Someone to watch over me

Dispatch from the 50th Telluride Film Festival

Trailblazing French filmmaker Agnés Varda watches over the 50th Telluride Film Festival from Nugget Theater on Colorado Avenue. Photo by Michael J. Casey.

It all started with a movie, Lonesome, and the promotional team in charge of booking screenings of the 1928 romantic comedy in various mountain towns. They were Bill and Stella Pence, James Card and Tom Luddy, cinephiles with more industry connections than we have space to recount here. The year was 1973, and they brought Lonesome to Park City, Utah, and Aspen, Colorado. The screenings were well attended, but then they took their restored print to the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride and found their audience. 

A sellout prompted a second screening. The team looked around the small mountain town in a box canyon high in the Rocky Mountains and agreed: This place needs a film festival. The following year, they returned with one. And for the past 50 Labor Day weekends, the Telluride Film Festival has put on a show.

Not a lot has changed in those 50 festivals. There are no awards, no competitions, no red carpets and no onslaught of sponsors and advertisements — just an undying love for cinema. A bevy of marquee movies are screened, many of which will vie for Oscars next spring (particularly the very strange, very weird and very, very funny Poor Things), along with discoveries from the far-flung corners of cinema’s past (Yam Dabbo, the little-seen 1986 rural drama from Burkina Faso about a family finding ways to survive in a parched landscape). Attendees can also expect monumental achievements like Abel Gance’s 1923 La Roue, which was never released in the U.S. 

‘The unbelievable contradiction’

Card, Luddy and the Pences loved the movies of today, yesterday and tomorrow, and that’s what makes Telluride special. Current festival director Julie Huntsinger doesn’t just continue that tradition; she celebrates it.

And celebration is the perfect word for the 50th Telluride Film Festival. An extra day was added to the schedule, six filmmakers were invited to play guest programmers, and Mark Cousins’ touching short film, Three Songs About Tom Luddy, played in front of several programs. Huntsinger had planned for the 50th to be a knockout party for Bill Pence and Luddy, but both passed before the lights had a chance to dim this past weekend: Pence in December 2022, Luddy in February 2023. (Card died in 2000. Only Stella remains.)

And with the festival opening under the shadow of the co-founders’ deaths and a dual strike from the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — which barred many from attending and promoting their movies — there was a concern that the 50th might play out under somber skies. But then, a large flypaper installation of Agnés Varda appeared over the Nugget Theater on Colorado Avenue. It was the work of French artist JR, one that brought a smile to all who walked by and snapped photos.

And with that, Telluride commenced with a couple thousand die-hard moviegoers spending hours in darkened theaters in one of America’s most picturesque locations — the “unbelievable contradiction,” Ken Burns calls it. Burns wasn’t at Telluride promoting his next documentary; he was promoting the festival itself. Ditto for German director Werner Herzog. Now in his 80s, Herzog’s legacy in cinema extends well beyond the movies he’s made, and many younger filmmakers at this year’s festival acknowledged his mentorship. Ramin Bahrani, discussing his new doc If Dreams Were Lightning at the Nugget Theater, remarked how pleased he was that his latest was debuting under the watchful eye of his two mentors: Herzog in the audience and Varda on the roof.

We’ll talk more about all those marquee titles in next week’s Fall Arts Preview, but for now, we’ll pause and take a deep breath. A chapter is closing on the Telluride Film Festival, but the story is far from over. It’ll return next year and for many more to come. Like Brigadoon, it springs up every Labor Day weekend to celebrate the flickering lights of the past while welcoming the future with open arms. May it never fade away.