such a prominent part in the story, the influence may work in reverse as well. Of course, Tchaikovsky is not alive to rewrite Swan Lake nor would we want him to, but Black Swan influences the audience’s experience of the ballet in two obvious ways. First, it informs the original by presenting a literal re-telling of the story at the center of both works. The audience witnesses a modern day translation of the symbolic ballet complete with evidence to support how and why the fragile yet driven woman at the center of both tales unravels before our eyes. One woman commented, “It made Swan Lake make more sense.” Second, while leaving the theater, I overheard a group of enthusiastic filmgoers discussing that they’d “love to see Swan Lake again.” It’s possible that the ballet will see increased interest quantified by either more productions being staged or more tickets, DVDs, and/or books being sold.
During the introduction for the final screening of The King’s Speech at Telluride and with a similar sentiment to that articulated by Mr. Scorsese, the first thing out of director Tom Hooper’s mouth was an expression of gratitude for iconic filmmaker Peter Weir’s attendance. Hooper went on to site Weir as the preeminent influence on all of his period pieces. Hooper specifically recounted how he used Weir’s Master and Commander as a “touchstone” for the John Adams miniseries he directed that aired in 2008 to much acclaim on HBO. He admitted that he was thrilled to meet Weir for the first time in Telluride because his films were viewed and discussed often in his home while growing up. Although raised in London, Hooper, like Weir, is of Australian descent. His mother, an Australian expat who moved to London before her son was born, encouraged Tom to watch Australian films and specifically Weir’s work. Hooper recalled her saying, “If you like film, you’ve gotta watch Australian cinema.” From a spectator’s point of view, there is nothing as influential and inspiring as watching an artist you admire come face to face with one of his or her own creative idols for the first time. But that’s par for the course at Telluride.
For me, it’s obvious why people come from across the world to the far-flung town of Telluride year after year. Not for the mountains or the rolling waterfall, although both of those help, they come for the promise of inspiration- or influence- even for those of us who don’t normally think of ourselves as artists. The creative force lies within each of us. But only some have the ability and curiosity needed to access it. In places like this, when we stumble upon inspiration, whether accidentally or after a long, sought out pilgrimage, we change- our perspective shifts and we understand something about ourselves that we didn’t before. We come one step closer to becoming artists ourselves.