TELLURIDE, Colo. — Glasnost seemed to have come to the Telluride Film Festival with a vengeance Labor Day weekend. The openness was demonstrated not only in the unchaperoned presence of Georgian director Tenghiz Abuladze and his landmark film "Repentence," which in so many images equates Stalinism with repression, but in the festival's own efforts to deal with its seeping bad rep--mutterings underground and observations in print that the warmth that had marked Telluride's earlier years had eroded; that it had become "smug, self-congratulatory, elitist."
Perhaps in a deliberate effort to prove its critics wrong, what emerged was vintage Telluride--programming with a warm heart and a cutting edge.
Festival co-director Bill Pence's opening remarks had a mollifying ring to them. They were partly the usual chalk-talk about finances, ticket lines and the specialness of the place itself, and partly a moving description of the two men in whose memory this 14th festival was dedicated: the celebrated Andrei Tarkovsky, who received "his first tribute anywhere here in 1983," and young Malcolm Goldie, unknown except in Telluride, the tireless and beloved Opera House manager who died of AIDS in April. These two, whose life's direction was changed--in Pence's view--by their time here, symbolized the opposite poles of Telluride.
Pence's speech was affecting and disarming; it also carried the tone of a director not unaware of certain internal problems. What no one could have guessed was that these remarks prefaced one of the most challenging and better-run festivals in recent memory. It may have gotten off to a late and shaky start after one of those enveloping power blackouts for which southwestern Colorado is famous, but when it ended late Monday, with a sweating, pumping Chuck Berry onscreen in the barn-burning documentary "Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll," the 14th festival had become one for the memory banks. When it was good, it was very very good, and when it was bad, it was unforgettable.
What are the ingredients for such a festival? First you need one world-class artist, virtually unknown in America, imported for a magical unveiling: Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Larissa Shepitko, Abel Gance. For 1987, take Tenghiz Abuladze of the U.S.S.R., but most specifically a Georgian, and as the program notes quote: "It is nearly impossible for a Georgian to make an ordinary movie," a notion richly reinforced by Abuladze's breathtaking work on view here.
After Cannes, of course, he is hardly a secret and "Repentence" is soon to be at other major world festivals. The particular Telluride spin on the ball is to show the two films which precede his intentional trilogy on the subject of repression, as well; the black and white "Molba" from 1968 and the searing colors of "The Magic Tree" from 1977. And of course, there was the courtly Abuladze himself, utterly without an official companion, answering gravely (through his interpreter, San Francisco-based journalist-writer Olga Carlisle) every question posed to him, watching other films, poking intently into Telluride's hardware store.
Next, one needs a great name from American cinema, preferably one insufficiently honored in the past: Richard Widmark, art director Ben Carre, Henry Hathaway. This year's great notion was to put the meticulous craft and pungently ironic personality of Don Siegel in the spotlight, in one of the most rewarding tributes in years.
Finally, there needs to be a buzz-film: that utter surprise which fires every imagination: "My Dinner With Andre," "Testament," "Koyaanisqatsi." This year it was Louis Malle's mature and piercing "Au Revoir Les Enfants," based on "the most tragic memory" of Malle's wartime childhood, the "Lacome, Lucien" era, perceived with perfect clarity, understanding and suppleness.
Add to these such discoveries as Barbet Schroeder's "Barfly," from a script by Charles Bukowski, unexpectedly funny, ribaldly alive and played (by Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway) to a fare-thee-well; Souleymane Cisse's gorgeous and haunting ritual story from Black Africa; "Brightness," which understandably won this year's Jury Prize at Cannes, or the richness of a morning spent as director/author/critic Lindsay Anderson and Harry Carey Jr. spun a web of personal reminisence about John Ford, and you have some notion of this year's more powerful moments. A real coup came in the presence of the elusive Chris Marker, as his experimental "La Jette" and "Sans Soleil" were shown.
At the other end of the spectrum was the deliberate baaaadness of John Waters, whose dry wit, pencil-moustache and stand-up introduction to the great old days of movie hucksterism was tons o' fun. And there was the inadvertent awfulness of Andrei Konchalovsky's "Shy People," starring Jill Clayburgh and Barbara Hershey. A cross-cultural odyssey, the film has taut Cosmo writer (Clayburgh) paying a surprise visit to her kinfolk on the bayou and ends up a movie collectable for all the wrong reasons.