Deftly drawn Rockies fest hits its peak

TELLURIDE, Colo. — The quality that makes Telluride unique in the world of film festivals was immediately apparent at the outset of the 29th edition of this annual Rocky Mountain gathering of film lovers.

At the opening night tribute, there was Peter O’Toole, who never appears at film festivals, on the stage of the jewelbox Sheridan Opera House creating cascades of laughter with his priceless anecdotes of film and theater lore and swapping lines from Yeats with interviewer Roger Ebert, as if they were two veteran comics trying to top one another.

An hour later, one could walk into the larger Max Theater down the street and be greeted by the startling sight of an authentic curved Cinerama screen, constructed for this one night only to provide for a rare demonstration of the original three-projector process from the ’50s.

And there was more of the same to come over the course of the weekend, which began with a freak late-summer snow that left the surrounding mountaintops covered with white powder for two days: A very potent public park dialogue between Michael Moore and Christopher Hitchens over the former’s endlessly provocative “Bowling for Columbine”; Terry Gilliam and Salman Rushdie hashing out career vicissitudes; and Bertrand Tavernier and Kevin Brownlow representing a virtual French-Anglo summit meeting of film buffery for the delight of the cognoscenti.

And, oh yes, there were films, mostly nothing but excellent ones. The patented Telluride mix of the creme de la creme of new titles, at least to North America, and outstanding revivals and rediscoveries was all but perfectly achieved this year.

As fest co-director Tom Luddy acknowledged, he could have filled nearly his entire program with titles from the last Cannes Film Festival, so strong was its lineup, and local auds duly responded to such Cannes highlights as “Russian Ark,” “The Man Without a Past,” “City of God,” “Respiro,” “Spider,” “Irreversible,” “Columbine,” “My Mother’s Smile” and “Morvern Callar.”

While the audience favorite among the new international titles may well have been Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,” and a sneak preview of Julie Taymor’s “Frida” went over pretty well with viewers, there were also very strong responses to two Russian entries, Alexander Rogozhkin’s “Cuckoo” and Alexei Balabanov’s “The War”; the Terry Gilliam Don Quixote quagmire docu “Lost in La Mancha”; Philip Noyce’s period Aussie drama “Rabbit-Proof Fence”; Brownlow’s splendid docu about Chaplin and Hitler, “The Tramp and the Dictator,” a don’t-miss when it’s aired in a month on Turner Classic Movies; and another unique Third Reich docu, “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary.”

Top world premiere was arguably “Auto Focus,” Paul Schrader’s stylish and smart look at the peccadilloes of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. Schrader also received a fest tribute, as did documaker D.A. Pennebaker.

“Ken Park” — a sexually explicit rendering of suburban teen lives co-directed by Larry Clark and Ed Lachman and written by the inescapable Harmony Korine — divided auds over the merits of its truth-telling and deliberate provocations, and Godfrey Reggio’s latest impressionistic take on the state of the world, “Naqoyqatsi,” elicited similarly split reactions, based on viewer tolerance for non-narrative point-making.

The link between past and present, which is always so effectively stressed in Telluride programming strategies, was deftly illustrated by the showing of “Safe Passage” (“Laissez-Passer”), Tavernier’s deeply detailed look at French filmmaking during the Nazi occupation, in tandem with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 “Le Corbeau,” perhaps the best film produced by the German-owned Continental Films in Paris.

The O’Toole tribute, which the star said marked the best possible way he could have possibly imagined celebrating his 70th birthday, also sparked screenings of two little-known items in his resume: a filmed rendering of the actor’s two-time West End hit “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell,” co-directed by O’Toole himself, which was cut down to an hour for BBC airing but is now available at its full 125-minute length, and Clive Donner’s “Rogue Male,” an early ’70s adaptation of the cult novel about a would-be Hitler assassin that never saw the light of day theatrically Stateside and is long overdue for restoration and some form of release.

There were four other indisputable smashes among the revivals and rediscoveries: Giuseppe De Santis’ “Bitter Rice,” a worldwide sensation in 1949 but virtually forgotten today, which induced fevers here with its audacious display of sexy neo-realism; the 1929 German silent “The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrowna,” a melodrama whose bitter elegance and supple camera moves suggest that its little-known director, Hanns Schwarz, had talents as a stylist comparable to those of Max Ophuls; Claude Sautet’s 1971 crime drama “Max et les Ferrialleurs,” starring Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli and never before shown in the U.S.; and Jerry Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow,” a Gene Hackman-Al Pacino road movie that is considered a masterpiece in France.

There it won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 1973, but is all but unknown in the U.S., a situation unlikely to be remedied until a DVD is prepared.

The tumultuous reactions to all four of these films suggest that astute ancillary market companies could do worse than to get busy with some deluxe packaging of them.

Fest was boosted by the presence of leading historians/archivists/critics/filmmakers who brought films and introduced them, notably guest director Alberto Barbera, who presented a choice selection of overlooked post-war Italian pictures.

There were also Michel Ciment, who similarly showed some rare features in conjunction with a 50th anniversary tribute to the film magazine he has long edited, Positif; Leonard Maltin, who presented the tribute to Cinerama, which featured long excerpts from “This Is Cinerama,” a three-panel trailer for “How the West Was Won” and a definitive documentary on the process, “Cinerama Adventure,” by David Strohmaier; Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux, Peter Sellars, Pierre Rissient, Leonard Maltin, David Thomson and Werner Herzog.

But perhaps the indelible image was that of Peter O’Toole, as tall, thinand lake-eyed as ever, borrowing fest co-director Bill Pence’s bicycle to peddle a few blocks through town just for fun, looking for all the world like the tutor in “The Last Emperor” surrounded by a host of admiring students in a new setting in the American mountains.

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