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Telluride Film Festival A Masterpiece In Itself

Woody Hibbard
Creative Commons/Flickr
Telluride, Colorado plays host to one of the most respected film festivals in the world

Since 1974, the Telluride Film Festival has taken place over Labor Day Weekend. According to KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who also teaches film and television at CU-Denver, the festival can be a life-shifting event.

In the four days of the Telluride Film Festival that ended on Monday evening, I saw four actual masterpieces. It doesn't get better than that.

The festival usually gives three tributes each year to people who make films, but for the second time in its 41-year history, this festival honored a specific film. In 1976, Telluride celebrated the 1933 King Kong. This year, it was a restored print of the 1979 Apocalypse Now – Francis Coppola’s original, not the later recut. This is a film I’ve seen probably 15 times, sometimes at home, sometimes in theaters, but I’ve never seen it like this.

The movie was projected beautifully on an immense screen in the theater the festival has named for acclaimed director Werner Herzog, and from the opening shots of napalm scorching a landscape, accompanied by the song “The End” by The Doors, I found the picture overwhelming.

Apocalypse Now erupts with astonishing chaos, obsessiveness and destruction. It's the best film about the war in Vietnam, but it’s not historically accurate – it’s a terrifying poem that uproots the craziness that was the war and American society at the time. Never has the helicopter attack with Wagner's “Ride of the Valkyries” been so unnerving. An American colonel (Robert Duvall) unleashes a fearsome attack on a Vietcong outpost and school just so he can watch a soldier who’d been a famous surfer ride a certain wave.

Masterpiece two is Mike Leigh's new film Mr. Turner, about the British painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh’s films include Happy-Go-Lucky, Secrets and Lies and Naked. In Mr. Turner, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope build the film out of Turner's palette – his sense of color and the interaction of color and figure. Character actor Timothy Spall embodies both the famous artist and the grunting, animalish, grubby man who made the art.

Mr. Turner is not a biography; Mike Leigh calls it a reflection on Turner, his painting and the world he lived in. Turner was a working class guy, and you don’t expect to hear Turner’s thick cockney accent in a movie about art. He wasn’t crazy, like van Gogh, but he wasn’t nice or genteel either. He was self-serving and distracted, and the movie shows incredible art and vision coming from someone who seems unlikely to create such beauty.

Masterpiece number three is a documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer called The Look of Silence. Two years ago, Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing engaged with members of death squads in Indonesia who’d killed over a million people after the 1965 military coup. In that horrifying film, a few of those men actually staged their boastful memories of their murders for the camera. The Look of Silence is more direct. One youngish man confronts the now-aged thugs who murdered his brother in those death squad days. It's beyond human ken to understand how proud these killers still are.

And finally, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes of Belgium have made yet another great film in a list that includes The Kid with a Bike, The Silence of Lorna and Rosetta. Two Days, One Night is about a woman about to lose her job. The bosses at her factory tell the workers to choose to have a good bonus or to let this woman keep her job. She visits each one to plead her case, but the film gets into the profound connection between her personal life, her health and an economic system that demands such choices.

Many people say that Telluride is the best film festival in the world. Going to Telluride is not like going to the movies; it’s like being taken over by the movies – the best movies, old and new. At this festival, film matters. It’s an art in itself – that shapes and re-shapes how you see the world. At Telluride, you duck out of normal life for four days, but then return to see life differently, sometimes better and more clearly and with perspectives you didn’t expect.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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