Telluride effectively plays two roles within the film festival economy. For the fortunate few who can afford weekend passes (press nearly always pays their own way), the festival serves both as a curator for recently rediscovered films and as a platform for U.S. premieres of films that have screened at Cannes and other circuits throughout the year. It’s the former role that makes Telluride distinctive. While ubiquitous Telluride board member Werner Herzog showed up with four films (or, more accurately, one film and three videos), including one that may very well be among the best of 2009, the revival screenings were programmed with much more focus, offering a survey of cinema history from the early-to-mid 20th century, beginning with early novelty short films, to opulent silent features by Marcel L’Herbier and Jacques Feyder, and finally to neglected modernist German satires from the ’60s.
Lighting a strip of nitrate film during a rare U.S. performance of his popular show Retour de Flamme, so as to explain the invention of safety film, French film collector and Telluride honoree Serge Bromberg presented a selection of rate silent shorts in a vaudevillian context faithful to their original exhibition. The skeletal-melodrama Pour la Fete de Sa Mere, from 1906, is like a schematic for a century of maudlin tearjerkers: On an early Sunday morning, a young girl picking flowers is accidentally shot by a hunter, but is resuscitated long enough to die in the arms of her deadbeat mother. Within its two-minute running time, the film immediately delivers the hoary catharsis-through-martyrdom conceit that in so many feature films so forcibly demands submission to sentimentality. Pour la Fete is a riot, but one that still has a unique integrity for keeping its story mechanics so apparent.
If only Bromberg’s own film demonstrated a similar economy. A documentary on French director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished film with Romy Schneider that began shooting in 1961, Inferno too often cuts away from that film’s test footage and outtakes to the talking heads of crewmembers who look like they’ve been locked in an airport hangar designed by Errol Morris. Disappointingly, none of these interviews probe the controversies of a director who had long since fallen out of favor with the French New Wave for being too commercial and, as was rumored, a former Nazi collaborator. An Eyes Wide Shut-like tale of sexual obsession in a French resort town, Clouzot’s failed film was burdened by a luxurious budget, as well as an excessive amount of time for camera tests. Inspired by the op art of the time, the surviving footage is both gorgeous and absolutely ridiculous. For every sensual, gelatinous black-and-white image of Schneider sliding her tongue under a silver waterfall there are several embarrassing takes of the actress lying under neon lights; the biggest howler being one test that shows the actress trying to seductively wobble a Slinky down her belly. To their credit, Bromberg and co-director Roxandra Medrea never claim that Cluzot’s Inferno is a lost masterpiece. Had it been completed, one could see the film having become a kind of late-career cult oddity, ridiculed, much like Otto Preminger’s Skidoo!, for being an instance of an older, classical filmmaker trying to fit in with the rapidly shifting culture of the ’60s.
French silent cinema of the ’20s, however, could be just as excessive as a late-career director’s aborted last film. Adapted from a novel by Emile Zola and of no relation to the Bresson film of the same name, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent is an indictment of capitalist greed that is also a triumph of lavish Art Deco design. The showy high-angle tracking shots are anchored by Pierre Aclover’s sympathetic performance as the scheming businessman, as well as by Metropolis’s Brigitte Helm as his scheming mistress, her puddy-like face frequently shown in close-ups so hazy that it nearly becomes an abstraction. A cynical film in which the Paris Stock exchange becomes grand theater, L’Argent is so free of patriotism and pride that even a record-breaking transatlantic flight isn’t seen as a triumph of human ingenuity but another front to boost stock prices. (A restored print of Jacques Feyder’s 1929 satire on love and political opportunism, Les Nouveaux Messieurs, paired well with L’Herbier’s film.)
Shown with an English translator summarizing the dialogue, since subtitles were unavailable, Bernhard Wicki’s 1962 film Miracle of Malachias is a rather obvious satire of West Germany’s economic recovery, though, as festival co-director Tom Luddy’s introduction pointed out, the film has become something of an anomaly among German films of the time, mainly because it’s not the completely vacuous cinema that Herzog, Fassbinder, and the New German Cinema rebelled against. When a tacky nightclub is magically transported to a beach on the North Sea, a priest claims it as an act of God, and Germany’s marketing execs quickly exploit the incident. As Malachias ends with what Pauline Kael so memorably described in her review of La Note as a “dress up as the sick soul of Europe party” on the reopened club, the “miracle” becomes a didactic harbinger of the apocalypse.
But if you’re author Cormac McCarthy or director John Hillcoat, the end of the world just becomes a well-earned excuse for romanticized father-son bonding. With its muted yellow and gray color palette in the tranquil wilderness, and Viggo Mortensen as the soft-spoken “Man,” life after the apocalypse never looked so cozy as it does in The Road; even Nick Cave’s soundtrack is comforting. The film never challenges Man’s fierce paternalism; every minor lapse in judgment is quickly atoned for, or rectified by his pure, brave son. The only moment of unforced sentiment and genuine terror comes as an afterthought: Mortensen’s wife (Charlize Theron), having decided to commit suicide rather than venture into the wilderness, sees their doting son standing in the doorway and tentatively pats him on the head—the only affection she can manage. Born into a completely different world, bereft of the common conveniences and rituals that defined her and her husband’s life, how could she look at him as anything but an “other”? Unfortunately, the visually and emotionally inert film is neither interested in disturbing any assumptions that the relationship between Mortensen and his son is based on animal instinct—and only the warm, fuzzy ones at that.