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Telluride Diary: In the Big Muddy

Rain, wind and cold enveloped the splendid valley of Telluride as the film festival came alive for patrons and press. Occasional showers usually keep the sunny village in green but a full-blown storm was unexpected. Out came the umbrellas and down jackets. It was a welcome change for me and Emma, leaving behind the suffocating heat of Los Angeles. Our drive brought us through the Four Corners where last year we acquired a dirty, scruffy stray puppy.  That puppy is now a full-grown member of the family and our travel companion a year later. Telluride is, if nothing else, the land of dogs who roam with their owners leashless, probably because when there aren’t festivals clogging up the roads with rental cars this is a walking town.

This year’s festival had a strange feel to it. For one thing, there was no Fox Searchlight party. Their movies have bypassed the festival this year so they had no reason to host a party. In its place are parties for films like Suffragette and Steve Jobs. I skipped both those, given that I was writing on deadline. That meant I didn’t get to meet Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet or Aaron Sorkin.  I would spend the weekend pretending like that didn’t matter.

I watched Meryl Streep watch He Named Me Malala’s Q&A with Malala herself joining in via satellite. Streep seemed to pop up everywhere. She was at the Spotlight screening, too. It goes without saying that all actresses are always much more beautiful in real life than the camera can ever capture and this is doubly true of the age-defying Streep. At first glance I thought I was looking at her daughter. I didn’t see Streep at the Patron’s Brunch that morning, however. The rain and cold did not keep people away from the brunch where festival goers huddled up in line to get hot coffee and hot food.

I spoke briefly to Rooney Mara and she was saying how she wanted to see so many films while she was here. Later, she asked me what audiobooks I was listening to. “Oh, this one is called Head Full of Ghosts and it’s about schizophrenia, and I’m listening to another one about Climate Change.” She had a concerned look on her face for me, but I appreciated her curiosity. Not many famous people are so inquisitive. That’s the great thing about her — she’s a thoughtful person who isn’t much into the usual Hollywood bullshit.  I also got an opportunity to speak with Todd Haynes, the absurdly talented director of Carol. Our conversation started off on the subject of marriage equality and how it is so much in the news now. I told him my fears that the fight would continue with martyrs for the cause of hate turning up almost daily. But Haynes said he thought that the tide had permanently turned and that we should not fear our country taking a step backwards.  Eventually we got to Donald Trump of all people. Haynes was saying that the country had a macho asshole (my word) as our president for eight years. Then we got someone thoughtful in office and now America wants another macho asshole in the White House. I bet he’s right about that.  You’d be hard pressed to find anyone as easy to talk to and as kind as Todd Haynes.

I also had a few words with Room’s Brie Larson. “I’m a mom,” I told her. “Oh, you shouldn’t see this movie then,” she half-joked. Like Rooney Mara, she was more interested in seeing other people’s work than talking about her own but seemed to be enjoying the mountain view. I would see her later, after a screening of Room, and was able to circle back to the part about being a mom and watching a film about a mother who is being held captive and forced to raise her young son. I told her I thought the film was a powerful message about motherhood and what it means to call a place home. Home is whom we love and those who love us.  As she acknowledged by convoluted comment I thought about how nice it is to be able to talk to Brie Larson now, on the eve of her career explosion.  Someday she will be too big to talk to the likes of me.

I’d finally met an old friend from the web — Mark Johnson, who writes for Awards Circuit. He walked around with me from screening to screening. With cords spilling out of my bag, newly formed food stain drying on my shirt, a general sense of confusion about where I’m supposed to be going next, Mark was very kind to help “fix” minor catastrophes. This was his first trip to Telluride and he was learning as he went along. So far, so good. He’d met Brie Larson on the plane and would later report being able to buy Rachel MacAdams something to drink. His first Telluride and he was already way ahead of me, even though I’ve been coming for five years or so.

With the first few films kicking off the fest it really did feel like we were on the verge of maybe having it be a Telluride, and an Oscar season, that might be about women after all, with Suffragette, Carol and Room setting of a trio of explosions. It wouldn’t be long, though, before the testosterone rolled into town in the form of Steve Jobs, Black Mass and Beasts of No Nation. When there is a balance of both kinds of films — when there is room for everybody — it’s hard to find anything to complain about.

The rain wasn’t planning on letting up any time soon. Walking down the muddy trail at night felt like trekking in another country. Fog spilled over the mountains and the gondolas tipped and weaved in the air. Riding back from Malala with Kris Tapley just as the Aretha Franklin story was breaking we saw a rainbow. It covered the whole village in a perfect vibrant half-circle. We all photographed it until we slid under it and it disappeared.  Moments later Instagram would light up with the moment captured forever.

We don’t often appreciate the role of technology in our lives. Since the film Steve Jobs is one of the high points of the festival I could not help but think about the way his ideas have helped shape the way we interface with the world around us. The iPhone put a camera, music, a phone and a web browser in the palm of your hand. Someone built a Periscope app and I was able to generate a live feed of the Danny Boyle Q&A for anyone interested in it to watch from anywhere in the world. Technology can’t make your world more beautiful but it can capture fleeting moments of beauty like trapping a butterfly forever under a glass jar.

There isn’t any way to adequately describe the beauty of this place. It sounds cliché even to try. Even with the rain.  The camera can only capture so much. Mine tends to find the dogs; always with the dogs. But every so often you look up to the sky and there are bursts of blindingly white clouds tumbling slowly forward, filling up the circle of sky above us. The sunlight makes them glow brilliantly. The drops of rain dotting rooftops also light up — and all at once the magic of Telluride unfolds. That magic was always here whether people ever arrived or not.

The festival has flown by. I haven’t had a chance to see my good friend Alex Billington, but I did get to meet another old friend, Kenny Miles. And I got to see Michael and Kris Patterson, Tomris and Eric Laffly, Chris Willman, Jeff Wells, Pete and Madelyn Hammond. Even without the parties we caught brief hellos waiting in line for screenings.  There is barely enough time for that. There is never enough time for anything. Too many movies are left unseen. Parties are left unattended.

Today I will be seeing a climate change documentary called A Time to Choose, and later Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. I feel so lucky to be able to do this every year. I fall back in love every time. That love is as dizzying as the high altitude. It leaves us with beating hearts and delirium. What better way to spend the end of Summer.

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