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Drawing success

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The day began with one of the most wondrous films I ever hope to see. "Princess Mononoke," by the Japanese master of animation Hayao Miyazaki, is a symphony of action and images, a thrilling epic of warriors and monsters, forest creatures and magical spells, with an underlying allegory about the relationship of man and nature. Not a children's film, it is a film for all ages that demonstrates why, for some stories, the special effects wizards are only spinning their wheels, because some images cannot be visualized unless they are drawn.

How appropriate it was that the Telluride Film Festival screening was held in the new Chuck Jones Cinema, at the top of the ski lift. Jones, whose Warner Brothers cartoons are treasures, specialized in shape-shifting, in characters and objects that were infinitely plastic. At 87, he was warned by the doctors not to test his heart against the thin Telluride air, but how much he would have enjoyed the spellbinding opening scene of "Princess Mononoke," in which a watchtower is attacked by a fearsome many-legged beast whose body seems made of writhing snakes.

An image like that simply cannot be made with special effects; it would emerge too complex and murky. It takes the clarity of drawing to bring it fully alive. Miyazaki has resisted computer animation, and less than 10 percent of this film uses it; most of it is drawn by hand, the traditional way, and the master personally did 80,000 of the 144,000 hand drawings. The result is an endlessly enchanting film, visually original and astonishing, about a mythical society poised on the edge of the Iron Age, when beasts and men can still speak to one another, unless the forest spirit is destroyed.

"Princess Mononoke" was the top-grossing film in Japanese history until it was dethroned by "Titanic." It was preceded in the American market by two of Miyazaki's magical family oriented films, "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service." This one transcends everything else he has done, and is being given a major push by Miramax, with an opening Oct. 29. If the Motion Picture Academy truly does seek out the five best features of the year, then it is hard to see how it can fail to nominate this one.

Richard Farnsworth seems to make a habit of coming to Telluride with the roles of a lifetime. In 1982, he was here with "The Grey Fox," about an aging train robber. Now he's back in David Lynch's "The Straight Story," about an old man who drives a lawn tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his dying brother. Both films seem uniquely suited to his bedrock-solid acting style, which projects absolute, no-nonsense believability.

Farnsworth himself, at 79 still active as a rancher, is a walking repository of Hollywood lore. He spent his early years as a stunt man, working for John Ford and the other greats, and he drops memories like jewels: He was a steeplechase rider in the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races," and a soldier in "Gone With the Wind," and "ran around in a tunic all day" on "Gunga Din," and worked for Cecil B. DeMille on "The Ten Commandments," and is glad he wasn't an actor for Ford "because he was hard on his actors."

He came to speaking roles late, at 46, and got an Oscar nomination in 1978 for "Comes a Horseman," as an old cowboy. "I can't do Philadelphia lawyers or nuclear physicists," he smiles, "and I'm pretty choosy about my roles." At lunch with his fiancee Jewel Van Valin, he said they were on the way to a vacation in Tahiti when his agent begged him to have another look at the script of "The Straight Story." He said he didn't know if he was up to the role: "I was scheduled for hip replacement, and riding on that tractor looked painful." But Lynch promised a custom-made silicon cushion on the seat, and Farnsworth took the role that got him a six-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

"I'm solvent," he said, "and I don't have to act for a living. I only want to make decent family pictures. I've never said a four-letter word on the screen and it's too late to start now." Ironic but appropriate that he stars in the first G-rated film by Lynch, whose credits include "Blue Velvet," TV's "Twin Peaks" and "Wild at Heart."

James Toback, mercurial director and polemicist, was here for the premiere of "Black and White," his high-energy crazy quilt of stories about the intersecting worlds of blacks and white in America, especially at the teenage level. The rap group Wu Tang Clan and Mike Tyson share scenes with such as Brooke Shields (who is making a video documentary about why white kids admire and emulate black lifestyles). Ben Stiller plays a crooked gambler turned crooked cop; Claudia Schiffer is an anthropology student who betrays her black athlete boyfriend, and Robert Downey Jr. has a hilarious role as Shields' husband ("everyone but you knows I'm gay!").

Outside the theater, Toback was outraged about the prison sentence just handed out to Downey, who also starred in his films "The Pick-Up Artist" and "Two Girls and a Guy."

"He has the bad luck to come up against the most vindictive judge in California," Toback said. "He made Robert Downey the first actor sent to jail for using drugs since Robert Mitchum, 50 years ago. How about all the other actors who use drugs? Here is a man who has an illness. He is not a criminal."

Toback said he advised Downey, "if you have to use, I have one word for you: Amsterdam. Get on a plane, go over there, do whatever you have to do, come back."

He recalled Downey's amazing statement after sentencing: "I feel like a man who has a gun pointed into his mouth, and I like the taste of the metal."

"Right there, you can see this is a man who is battling a terrible compulsion," Toback said. "When he used again, he knew he would get caught, because he knew they were testing him regularly. So it wasn't a 100-to-1 shot, or 50-to-1, but a dead certainty. He was asking to go to jail. Why couldn't the judge see the tragedy of the man standing in front of him?"

The secret sneak preview late Saturday night was the first public screening of "Sweet And Lowdown," Woody Allen's new film, with still another one of those performances where Sean Penn seems to reinvent himself. He plays Emmet Ray, described as a jazz guitarist who emerged in the 1930s as "the best in the world, except for Django Reinhardt." So much is he in awe of Reinhardt, indeed, that he faints when he sees him.

The movie alternates fictional flashbacks with testimony by experts remembering the legendary figure, including jazz historian Nat Hentoff and Allen himself. What Penn creates is a goofy, self-centered genius - monstrous but likable - whose whole being seems transformed when he plays. (Penn does amazingly convincing fingering on the guitar.) He falls in love with a mute girl he meets on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City, and her sweet smile and expressive face remind you of a Chaplin heroine. But he warns her not to fall in love: As a genius, he explains, he has to walk alone.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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