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Telluride: Cinema's Best and Bravest

Movies: In the mountain festival's rarefied air, films and filmmakers of passion find a venue.

September 08, 2000|STEVE WASSERMAN | TIMES BOOK EDITOR

TELLURIDE, Colo. — The 27th Telluride Film Festival opened under a leaden Colorado sky last Friday and concluded on Monday bathed in the brilliant mountain sunshine glinting off the towering 14,000-foot igneous peaks of the Western San Juan mountains.

Over the years, Telluride has acquired an international reputation for its steadfast fealty to an ideal of cinema--free of the taint of the bottom line--under siege in a world in which commercial success is too often seen as synonymous with artistic value.

At a time when so many ostensibly commercial movies are devoted neither to convincing plot nor character, neither to language nor narrative, but rather only to the sheer velocity of image, Telluride is a kind of Bayreuth of cinema. Tom Luddy and Bill and Stella Pence, the festival's founders and co-directors since 1974, remain wed to the notion that storytelling still matters and that movies can act, as Kafka once said of books, as "the ax that breaks up the frozen sea within us."

Not only does it honor the deserving (if too often neglected) movie masters of the past, it also champions important, if largely unseen, work being created by young filmmakers all over the world.

In recent years, much of the best literature being written is the work of writers living far from the prosperous capitals of the First World. One thinks of writers from South America and East and Central Europe, the Middle East and the extraordinary burst of vivid fictions from Asia and the subcontinent of India. It is there, on the fault lines of history, where the collision of cultures provides fertile ground for the artistic imagination, where issues of life and death, love and hate, run deepest and erupt most vigorously and provocatively to the surface.

Thus, arguably, the best movie-making today is to be found far from Hollywood. Three programs at Telluride this year--"Filmmakers of Tomorrow," "Calling Cards" and "Great Expectations"--showcased 16 short films done by promising movie-makers from countries as diverse as Bosnia, the Philippines and New Zealand. In addition, Peter Sellars organized a program dedicated to "New Visions of Indigenous Australia," which offered an eye-opening look at aspects of a continent unlikely to be on view during the upcoming Olympic Games.

Tributes were given to Taiwanese director Ang Lee, the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard and Korea's greatest living director, Im Kwon Taek, whose astonishing picture "Chunhyang," based on a traditional Korean pansori, an epic sung ballad of love and betrayal, had some comparing it to the best of Akira Kurosawa.

With several dozen films squeezed into four days, it is impossible to see every film on offer. Thus, any account of the festival is inevitably partial. Hard choices must be made. One feels much as one imagines a World War I surgeon must have felt on the battlefield of Verdun: It's triage every day.

Seeking Out the Edgy and the Neglected

Many festival-goers forsake fare that is likely to be released commercially, favoring instead movies that have yet to find distributors, or which are unlikely to be widely seen. Indeed, it is one of Telluride's virtues that, unlike so many film festivals, it privileges the edgy and neglected over the obvious and mainstream. But neither does it raise to the level of dogma its recondite sensibility. It also honors accomplished and successful directors and actors who, against the odds, seek to craft original dramas and visually arresting movies.

Thus, this year, participants included such well-known actors as Al Pacino (whose film "Chinese Coffee" he directed from the play by Ira Lewis) and Danny Glover and Angela Bassett (whose performance in the late John Berry's "Boesman and Lena," based on the magnificent play by South African playwright Athol Fugard, had many viewers buzzing about a possible Oscar nomination for best actress). Such directors as Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff" and "The Incredible Lightness of Being," among other films) and Paul Schrader (best known perhaps for his screenplay of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver") were also on hand.

Kaufman's new film, "Quills," is based on the Obie-winning off-Broadway play of the same name by Doug Wright. Loosely derived from the life of the Marquis de Sade, "Quills" is a fevered rumination on the power of the written word. It grapples with perennial issues of evil and good, tyranny and liberty and is, in the end, a movie about the pornography of power. Schrader's "Forever Mine," starring Joseph Fiennes, Gretchen Mol and Ray Liotta, owes much to the sensational melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Taking place in Florida and New York, it's a cracked love story about the compulsion of desire.

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