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Telluride Festival: Two Satisfying Events in One : Movies: From big films to celebrated little-seen works and heartfelt appreciations, the annual gathering carries on. This year's most moving tribute was for 92-year-old cinematographer John Alton.

September 07, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES MOVIE CRITIC

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Long celebrated as the cozy, one-big-happy-family of film festivals, Telluride at 20 seems to be going through the most amicable of divorces, splitting into two halves, each of which lives its own short and happy life during the festival's event-packed four days.

The most well-attended part of Telluride is its showing of top-of-the-line foreign and independent films, the best of which are simply making a stop in transit from earlier festivals like Cannes to later ones like Toronto and New York. This year's selection was especially strong, and included both co-winners of the Palme d'Or, Jane Campion's "The Piano" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell to My Concubine."

Film fans from cities other than New York and Los Angeles come to this stunning mountain location to get an early look at films that sometimes, as in the case of one of the festival's most popular items, "The Joy Luck Club," are scheduled for imminent theatrical release.

The other half of Telluride, the part that makes it truly special, couldn't care less about what's hot and what's not. This is the master class in world cinema aspect of the festival, which offers exclusive showings of celebrated but little-seen works, which this year included a unique screening of "Fear and Desire," Stanley Kubrick's long-thought-lost first film, and "The Last Stop," a 1948 Polish feature set in the death camps of Auschwitz. And there was Telluride's usual hommage to the best of pre-sound films, one of which featured an accompanying score so rich and remarkable it seemed to reinvent the concept of silent film music.

The heart of this side of Telluride is its tributes, in-person toasts to film luminaries featuring clips, interviews and generous standing ovations. This year's most moving tribute, partly because of how long it has been in the making, was to 92-year-old cinematographer John Alton, an Oscar winner for "An American in Paris" and celebrated among buffs as the film noir cameraman whose casually brilliant use of black and white set the standard for the genre.

Called "the Greta Garbo of cameramen" by Todd McCarthy, co-director of the documentary on cinematographers, "Visions of Light," Alton admits that "for 20 years I've been hiding," living in South America and Europe. Returning to the light, so to speak, after an article in The Times caught the attention of his grandson, Alton was quickly snapped up by the Telluride Festival, which has been so enamored of his work that it ran a "Where Is John Alton?" program back in 1984.

Alton himself was the picture of affability at the tribute, waving to the crowd and speaking with feeling of his love of the dark. "The dark is better for killing. I don't think people kill in bright light," he genially observed. "You all know in your own lives the most interesting things in the world happen in the night."

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Because she might well be the youngest of Telluride's honorees, the tribute to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh was as much anticipation of what's to come as appreciation of excellent work already done, visible in clips ranging from 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" to Robert Altman's forthcoming "Short Cuts."

Looking as shy as she said she is, Leigh could only say, "I'm so overwhelmed and grateful" when first introduced, and covered her face to prove it. Later, during an onstage question-and-answer session, she told interviewer Roger Ebert: "My mom said that Robert Altman told her I have no personality. I have one, I must have one, but I don't quite know what it is. But I feel most at home, most confident, most alive, when I escape into someone else. It allows me to be whole in some weird way."

Almost as emotional as Alton's tribute was the one to British director Ken Loach, whose "Raining Stones" won the Jury Prize at Cannes. A socialist poet of the underclass whose films such as "Cathy Come Home," "Looks and Smiles" and "Kes" inspired an entire generation of British filmmakers, Loach was introduced by John Boorman, the festival's guest director this year. "He has been reviled, censored, ignored, ridiculed, but he won't go away," Boorman said in a written tribute. "Like the poor he defends, Loach is always with us."

Boorman was also responsible for the festival's most charming and high-spirited surprise, a screening of "Upstage," a 1926 silent comedy by Monta Bell, a director "of almost no reputation" and a film "saved from annihilation by the skin of its teeth." Starring Norma Shearer as a fresh young woman who stumbled into a vaudeville career, "Upstage" was breezy, savvy and thoroughly delightful.

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