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On Telluride's trendy turf, movie buffs think they've died and gone to heaven

TELLURIDE, COLORADO — Telluride, Colorado--Imagine you've stopped to catch your breath as you stand nearly 9,000 feet high in southwestern Colorado. The spectacular snowcapped mountains around you are begging to be climbed, explosively colorful wildflowers and rushing streams add to your Rocky Mountain high, and civilization and its discontents seem even farther away than Denver.

So what do you do? Scale that cliff? Fish for trout? No way. Instead, you go to the movies. Again and again and again in the course of a September weekend that transforms a former mining town named Telluride into a center of world cinema.

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Probably the most beautifully if improbably sited of film festivals, the 20th Telluride Film Festival proved itself the place to catch that hot New Zealand flick, ogle Hollywood stars, pay homage to an ancient cinematographer rescued from obscurity, and puzzle over first films by young American directors who may become household names tomorrow.

Infinitely smaller and more highbrow than most festivals, Telluride prides itself on showcasing new art films and older films deserving recognition. Telluride is also singular in that it absolutely refuses to release its schedule until the day before the festival starts, meaning the hundreds of cinephiles who head here are trusting souls.

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On the festival pipeline, it comes months after Cannes and days before Toronto and New York. A lot of films touted as receiving their American premieres at the New York Film Festival in truth have their first public screenings in this country at Telluride. (And yes, these movies will even get to Baltimore -- "The Joy Luck Club," for example, opens here Friday.)

Past Telluride festivals have included the first stateside look at "The Crying Game," "My Left Foot," "Reversal of Fortune," "Cinema Paradiso," "Roger and Me" and "Prospero's Books."

Celebrity second home

Many directors and actors accompany their films to Telluride to introduce them in an opera house, school gym, Masonic lodge, town park and other venues transformed into movie theaters for the occasion. If these starry types feel comfortable in Telluride it's because the mega-trendy town has become something of a celebrity second home. Oliver Stone, Oprah Winfrey, Keith Carradine, Peter Yarrow and Daryl Hannah are among those who keep houses here, and a few years ago Tom Cruise came here to marry Nicole Kidman. (The lanky Ms. Hannah was actually part of this year's festival with her directorial debut, a short film titled "The Last Supper.")

Although distribution deals are struck here, as at any film fest, the event's aura is more movie-buff heaven than movie-biz hard sell. Ranging from the highly commercial to the hopelessly arcane, almost all the films unspooled at Telluride force you to put on your thinking cap.

As German director Wim Wenders put it at one of this year's panel discussions: "Like a book, a film has 'lines' and you can read between the lines and invent yourself in the film. I have a feeling that Hollywood wants to make more and more films that leave no space between the lines. . . . Telluride is wonderful because it keeps up the spirit of movies [in which] you can read between the lines."

If the British presence was strong at this year's Telluride fest, it must have been partly because director John Boorman ("Deliverance," "Hope and Glory") was the guest director helping coordinate the festival schedule. Mr. Boorman also showed a 44-minute autobiographical film, "I Dreamt I Woke Up."

A festival highlight was a tribute to his fellow British director Ken Loach, who has championed working-class consciousness in such films as "Kes" and "Riff Raff." These films have a near-documentary feel and offer rough slices of life unlike any you'll encounter in "Masterpiece Theater." Mr. Loach's new film, "Raining Stones," about a jobless plumber in Manchester who'll do just about anything to buy his daughter a first communion dress, is a wrenching comic-pathetic portrait of a society of determined people who can't seem to come out ahead.

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Also unveiled was the new film by another British director, Mike Leigh ("High Hopes," "Life Is Sweet"). "Naked" concerns a smart but good-for-nothing bloke (David Thewlis) whose abuse of the several women in his life is often painful to watch. This bleak comedy was too long for my taste, but fans of spontaneously naturalistic acting will have a field day with it.

Yet a third Briton, Derek Jarman ("Caravaggio," "Edward II"), was represented by the most radical of all entries this year. Now blinded by AIDS, Mr. Jarman has elsewhere described "Blue" as his final film. There are no images on screen, however, only 76 minutes in which we sit staring at the totally blue movie screen. If this blueness approximates Mr. Jarman's vision today, at least our ears are filled with a soundtrack mixing Mr. Jarman's ruminations on death, snippets of music by the likes of Erik Satie and Brian Eno, and assorted conversations and street noises. If you commit yourself to sitting through it, "Blue" is often quite moving.

Continuing to more upbeat American cinema, 31-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh was the subject of a career tribute including clips from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Rush," "Last Exit to Brooklyn," "Miami Blues" and "Single White Female."

Specialty: hookers

She seems to have made a specialty of playing hookers, or at least women who are very assertive in movieland bedrooms. In person, though, she's exquisitely petite and soft-spoken. As she explained: "I know I'm very shy, but it's easy for me to escape into [screen characters]. In life I'm very self-conscious, so when I act it enables me to not be self-conscious anymore."

Ms. Leigh will be in three new movies this fall, so we were shown excerpts from Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," the Coen brothers' "The Hudsucker Proxy" and Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker."

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If Ms. Leigh's efforts will play in thousands of theaters nationwide, another notable presence at the festival will be known only to folks who travel the festival circuit and read scholarly film magazines.

At 85, the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is considered the oldest active filmmaker in the world. A dignified and vigorous introducer of his latest film, "Abraham's Valley," de Oliveira has had little commercial exposure in the United States. With a running time of just more than three hours, "Abraham's Valley" is a contemporary retelling of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." While one would not wish it a single minute longer, this is a masterful film that might even reach Baltimore by the year 2000.

A foreign film that definitely will get here is Wim Wenders' "Faraway, So Close," a sequel to his 1987 art-house hit "Wings of Desire." The sad report here: great filmmaking, disappointing film. In its favor is exhilarating camera work as angels swirl protectively over the citizens of a reunited Berlin. Also in its favor is a quirky international cast that includes Peter Falk, Willem Dafoe, Lou Reed and Mikhail Gorbachev. But the whole affair is too long, too unfocused and too pretentious.

Suffering no such problems is the wonderfully coherent "Farewell to My Concubine," by the acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige. Telling the tale of two Peking Opera actors, with decades of 20th-century history as backdrop, this sumptuously the atrical film also features that most iconic of Chinese actresses, Gong Li. This film is an absolute must-see when it reaches an art house near you.

Euro-intellectual

Also impressive, but in a head-scratching Euro-intellectual sort of way, is the new French language film by the Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski ("The Double Life of Veronica"). Rather confusingly bearing the same title as the Jarman film, Mr. Kieslowski's "Blue" stars Juliet Binoche as a woman who, after losing her famous composer husband and child in a car wreck, must decide what to do with his music and her life. If anybody ever asks you what makes an art film an art film, recommend this cinematic treat.

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FTC Among assorted other offerings, Canadian director Denys Arcand ("Decline of the American Empire," "Jesus of Montreal") was here with "Love and Human Remains." This comedy unconvincingly tries to connect a serial sex plot with a serial murder subplot. Although it doesn't work, there are some hilarious scenes along the way.

New Zealand-bred director Jane Campion ("Sweetie," "An Angel at My Table") uses that country's natural splendor as the setting for a gripping 19th-century tale in her terrific "The Piano." Holly Hunter stars as a mute Scottish widow who arrives in New Zealand for an arranged marriage to Sam Neill. Her piano is, in a sense, her only creative outlet other than communicating with her small daughter. Then she meets a guy who's gone native, a remarkably subdued Harvey Keitel, and has a torrid affair. Easily the most fiercely romantic movie of the year.

Decidedly non-terrific is the Canadian film "The Boys of St. Vincent," originally made for television but kept off it in some provinces because of its real-case-based story about priests sexually abusing boys in an orphanage. Although the film is an overly obvious dud, there was so much festival buzz over it that you'll no doubt see it in Baltimore.

Of the first films, co-directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee's black-and-white CinemaScope "Suture" is more apt with technique than with its story about questions of identity; and Lodge Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven" is a pretty good study of a schizophrenic killer that is most notable for its sophisticated sound mix. Also making his first feature, Norwegian director Knut Erik Jensen's "Stella Polaris" is an admirably poetic sequence of images of fishing village life from 1939 to the present.

And in stark contrast to these newcomers, there was a tribute to the 92-year-old cinematographer John Alton, who appeared very jaunty in his beret as he talked about such film noir items from the '40s and '50s as "T-Men," "I the Jury" and "The Big Combo." Though best known for his black-and-white wizardry, Mr. Alton won an Oscar for his color cinematography for the balletic finale of "An American in Paris." He removed himself from the Hollywood scene after shooting "Elmer Gantry" in 1960, and the Telluride program honchos spent years trying to track him down.

Equally rare was a screening of Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, "Fear and Desire" (1953). The then-23-year-old director hated his big screen debut so much he reportedly gathered up all the prints and destroyed them. However, the Telluride undercover agents managed to find what is believed to be the only surviving print and presented its first public screening in decades. A spare story about the moral dilemmas faced by soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, "Fear and Desire" is unexceptional as a film. But it could almost serve as a blueprint for "Full Metal Jacket" and hence is remarkably important for Kubrick fans interested in what the reclusive director was like as a boy wonder.

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Also little known is "The Last Stop" (1948), which its now 86-year-old Polish director, Wanda Jakubowska, introduced. Herself a former political prisoner at Auschwitz, she related how she returned there a few years after her release to shoot a feature film in the actual camp. The film has some actorly gestures that detract from its power, but the grim setting is often overwhelming.

And dipping into the cinematic grab bag, other Telluride offerings included French director Bertrand Tavernier's Paris police drama "L627"; a retrospective sampling of films by the 76-year-old Swedish nature filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff and his pupil, Stefan Jarl; music critic Greil Marcus presenting a program of rock videos; and a droll 12-minute Jim Jarmusch short, "Coffee and Cigarettes," in which Tom Waits and Iggy Pop try to out-deadpan each other.


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