Rounding out the Telluride Film Festival experience this report will look at the last films I was able to catch and reflect on all I observed while here and speculate on what’s to come. There are still a lot of unknowns. Which films that sparked interest today will still be afire when the awards season hits. Was the festival “safe enough” in this ever changing pandemic landscape? Will I ever catch up on the sleep I missed trying to see as many films as I could over the course of five days? (The answer to that one is probably, no.) Much to contemplate, but first my last days films.
HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG
I didn’t think I knew a lot about Leonard Cohen or that his life had much impact on mine. I was wrong, as you’ll see below. The filmmakers, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldine, here took the audience through his unique life with a gentle, deft hand, introducing us to the paths he took and the detours he endured to become such an influential musical icon. The structure of the film paid a visual and stylistic homage to the poetic soul of Cohen.
The film has two journeys within, both intertwined but both distinctly on its own path. One follows the spiritual steps of a man determined to find his place in the world. His troubled steps, missteps and retreats are documented well. So too his path to final success even after so many turns that would have made lesser artists give up completely. The second journey is of the creation and surprising evolution of the iconic anthem, "Hallelujah".
The journey of how "Hallelujah" evolved as different performers made their own versions, reminded me of a line from the (also Canadian) band Walk Off The Earth’s song "Anthem" on their Meet You There album, “I was lookin’ for answers and wrote an anthem instead.” Cohen had worked so long on perfecting his song that he had stumbled onto a universal chord that each musician heard personally and differently. The song had a life of its own and it seemed, from the reflections that the documentary shared from Cohen, that he was perfectly alright with that.
And as a final, personal note on my viewing, I experienced my own “only in Telluride” connection with this film. I was surprised to see in the rare footage on-screen that the Jeff Buckley version of "Hallelujah" was recorded in a familiar studio to me in Woodstock, NY. I happened to have sung backup vocals on a song in that very same studio a few years back. It was for one of the artists Amanda Palmer’s works. Lo and behold Amanda Palmer pops up as one of those interviewed on Cohen’s influence on their work. I can attest to her true feelings for Cohen’s influence because I was in the audience at a concert of hers when someone read her the news that Leonard Cohen had just died. Amanda collapsed on the stage in tears. A weird little personal connection that I was not expecting to discover.
You never know how a song will influence your life. But we take those songs with us as we go on. It was nice to have such a well-done reminder of the power that Cohen has had in influencing all of us through his works.
MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON
The final film of a festival experience should be chosen with care. It’s the last impression you will take with you as you venture into the real world again. If you’re lucky, you’ll pick a good one that balances your filmic palate and leaves you in a good mood to remember the fest by. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect film for our fest capper this year than Marcel.
I remember seeing a few of the internet short clips that went viral featuring the wonderfully cute, but also uniquely worldly commentary from a completely naive perspective that Marcel gave us. Those shorts struck a cord of unexpected delight in so many people. But would the creators be able to sustain the bizarre worldview and comedic reality/absurdity balance for an entire feature film? I am happy to report that they have done so. Managing to tell a surprisingly poignant, heartfelt and realistic portrayal of what life as a one-inch-tall shell with shoes on would be, the film reached for and delivered wonderful twists that felt right in stride with the absurd premises the form created.
The stop motion animation integrates wonderfully well with the real-life elements. The story unfolds masterfully. I’m so glad that the creators didn’t rush to cash in on their internet fame, but, rather worked for years to perfect just the right story and just the right way of telling it. They’ve proven that they are really great storytellers.
As of this writing, this film does not have a distributor. I hope the extremely warm and loving reception that it got here at Telluride will encourage someone to take the film on and present it to the wide world. It certainly deserves it because it was definitely one of the best films at the fest. And Marcel is so cute.
Though the festival never programs for theme, nor intends for films to fall in categorizable similarities, they invariably appear. Some seem wildly obvious, others only upon closer inspection. Some make sense in hindsight, others surprise even the filmmaker’s themselves when pointed out to them. Zeitgeist has something to do with it, pure chance as well. Here’s just a brief list of the themes I recognized in the fare on offer this year. Some are serious, others lighthearted, none intentional.
Parent/child relations – Surprising in the amount of diverse films shown this year that a very apparent, a common theme would be shared by so many. You can find a strong element of parent-to-child relationships being explored in films as diverse as Belfast, C’mon C’mon, Encounter, King Richard, and in a completely different way, Bergman Island.
Women directors – I haven’t calculated the actual percentage, but, there was a clear sense that there was a significant number of female-led films in the selections this year. From stalwarts returning to the helm after years away with Jane Campion to brand new first-time directors like Maggie Gyllenhaal and a large number of female-led documentary teams heralds that a brighter path for equal opportunity may be improving. Or it may be a fluke. I hope not.
Preponderance of docs – Many here have noted that this year’s selection has quite a few more documentaries than even the usual documentary-friendly offerings Telluride brings. Festival co-director Julie Huntsinger acknowledge this in true, Telluride form, stating that it just so happened that there were a lot of well made, storytelling being done by all the filmmakers invited to show their films. If a film is well made, cinematic and tells a compelling story, it’ll make the cut, regardless of it being narrative or documentary. So filmmakers out there, just make a good film and you’ll have a shot.
Nudity – Though this observation may be tongue in cheek (or at least “cheeky”,) I did notice that over half the films I watched during the fest had full frontal (or as I like to call it, “back-al”, when they don’t turn around,) nudity in them. Mostly male, all done in very artistic ways, all presented as part and parcel of telling the tale at hand. And many of the films that didn’t show everything, were fine with showing skin as it happened to appear in the natural environment. It seems our sensibilities toward nakedness are every evolving from their prudish historical roots. A revealing observation if not an important one.
The elephant in the room
The one thing in the back of the minds of everyone here and everywhere else on the planet is the question of is it wise to hold a film festival in person at this time during a worldwide pandemic. Having just attended this one, I have my perspective on the experience and how it has evolved through the process.
Known risks and precautions
Prior to coming, I have to admit I had my doubts about whether it was a good idea. But I also have to admit, I was seriously going to consider attending the fest last year if it would have been held then. In hindsight, I am very glad they chose the right path of canceling the in-person events at that time.
I have to commend the Festival on prudently doing everything humanly possible to make the functions under their control as safe as possible for the guests and attendees this year. They have risen above and beyond and made the hard decisions to provide as much protection as they could. I felt both eerily apprehensive and relieved when I walked past the COVID testing tent set up for the daily testing required of ticket buying locals to be able to see the films with the rest of us. The fest set up a rigorously followed and executed plan to protect all as best they could.
And when they felt it was necessary they tightened the requirements. A few weeks before the fest began they added the necessity of every attendee to not only prove they were vaccinated, but also to have proof of a negative PRC test within 72 hours of arriving. Though an added complication and burden, everyone complied. And some people who intended to be here found at the last minute that they were not able to do so because of this. But the fest held fast and went on.
Still, the festival is not held in a vacuum. And even though San Miguel county has an extremely high vaccination rate at the time I arrived it still had a reported 15 cases of the disease. The town was strictly following the mandatory mask requirement inside any buildings recently implemented by Colorado. I admit I felt uneasy entering into a restaurant all masked up and realizing it was the first sit-down meal I had had in a restaurant since this whole rigmarole began. Uneasily, we adapted and did what we could to remain safe.
By the time the festival wound down, I had gotten used to it all. I’d mask up when inside buildings, (including public restrooms – which I advise to do ahead of time otherwise it might be an awkward balancing act to accomplish.) I’d mask up when the lines we were standing in started to get close together. I’d keep my mask on in the theater throughout the movies. And it seemed that everyone else I saw was complying. We all seemed to understand what we were risking to return to the experience of seeing films together. We took the precautions and calculated the risks.
Did it work?
The festival concluded without any interruptions of which I was aware. It seemed that everything that the festival did under its control was sufficient to avoid mass disaster. But we still are holding our breath.
You see, not everything happening here in Telluride was under the control of the festival. On the final day of the festival, I read a Twitter thread report of one attendee testing asymptomatically positive once they arrived home. But that thread also revealed that they probably attended an unsanctioned, unofficial party that was held unmasked, indoors with close proximity and dancing that lasted hours, long into the night. (I wasn’t invited to that party, but I have seen the videos posted. I personally would have been uncomfortable.)
The festival can do everything within its power to protect us, but we are surviving in a precarious time. We each need to keep our guards up, assess what we are willing to risk, and act smartly. A single bad decision can still have dire consequences. Will there be more reported cases coming out of this weekend? I don’t know. No one will until we let the dust settle and do an assessment after the fact. I’m hopeful, but cautious.
Will this experiment of holding a festival in the time of pandemic prove a success? Only time will tell. Can future festivals take the example set here as a guide as to how to do it? It depends. Every festival is different, has different factors in their makeup and what they can control. I’m crossing my fingers that every festival in the future takes the precautions they’ll need to take seriously, they’ll be diligent in the application of those protections and that luck will hold out over those things that they cannot contain.
Will film festivals survive? Time will tell. I’m hopeful that they will.