Eclectic excellence at Telluride


The air may be thin in Telluride, a former mining town perched high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but there was nothing thin about the offerings at the the 22nd Telluride Film Festival held Labor Day weekend.

Offering, as always, an eclectic mix of American independent films, foreign imports, student films and archival items, this tiny but prestigious festival gives movie mavens a real feel for the cinema Zeitgeist. It also acts as a preview of some likely art house hits that'll open in cities like Baltimore in the months


Baltimore even figures into one of the films that generated the most festival buzz. Baltimore-bred actor Josh Charles stars in "Pie in the Sky" as an earnest young guy whose obsession with making a career in traffic reporting in Southern California leads to highway overpass dates with his girlfriend (Anne Heche), whose own obsession is to make her career in modern dance. Writer-director Bryan Gordon, who won an Oscar for his short film "Ray's Heterosexual Male Dance Hall," has created a warm and funny debut feature that's likely to make audiences smile, applaud and even blubber.

If they are rising talents, Christine Lahti is an established acting talent who garnered a lot of festival attention. Her supporting role as a sizzling seductress in "Pie in the Sky" was complemented by her directorial debut with a 40-minute film called "Lieberman in Love," about a prostitute (Lahti) who falls in love with a customer (Danny Aiello). If the story sounds hoary, the storytelling is charming.

But if new movies are the promotional function for the film festival circuit, Telluride distinguishes itself with equal attention paid to celebrating old-timers, too. How appropriate that in this cinema centennial year there was a mesmerizing program of short movies made starting in 1895 by the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere.

Also screened was the silent Soviet experimental film "The Man With the Movie Camera." Although the movie has always been available, director Dziga Vertov's long-lost instructions for live musical accompaniment were recently rediscovered by a cinema archivist and led to the commissioning of the Massachusetts-based, three-member Alloy Orchestra to compose a percussion-mad score to make this "city symphony" of a film come alive.

Among the still-living cinema legends is Telluride regular Chuck Jones. The 83-year-old animator presented a new cartoon, "Another Froggy Evening," which even includes a critical, thumbs-down character who looks suspiciously like Roger Ebert.

Also in attendance was veteran Hollywood director Vincent Sherman, 89, who appeared with a screening of his 1942 film noir-ish "The Hard Way," starring the late Ida Lupino. And, moving closer to the cinema history of our own era, documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman was here for a 20th anniversary screening of his 1975 movie "Welfare."

So the new jostled with the old on the Old West streets of what has become a new resort town. Directors and actors mixed with festival-goers and the locals. If fest-goers needed a quick critical fix on what to make of some movie, they could tug on the elbow of two writers brought in to help coordinate this year's schedule: Novelist and film critic Phillip Lopate and film critic Andrew Sarris.

If seeing so many movies and so many movie folk had moviegoers seeing double, in a sense they were seeing double. Walking down the street were both the Starn Twins, the twin brother photographers who designed this year's festival poster, and the Brothers Quay, the American-born but London-based twins known to a cult audience for their puppet animated shorts.

The Brothers Quay screened their first feature, a live action movie called "Institute Benjamenta." Based on a novel by the Swiss-German writer Robert Waiser, it's a Kafkaesque story about an institute where servants are strictly trained in napkin folding.

The new film by John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Sunday Bloody Sunday") is called "Cold Comfort Farm." It is infinitely better than the one in current release, the depressingly terrible "The Innocent." Derived from a 1932 satirical novel by Stella Gibbons, it's about an orphan (Kate Beckensale) sent to stay with rural relatives. This is a hilarious send-up of English class relations and eccentricities. As Mr. Schlesinger smilingly told an audience: "It's the first feel-good movie I've ever made."

Another new British film that scored is "Carrington." Playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton makes an impressive directorial debut with this funny-sad Bloomsbury saga about the unconventional amorous relationship between the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce, in a performance that won the Best Actor award at Cannes) and the painter Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson).

Also sure to please Anglophiles is "Persuasion," director Roger Michell's screen version of the Jane Austen novel. You're likely to be hearing a lot about Amanda Root's lead performance (also a period movie that burns even more candles than Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon").

Many a literary movie date also will be made for the latest movie from Polish director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa," "The Secret Garden"). Her "Total Eclipse" offers one of the most tantalizing pairings of the year, namely, the homosexual relationship between l9th-century French poets Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). The hotshot young American actor and the anything-goes British actor (remember Thewlis in "Naked"?) kiss like they really mean it. The script is by the ubiquitous Christopher Hampton.

Moving away from highbrow literature and to lowbrow American culture, director Gus Van Sant ("Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho") presented the wicked and witty "To Die For." The Buck Henry screenplay from Joyce Maynard's novel gives us Nicole Kidman as a TV weathergirl wannabe whose bartender husband (Matt Dillon) seemingly stands in the way of her success. That isn't a very safe place to stand in our media-fixated society. As Mr. Van Sant observed of his movie: "It's a commentary on television culture, in which so many of our dreams are shaped by what we see on television and ultimately our dream is to be on television."

The role of the media in society also figures into longtime American independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport's latest movie, "From the Journals of Jean Seberg," which cleverly edits together film clips featuring the late actress with actress Mary Beth Hurt as the "ghost" of Seberg discussing why the star of Godard's "Breathless" killed herself in 1979. Akin to Mr. Rappaport's earlier "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" in its comic audaciousness, it's a must-see for cinephiles.

A sampling of Chinese movies at this year's fest included another must-see. Director Zhang Yimou ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern") made the long journey to bring us "Shanghai Triad," an atmospheric crime drama set in the Shanghai of the 1930s. His usual star, the beautiful Gong Li, hits the exotic costume shop for her role as a cabaret singer kept by a mob boss.

Also generating interest were director John Duigan ("Sirens," "Flirting"), with "The Journey of August King," which features Jason Patric as a fellow in early l9th-century North Carolina who befriends a runaway slave played by Thandie Newton; and French director Bertrand Tavernier ("A Sunday in the Country," "Round Midnight"), with a crime drama titled "Fresh Bait."

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