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The 2006 Telluride Film Festival was a very good experience. I wish I had the time to cover it fully, but that would mean a full review for each film (I saw about 16), a report on every conversation had standing in line, a mention of every chance encounter with a celebrity or filmmaker on the street. And since I stayed in a house with ten other dedicated film fans, I’d probably need to report on all of their likes and dislikes as well.

... From the 2006 poster by animator John Canemaker
... From the 2006 poster by animator John Canemaker

Suffice it to say that Telluride is a movie lover’s heaven. It’s a treat to go away to a remote, gorgeous mountain town where one has no other purpose or duty than to appreciate the art of film.

Still, my coverage of Telluride wouldn’t be complete without a wrapup of highlights from the weekend.

Playtime

I’ll start with the highlight, which has to be the 70mm print of Jacques Tatí’s Playtime. A 70mm print of anything would have been a treat; I can probably count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen a 70mm film. But to see a film from Jacques Tatí, one of my favorite filmmakers of all-time, was, hands-down, the highlight of the festival. The print, which was made in conjunction with the recent Criterion DVD release of Playtime, was in excellent condition. We own the movie on VHS, and we’ve watched it four or five times, but seeing the large-format print projected on a big screen revealed detail and gags that I had never seen before. Seeing it with an appreciative audience made the film seem that much funnier and more impressive. That evening was one of those all-too-rare instances where film actually feels like magic, where I feel lucky and privileged to be alive and to be a witness to this marvel of technology, humanity, and art.

Babel

The mainstream highlight gets its own category. By “mainstream,” I mean those movies that play at Telluride that are likely to have a theatrical release sometime this fall. Nicole Kidman’s Fur got some bad buzz. The Last King of Scotland, starring Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin, was more highly thought-of. But I opted for Babel, which seemed to have that extra edge of excitement when people discussed it. Babel is the third film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. As with his previous films 21 Grams and Amores Perros, Babel weaves together several disparate stories. The characters are wildly different in their backgrounds and experiences. There are goat herders in Tunisia, an urban deaf-mute teenie bopper in Japan, well-to-do Americans traveling in Morocco, and a Mexican immigrant who has made San Diego her new home.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Telluride is unlike a lot of film festivals in that it will show older films, brought back to life by honored guests or by the passion of the guest director. Playtime was one such film, and there were also two silent films that TCM brought to the festival. There was also a Japanese documentary from the mid-1980s that was very surprising, in more ways than one. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is almost entirely a talking-heads documentary. The subject of the documentary, Okuzaki Kenzo, seems like he’d feel right at home in Boulder. He paints his van in slogans and drives through the streets disrupting the peace, hoping to get the Emperor to admit to war crimes. The film takes an odd turn when Okuzaki drags the filmmaker to meet some of his old army buddies, whom Okuzaki sometimes literally beats into submission, forcing them to go on the record to admit to... well, that’s the other surprise in the film, isn’t it?

12:08 East of Bucharest

Of the independent films — those films that may never play in theaters, I probably liked 12:08 East of Bucharest best. I have to admit that Ten Canoes, an aboriginal folk tale filmed by Aussie director Rolf de Heer has lingered in my mind, though it didn’t make a huge impression on me as I watched it. But if I had to pick, I’d stick with 12:08. By the end, the film becomes very simple and cheap; it takes place almost entirely in one stripped-down set. But the first half-hour looks like any other film, taking place in various apartments and on the streets of a small city. Kudos to young filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu (who was approached outside by veteran director Bertrand Tavernier, who wanted to praise him for his film) for finding a way to make a film cheaply, without it “feeling” cheap. One character is an old man, tormented by the kids in his apartment building, who is asked to play Santa Claus one more time. There is also a TV producer and host who needs some local experts for his show on the Romanian revolution. The final half of the film is the TV show where the host asks his guests — one an alcoholic academic, the other the uncomfortable old Santa, whether their city helped spark the Romanian revolution, or whether it only joined in the festivities after Ceaucescu stepped out of power, at 12:08 PM on that day.

Useless Dog

I’ve already written about the shorts programs, but my wife caught me telling someone about one of the movies I didn’t mention — again — so I repeat it here for all the world to discover. The film is 5 minutes long, and it showed in the Calling Cards program. As I watched it, I thought to myself “this is such a cynically calculated subject that I can’t believe Telluride selected it.” The subject is one family’s “useless” pet dog. Half the film is footage of the dog being cute and/or funny. The other half is the dog’s master, bemusedly complaining about how useless this particular dog is. This is stuff you can find by the gigabyte on YouTube. And yet, the interview and the playful filmmaking made Useless Dog one of the more crowd-pleasing (if not artistically satisfying) films at the fest.

When We Are Big (Als Wij Groot Zijn)

Finally, I feel obligated to defend the one short that actually got booed, and that even the Rocky Mountain News critic saw no value in. When We Are Big is a dialogue-less Dutch film that depicts what, if taken literally, would be a case of infanticide. But the film is far from a literal statement. The short film begins with a ritual — father and daughter (presumably) prepare to go swimming in a pool. The pool itself is dreamlike, looking more like a flooded living room than an actual swimming pool. Once underwater, the man grabs the 6-year-old girl by the arm and sits placidly and obliviously at the bottom of the pool. The girl, playful at first, struggles to get to the surface. Before long, she has stopped struggling (although again, the performance of “drowning” is far from naturalistic). At the very end of the film, the man does a double-take and swims quickly up out of the frame. The title seems to imply that there is a fundamental difference between grownups and children. The performance of the adult actor seems to imply that grownups are largely oblivious to the world of children. The story seems to imply that the limitless potential of childhood is inevitably killed before the flat, dense life of an adult can begin. The same message is told in countless children’s stories from Jumanji to Philip Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. That some in a film audience as generally sophisticated as Telluride’s would mistake a metaphorical film for some sort of literal advocacy of infanticide is a pity. I’m not even sure I particularly agreed with the message of When We Are Big. As I understand it, growing up really does, biologically, involve the death of childhood exuberance. I may have these exact facts wrong, so don’t quote me — but I believe that a child’s brain has more neural connections than an adult brain. As we figure out how things work, the unneeded connections in our brain go dark. This happens, but it is not “caused” by adults (as the film seems to assert) — nor is it a cause for shock, regret, or horror (also as the film seems to assert) — it’s simply a part of growing up, and that’s why I might not have bothered to mention this film. But to not understand a film and then to boo it shows that some adults, ironically, have probably lost a few too many neural circuits and no longer have the imagination necessary to watch a film such as When We Are Big.