Rare air at Telluride fest

Personalities, politics pump pic atmosphere

A correction was made to this article on Sept. 3, 2003.

TELLURIDE, Colo. — In an admittedly undernourished year for high-quality international cinema, the 30th edition of the Telluride Film Festival stimulated its audiences with a creative mixture of unexpected personalities, a star-making double bill of world premieres, welcome archival discoveries and a politically charged confrontation that directly addressed the most pressing issues of the day.

Perhaps only in Telluride could one hope to experience the sort of event that took place after the Saturday screening of Errol Morris’ outstanding documentary “Fog of War” — a discussion among Morris, the New Yorker political writer Mark Danner and the subject of the picture, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who drove in from Aspen for the occasion.

As vigorous and mentally engaged in person as he is in Morris’ complex consideration of the man and his role in the Vietnam War, World War II and elsewhere, the 87-year-old McNamara riveted the crowd with his assessment of the present U.S. action in Iraq, the way public opinion shifted on Vietnam and American quality of life, which he finds far lower than it should be, given the nation’s wealth and power. Provocatively, McNamara noted that life expectancy in Cuba is twice that of people born in Washington, D.C.

Anchor for issues

Intentionally or not, McNamara’s visit provided a sort of political anchor for a fest in which political and social issues were never far from the center of things. Tribute subject Peter Brook, the stage great and occasional film director, is about to embark on a long-gestating theater project in Africa about Islam; attitudes toward Communism were critical in the careers of two other tribute honorees, vet Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi and 89-year-old Yank screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and special medallion recipient Ted Turner — honored specifically for his contributions to film restoration through Turner Classic Movies and his saving of the entire MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO libraries — could be said to represent both ultra-capitalism and maverick political thinking.

All this, mixed with the controversial Cannes titles “Dogville” and “Elephant,” both seen here in their North American premieres, and such revival selections as “The Battle of Algiers” and “A Face in the Crowd,” made for a lively weekend and made up for the general lack of over-the-moon new titles.

Johansson fireworks

As far as fresh revelations were concerned, certainly nothing could match the stunning emergence of 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson as a major actress in two of the best new pictures world premiered here, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” and Peter Webber’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Luminous, bracingly self-possessed and with either an intuitive or a very mature understanding of the less-is-more nature of screen acting, Johansson now seems poised for a major career, although the hope among her ardent new admirers here is that she won’t now succumb to the big buck offers that will inevitably come her way and start making silly movies.

Other new films attracting favorable notice were first-time British director Sarah Gavron’s smartly restrained study of a mother dealing with a premature baby, “This Little Life”; Kevin Macdonald’s intense docu-drama about a traumatic Andes mountain climb, “Touching the Void”; and Billy Ray’s first feature, “Shattered Glass,” a fast-moving and involving look at the journalistic fraud perpetrated by Stephen Glass at the New Republic a few years back.

Dali film surfaces

Yann Samuell’s new French feature “Love Me if You Dare” stirred less enthusiasm, but then there was the six-minute “Destino,” which began as the legendary collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney in 1945 and has now finally been finished. Much more will certainly be heard ofthis effort, which was imaginatively paired with the rapturously received, animated French entry, “The Triplets of Belleville,” which debuted in Cannes.

Of the numerous other films also first seen in Cannes, perhaps the most enjoyed and discussed was Marco Tullio Giordana’s six-hour Italian social epic, “Best of Youth”; much speculation surrounded the manner in which Miramax will release this Stateside, but undoubtedly the only way to go will be the one employed with such great success in Italy and France, where, after initial weeklong runs, both three-hour sections were booked on multi-plex screens side-by-side, thereby allowing patrons to attend them at their convenience.

Hits at fest

Other well-received films making their U.S. debuts after having been seen at earlier international fests included the Irish theater ensembler “Intermission,” the Sarah Polley-Mark Ruffalo starrer “My Life Without Me” from Canada, the Scottish period drama “Young Adam” with Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, the Danish Cannes Camera d’Or first feature “Reconstruction,” the Cannes multi-prize winner “Distant” from Turkey, the Rotterdam favorite “Noi Albinoi” from Iceland and “Alexandra’s Project” from Australia.

On the archival front, one major revelation was “Dans la Nuit,” a 1929 French silent that was the only feature film directed by the prominent actor Charles Vanel. A 20-minute wedding sequence is packed with detail worthy of Stroheim, the intimate relationship of the lead couple is intensely sexual and poignant, and the compositions and scene transitions reveal the hand of a born filmmaker.

‘Beggar’ rewarded

The other big surprise was another film little seen since its unsuccessful release, Peter Brook’s buoyant and wildly colorful 1953 screen version of John Gay’s musical comic melodrama, “The Beggar’s Opera.” As bawdy as “Tom Jones” and infinitely wittier, Brook’s first feature spins on a wonderful lead performance by Laurence Olivier (“Olivier Sings!” announced the ad campaign at the time), and pic would be well served by a loving DVD edition.

Same could be said for “A Face in the Crowd,” the remarkably prescient 1957 film about the new prominence of television in the political process that served, after “On the Waterfront,” as the second teaming of writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan. Pic proved enormously popular with auds here, and Schulberg provided illuminating, humorous and candid observations on his extraordinary life in movies, literature and politics at a special public conversation.

Sondheim brings ‘Belle’

This year’s special guest director, Stephen Sondheim, brought renewed attention to French director Julien Duvivier with welcome screenings of three of his films, “La Belle Equipe,” “Carnet du Bal” and “Panique.” Sondheim’s other pick, George Stevens’ wartime romantic comedy “The More the Merrier,” proved extremely popular.

Also of note were the premieres of Werner Herzog’s latest, “Wheel of Time,” about a huge Buddhist gathering in India; Priyanka Kumar’s documentary about Satyajit Ray, “Song of the Little Road,” and Ken Burns’ and Dayton Duncan’s new docu, “Horatio’s Drive,” a look at the first person to drive across the United States, which will be shown on PBS next month.

Also receiving a tribute was actress Toni Collette, here with her new film, “Japanese Story.”