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Telluride gets high marks

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- It's a combination of a film festival and a ski weekend, greatly improved by the absence of snow. Moviegoers at this year's 26th Telluride Film Festival can take the ski lift to the top of the mountain, but what they find there is a little unexpected: the Chuck Jones Cinema, named for the animator who brought Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote to life.

The new mountaintop cinema was inaugurated here Friday with screenings of comedy shorts by Jones, Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel & Hardy. The silent films were accompanied by live musical scores performed by the Alloy Orchestra, also a Telluride tradition.

And we were off and running for a weekend extravaganza at which old, new, foreign and domestic films play in some of the strangest places: At the century-old Sheridan Opera House, the Mason's Hall, the temporary Max Cinema constructed every year inside the high school gym, the Nugget theater on Main Street and under the stars at the Abel Gance Open-Air Cinema, where the tickets are free but the forecast was for rain.

The festival starts even before you get here. At the airport I ran into David Lynch, who is one of the winners of the Telluride Medal this year. He's here with Mary Sweeney, who wrote his new film "The Straight Story," starring Richard Farnsworth as an old man who goes to visit his dying brother by driving a lawn tractor from Iowa to Nebraska. It was at Telluride that Lynch's "Blue Velvet" premiered to great controversy.

Also at the airport, I talked with Rick Schmidlin, who will unveil at Telluride his 250-minute restoration of Erich von Stroheim's legendary "Greed" - which was butchered before its release by Hollywood philistines and will never be fully restored; using von Stroheim's shooting script and hundreds of stills, Schmidlin has come as close as possible to re-creating the original experience.

Friday morning began with a brunch at the Skyline Ranch, above the town, where I ran into repertory film expert Gary Meyer.

"Where else but at Telluride," he asked, "can you witness Peter Sellars, Werner Herzog, David Lynch and Ken Burns singing `Puff, the Magic Dragon' with Peter Yarrow?"

Sellars is this year's guest director. Known for his unorthodox stage and opera productions, he has focused his selections on avant-garde video work, including a tribute to video artist Bill Viola, for this first year when Telluride has had video projection facilities.

Catherine Deneuve, the French screen goddess, received the Telluride Medal at the opening night tribute. Lynch's tribute was Saturday, and the third of the annual medals will go to composer Philip Glass, who is here with his new score for the 1931 version of "Dracula."

Deneuve sat through a retrospective of some of her most famous roles, including the all-singing "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"; two Luis Bunuel films about the strange shores of sexuality ("Belle de Jour" and "Tristana"); her famous lesbian scene with Susan Sarandon in "The Hunger," and her Oscar-nominated performance as a French colonial woman in "Indochine." The audience was charmed by a scene from the little-known "Don't Touch the White Woman," a 1976 comedy by Marco Ferrari which co-starred her longtime love Marcello Mastroianni as Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Knocking on his bedroom door and obviously hoping for love, she tells him, "I have brought you . . . a club sandwich."

Deneuve said she never really planned to become an actress, but was recruited by her older sister Francoise Dorleac for small roles; it was Jacques Demy's "Cherbourg" that made her a star, and she has worked ever since, often for new directors or in offbeat roles. She wondered if she could have had such a rich career in Hollywood, where there is a greater penalty for failure. She did work in Hollywood (Robert Aldrich's "Hustle," with Burt Reynolds, was one of the clips), but wondered if she could live there "for much more than four months at a time."

Most of this year's Telluride films remain to be screened. Films remain unseen. Of those I have seen, Deneuve's "Place Vendome" is a standout. Directed by Nicole Garcia, it stars Deneuve as the alcoholic wife of a famous Paris diamond dealer, whose unexpected death leaves her in the middle of his unfinished and possibly dangerous business. Deneuve's performance ranges from icy calculation to drunken pathos; the story's thriller elements are given an extra dimension by her character's personal struggle to pull her life back together. Deneuve also stars in another festival selection, Raul Ruiz's "Time Regained," an adaptation of the novel by Proust.

"East Is East," by Philipp Kadelbach, is another wonderful discovery. It's the story of George and Ella Khan and their seven children.

He's an immigrant from Pakistan, his wife is British, and their kids are a mystery to both of them. Adrienne Shelley's "I'll Take You There" could be described as an anti-relationship comedy, starring Reg Rogers as a real estate agent who falls into an abysm of depression after his wife leaves him. His sister arranges a blind date with an unkempt and disorganized friend (Ally Sheedy), who forces him to drive her to the bedside of her dying grandmother (Alice Drummond, in a scene-stealing combination of tough love and wiggy humor).

Chosen as the first feature at the Chuck Jones was "My Best Friend," a harrowing documentary about the love-hate relationship between director Herzog and his favorite actor, the tempestuous and neurotic Klaus Kinski. At one point they have their hands around each other's throats - not entirely in fun.

Herzog has been a friend of Telluride since its earliest years, when he organized an annual directors' softball game; to open the Jones Cinema with a Herzog film was a symbolic linkage between two directors whose very different kinds of films are linked by a love for the sudden and unexpected.

Chuck Jones himself was not able to be present. The 87-year-old animator wanted to come, according to festival co-founder Bill Pence, "but couldn't find a doctor willing to give him permission."

Jones' definition of this festival high in the Rockies: "The most fun you can have without breathing."

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