Championing Unknown Gems

The Telluride fest has launched many of the small-picture hits in the US over the past 17 years. FILM: INTERVIEW

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS the 17th Telluride Film Festival ground to a halt and the crowd returned to civilization, festival general manager Stella Pence dashed off the last round of checks. Though she worked quickly and intently, writing even as the interview began, she looked serene. The whole festival, as intense as it sometimes is, reflects Ms. Pence's ardent calm, moving along smoothly, deliberately. Moments of unpleasant tension are few. The staff is invariably polite, friendly, and helpful - as if each member is part of a happy conspiracy. Charged with discovery, the festival produces an atmosphere that is oddly refreshing. There are many reasons for the unique ambience of the Telluride Film Festival; Stella Pence is one of them.

Another is her husband, Bill Pence, co-director with Tom Luddy. When the Pences met nearly 20 years ago, Bill owned and directed a classic-film distribution company, Janus Films. Stella was hired as his only assistant. They married a year later and the next year began planning the first Telluride Film Festival.

``Working together is terrific for us because we both love movies,'' Stella says. ``For the main things in life we really are on the same wave length. We're never at a loss for something to talk about. I mean never. We have just as animated conversations now as we did the day we met.''

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Telluride growth and evolution have been nurtured by the Pence's marriage, because, as Bill says, ``We each know our own space and respect what the other does well.'' Their love for the movies spawned a festival dedicated to uncovering the unusual, the neglected, and the forgotten masterpieces of the cinema. The festival is marked by a very particular style that has nothing pretentious or self-conscious about it. It involves the selection of films with balance as a priority.

Telluride has always championed the unknown gem, and tends to favor films by women or third-world filmmakers or young new directors over the established directors. The festival has launched in the US many of the small picture hits of the last 17 years - films like ``My Dinner With Andre,'' ``Au Revoir, Les Enfants,'' ``Babette's Feast,'' ``Cinema Paradiso,'' and ``Roger and Me'' among many, many others. The great Russian director Andr'e Tarkovsky debuted two of his greatest masterpieces in Telluride, where he received a tribute in 1983.

In fact, except for the historic films, nearly all of Telluride's offerings are US firsts, and many are world premi`eres. Telluride still champions the avant-garde when most other festivals no longer even acknowledge masters like Stan Brakhage and James Herbert.

Bill had contacts in the film industry, and since he owned and operated a chain of theaters in ski areas, he knew how both distribution and exhibition worked. The Telluride Film Festival sprang up in 1974 with neither of the co-founders expecting it to last more than a year.

But it was a good idea, highly successful with guests, and it did last. It became, as Stella put it, ``part of the cycle of our lives. Spring comes and you plant the film festival seeds, hoe it all summer long, harvest in the fall, and hole up for the winter.''

In the spring, the Pences attend the Cannes Film Festival with co-director Luddy. They split up to see pieces of films all day and report back to each other. Mr. Luddy and Bill then selects the films they will invite to Telluride. Over the summer they solicit films from other sources and are solicited to see films - in various stages of completion. Once Luddy and Pence make their final selections (with input from Stella), Stella takes over inviting the guests, getting them to Telluride, managing staff, and overseeing the festival arrangements. Stella is the festival's only full-time employee. Bill earns his living directing the film program at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Luddy is a film producer and director of special projects at Zoetrope Strudios in California.

Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson has attended the festival since 1977. ``Sometimes they are ahead of the trends,'' she remarks. ``One high point for me was seeing the films of [Russian director] Larissa Shepitko and the early films of [German director] Werner Herzog before they caught on.''

The festival also dedicates a significant portion of its programming each year to the masterpieces of the past. For Ms. Benson the festival's invaluable contribution lies in what it teaches about film. This year, for example, the festival presented the restored classic ``L'Atalante'' by Jean Vigo. A few years ago, it was Abel Gance's ``Napoleon.''

Some of the films are controversial in nature and stir up testy discussion among festival goers. But it says a lot for the festival that when one doesn't like a particular film, it will still incite frenetic discussion.

A seven-hour drive from Denver and an hour-and-a-half from the nearest real airport, Telluirde lies 7,000 feet above sea level surrounded on three sides by mountains in southwestern Colorado. The little town is only about eight blocks long.

`I THINK the thing that's magic about the festival is its hot-house atmosphere. It's very intense because it happens in such a short frame of time and because people are collected together very closely,'' Bill says.

Yet the most impressive element of Telluride's style - besides the highly selective list of films - lies in the intimacy and freedom of the event. Directors, actors, and writers are treated with the respect due their achievements, but no one is placed on a spot-lighted pedestal for the rest to ogle. The Pences have worked hard to minimize the star-glamor factor. An etiquette has developed over the years among faithful festivalgoers who know the Pences' style: The famous are never annoyed on the streets of Telluride, but anyone may be politely approached (for an interview, congratulations, or even a discussion) at approriate moments. Even Clint Eastwood was free to walk the streets of Telluride this year without cameras flashing in his face.

Denver Post critic Howie Movshovitz, a festival-attender since 1976, recalled, ``I once met [French director] Jacques Demy when sitting next to him in a theater. He told me that what he liked was that all the people he talked to at Telluride were serious and knowledgeable. Telluride is so intimate, so gracious. The Pences treat the festival like their home - and it has that kind of graciousness about it that makes people comfortable.

A small army of loyal volunteers returns yearly, paying its own way. Even the paid staff are actually volunteers, receiving only the most modest of stipends. Yet they return again and again. Paul Hochman, a young producer of film and print advertising for 20th Century Fox and AT&T, volunteered for the first time this year and wants to return next year as a volunteer. ``It made me feel terrific - surrounded by the thing I love. The filmmakers are not on their guard because there are no star-gazers.'' It was a pleasure for Hochman to work the festival because he had friendly interaction with filmmakers he respects and because he encountered no tiresome hierarchy of authority.

The harvest now in, the festival, as always, a success, the Pences return to their ``normal'' lives. They have two daughters just breaking into the teens and family centers their attention year- round. The children have grown up with the festival and with the seasonal alterations in their parents' time commitments. Next year, they too will attend the 18th Telluride film Festival.

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