“VARDA BY AGNÈS”

Nothing is trite if you look at it with empathy and love. — Agnès Varda, from her last film, Varda by Agnès

a darling illustration of Varda from a bag I was lucky enough to score from the film’s publicist
Tom Luddy, Rosalie Vatda, Martin Scorsese, Mathieu Demy, moderator Annette Insdorf

Agnès Varda, the Belgian-born French filmmaker died in March and the Telluride Film Festival dedicated this year’s festival to her and celebrated her life and work with special guests. Bringing in her friend Martin Scorsese and her two children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy and the founder of the festival, Tom Luddy to discuss her ground-breaking work and then screening Varda’s last film, Varda by Agnès. An instant film-studies classic, her film is a beautiful overview of her work and collaborations with actors and cinematographers. Varda is shown giving talks to students in both France and the US with clips of her work, then the film jumps to new footage of Varda speaking with her actors in the same locations where she filmed.

Martin Scorsese spoke about having Agnès Varda visit him on the set of The Irishman (Opening at the NY Film Festival where Varda’s film will also screen). She chided him on his politics and he soothed her with saying the film was about unions since she’s was all about the working man. It was touching to hear how he sought her approval and valued her opinion. Rosalie and Mathieu spoke about their unusual upbringing when famous directors and stars were guests at their home and they traveled to LA with their father, Jacque Demy and their mother. She was always busy making films. Indiewire has a lovely interview with Rosalie in Agnès Varda’s Daughter On Her Mother’s Death and the Future of Her Archive.

from the 46th Telluride Film Festival Program

I was so glad I got to be at the Tribute screening of this film because Tom Luddy spoke of his relationship with Varda from his years in San Francisco. He introduced her to Jean Varda, who turned out to be a relative of hers and she immediately decided to make a film about their reunion. Luddy is in the film as she recreated her introduction by him in the short Uncle Yanco…and it’s featured in Varda by Agnès. The short also screened at the festival with Black Panthers, another film that Tom Luddy assembled the crew for and encouraged Varda to make so she could document an important movement in US history. It was great to her about her filmmaking process and how her creative energies; her joie de vivre made her someone that no one wanted to say no to.

Agnès Varda was a true genius, working right till the end of her life and it’s so inspiring to see her work and celebrate her life. Faces Places (Visages Villages) brought her a resurgence of popularity and the film was nominated for an Oscar and won many International awards. I hope this film will also get the acclaim it deserves.

46th Telluride Film Festival — Racing thru Four Days of Films

A gathering of the luminaries at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival

Film Festivals have their own zeitgeist. Cannes has glamour, Sundance has snow and celebrities, and Telluride has a mountain top cathedral for film aficionados. Programmers fight to have films premiere at their festival and attracting celebrities is very important. Film guests sell tickets but also create a buzz at the event. Some festivals like the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival have less work to do to attract the big names — both events are in beautiful places and more importantly, attract fans that will allow filmmakers and stars to walk the streets sans bodyguards and publicists.

This year’s Telluride Film Festival was graced with the presence of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Philip Kaufman, Bong Joon-ho, Edward Norton, and Renee Zellweger. Long-time Festival favorites, Werner Herzog and Ken Burns brought new works to the Festival and first-time festival attendees like Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) professed their love for the magic of Telluride. Programming was strong. There weren’t as many thought-provoking or life-affirming features as in years past but there was certainly a breadth of subjects covered. From Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker) to Oliver Sacks (Oliver Sacks: His Own Life) to sports (cycling, soccer, Australian football, race cars) and hot air balloons (The Aeronauts); from portrait painting (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to art forgery (Lyrebird).

What was interesting was to hear how many film lovers either LOVED or HATED some of the films. Everyone was excited to see the Hollywood films: Ford v Ferrari, Judy, Marriage Story and Motherless Brooklyn but the more offbeat Uncut Gems? Even with the selling point of having Adam Sandler there for a lively Q & A, Uncut Gems warranted a lot of walk outs. Directors Josh and Bennie Safdie tapped Oneohtrix Point Never who also scored their 2017 film Good Time; both films feature a frenetic soundtrack. Sound and scores were an important part of the the film experience this year and Uncut Gems soundtrack was a cacophany that may have reflected the character’s state of mind — but it was difficult to endure.

There were 30 main film programs, three tributes, shorts programs, retrospectives and outdoor screenings. Guest Director Pico Iyer selected five International film highlighting women in film. With this year’s focus on sound, there was a tribute to Dolby Laboratories, two silent films and many films about musicians. Ken Burns unveiled his series on Country Music, documentaries included Billie (Billie Holiday), Amazing Grace (Aretha Franklin), Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Tex Mex music (Chulas Fronteras) and The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. Two themes were evident in the 2019 program — music, there were some unusual scores this year — and long screening times. Of the 30 main film programs, 20 were at or over 2 hours.

Waves, 2019 — A24

One of the longer films that was also divisive is Waves. I spoke to people who walked out, a few people who ranked it as a favorite, and others who felt it was trite and the soundtrack annoying. Trey Edward Shultz (It Comes at Night, Krisha) uses a few unusual filmmaking techniques to put the audience in the mindset of the characters. Not everyone was a fan of the spinning Go Pro shots in the car (used repeatedly) or the full-screen color waves to represent emotions. The soundtrack also acts like a character in the film. It’s a hard-driving mix of hip hop and rap by Trent Reznor‎ and ‎Atticus Ross and while the characters are listening and singing to music, the soundtrack is playing something different for us. It was jarring at first and like the color blocks on the screen, took some adjusting to.

Taylor Russell plays the daughter in Waves

A tragedy told from two focal points, the acting is strong particularly from the two young actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and especially Taylor Russell as the young woman who transforms from a background player who’s withdrawn, to the focus of the narrative. Waves is getting a lot of critical acclaim and though I felt it had some beautiful moments, a little judicial trimming would’ve gone a long way to transforming the film.

Working the festival as a Volunteer (love the Sheridan Opera House crew!), there were many films I didn’t get the opportunity to see. So I’m thankful for the After Festival screenings and happy that I had to opportunity to catch Parasite and The Two Popes. Thank you Telluride Film Festival. What a gem of a festival!

So You Want to be a Festival Gypsy?

As staff and volunteers arrive in the soon-to-be-bustling mountain town of Telluride in advance of the 46th Telluride Film Festival, there’s an excitement in the air. What films will screen? Who will the guests be? Will we get to see all the films we want to get into? For many of us, this is a chance to see friends we see only once a year at this Festival. And for others…this is another festival to work on the festival circuit.

I’ve been working film festivals for over 30 years. I didn’t plan to be a Festival Gypsy. It’s like potato chips, you have one and suddenly you’re looking sadly at an empty salty bag. What starts as a passion for films and one festival job that allows you access to films and behind-the-scene comradery, becomes a few festivals that you travel to to work with your friends…to what can become a full slate of festivals and suddenly–you find that it’s your life. I’ve had the opportunity to produce my own film festivals, curate film programs for festivals and have worn many hats for over 20 festivals here and abroad.

Not to be confused with attending a few festivals when you have the means for Passes and accommodations…a true Festival Gypsy may not even have a home base. I have a few festival friends that stay with family or friends but all of their belongings either fit in a few suitcases or live in perpetual storage. Every gypsy has different story. Some started like myself, in the SF Bay Area, where there’s a film festival every month. Or they found a particular niche in the festival business: Events, Guest Relations, Transpo or Theater Ops and realized that if they knew others in the biz, they could work at other festivals doing the same job. Some festivals even provide lodging and transportation.

The short-term contracts mean that you need serious budgeting skills, you may have to pay quarterly taxes, and you must be able to make dinner out of cheese cubes and bread sticks from the Hospitality lounge. You’ll get to travel, meet many interesting people, and each festival has its own perks and pitfalls; its own zeitgeist if you will. Many festivals don’t hire festival staff, relying mostly on volunteers (Boulder, Portland) or are very difficult to break into for a paid gig (Sundance, Telluride) because so many staff come back every year.

If you have a certain skill set and can adapt easily to new environments, working festivals can be a wonderful experience. As with any job, it’s your team that makes all the difference. Everyone who works a festival will have a different experience. You may find yourself joining a team of long-time friends that doesn’t make room for newbies or land in a venue that requires long hours and heavy lifting. As in any line of work, there are a few power-mad staff that think a walkie-talkie or a position of authority give them carte blanche to act like a dictator. Not everyone working a Festival knows that without the FEST, ie. the fun, they shouldn’t be part of the crew, or at least not on the front lines.

If you live in the town like Telluride or San Francisco, you can work the plethora of festivals that happen there almost every weekend. In Telluride, that would be summer work and you’d be traveling out of town come the end of September after The Telluride Festival of Cars and Colors. However, most of the jobs are volunteer, so you’d be hard pressed to make a living. Very few people have the wherewithal to travel the festival circuit as a Volunteer. A Gypsy is likely working multiple jobs for the privilege of traveling to do what they love–becoming part of the crew that bands together to bring amazing, potentially life-changing films to the masses. So if you see someone carrying a festival sign, toting a bin of passes/waters/ballots, wearing a headset or badge…give them a smile and acknowledge their hard work. They may be sleeping on a couch, subsisting on bagels and coffee (LOTS of coffee), and possibly, they’re a Festival Gypsy far from home.

Festival buzz–Telluride

Destroyer/Can You Ever Forgive Me conversation

Director Marielle Heller, Melissa McCarthy –“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Nicole Kidman, Director Karyn Kusama –“Destroyer”

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache

Director Pamela E Green, “Be Natural”

Robert Redford, Director David Lowery, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck,  writer David Grann

Writer David Grann, Director Ed Zwick, subject Liz Gilbert, Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell

Patima Tungpuchayakul, Tun Lin, Jeffrey Waldron, Shannon Service, “Ghost Fleet”

The wonderful thing about film festivals is the discoveries…the films you haven’t heard anything about and filmmakers that can share their stories in person. Kicking off the fall festival season, most of us can’t afford to travel to Venice and Toronto Film Festival can be overwhelming. Telluride is a trek — but you don’t need your passport! Here in this tiny mountain town, film lovers begin to build the award season buzz.

It’s challenging to try to see as many films as you want, often you’re too far back in line or there’s a limited amount of seats. That builds an excitement over which films to try to see and everyone seems to have a strategy. As you stand in line with filmmakers, film fans and festival lovers, the one question asked is “What’s been your favorite film?” This year at Telluride, the buzz was for First Man, Can You Ever Forgive Me and Roma. The smaller films that were getting high praise were Shoplifters, Cold War and Girl.

There was talk of this being Nicole Kidman’s year. She has two disparate roles; as the Baptist wife with tall blond hair and lacquered nails in Boy Erased and unrecognizable as the drab damaged detective in the dark L.A. noir, Destroyer. Melissa McCarthy was also almost unrecognizable in person; til she smiled. She’s lost a lot of weight and was a charming guest which made her performance as the hard-drinking forgery artist all the more impressive. The New Yorker writer David Grann was in many conversations as two films, The Old Man & The Gun  and Trail by Fire were based on his articles. The many conversations and interviews, in the park and after the film screenings, add to our enjoyment of the films by revealing layers of meaning and interesting anecdotes shared by the filmmakers.

Two documentaries that I had the pleasure of seeing made my top 10 list. Ghost Fleet, about slave labor in the international seafood industry, stars the heroic Patima Tungpuchayakul. She started a human rights organization to protect children in Thailand from forced labor but she and her husband have spent the last few years traveling to sea in the attempt to free the captives on commercial fishing boats. Many never leave the ships and die at sea but thousands have been rescued and returned home.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a fascinating documentary with inventive effects and title sequences that move the story at break-neck speed. Director Pamela E. Green has been researching the first woman filmmaker for more than 10 years and her film uncovers amazing details and reconnects many of her contemporary ancestors. A must-see for anyone interested in this forgotten trail blazer of cinema. Alice Guy-Blache directed thousands of films in France and the United States and even ran her own movie studio. Be Natural is a resounding call to rewrite our history to restore Alice Guy-Blache to her rightful place as the first woman filmmaker.

What films made your Top 10 at Telluride? What films will build audience anticipation as the Fall Festival Season continues…we shall see.

Based on a true story–Films at the 45th Telluride Film Festival

43 films screened over 4 days for the 45th Telluride Film Festival. 10 of those 43 were excellent documentaries, but another 12 were films based on true stories. The most Hollywood of these, First Man is the star-spangled story of Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by the talented Damien Chazelle (La La Land). It was very well-received. Trail by Fire, directed by Ed Zwick  and driven by amazing performances by Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell, was absolutely riveting. I’m so glad I saw it before it starts being dismissively described as the anti-death-penalty film. It deserves a wide audience.

Alfonso Cuaron wrote, directed and shot most of his autobiographical film, Roma. Eric Kohn of Indiewire described it as “writing his personal story with a camera”, which seems quite apt. It’s a lovely black & white period piece revealing an upper-middle class family’s daily struggles through the eyes of their caring maid. Each scene is populated with so many details of their lives — we get to visit a turbulent time in Mexico City and in this young woman’s life. There’s so much drama and tension that the 2 1/2 hours flies by. I’m thankful that it’s a Netflix film and I’ll be able to watch it again.

Standing in the rain for an hour sharing an umbrella with a stranger was worth it to see The Old Man and the Gun (David Lowery). It was a treat to see Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek in person. They have delightful chemistry in this sweet film about a bank robber and escape artist who can’t retire from the thrill of the chase. Redford stated that this is indeed his last acting role, though he’ll still produce and maybe direct. That gave the film a lovely sentimental feel as there are photos of a younger Redford used to illustrate his character’s past. Casey Affleck is particularly good as the detective trying to catch the bank robbers who develops a rapport with the gentleman criminal.

If you’re a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, you’ll to get a kick out of The Favourite. Queen Anne rules the 18th Century English Court but it’s her consort who’s making the real decisions. Played with petulance, emotional neediness and disdain, Olivia Colman is a powerful and fickle Queen. Vying for a place in her bed and in her court are the penniless lady, Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin to the powerful Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Great roles for three powerful performers and I enjoyed the wicked banter and court intrigue. There are many extended close-ups of Olivia Colman’s face and it’s amazing to watch the emotional storms sinking her sanity. I could’ve done without the showy camera flourishes as it took me out of the story but the costumes (Sandy Powell) are sumptuous.

My final film of the festival was Boy Erased. This family drama is based on Garrard Conley‘s memoir brought to the screen by another multi-hyphenate talent, Joel Edgerton. He directs the screenplay he wrote; he also has a starring role as the director of a religious gay conversion center.  Lucas Hedges, portraying another damaged young man (Manchester by the Sea, Ladybird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) gives another emotionally revealing performance. When he’s forcibly outed at college after a traumatic incident, his Baptist preacher father (a solid Russell Crowe) convinces his mother (Nicole Kidman) to admit him to the conversion center. The loving relationship between mother and son is sorely tested when she learns what’s happening as staff try to sublimate the sexual urges of the clients. It’s an emotional journey with another great Nicole Kidman performance as she reconciles her love for her son with her love and duty as a Baptist wife. I’m looking forward to seeing The Miseducation of Cameron Post for the female viewpoint (directed by Desiree Akhavan) on conversion therapy set in an earlier time but still dealing with this shameful practice.

More Telluride reviews coming soon…

So you want to go to the SHOW…

SHOWMedallion_Final

The 45th Telluride Film Festival, the cinema smorgasbord in the tiny Colorado mountain town, is a true labor of love. Hundreds of volunteers transform schools, a conference center and a skating rink into theaters. Volunteers come from all over Colorado and many from out of state. In exchange for 30 hours of work over the four days of Labor Day weekend, SHOWCorps volunteers enjoy swag (t-shirt, backpack, water bottle, snacks, treats) and most importantly, a Staff Badge.

Why dedicate your vacation time and make the trek up to the mountains to share a hotel room or sleep on a couch or camp in the cold? It’s a long weekend of working in theaters, at events, in the tents and information booths. A demanding job for those schlepping all the trappings of the SHOW! We do it because it’s a chance to reconnect with our friends that we may only see once a year. We do it for the joy of being around other film aficionados; discussing film, seeing film, experiencing film conversations with filmmakers and guests–up close and personal. Stars can walk the streets free of paparazzi and they can relax a little, shielded from requests for selfies and autographs.

Telluride Film Fest Swag

A Festival pass is your entry into the Passholder Line. There you stand with other film buffs waiting patiently for your Queue so you can rush off to grab another coffee or scarf a scone/a falafel/anything to keep from eating more popcorn. No pass and you’re doomed to join the Ticket Buyer line. Occasionally, after all the Passholders have gone in, there are seats that can be sold at a premium price ($35) to those with the fortitude to wait. This is your only choice if you didn’t shell out the big bucks for a Festival Pass or join the ShowCorps.

This year, there seemed to be an increase in complaints from everyone from all the ranks about the number of full screenings that they were turned away from…a crushing disappointment if you’ve waited in the rain or made it ALMOST to the front of the line. Has Telluride Film Festival become too popular? Is there space to add another venue or increase the size of any of the screening halls? What I do know is–the volunteers and staff that create this Cinema Heaven so close to the stars; they will keep coming every year. And so will I.

 

 

Ticket in hand, why is it so hard to get to my theater seat? Film Festival navigation 101

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Red carpet for filmmakers to walk…no, not YOU! You go get in line!

Movie-goers are accustomed to purchasing tickets online a few hours before a show or at the door. Then you show your ticket and waltz right in to get your popcorm and find your theater seat. Easy peasy.

Film Festivals are an animal of another color. Tickets must be purchased well in advance or you risk finding out your film is at RUSH (Sold Out expect for the brave souls waiting to purchase last minute tickets). Once you pick up your tickets and make it to the theater, what do you find? Lines, lines, lines. Usually there’s a Members Only line, a general admission line, a Will Call line and a Rush line…all of one screening. There are always more than one screening, so the lines are long and often intimidating.

Telluride Film Festival has giant queues but hands out queue cards and patrons are very good about lining up in order and respecting their place in line. At Mill Valley Film Festival, the lines snake around the block but filmgoers are discussing what films to see and are usually pretty amicable. Denver Film Festival has a problem in their signature theater, the SIE Film Center because the lobby is so small. The screening rooms are also small but if one show runs late and two shows are trying to load, oy vey!

Another issue for all film festivals is getting from one screening to another. Telluride Film Festival has an app that lets you estimate the time from one screening location to the other and what your chances are to get into that film. For other film festivals where you must get in a car (or a Lyft) and drive across town (or to another town for MVFF), you must carefully plan your screenings to leave time for traffic, parking, etc. For instance, yesterday I had a screening at the SIE, After an hour in line, I was finally seated, and the screening only started 10 minutes late. But my next screening was at the Denver Pavilions and it was 5:30pm! Yes, I made it to the parking lot in time but the line to PAY for parking was 12 deep and full of Friday night dating couples. There was no way to make it inside to my screening.

This year, I’ve missed a lot of screenings due to filmmaker Q&A’s going long, movies starting late and films booked back to back with no room for dilly dallying. Good thing there’s always another film in a few hours…and a coffee shop or bar to discuss the last screening. As a programmer, I know I’ve scheduled films too close…as a film attendee, I know I’ve purchased tickets to screenings that in hindsight, I’d need a teleporter to make on time. So take a word of caution, leave time for lunch or cocktails and space your films appropriately!

Happy Festivaling!