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Telluride Film Festival 2013: The Unknown Known, Death Row, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Tracks, & Before the Winter Chill

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Telluride Film Festival 2013: <em>The Unknown Known</em>, <em>Death Row</em>, <em>Blue Is the Warmest Color</em>, <em>Jodorowsky’s Dune</em>, <em>Tracks</em>, & <em>Before the Winter Chill</em>

Founded in 1974 by Bill and Stella Pence, Tom Luddy, and James Card in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, 9,000 feet above sea level, the Telluride Film Festival recently celebrated its 40th anniversary of world premiere screenings and revitalized classics. Expanded to five days, from a typical four, and including the debut of the brand new Werner Herzog Theater, a gorgeous 650-seat state-of-the-art theater retro-fitted inside the town’s otherwise year-round hockey arena, not to mention the outrageous number of new and returning special guests in attendance, the festival went far beyond the extra mile to make this year’s edition one of the richest to date. Whether showcasing a new release or a forgotten cult classic, the Telluride Film Festival is the home away from home for cinephiles the world over.

Upon the release of the festival schedule, notoriously kept secret until the day before the festival’s premiere, it was clear that this year’s edition would be among its most diverse. Sneak previews of major new releases such as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Alfonso Cuáron’s Gravity, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave appeared alongside repertory titles such as Mike Hodges’s The Terminal Man (in a pristine 35mm director’s cut presented by Buck Henry) and Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai and curious but memorable events such as author Don DeLillo reading selections from his novel Underworld over the haunting footage of Abraham Zapruder’s infamous recording of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

My own window into this year’s celebration was different than most. Ever since my first year in attendance in 2008, I vowed to always return, and much like that influential and mesmerizing first time, I experienced the festival again as a member of the Student Symposium, at minimum cost and maximum benefit, with access to private conversations with leading filmmakers. Such as Errol Morris, who spoke to the symposium about The Unknown Known, his documentary on Donald Rumsfeld. Though I was initially intrigued by the subject matter and wowed by Morris’s level of access to Rumsfeld (he reportedly conducted 30-plus hours of interviews with the former secretary of defense), the doc has a cold and confusing quality that stems from its lack of a linear structure, hopscotching as it does across time and events on what seems like the whims of a director searching for a natural rhythm.

In a memorable scene, Rumsfeld, in an attempt to define events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, introduces to the conversation the phrase “failure of imagination,” to describe the failure on the part of the Department of Defense to imagine and thereby prevent attacks on our country. But while Morris lays bare the reliance on and fascination with language that defines and contradicts Rumsfeld in all of his practiced dialectic, the director seems unable to find a proper visual complement for his subject’s paradoxes and insurmountably insane intentions. What results is overlaid definitions of words and interstitial scenes of what feels like random stock footage, from helicopter shots over large bodies of water to first-person footage of planes flying at breakneck speed through the clouds. It’s as if in the absence of a logical or necessary course of action, Morris chose something generically metaphorical that could, in the film’s final moments, rather heavy-handedly transform into a literal sea of words. What Morris failed to realize is that nothing this film could offer is more powerful or haunting than the lingering smirk that follows one of Rumsfeld’s prideful diatribes. Holding on that image, pondering the man’s ability to smile in spite of the grave evils he committed, would have been more meaningful than any stock footage of the sea or sky that I can imagine.

Next up was Werner Herzog, who presented two out of four episodes from his television miniseries Death Row, from which 2011’s Into the Abyss was expanded for theatrical release. Strangely, and ostensibly by mistake, the festival received the television edits that feature awkward and impersonal introductions from Paula Zahn. Nonetheless, Herzog’s incredible skill as an interviewer shines through. The films, accomplished in their access, storytelling scope, and their humaneness, are also fast, loose, and cheaply produced, and when he visits the symposium the next afternoon, Herzog wastes no time urging everyone that “this is a film that any of you could have made.” The technology is out there—at our fingertips or even in our pockets. Speaking more generally about filmmaking, Herzog also implored us that “if you don’t read, you will never make a great film.” And, for the record, he means books.

A highlight of the festival was Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, a loose reworking of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel of the same name. The film, though it concerns a love affair between two young women (played by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos), cannot be pigeonholed as a gay or lesbian love story, as confirmed by Seydoux at an early-morning conversation when she said, “We weren’t shooting a homosexual love affair, just a love affair.” It is a love story, a human love story, about the beauty of a relationship between two people who seem somehow destined to be together, as inspired by the literal love at first sight that is their first encounter when passing one another on the street. And the film transcends labels not only by design, but because it seems inarguable that its characters belong anywhere else but in each other’s arms, a notion that speaks to the film’s broad appeal. It achieves the goal of demystifying the possibly unfamiliar nature of a gay/lesbian relationship by demonstrating that Adéle and Emma’s relationship is as similar in its ardor, its clumsiness, its routine, as a heterosexual one. Adéle and Emma meet each other’s parents, spend time together at concerts and social gatherings, then consummate their relationship in a beautifully erotic scene that has garnered the film much controversy. Few films have depicted the ups and downs of a relationship with more astonishing humanity and sheer gravitas.

Elsewhere, Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is a surprisingly life-affirming documentary wherein the cheeky and cheery 84-year-old Alejandro Jodorowsky makes peace with a project that, despite millions of dollars and countless of hours of planning, never materialized. By his own admission and example, Jodorowsky has been able to rework ideas planned for his famously unrealized version of Dune into new projects, thereby creating accessible art out of an unpleasant failure. All the same, the thrust of the movie is describing how totally outlandish his take on Frank Herbert’s novel might have been. To even sample its intended component parts is to be exposed to an unthinkable world of pop art, acid-trip psychedelia, and rock n’ roll.

No festival, though, is without its lowlights, and among the duds at Telluride this year were John Curran’s Tracks and Philippe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill. Curran’s film, about Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) crossing the deserts of West Australia on foot, accompanied by four camels and a dog, telegraphs its every occurrence far in advance and is near painful in its linearity. Claudel’s film, advertised as a suspenseful thriller in the style of Michael Haneke’s Caché, is a meandering tale of white male privilege that sabotages any possible suspense in its prologue by giving away part of its indefensibly, unpredictably bad ending. To say more would be to spoil the film, but since it spoils itself in its first five minutes, perhaps kindness isn’t necessary. What’s more is that Claudel made a point to reiterate again and again what an awful working relationship he had with actress Kristin Scott Thomas, how she hated the film, and in all likelihood also hated him. Neither here nor there, why should the audience care, unless this is Claudel’s idea of drumming up publicity/controversy for the film?

The Telluride Film Festival ran from August 29—September 2.