The show must go on—Dispatches from the 48th Telluride Film Festival

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There was no show last year; it was called on account of pandemic. Just as well: Wildfires all along the West draped a burnt orange curtain inside Telluride’s box canyon and cut visibility from miles to feet. Movies are about looking, so what good is a film festival if you can’t see?

Thankfully, that was not the case at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. Instead, the beautiful blue skies and golden sunshine were shunned in favor of the sanctuary of a darkened theater. When François Truffaut said, “Movie-lovers are sick people,” he probably meant those of us who make this trek to watch movies rather than bask in the wondrous glory of nature.

Sick we may be, but happy we are to once again see movies shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. Over 50 titles were screened this past Labor Day weekend. Some, like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, were long-delayed because of COVID-19. Others, like Peter Hedge’s The Same Storm, were made because of and during the pandemic. Then there were the movies produced in COVID-free bubbles that felt so detached from our world they played like anachronisms. The latest from British filmmaker Joe Wright, Cyrano, falls into that category—a musical stage play adapted for the screen with Peter Dinklage playing the titular poet. The components are there, but the culmination is not.

The ones that did work spoke of loss and grief in profound ways. Film critic Manny Faber has a great line—“Movies are imbued with the DNA of their time”—but I would also like to add that the audiences are too. Take Marcel the Shell with Shoes On from the writer/director team of Dean Fleisher-Camp and Jenny Slate. There’s nothing blatantly COVID-referential about Marcel, but it is a 90-minute animated comedy about living in isolation and learning to come out of your shell. It’s funny and touching and genuine, and once the story kicks in Marcel achieves a profundity you might not expect from a small little shell with tiny little orange sneakers.

“It’s about processing things together,” Robert Greene said, introducing his new documentary, Procession. “And now you, the audience, is a part of that.”

Specifically, Green was speaking about his work—the story of five sexual abuse survivors seeking answers and the power to unlock emotions long buried under the guidance of a therapist specializing in dramatic recreation and Greene’s camera. Procession is a powerful piece of work, one worthy of many more words when the movie is widely available, but there’s something about that line, “you, the audience,” that sticks. Cameras and filmmakers can work in tandem to get at something—anything, really—but they amount to nothing if an audience isn’t there to absorb it or reject it.

“You, the audience.” I like that. I also like the moment in Marcel when Marcel talks about standing by the window and letting the breeze move through his conch. “It makes me feel connected,” the shell with the tiny voice says. It makes a sweet little musical whistle, too, and that’s not for nothing. There’s a beautiful moment when a movie’s working—I mean really working with an audience—where the audience starts to breathe together. Even feel together. “It makes me feel connected.” It’s about damn time.

Next stop: The Toronto International Film Festival. For more festival coverage from Telluride and Toronto, tune to Metro Arts on KGNU, Fridays at 3 p.m., and visit michaeljcinema.com.

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