Out of Grasp

At the Telluride film fest, facts are slipping into thin air.

DRIFTING IN A gondola down the abrupt box canyon walls, from the 10,000-foot level of Tom Cruises megamanse to the Putt-Putt golfsized Wild West town of Telluride, Colo., I inhaled inebriating thin air and marveled that a film festival in so otherworldly a setting should be so preoccupied with matters of fact. Foremost among its patrons is the original reality programmer, Ken Burns. The worlds most successful documentarian, Michael Moore, was a Telluride discovery as well (the 1989 fest was the first time anyone, including the director, saw the finished print of Roger and Me).

What Telluride is noted for among the worlds best film festivals is its exaltation of art over biz: Bertrand Tavernier says its for those who live for the cinema, rather than those who live on the cinema. At Sundance, youre trampled by heat-seeking industry monsters; at Telluride, you belly up to the bar with Peter OToole or Manny Farber and sit at the feet of Richard Corliss, who once began a debate with Roger Ebert thus: Roger, you ignorant slut!

Part of the art of Telluride is its ongoing debate about what reality can mean on film. Ken Burns is not a passive camera recording reality, like Christopher Isherwood. At Telluride, hearing Burns poke fun at himself (I bleed red, white, and blue), we see the patriotic frame that contains his work. His brother Rics Donner Party documentary from 1992, which premiered at that years fest, showed a family resemblance revealing the artists reality-shaping hands: slow camera pans of old photos, sonorous Old Testament narration. To compare their rigorous historical-mindedness with roguish Moores factual insouciance he treats the world like his personal Silly Putty eggis to radically rethink how malleable reality can be.

Yet most of this years Telluride hits were fiction: the six-hour Italian miniseries about the 60s generation, Best of Youth; Von Triers Dogville; the astounding Destino, a Disney cartoon by Salvador DalĂ­ who claimed to be making docudrama about his own mind: I know the crazy places in my head and how to get there; the difference between me and other people is I know the way back out).

But look at the other important flicks, mostly docu-bios, of On the Waterfront author Budd Schulberg, The Empty Space author Peter Brook, Vietnam War co- author Robert McNamara, two Andean mountain-climbing near casualties, and The New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass, all with luminaries on hand. The reality-conscious Krzysztof Zanussi, who ended his film The Year of the Quiet Sun with a Western vista inspired by a previous visit to Telluride, won a career tribute, suggested in part by this years festival guest director Stephen Sondheim.

THE ARISTOTELIAN unities of the Labor Day weekend festthree and a half days long, about three blocks wide, screening new and old films alikeimposed a delicious intimacy on the film pilgrims, and even the movies seemed to be locked in improbable conversations. Pontecorvos 1966 quasi-doc The Battle of Algiers (reportedly with local regular guy Norman Schwarzkopf in the audience) traded insights with Errol Morris McNamara film, Fog of War, and Brooks 1968 Vietnam-bashing film, Tell Me Lies. In one case, time converted a fantasy film into a virtual documentary: Schulbergs horribly prescient 1957 indictment of celebrity culture, A Face in the Crowd. Gus Van Sants Elephant performs the opposite trick, turning his quasi-re-creation of Columbine into an utterly ethereal tone poem akin to Tarkovsky and Wings of Desire. He filled a real Oregon high school with actual, untrained students improvising dialogue, flooded it with natural light from its big windows, and wound up with the most accurate and unreal teen movie ever made.

Tellurides top realistic movie was Shattered Glass, the most obsessively detailed depiction of the editorial process Ive ever seen on-screen, much better than All the Presidents Men in this respect. It shows how young Mr. Glass fabricated unbelievably funny articles about hackers, Monicondoms, and cokehead neocons, snowed the smartest editors on earth, covered his tracks with enterprising incompetence, and then finally got exposed. A guy next to me in line whose daughter was Glass classmate assured me Hayden Christensens performance was uncannily accurate.

Yet I still found the film in crucial ways fanciful. The New Republic comes across as a demanding place full of mutually supportive peopleentirely at odds with how insiders portray it. Lets face it, name publications are writhing snake pits; editors are sculptors whose medium is human flesh. TNRs nicest editor once opined that the ideal writer is one who turns in his story and gets hit by a bus. Glass late TNR mentor, Michael Kelly, is revered by all, but hes also said to have been inclined to get his Irish up; Hank Azaria plays him as infinitely mild and calm, a warm muffin. In the movie, the TNR staffers are noble as the Chariots of Fire harriers. Every big-time newsroom Ive seen is Lord of the Flies populated by pugnacious Piggys. Even this, the most truth-seeking of films, is also inevitably selective, a colored lens.

TELLURIDES MOST penetrating lens was found in Fog (expected to reach Seattle in early 04), unquestionably the central, most historically important movie in town. In it, pushing 90 but still sharp and cunning, McNamara fences with off-screen interrogator Morris about the contradictions of his astounding life. A deeply moral and surprisingly emotional man, McNamara applied biz-school wizardry to the incineration of Japan, advised JFK not to heed Curtis LeMays urging to nuke Cuba, was defense secretary for JFK and LBJs Vietnam debacle, then wrote books abominating his generations clueless obeisance to the Domino Theory and American unilateral militarism.

McNamara attended the fest, and after the screening, The New Yorkers Mark Danner pressed him to admit that LBJ shouldve leveled with America about Vietnam (instead of being a slimy, tall-tale-telling Texan like Bush). McNamara said of course he shouldve, but LBJ was afraid the right would crucify him if he told the truth. That begs the question! Danner saiddidnt we support the war because of LBJs lies? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, thats not my answer, McNamara replied. He still likes to control the narrative, and he vowed hed have much more to say on the Fog DVD. Dont answer the question they asked, McNamara advised, answer the question you wish theyd asked.

The following morning, Errol Morris was at the next table at the coffee shop, so I asked him whether there ultimately is any documentary reality. Yeah, well, megalomaniacs never want to admit that the real world exists, he said. This postmodern idea that there is no reality I find completely abhorrent.

I was thinking about this because Werner Herzog and his dishy bottle-blond babe sat in front of me at Fog, and I had once tried to get Herzog to discuss a book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, which had an essay about the factual background of his film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Herzog irritably refused even to look at the book, waving it away like a mosquito. Gus Van Sant (in his book, Pink) recalls Herzog telling him theres no such thing as making a reality film it would be like trying to grab at motes of dust in the air.

Herzog later spoke on a panel titled Working From Reality: How Much Docu, How Much Drama? Me, I vote for Morris and the docu faction. But at Telluride, the war over facts was all part of the drama.


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