The Telluride Film Festival, which ran Sept. 2-5, is in one sense a setup for the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins just days later (watch for coverage in these pages and at blogs.laweekly.com/stylecouncil/). Many major films arrive in Toronto propelled by Telluride's buzz and go on to make big showings at the Oscars — think Juno (Telluride 2007), Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride 2008) and The King's Speech (Telluride 2010).
A similar fate seems to be in store for the hit of Telluride 2011, Alexander Payne's Terms of Endearment–esque The Descendants, starring the fest's most beloved guest, George Clooney (the subject of one of the festival's annual This Is Your Life–style tributes), and breakout star Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney's daughter.
But far from just a fall film season precursor, Telluride offers a unique collision of impressions in a small place and a short time.
As I stood in line for David Cronenberg's exquisitely cerebral A Dangerous Method at the Galaxy Theater on Sunday, a huge shooting star appeared overhead — a phenomenon echoed in Enrico Casarosa's cute Pixar short La Luna, in which an animated star crashes on the moon.
Most memorably, in Serge Bromberg's presentation of the restored 1902 Georges Méliès silent fantasy A Trip to the Moon, a hand-painted star magically shoots across a moon newly colonized by humans, to the distress of lunar natives, who keep disappearing in poofs of bright hand-colored smoke.
The colored version of Méliès' hit masterpiece — "the Avatar of its day," according to Bromberg — almost disappeared as well, when the director burned his negatives in 1923. A copy surfaced in 1993, setting the stage for a preservation challenge.
The old nitrate film stock shrinks, disintegrates and ignites, as Bromberg spectacularly demonstrated by burning a strip onstage while a mock-nervous Alexander Payne held a metal lid to catch the debris and Bromberg, an entertaining showman, assured the audience the smoke would poison us all.
The reel rediscovered in 1993 had fused into a lump resembling a block of wood. Bromberg explained that he and his team had to peel off a few frames at a time, then preserve each digitally before it quickly disintegrated forever. The 13,375 frames of the final restoration look flickeringly enchanting in a way the familiar black-and-white version does not.
Bromberg unspooled other historic films, accompanied by his funny patter and piano stylings, including footage of San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake and Ub Iwerks' stunning 1935 animated masterpiece Balloon Land.
At night in Telluride's Elks Park, under a crescent moon, the Alloy Orchestra performed a rousing original score to Karl-Heinz Martin's 1920 From Morning to Midnight, a fable about a thieving bank clerk trapped in an expressionist nightmare.
The film's askew geometry, the masklike makeup and the morphing of beautiful faces into skulls have a sinister fever-dream quality. Writer Paolo Cherchi Usai's claim in the Telluride program that Midnight's sets make 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari "look tame by comparison" is a bit hyperbolic: They're good, but Caligari's are wilder, better, more dimensional.
My most otherworldly experience in Telluride was Wim Wenders' 3-D Pina, a cinematic meditation on Pina Bausch's dance theater, full of lunar and other elemental imagery.
Through Wenders' eye, Pina presents the art of movement in an astonishingly intimate new way, the 3-D transforming the dancers into moving sculpture. It is one of the most beautiful dance films and the most successful collaborative works I've ever seen.
Bausch helped Wenders envision the staging of her works on various astounding locations (a giant mine pit, a city street, a tunnel, a riverbed with a fake hippo) before her 2009 death.
One dancer describes how they worked together: "Pina was a painter, and I became the paint." It's not like watching a Bausch work onstage — it's as if you're touring her mind.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes