Peter Shelton

Netflix Would be Nothing Without the TFF

Posted in At the Movies, Watch columns by pshelton on August 25, 2011

Netflix, the world’s film library, would hardly have worked for me if not for the Telluride Film Festival, which is coming up next week for its 38th go-round.

Without the wisdom of the TFF, I would be stuck in first-run Hollywood hell, with a thin veneer of foreign-film awareness; my Netflix queue would be limited to Oscar favorites and the suggestions of movie reviewers – a dubious crowd.

But lucky for me, the TFF has had a risk-taking, roving eye from the beginning. Here’s a short list of films we’ve watched at home lately, each one inspired by something that happened over the many Labor Day weekends in Telluride.

We ordered D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, a classic 1921 silent, because we – Ellen and I – saw Lillian Gish in person at the festival in 1982, when she was 89. She still had the expressive, wide-set eyes and rosebud mouth. From the beginning, Telluride has celebrated the richness of the silent era; that year they screened The Wind, from 1928. In Orphans, Lillian and her real-life sister, Dorothy, play sisters separated by the chaos of the French Revolution ­– the cliffhanger as a kind of early thriller. It still works in 2011.

We sent for Michael Haneke’s Caché when the media lit up about his 2009 mystery The White Ribbon. Haneke came to Telluride in 2005. Caché is lodged in my brain, maybe forever, damn him. It evokes a kind of creepy bourgeois anxiety, and the worst sort of surprise daytime nightmare, rendered all the spookier by Haneke’s dead-calm style.

On the lighter side, we remembered that Canadian Guy Maddin has been a festival favorite for a while; he’s visited twice, in 1990 and 1995. So, we ordered his 1992 film Careful and just about fell out of our seats laughing. It’s about a fictional Alpine village in which everyone goes about tiptoeing and whispering out of fear of setting off avalanches. Part of the fun is that Maddin made it look and sound like a serious 1930s German mountain film à la Leni Riefenstahl (TFF tribute 1974), complete with scratchy images and cracking soundtrack.

TFF’s long-time moderator Annette Insdorf inspired another choice. One of her favorite directors is the Pole Kristof Kieslowski, who came to Telluride in 1986 and again in 1991, with The Double Life of Veronique, one of the most visceral and enigmatic features we’d ever seen, or heard – Veronique is a violin student. Insdorf often mentions Kieslowski’s Decalogue, a series of 10 hour-long films he did for Polish television, one each for the Ten Commandments. We rented them all. If only HBO had the courage to pull off something as bold and smart as this!

In 1987 Terry Gilliam, late of Monty Python, came to Telluride with a film I didn’t see called Sans Soleil. I did see the next one he accompanied, a documentary, Lost in La Mancha (2002), about his brave, misguided, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make a movie out of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Based on the dreamer glint in Gilliam’s eye, I ordered his 12 Monkeys (1995), a sci-fi thriller love story that might not otherwise have crossed our radar. It was funny and scary and strangely believable, and I fell in love with Madeleine Stowe.

Plus, 12 Monkeys was inspired, Gilliam said, by Chris Marker’s La Jeté, a black-and-white 1962 time-travel classic from France that screened at the festival. Somehow the TFF had lured the reclusive Marker (hands in pockets, shades on always) to Telluride in 1987.

Not all of the TFF hot tips have panned out. The director Henry King was honored with a career tribute in 1975. The festival screened his 12 O’clock High (1964) and The Gunfighter (1950). Based on this, I ordered David and Bathsheba (our Hollywood Biblical epic quotient was seriously lacking) with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, from 1951. It was awful: stiff and artificial and even careless.

We Netflixed another bomb with the more recent Merchant-Ivory flick The White Countess (2005). It should have had the TFF magic imprint. The Indian-American team of Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory were honored at the 2001 festival. And the star, Ralph Fiennes, had been to Telluride, too, with Spider in 2002. But the movie lacked a key ingredient, we thought, whatever it is that makes you suspend your disbelief for two hours, whatever it is that makes you give a damn.

Probably the most unlikely and roundabout TFF connection to hit our flat screen at home lately was Death Race 2000 (1975). I could have sworn that Roger Corman, the legendary producer of exploitation films, had been a guest in Telluride, but I was unable to find his name on the rolls. If he hasn’t been invited, he should be. Death Race is about a cross-country car race in the future (the year 2000) that presages NASCAR and reality TV and all the violence and titillation that have become mainstream fare since. It’s tongue-in-cheek hysterical.

David Carradine has a lead role, one in which he obliterates his Kung Fu “Grasshopper” reputation. His brother Keith has been to Telluride many times, the first in 1980 as part of a tribute to Robert Altman (Nashville). David was in The Long Goodbye (1973), the obscure Altman film that screened in Telluride as part of the 1978 tribute to Sterling Hayden.

So there it is: six degrees of separation. The ideas for the Netflix queue are practically endless, and all flowing out of a box canyon in the southern Colorado mountains.

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