When I Paint My Masterpiece: Dispatches from the 2017 Telluride Film Festival

If it’s not a labor of love, then it’s a labor of something,” Errol Morris said, drawing a laugh from the Friday morning audience. Morris’s comment referred to his latest work, the four-and-a-half-hour docudrama Wormwood, but was applicable almost every time the lights went down and the screen lit up this past weekend at the 44th Telluride Film Festival.

There really isn’t a film festival like Telluride. Every Labor Day weekend, the small mountain town is transformed into a moviegoer’s paradise. The local hockey rink becomes the Werner Herzog Theatre, a convention hall celebrates the work of animator Chuck Jones and a small patch of grass along the main drag transforms into the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema. Over 50 movies are screened throughout the holiday weekend; some labors of love, others labors of something, all highly personal.

Few more so than Wormwood, Morris’s documentary about a father’s death, his son’s obsession, the C.I.A. and LSD.

Wormwood revolves around the strange death of U.S. Army Scientist Frank Olson, a man who either fell or jumped to his death on Nov. 28, 1953. Those options, “fell” or “jumped,” never sat well with Frank’s son, Eric Olson, and in Shakespearean fashion, Olson spent the better part of his life trying to understand what really happened.

Morris has spent his life uncovering the unsavory truths lies hide, but in Wormwood, the 69-year-old filmmaker takes his style to the next level and paints his masterpiece. Wormwood is a powerful reminder: What we think we saw, we may not have seen at all.

A lifetime in cinema permeated many of the movies at Telluride, no less than Agnés Varda’s delightful Faces Places. Varda (89 years young and not missing a step) aligns herself with popular street artist JR, and travels around the small towns of France, photographing townsfolk, and pasting their portraits on decaying buildings.

Agnés Varda and JR in Faces Places. Image courtesy Cohen Media Group.

Much like Morris, Varda concerns herself most with what it means to photograph a person or place, and how that photograph relates to memory—making Faces Places just as much about Varda’s career as it is about the art project at hand.

The same applies to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed—the best movie at the fest and his personal best in over a decade.

First Reformed is a searing drama about Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man who uses his faith to build the walls of his isolation and the radical cause that will bring him to action. Like much of Schrader’s best work, First Reformed moves into uncomfortable spaces, but they are familiar spaces—the spaces where despair waits.

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. Image courtesy A24.

There is no despair in Lady Bird, the directorial debut from actress Greta Gerwig, just humor and humanity about Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, never better), a Catholic high school senior itching to get out of Sacramento, California, out of her working class home, and out from under her caring, but sometimes overbearing, mother (Laurie Metcalf).

Unlike Morris, Varda, and Schrader, Gerwig, 34 years old, is at the beginning of her career. But like these three, she has produced a profound and personal work of cinema. The fall/winter movie scene is starting to look a lot brighter.

Saorirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird. Image courtesy A24.

The above report first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 5, “Best in show.”