Wednesday, September 15, 2010

San Antonito, New Mexico

Friends: Going off on my bike for a thousand miles or more makes for a good wind-down from a film festival. There is always lots to digest and reflect upon after a deep, multi-day immersion into the realm of cinema. Though Telluride's four days is just a third the length of Cannes, it is no less rich and intense, with a much more varied program and a much more intimately shared experience with many cinephile friends, some new, but quite a few more of long-standing.

My initial film withdrawal plan was a three-week, 1,500-mile ride back to Chicago through the mid-west. That plan was slightly altered when one of my long-time festival pals Lyndon offered me the opportunity to drive a 1971 VW station wagon he bought a year ago to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. It had been sitting in the driveway of another festival friend, Ross, in the mountains outside of Albuquerque. Lyndon is a man of great generosity and goodwill who would do anything for anyone, so I was happy to be able to do something for him.

I would still have a 1,500-mile bike ride but it would be broken into two segments--300 miles to Albuquerque, interrupted by an 1,800 mile drive, and then 1,200 miles through the eastern third of the country. I had no complaints with that, especially since my route from Telluride took me through Durango, home of another festival stalwart and great friend, Mark, an ardent bicyclist and outdoors man who has been encouraging me to visit for years.

Durango, population 15,000 at an altitude of 6500 feet, has long been a hotbed of cycling--road and off-road. It has been the home or base for many world class cyclists, including legends Ned Overend, Missy Giove, John Tomac, Tom Danielson and Bob Roll. Mark has ridden with all of them on Durango's weekly Tuesday night training rides that are virtual races and has been feeding me inside stories for years.

Fort Lewis College in Durango, known as "Colorado's Campus in the Sky," fields one of the best cycling teams on the collegiate circuit. Rebecca Much of Chicago, a junior world silver medalist, who was coached in Chicago by friend Randy Warren, raced for the college. Durango's relationship with cycling goes back to the 1800s. One of the several art galleries Mark and I ducked into as we walked about town had a large framed photo from 1895 in its window of a gathering of cyclists, male and female, posed on a rustic bridge in a nearby canyon. It was propped on an easel mounted on a vintage bicycle.

There were even more bike shops than art galleries in this semi-tourist town whose narrow gauge railroad attracts visitors from all over the world. Durango may have the most bicycle stores per capita of any city in the world. The walls of the largest of them was lined with several dozen framed and signed jerseys, many of them of world or national champions. The huge banner from the first Mountain Bike World Championship hosted by Durango in 1990 filled one corner of the shop. There was also a shelf of trophies contributing to make this shop a virtual Hall of Fame.

Coffee shops included cycling magazines among their reading material. Mark always has his choice of a number of places to watch the Tour de France on television. The recently published book by the blog superstar bikesnobnyc was on prominent display at the checkout counter of one book store on Durango's main street. The Snob competed in the Single Speed National Championships held in Durango a year ago. His caustic blog has a huge following in Durango.

Just a few blocks from Mark's bike and ski cluttered corner lot, not far from the center of town, is the legendary Horse Gulch mountain bike trail. It starts out as a steep jeep trail and quickly turns into rugged rock-strewn single track as it climbs high above Durango. Mark loaned me one of his light-weight front suspension mountain bikes, by far the best mountain bike I've ever ridden. I couldn't have managed the trail on anything less. It was still a harrowing experience riding through flood washed tracks barely a tire's width wide up grades that would have had Contador trembling. Mark just pranced along while I cringed fearful of toppling. I put a foot down all too often to remain upright.

The most harrowing bike episode came the next morning though when a police officer pulled us over on Durango's main street. It was early Sunday morning and there was no traffic to be seen. We were doodling along at a leisurely pace, still sight-seeing on our way to a pancake breakfast. We paused at each stop light and stop sign, but proceeded through a red light when there was no traffic either left or right nor seemingly behind us.

We expected a lecture from the young cop and perhaps a warning, but he said he had a "zero tolerance policy" for traffic offenses by bicyclists after witnessing a cyclist writhing on the street with a broken femur after running a red light. He was no doubt one of the young hotshots who zip around town. The officer acknowledged we weren't being reckless, but he remained firm in giving us a ticket. Initially he was going to give us both $105 tickets, but Mark accepted full blame, saying he was the one who encouraged me to go. I had been surprised how cautious Mark had been in our riding about town, much more so than I would have been. Mark intends to take the case to court. The street was a virtual pedestrian mall with side streets blocked due to a beer fest. A simple warning would have gotten Mark's attention and made him ride with respectful restraint for weeks to come.

After breakfast Mark accompanied me for twenty miles out of town on a secondary road parallel to the main highway. It was just a little further to New Mexico. I was greeted by a huge billboard proclaiming "Election Day, Nov. 4, Throw the Trash Out." I was hoping for more such rhetoric the next 200 miles through the arid countryside and Native American Reservations, but that was it. There was a billboard, though, advertising the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo several hundred miles away that offers 72-ounce steaks for free if one can get it all down in less than an hour.

It took a little while to get over the $105 traffic ticket before I could let my thought drift to the movies. Telluride's program offered up two must sees for bicycle enthusiasts. One was "The Illusionist," an animated feature by Sylvain Chomet, director of the bicycling masterpiece "The Triplettes of Belleville" from 2003.

Though the program notes didn't indicate there would be any bicycling in this movie, I knew its style alone would harken me back to the vivid images of "Triplettes." But it did have a second gigantic hook drawing any devotee of the bicycle in cinema as the story was based on a lost script by Jacques Tati, whose first film, "Jour de Fete" from 1949, featured himself as a bumbling and acrobatic bicycle postman. "The Illusionist" portrayed an animated Tati in his trademark brown trench coat as a magician embarking on a trip to Scotland.

Though there was no bicycling, not even on a unicycle, Tati did not fail to delight. If there weren't so many worthwhile films demanding to be seen during the festival, I would have squeezed in a documentary on Tati at the Backlot, which only had two screenings. That was one of quite a few films I wish I could have seen, but couldn't, more than I can ever recall at any film festival I've attended.

One of the highlights of "The Illusionist" was the introduction of the film by one of its producers. He commented that he was a "long-timer sufferer of film festivals" having attended them for 45 years. He said this was his first time to Telluride though and it was a most refreshing experience with its "total lack of cynicism." That was but one of many sincere accolades heaped upon the festival by film-makers who fully recognize the uniqueness of Telluride.

Critic Kent Jones, who co-directed "Letter to Elia" with Martin Scorcese commented, "I really love this festival. Its always an honor to be here." Darren Aronofsky, director of "The Black Swan," was awed by the idyllic nature of the town. During a conversation he was part of in the County Courthouse, it suddenly dawned on him where he was. He asked, "Is this a courthouse? What kind of crimes get committed in Telluride."

But back to the films. The program notes for "Here's Your Life," the first film by the Swedish director Jan Troell in 1966, promised a bicycle love scene. The film played at the festival two years ago as part of a tribute to Troell, but the film was so well liked by this year's guest director Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," it was one of the six films he was allowed to program. This nearly three hour long film about a young man in his late teens working in various jobs was one of Ingmar Bergman's favorites. The young man teaches a girl how to ride a bicycle and is rewarded with his first kiss.

That was about it in that film and the rest of the films that I saw as far as the bicycle was concerned, but I had no shortage of strong memories from the festival. I heard there was a significant bicycling scene in "127 Hours," Danny Boyle's movie about the hiker who had to cut off his arm when it was trapped by a boulder in Utah. I very much would have liked to have seen this film, but I held off, knowing I would have ample opportunity in the months to come. There were just too many one-time only events to see and rare screenings of lost or forgotten films, such as the 1926 documentary "Moana: A Story of he South Seas" by Robert Flaherty of "Nanook of the North."

As always, the three tributes were standouts. Laura Linney presented Peter Weir with his silver medallion on the Opera House stage after a series of clips from his films, including "The Truman Show" with Linney. Werner Herzog gave Claudia Cardinale her medallion, as he directed her in "Fitzcarraldo," which received its world premiere at Telluride in 1982. Todd McCarthy conducted a sensational interview with Colin Firth during his tribute.

A conversation between documentarians Errol Morris and Charles Ferguson moderated by Scott Foundas may have stolen The Show. Though Ferguson earned a PhD at MIT in political science and didn't make his first documentary, "No End in Sight" on the Iraq war followed up by this year's "Inside Job" on Wall Street, until 20 years later, he said he always wanted to be a film-maker. Foundas interjected, "I'm sure that's true of you too Errol." Morris retorted, "I never wanted to be a filmmaker and I'm not sure if I want to be one now." He said he had worked as a detective for several years investigating wrong-doing on Wall Street. That perked up Ferguson. He was surprised to learn, too, that he had the same agent as Michael Moore, Rahm Emanuel's brother. For an hour they fed off each other, thrilling the fifty or so of us in attendance at this rare event.

Just a dabbling of the multitude of memories.

Later, George


Andrew said...

I was done for running a red light on my bike two weeks ago. It wasn't even a flagrant offence, just rounded a corner at the moment the light turned red. I think the cop was also annoyed because he had to turn on the lights and siren on his motorbike for me to realise he was there - beeping his horn just made me think I had a taxi behind me. $57 for a red light on a bike in Sydney...

Stuart said...

The only two bicycle blogs I read are this one and the New York Bike Snob's. The NYBSnob's blog goes on and on about the crazy driving of bicyclists in NY City. Especially the fixed gear bicyclists' antics are making many people angry at all cyclists. I'm not trying to justify traffic citations for cyclists, but maybe the police involved have a chip on their shoulders for this reason. Places with high numbers of cyclists probably also see high numbers of traffic violations involving cyclists. Have I run some red lights on my bike? Yes, yesterday at 5:30 AM at an intersection with no cars.

george christensen said...

Stuart, I appreciate all your thoughtful and relevant contributions. Do you add comments to the Snob's blog as well? Whenever I give his comments a scan they are rarely more than a few chirping words of affirmation about whatever he's written.

Stuart said...

Woah!!! What an honor! I wondered whether you ever read the comments to your blogposts.

I have always been deeply suspicious of the comments on Bike Snob's blog. You are right, the first twenty or thirty seem to be "Dang, I wasn't first!" or some such inane comment. I suspect that's how he became the top bike blogger, he gets the most comments. But some of the comments towards the middle and the end are far too witty and I suspect that the Bike Snob has started writing some. "Anonymous" seems to be the most frequent poster there.

But I do think the Bike Snob's blogposts are quite funny. He is right on the money with his skewering of over-priced consumer goods and bad bike riding etiquette.

Your bike touring stories from Africa are far more gripping. I went back and read all the ones from your trip to South Africa. My hats off to you, you go where all others fear to tread!

george christensen said...

Stuart: You have so much to say and are so well-traveled, do you maintain a blog yourself? Sorry I wasn't aware of you when I toured Japan. Would have been nice to meet you.

Stuart said...

George, I moved to Japan in mid-2003 and before that I lived in Germany for 6 years. Teaching English also takes you everywhere. But one thing I find really sad is that I lived in Chicago from 1981 to 1997 (mainly Ravenswood) without ever meeting YOU! I love bicycling for commuting and recreational purposes, but never really thought about seeing the world on a bike. Your stories really are fascinating. No, I don't have a blog. My Japanese wife does and she seems to spend night and day on it. She doesn't come to bed until 3:30 AM.