Film and TV

Denver Film Festival's Red Carpet Return

Face coverings were a new element of the Denver Film Festival's red carpet experience.
Face coverings were a new element of the Denver Film Festival's red carpet experience. Photo by Michael Roberts
Go ahead and call it a comeback for the Denver Film Festival.

True, the 43rd annual fest took place in 2020, but owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, screenings were virtual with the exception of a few in-person events, such as a freezing cold drive-in showing of Nomadland at Red Rocks. So the November 3 return of the festival to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House for opening night, not to mention a full slate of screenings at actual theaters through November 14, felt like an important step for the city's cultural scene.

The mere fact that hundreds of movie lovers were able to gather for the fest's 44th iteration more than compensated for the many shortcomings of Spencer, a Princess Diana psychodrama whose stench will linger far beyond the walls of Windsor Castle. But dubbing the get-together a return to normalcy isn't quite right, since the ongoing impact of the pandemic was hard to miss.
click to enlarge The vaccination verification process ran smoothly. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The vaccination verification process ran smoothly.
Photo by Michael Roberts
DFF44 attendees must be vaccinated, and staffers outside the Ellie were serious about ensuring that no one like Aaron Rodgers slipped past, directing ticket-holders to an office set up to verify their status. Personnel set up at rows of tables checked vaccine cards (I showed a photo of mine, and that worked) and affixed orange wristbands durable enough that they can be left on for the run of the festival — though replacements are available should people prefer to offer proof before the next showing.

The process was quick, seamless and efficient — no big deal.

Once my wife and I were properly banded, we were allowed into the red carpet area near the Ellie's entrance. Fewer filmmakers strolled the rug than usual, and many of the photographers and assembled journalists present were masked; the fest is also mandating face coverings. Those posing kept their mugs bare, however — at least until they went inside.
click to enlarge Striking a pose on the red carpet. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Striking a pose on the red carpet.
Photo by Michael Roberts
For safety reasons, paper tickets were replaced by bar codes displayed on phone screens — and this upgrade was a positive, too. Still, the ease of gaining access was likely also a result of a crowd far below sellout size. Perhaps two-thirds of the seats in the Ellie's main area were filled, with a handful of folks on the second level and none at all that I saw on the third. The attendance felt transitional, with some people more ready to gather in a theater than others, but at least social distancing was possible. There was an open chair between us and the nearest party.

Inside the Ellie, mask-wearing could be spotty. At least half the people in the audience kept their faces covered at all times, while the rest tended to either intermittently mask up or eschew the garb entirely. The group behind us, for example, seemed to believe that talking about buying drinks was as good an excuse for leaving their noses and mouths exposed as actually consuming a beverage. But the setting never felt uncomfortable, since anti-vaxers were specifically not invited.

A few minutes after 8 p.m., Denver Film CEO James Mejia took to the stage and spent several minutes acknowledging that the festival was taking place on ground that had been the home of Indigenous peoples long before Caucasians set foot in Colorado; such land acknowledgments have become common in public buildings over the last year.
click to enlarge Denver Film CEO James Mejia at the lectern on opening night. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Denver Film CEO James Mejia at the lectern on opening night.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Mejia was followed to the microphone by artistic director Matt Campbell, who talked up the wide variety of festival offerings before lauding Spencer, the latest film by director Pablo Larraín, who seems to be making a specialty of depicting famous women in painful circumstances; he also helmed Jackie, in which Natalie Portman portrayed Jackie Kennedy shortly after her husband's assassination, which closed the festival in 2016. And like its predecessor, Spencer proved to be pretentious twaddle made even more insufferable by Larraín's heavy hand.

An on-screen graphic described the film as a "fable about a true tragedy" — a harbinger of the pomposity to come. As Diana, who is portrayed during an imagined three-day holiday period after her marriage to Prince Charles was well beyond saving, Kristen Stewart delivers most of her dialogue in an exhausted whisper, which serves to both telegraph her inner torment and make it impossible to tell if her British accent is acceptable or not. Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight take advantage of this tremulous performance by pushing Diana's well-known eating disorder to the forefront and ladling on symbolism that's about as subtle as a mushroom cloud in a field of daisies. It's not enough for Diana to simply be reading a book titled Anne Boleyn: The Death of a Martyr; they have an apparition of Boleyn appear to her, like a sister of doom, just in case the audience is too stupid to make the connection. Such points are underscored by a soundtrack by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, whose string-quartet atonality is so oppressive that a brief sing-along to Mike & the Mechanics' dreadful "All I Need Is a Miracle" comes as blessed relief.

Can't wait for Larraín's next film, Melania, which will feature long shots of Alicia Vikander, as the former first lady, watching dolefully as her husband yells at people while an animated bluebird on her shoulder mournfully goes, "Tweet. Tweet."

As the credits rolled, the Ellie quickly began to empty, but the mood of theater-goers still seemed upbeat. After two years away from an opening night at the Denver Film Festival, even watching a terrible movie in one of the city's most gorgeous venues was worth celebrating.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts