Because my travel arrangements last year had me driving ten hours from Denver to Telluride I’d decided this summer I would simply make the drive directly from Los Angeles. There wasn’t anything remarkable about the trip except that I listened to two books — Dan Savage’s latest, and The Devil in White City, recommended by a few friends. Both of them helped pass the time, along with the ever changing American landscape that, in two days, took me across California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. California doesn’t offer much once you leave the coast, or the Sierras. It’s a relief to finally exit the overcrowded state into less populated areas. I was seeing parts of these states that I’ve never seen before and that is the only thing I remember.
That, and New Mexico’s green foundation, with sharply defined buttes that seem to be placed there purely for aesthetic purposes. Which came first, the beauty or our ability to recognize it? Clouds hovered over them like angels encased in billowy cotton. New Mexico was visually worthy of Georgia O’Keefe’s devotion to it on that afternoon, her interpretation of the landscape and the landscape itself were matched.
I soon found myself driving through the Navajo Reservation. Though the area is predictably depressed, there was noticeable pride in the signage. Once you leave the busier areas you begin to see gardeners with booths on the side of the road selling vegetables they’d grown. It seemed to me a thriving community that just needs a little more economic prosperity.
When you’ve driven that length of time, and you’re so desperately moved by the infinite beauty America affords, you know that sooner or later an epiphany is coming. It will be delivered unto you just by looking. Mine came at the moment when I was finishing my 16-hour drive and heading up the more familiar Colorado mountains towards Telluride. A rainbow appeared out of nowhere.
A rainbow, as if to touch down the last brush stroke on a masterpiece.
The epiphany was this: it’s a wonderful thing to be alive and to pass this spot on the planet at this exact moment that the sunlight was slicing through the coming storm. Though I wouldn’t know it then, this vision would color the films I was about to see. The way it would color them was that I would see the art created by the filmmakers here on par with the art nature herself creates.
Telluride was socked in by a rainstorm. It wasn’t going to be a night for going out but a night for bed. I’m staying at the Mountainside Inn and each time I connected to the wi-fi I recognized so many journalists names who were staying in this hotel, on this same floor. Funny that we could all be so close, sharing a wi-fi connection, and yet separated completely. At some point there were too many of us logged on so their modem simply shut down. That was my cue to turn off the lights and close my eyes, with the greens of the leaves, the glittering water of the rivers, the blue of the expanse of sky burned in my retinas.
The next morning I picked up my badge, met up with Jeff Wells of Hollywood-Elsewhere, and stood in line to attend the Patrons Brunch. The line took upwards of an hour and each time a new person I knew passed by we’d let them cut in line with us, which was probably frustrating to the people behind us. We finally boarded the bus and the took the long and winding road up to the top of the hill to have lunch, drink champagne and talk to the guests.
My colleagues, because they’re actual journalists (and I’m not) take it upon themselves to strike up conversations with Alexander Payne or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, or T-Bone Burnnett, or even Robert Redford who was there to promote his unforgettable performance in JC Chandor’s All is Lost. At one point, Frances Ford Coppola joined the party. When Redford went up to talk to him many of us trained our cameras on them, rather rudely I might add, but that was one of those moments you can’t pass up. I got yelled at by a publicist or something who said “this is not THAT movie.”
The brunch was a fine affair, nearly worthy of Gatsby himself, only replace the wide-brimmed hats and gloves with TEVAS and fleece. One table had eggs and sausage, another fruit salad, cheese and bread, greens. There was coffee and water, wine and beer and lots of champagne. The sun sent down blistering shards of sunlight until they were mercifully blocked by the puffy clouds.
It’s surely hard to be a celebrity at the Patrons Brunch because everyone wants to talk to you. It wasn’t quite as bad as the year George Clooney was here with The Descendants. Clooney in the house is a frenzy making scenario. Here, there was Robert Redford and there was everyone else. Robert Redford.
The publicist for All is Lost introduced me to Redford (translation: forced me to go over and say hi), which was among the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. Why, people might wonder, would Redford inspire such internal chaos? Because I’ve grown up with him and his work. I’ve watched him in films, I’ve watched him make films. I’ve watched him invent and build the Sundance Film Festival. I call All the President’s Men one of the best films ever made. Ordinary People, Quiz Show and A River Runs Through it are films I return to again and again for what they say about physical beauty, for his devotion to this duality — always focusing on the character who isn’t the pretty one. Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, John Turturro in Quiz Show and Craig Sheffer in A River Runs Through it. For one of the most beautiful people who ever lived, Redford has meditated in his filmmaking about how that is only one way to look at a person and it’s seldom the right way.
I shook his hand and babbled something silly and incoherent and promised myself I would never meet anyone ever again and politely backed away from his table. “I am not worthy” are words I think I spoke. Out loud. I did. I horrify even myself.
I then spoke briefly with JC Chandor, who wrote and directed All is Lost, just as he’d written and directed Margin Call. He told me that it took Redford only a few minutes to decide that he wanted to do the film. Later that night, at his tribute, Redford would say that JC was the only participant of the Sundance Film Festival to ever ask him to be in a movie. But for now, I spoke to Chandor about Redford’s unity with nature, flashing back on my drive and on the ways I’ve seen Redford capture natural beauty, specifically with A River Runs Through It, that looks like so much of Colorado, even though it’s Montana. All is Lost, I told him, is in keeping with that element in Redford’s sense of things. Chandor agreed. I didn’t ask him what made him think up this script. I wish I had.
As we made our way back to the shuttle for a ride down the hill, I was left with a crowd of about 50 waiting and waiting for the last bus to finally come and get us. We had to be at the 2:30 screening at the Chuck Jones, the “Argo slot” they call it.
As we were waiting, I met with an old Twitter friend Michael Patterson who runs a Telluride blog and returns with his wife every year. We glanced back at the long line behind us and there was Inarittu and Adèle Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Colour. Did they not know they were VIPS? A short while later, I happened to glance out to a field where Exarchopoulos had decided to enjoy the scenery with her boyfriend. I couldn’t not take a picture, even though it felt like an invasion of privacy. To me it summed up, once again, how great it is be alive. They are so young, so in love with the moment that they would sit in the grass and look at the hills.
Finally we were collected and deposited back on the valley floor where we had to immediately gondola it up to the Chuck Jones. Jason Reitman was present to introduce his new film Labor Day. In go the patrons and the bloggers. While being one of the last remaining attendees to stand in line for food a very pretty girl standing in front of me turned around and said “Sasha?” It was Tomris Laffly who runs PopCorn Business. http://popcornbusiness.blogspot.com — we’d known each online for what seems like years. It was great to finally meet her though we didn’t have much time to talk since the doors were closing and the screening was starting.
A woman next to me began to openly weep as the film came to a close. I found myself crying too, and all around me sniffles and tissues coming out. If you were to put into words why the film produced that effect you’d be hard pressed to find them. Then came the usual thing of walking out of the theater and listening to the people outside discuss the film. Most of those I heard loved it. But there were a few dissenters. Hours later it would become fodder over at Hollywood-Elsewhere where Jeff Wells would declare it a “misfire” and a few would chime in in support — Chris Willman said he didn’t believe anyone was crying, that was how much he hated it. For the record, he hated Argo too, though last year he might have been the only one.
After the film I had time to recharge my dead phone before heading down to the Palm. Todd McCarthy was the film critic responsible for the Redford Q&A but before that, a short tribute featuring Redford long career as an actor in Hollywood starting 51 years ago. He told many stories of lessons he’d learned over the years that influenced how he’d gone about defining what kind of artist he’d become. One was that his first television appearance was getting booed on a quiz show. He next told of doing a play in New York and of having the audience clap loudly each time an actor left the stage. They went to Sardis afterwards and everyone applauded them as they came in the door. The mood was celebratory, everyone was having a great time until the reviews came in. They were bad. Really bad. At that point, he said, he knew how fake everything was, how fickle people were, and how you could never tell how things were going to land. The work, he said, that was what mattered in the end.
A profound statement coming from a director whose later films have been mostly panned by the critics but who has, nonetheless, kept working. He also said that he grew up poor. His aim was to give back if he ever became a big star — you take something, you leave something.
It made me think that we’re lucky to have a man like Robert Redford around who keeps putting back in what he’s taken away. I’m not sure what, ultimately, the explosion of film criticism/blogging has done to films, or what film critics have done overall to the growth of the industry in any given direction, but I do know, and I’ve always believed, that we need the doers more. We need people who are less concerned with pleasing a handful of people with particular tastes than with putting it all down on paper, putting it on film, and handing it to us for our pleasure, enlightenment, entertainment, joy.
We will always have a need for smart, thoughtful critics who bring more to the table than they take away. We need less of those willing to deliver the death knell to a film that has barely taken root. In truth, we need people who understand that sometimes it takes days to ruminate on a film to decide whether it works or not. We need people to get out of the way sometimes and let the audience decide. I am not sure who it serves to get out in front and declare a movie as thoughtfully put together as Labor Day a “misfire.”
But this is the game we play every year. This is the game we’ve signed up for. This is how movies are judged, picked apart, welcomed or tossed. Anyone who doesn’t see the insanity in this is living in a dreamworld. We all move so fast through it we barely notice how bizarre it all is. But it is bizarre.
I came back to the hotel in the pitch black of night. I drove through an empty field looking for my parking lot and there were two dogs roaming whose owner had let them run free for the night. They didn’t know what was out there but when they were caught by my headlights they stopped running. I backed out slowly in respect of their realm.
I was too tired to do much of anything but shut out the lights and fall asleep. I told myself I was tired because of the altitude but it might have been that I was caught in the spell of Robert Redford, his wisdom, his generosity of spirit, his willingness to wake up every day and head back out there — what a thrill to be alive.