36th Annual Telluride Film Festival All Weekend, Sept. 4-7

[click for Gary Meyer’s conversation with Susan about the Festival program]

Pasted Graphic It is deja vu all over again as the curtain goes up on the 36th annual Telluride Film Festival, this weekend, September 4 – September 7. The picture on the world screen is dark as pitch: war, genocide, political debauchery and corruption, economic bubbles burst. If there’s a silver lining, the toughest times may produce the greatest art – or not.

In 1929, after the global stock market crash, the top grossing film was “The Broadway Melody,” escapist treacle based on a backstage show business love triangle. “Broadway Melody,” MGM’s first musical, was also the first sound film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The recession of the early 1990s produced “Home Alone,” a feel-good family classic featuring an eight-year-old left behind when his family heads out for a Christmas vacation. In 2001, the year America lost its innocence – and possibly its mojo – the trifecta of 9/11, the collapse of the dot.com bubble and corporate scandal led to another socio-economic contraction. The film to beat: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” a movie about a boy magician and his fight against Voldemort and the forces of evil. (Parsing the metaphor is child’s play.) Which brings us to the present crisis and the sanguivorous. (And more obvious metaphors about blood-suckers.)

“‘There Will Be Blood.” The title of the Oscar-winnning epic about family, greed, religion and oil could just as easily be used to describe the non-stop parade of the undead, who – or, is it which? – have been dominating pop media the first decade of the 21st century. (“True Blood” is about to trump “Sex and the City” as the most-watched series in HBO’s history after the “Sopranos.) Vampires: Will the 36th annual Telluride Film Festival succumb to their spell? “Thirst,” a movie about a priest who becomes a vampire won the Jury Prize at Cannes, a favorite hunting ground for Telluride Film Festival scouts, and, if memory serves, its director, South Korean director Park Chan-wook, was a former Telluride Film Festival guest. (He certainly fits the profile, offering a full frontal on tough subjects such as vengeance.) My guess, even before reviewing the program, probably not.

The founders of the Telluride Film Festival, Bill and Stella Pense and Tom Luddy, have always marched in lockstep to their own drum, forsaking The Industry for the sake of the art of filmmaking, which may be a good thing since it appears The Industry, the Hollywood shock and awe machine, is in need of a major reboot. After two decades of what seemed like unstoppable growth from cable and video revolutions, film executives find themselves in a pickle: the recession has caused DVD sales to tank, megawatt stars are experiencing an energy crisis and the credit crunch has make financing new movies challenging – although lines at the box office since last December suggest Tinseltown is manufacturing one of the few products beleagured consumers still want to buy.

Casting aside our cares and woes, it is time to give ourselves over to the psychic charge. Feel the frisson? Hear the buzz? The excitement in the air is primal, palpable. Over this long Labor Day weekend, voyeurism is not considered kinky. It is a way of life. People who like to watch trade off Colorado blue skies for the silver screen, burrowing in dark theaters, where they get to watch other people making well lit, larger-than-life spectacles of themselves. The Telluride Film Festival does not play the fame game in any way. It does not pet celebrities: on the streets, actors, directors, producers, critics, cinematographers, and film buffs walk side by side talking. In lines, they all freely discuss the films they have just seen or are about to see.

What Telluride Film Festival guests are about to see, however, is a very well kept secret. The Telluride Film Festival is closemouthed about the list of films, filmmakers and tributees until the first day of the Labor Day weekend gathering. Last year a rag-picker to riches fairy tale emerged triumphant. What will be this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Strictly Ballroom,” or “The Crying Game”? Today is the day the cat is out of the bag. Hole up and be enthralled as eros and thanatos duke it out on the silver screen.

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