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Surveying The Peak Moments At Telluride

September 07, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS

TELLURIDE, Colo. — David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," an astonishingly beautiful and deeply disquieting piece of Gothic Americana, was the hot topic at the 13th annual Telluride Film Festival last weekend. Audiences either hated or loved the film, but no one was heard to deny the originality of the maker of "Eraserhead" and "Dune."

Approximately 1,300 people--stars, directors, exhibitors, distributors, teachers, critics and just plain movie lovers--headed for this old mining town-turned-posh-resort in the Rockies for the three-day film marathon. They honored the old and the new, the famous and the obscure.

During Telluride's 13-year history, festival directors Bill Pence, Tom Luddy and William K. Everson have created a special non-commercial atmosphere in which it is possible to appreciate film in all its diversity. At Telluride it doesn't seem strange to find the latest film by Russian emigre Andrei Tarkovsky cheek-by-jowl to the action-filled Republic serials of William Witney, so clearly an inspiration to Stephen Spielberg.

Directors Alexander Mackendrick and Jiri Menzel and actress Isabelle Huppert were paid special tribute, and sex, humor and politics on the screen were this year's panel discussion subjects.

Telluride perennials, documentarian Les Blank and West German director Werner Herzog, were elsewhere this year, but there was plenty of compensation as James Stewart, Robin Williams, Jerry Stiller and Laura Dern charmed locals and visitors alike. And at dinner at Telluride's Victorian Sheridan Hotel you were as apt to find designer Ralph Lauren at the next table as a contingent of East European film makers.

As rewarding at it was to have critic Manny Farber and James Stewart to discuss the fine, under-appreciated Westerns that Stewart made with Anthony Mann in the '50s or to rediscover Rouben Mamoulian's delightful 1935 film "The Gay Desperado," the major impact of Telluride was in the tough-minded, illuminating and always highly personal reflection of contemporary life to be found in the best of its new films. A survey follows:

The centerpiece of the festival was unquestionably Soviet emigre Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice." Made in Sweden, it has a Bergmanesque flavor with its small gathering of family and friends in an island setting and in its Swedish cast, headed by the superb Erland Josephson. In this increasingly surreal and highly symbolic odyssey, which incorporates a Faustian motif with Tarkovsky's familiar preoccupation with parent-child relationship, Tarkovsky raises the question of whether civilization, in all its richness, is equal to the threat posed by a nuclear holocaust. The images, which bleed from muted color to black and white, are among Tarkovsky's most beautiful and dreamlike.

In its deliberately disturbing way, "Blue Velvet" pushes to the limit a dramatic art form's ability to sustain prolonged morbidity. And it caused a definite reaction among festivalgoers.

When Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern start playing detective, Nancy Drew-Hardy Boys style, they stumble upon the pitch-dark underside of Norman Rockwell small-town Americana. In its bleak moments, "Blue Velvet," which centers on Isabella Rossellini's lush, tormented lady-in-distress, has a dark, Edward Hopper film noir look and mood.

In its uniquely powerful and stunningly ambiguous way, "Blue Velvet" deals with sexual awakening and with the traditional American denial of the capacity for evil.

"The River's Edge," which was directed by Tim Hunter ("Over the Edge" and "Tex"), is as raw and jagged as "Blue Velvet" is confidently stylized. Inspired by an actual incident, it deals with the appalling apathy with which a group of high school kids respond to the strangling of one of their classmates by another--and suggests just how desensitized people can be to violence.

If "Blue Velvet's" vision of Inferno is of the imagination, "The River's Edge" is that of a documentary-like realism. Hunter, however, has allowed the talented and angular Crispin Glover to go over the top as the kids' speed-freak leader; the calmly commanding Keano Reeves is a real discovery as the one youth in the group who gradually discovers he possesses a measure of moral imagination. "Blue Velvet" and "The River's Edge" are strikingly linked, not only by concerns, but by the unsettling presence of Dennis Hooper, playing crazies in both films; hatefully in the first, pathetically in the second.

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