One of the ongoing threads in the Doonesbury comic strip involves young Alex Doonesbury, a student at M.I.T., and a film she made for her Women In Politics class.
It started after the election in November. Alex had been working a rumor-countering, pro-Obama website through the feverish days and nights leading up to the vote. With Obama’s victory, she is briefly adrift. Then, during a lecture about 1960s Congresswoman Lacey Davenport (“the last GOP moderate” according to the professor), Alex learns that her grandmother had worked on Davenport’s election campaigns and as a Washington, D.C., staffer.
Davenport died of Alzheimer’s years ago, but Alex’s grammy, Joanie Caucus, one of the original Doonesbury characters, is still around, and Alex decides to make a class-project video on Davenport’s career, shot on her cell phone, featuring interviews with her grammy and others who knew Lacey.
Things are going great, in Alex’s mind anyway, although we know that she has a tendency to over-confidence, grandiosity even. Before she even starts editing, she tells her roommate that she’s thinking of submitting her film to the Sundance Film Festival. Then, in the midst of an interview with a tattered homeless woman, a woman that Lacey, in the latter stages of her disease, mistook for her own sister, Alex blurts out: “Anyway, I’m submitting my film to Sundance, although everyone says Telluride is a better fit. Whichever, we’re sure to be the toast of the town… Omigod, do you have anything to wear?”
So Garry Trudeau knows about the Telluride Film Festival. Many, many people know about the TFF, I realize. But to have the name spoken in a comic strip, by fictional characters some of us imbue with something very like life, seemed a special validation.
Bill and Stella Pence, who started the festival on a shoestring in 1974 and handed off a greatly expanded and hugely admired enterprise to new directors two years ago, always struggled with publicity. There was never enough.
Actually, they guaranteed themselves an ambiguous relationship with the film-world press. They refused to give out free passes to media. And they actively discouraged paparazzi in order to protect festival guests.
That was a big part of Telluride’s ethos: famous (and possibly fragile) film people could come to the mountains and be assured they would not be attacked, followed, photographed, or fondled. At least not too fondled. I remember Clint Eastwood standing on a boulder at the Labor Day picnic (it was up on the ski mountain then) and marveling, quite stunned really, telling the few people with him that anywhere else in the world he would be mobbed. Guaranteed.
The festival cultivated a reputation for very high standards, and as a getaway for purists. It was place to see new and old movies, non-commercial rarities, emerging cinema from emerging cultures. It was not strictly about Hollywood premieres, or indie film. It was not a place where crazy business got done à la Cannes or Park City. And because of these choices, Telluride remained – outside of film’s inner circles – less well known than brash upstart Sundance, for instance.
So, there it was in full-color newsprint, Sundance and the Telluride Film Festival in the same sentence. With Telluride coming out on top! At least in Alex Doonesbury’s universe.
The upshot on Alex’s film went something like this. She’s showing the project to her adviser on a laptop. The adviser doesn’t really see the moment of excruciating political tragedy Alex is pointing out. “I’ll tell you what I do see, though,” she says. “I see jerky, lo-res, cell-phone images with no narrative structure or basic continuity. It’s all very… what’s the word I’m looking for here?”
“‘Game-changing,’” Alex volunteers helpfully. “Thanks. I know.”
“‘Unwatchable.’ That’s it,” her prof says. “‘Unwatchable.’”
This being a cartoon world, Alex takes the news hard for just one day. (She had purchased a non-refundable ticket to Telluride.) Two days later she bounces back to form, telling her roommate: “I’ve got to get a tighter grip on my goals here and stay focused. I have to remember why I came to M.I.T. in the first place… to win a Nobel – not to go to some dumb film festival.”
Whatever. Telluride will take the compliment.