Two headlines often rattle in my noggin when I sit to write a final film festival piece: the above and “To fest perchance to dream.”
Like dreams, film fests are vivid, fragmented, deeply personal – and so very fleeting. Over time, the full measure of the beast usually evaporates, leaving glinting shards of memories. For me, that can be an entire film or, the frisson of smart programming met with an idiosyncratic viewing schedule. It can be a incandescent scene, an insight gleaned during a post-screening convo, or an interaction with a fellow filmgoer in no way anticipated.
Almost every film festival has embossed something on my memory. Even when no single film claimed lasting ardor something indelible has remained. But usually, the movies work their peculiar magic.
There was that long amble (with the most vexing of beloveds) toward the Brandenburg Gate. In the chill of Berlin at dusk, we gushed about and grappled with the Berlin Film Fest showing of Todd Haynes’s “Poison,” which we’d just seen. Me for a third time, her for the first.
Later that year, I was transported by Agnès Varda’s first tribute to Jacques Demy “Jacquot de Nantes” and shaken by Michael Tolkin’s darkest of faith tales, “The Rapture.” (Within the span of hours, no less; at least my memory insists they screened the same sunny day.) They couldn’t be more different: I’ve loved them since and mentally reference them often. Of accidental double bills, the most commanding remains a 2005 Telluride Film Festival one-two punch: I saw Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and then, shattered, hitched a gondola from Mountain Village to town to make the first-day screening of Bennett Miller’s “Capote.” At the time, I kvetched in my festival wrap about the density of that experience. It’s since become one of the most cherished of my movie-going past.
Tears snuck up during the Sundance press screening of "Once," in 2007, and gripped me again a few years later (same theater and very nearly the same seat) for a vastly different wonder, "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
There was the wild (and bone-headed) taxi ride from the wrong theater in Chelsea to the right one in Tribeca for the premiere of Alan Hicks and Boulder producer Paula DuPré Pesmen's wonderful Clark Terry doc, "Keep on Keepin' On." The theater doors had closed a few minutes before we arrived. An usher took pity -- and then some. She seated us in Quincy Jones's row beside the stars of the pic: No not, jazz legend Terry but pianist Justin Kauflin and his seeing-eye dog, Candy. Magical.
Closer to home, the memories took hold from the get-go. It started with the exquisite final day of the then Starz Denver Film Festival (my first!) when I attended an encore showing of Marco Tullio Giordana’s six-hour epic, “The Best of Youth,” at the Tivoli on the Auraria campus in 2003. It feels so right place, right time. Matteo’s startling departure from this mortal coil still haunts, still hurts.) Starz is no longer a naming sponsor, and Denver Film years ago made the Sie FilmCenter on Colfax Avenue its theatrical home, but Denver Film’s annual behemoth continues to mete out indelible moments. Plenty unfold on screen, others play out in the congregating of inspired or piqued festgoers, Some are delivered by a gaggle of panelists or captured in the back-and-forth of an onstage interview with a filmmaker.
I asked a few of Denver Film’s essential peeps what has stayed with them weeks after the November extravaganza. Which fragments of the dream remain potent once life returned to its more daily rhythms? Perhaps not surprisingly, some of their most tenacious memories hail from behind-the-scenes. After all, this crew is among the oft unheralded folks who stoke the city’s film furnace.
Russel Brewer, Box Office Manager.“My most vivid memory is being called back to the Pavilions after leaving for home at the end of a 15-hour day. Every theater was in the middle of a film when the fire alarm inexplicably brought the lights up and sent everyone for the exits. I rushed back with my stack of vouchers expecting chaos, annoyed guests, confusion. Instead, I found a large crowd engaged in joyful conversation just outside the front doors. Calm, happy folks eagerly sharing their thoughts on what they had seen, what they were anticipating, standing close for warmth, encouraging our staff with smiles and jokes. That's it. No anger, no frustration, no complaints. And when we got the all clear to head back inside, a quick cheer from the crowd. It could have been a logistical nightmare. Instead it made me feel gratitude and pride for our committed patrons.”
Shannon Pingel, newest volunteer. “I volunteered doing theater operations, helping at private parties and receptions; I worked two red-carpet events; I saw 11 films and attended the closing party. I made friends and caught up with old friends I hadn't seen since SeriesFest [the episodic TV fest that takes place at the Sie FilmCenter]. It was an incredible time! Even with all that, it’s easy to think of my most vivid memory: every single minute of Terrence Malick's “A Hidden Life.” I don't think I even moved during any one of its 174 minutes, I was so focused on the images and story. And to think I almost skipped it.”
Marissa Poppens, long-time volunteer. “The thing that has stuck with me most from this year's festival is the importance of ‘telling your story’ -- how that can impact others and maybe even start the healing process for someone. Going to the storytelling panel, watching “3 Days 2 Nights,’ and ‘Honey Boy’ -- they all focus on telling your story. I have a story to tell but have been scared to tell it. After attending the festival and talking to the various panelists, filmmakers and subjects, I understand that I need to start sharing my story to start my own healing process. The festival as a whole has always been about storytelling. For some reason this year, it really hit me.”
Josie Van Ness, bartender the Sie FilmCenter’s Henderson-Withey Lounge: “What stands out from this year was pouring Laphroaig. So much Laphroaig! Laphroaig is this really intense, smoky scotch. We had it on our specials menu. Laphroaig on the rocks -- called it ‘The Sundance Kid.’ [the classic western was among artistic director Brit Withey’s favorite films.] It was great to see people's eyes light up knowing it was Brit’s drink. A lot of folks drank it in his honor, and often hadn't tried it before as it’s kind of intimidating. I poured little half shots for a Denver Film family toast. Through a bit of wincing, we'd all comment on how it had actually been growing on us and laugh, Really, I think we all just want to be cool like Brit -- and that will never change. The Henderson-Withey bar will always have that green bottle on its shelves.”
Which leads me to my own dogged and melancholy – although just as often lovely -- through line of the 42nd Denver Film Festival: the heartfelt honoring of Brit Withey, who was killed in a car accident in March. From the opening-night screenings of three Withey faves (a commemorative tribute book by Ron Henderson and Judy Anderson for sale near the concession stand) to the closing night showing of “A Woman Under the Influence”; from festival director Britta Erickson’s “God dammit, Withey!” and mentor and fest co-founder Henderson’s choked-up sign off -- as well as all the tenderly, thoughtfully curated films in between -- the Denver Film family done Withey proud.
Today is Colorado Gives Day – and Denver Film is among the cultural institutions worthy of your largess. But here's an idea: Consider treating 2020 as "Denver Goes Year." If you’re not already one, think about becoming a member. Witness the ways Denver Film taps our humanity, makes us smarter, engages us the other 343 days of the year at the Sie FilmCenter with mini-fests – like Women + Film and Cinema Q -- or its Young Filmmakers Workshops, its National Theatre Live screenings and compelling indie film fare. That green bottle will always be on the shelf. Brit's spirit will forever infuse the joint. And Denver FIlm will continue a legacy even as it forges new ones.