Todd McCarthy: Telluride, And Movies, In Absentia

To rework an exchange William Wyler and Billy Wilder had at Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral 73 years ago: “’No more Telluride. ‘Worse than that, no more Telluride films.’” That’s the way I, and I know many others, feel with the announcement that the best-curated and, due to its small size and remote setting, most rarified and pleasurable of American film festivals has canceled its 2020 edition.

Right up to this week, festival personnel had been screening more new titles in its perennial effort to the show the best work the world of cinema has to offer entering the festival-loaded fall season. A serious cinephile destination since its inception in 1974, Telluride took more than 30 years to become, in spite of itself, the gateway to what is now called awards season; the first locally premiered film to go on to win the Best Picture Oscar was Slumdog Millionaire, from 2008 (Brokeback Mountain should have won three years earlier).

Festival co-director Tom Luddy, the only one of Telluride’s founding team still on board, said that the titles of about 20 would-have-been festival entries will be revealed in a few days. This will at least provide some insight into what key tastemakers regard as among the best films of the year, even if critics and the public will, at this point, have nothing to say in the matter.

This dramatic forced change in the way new films will enter the world and the public’s consciousness raises quite a few questions as to whether we’ll ever return to business as usual when it comes to the launching of pricey new items like films. For some time now, the major September and October film festivals—Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York, in particular—have served as the launching pads for the most-anticipated titles, and word gets out very quickly from those media-loaded venues.

However, with everything now in turmoil due to the coronavirus, accepted standard practices could become permanently upended, or at the least significantly modified. Yes, there are bragging rights, ego massages, prestige and other collateral benefits to be enjoyed by filmmakers making the rounds of top-flight festivals. Yes, the public hears and sees more about such events now due to pervasive media coverage. And, yes, the path to awards, fame and increased income has, of late, led many filmmakers into the belly of the beast with the hope of rewards and, yes, awards, potentially awaiting them when they come out the other end.

But habits and practices change easily and quickly these days based on our grim circumstances and ever-onrushing new technology, so nothing can be taken for granted. Over the weekend I saw two big new titles that, based on their stars and production values, would qualify as “films” in anyone’s book, Greyhound and The Old Guard. Both premiered on home screens without any prior exposure or advance reviews. Both were satisfying in that they delivered the promised goods.

I would have been happy to see both of them in movie theaters, but I must admit that I don’t think catching them at home on a reasonably sized screen detracted much at all from my appreciation. If anything, Greyhound may have benefited a bit from the smaller screen in that the CGI-manufactured Atlantic Ocean swells and assortment of Navy ships might well have looked phonier on a big theater screen than they did on the tube, where they still appeared fake but nonetheless acceptable.

Aaron Schneider’s film is taut and tightly focused, a tense “mission” film like so many other war dramas. I could have done without the prelude and coda of Tom Hanks and Elisabeth Shue as his lady friend. But what struck me was that the script, written by Hanks himself, was daring to the point of being radical in that 99 percent of the dialogue consisted of military orders, firing instructions, nautical updates, urgent warnings and all other forms of off necessary shipboard communications. If one were to simply read the script, you might imagine you’re an Annapolis student being given a final exam. That Hanks and Schneider were able to use this as the blueprint for an engrossing drama impressed me considerably, no matter how conventional are the action and dramatic arc.

If Greyhound is traditional in nearly every respect, The Old Guard is kick-ass modern, from its rough and sometimes outrageous action to its unexpected sexual matchups. The film is precisely 12 minutes too long—no more, no less—and I suspect that, with its robust fight scenes and relentless quest for new locations, it would have played even more effectively—and eye-fillingly—on the big screen. And yet this one, and not Greyhound, was the film always intended to be watched at home.

During the long, enforced absence from film theaters, which now looks destined to continue for months to come, are even we big-screen die-hards being weaned, whether we like it not, from the shared cinema experience provided by theaters to a relative comfort level with seeing “films” privately? Will the universally shared coronavirus experience actually provide the final turning point away from the now less-universally shared memory of watching films in the dark with strangers as opposed to watch them at home, either alone or with a handful of others? At this point it looks like we won’t know the answer this year, and recent reports of a big Sundance party late last January having lit the fuse for some early significant contamination might well cast a pall over festivals as well as cinema re-openings for months to come.

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