TELLURIDE, Colo. -- There are times when I wonder why I even go to the new movies at Telluride, since the special programs and retrospectives are so valuable. On Sunday I saw a surprise screening of the latest Werner Herzog documentary and then attended his birthday party on the lawn of the Mason's Hall. And an hour later I was watching a beautifully restored print of the 1931 Bela Lugosi "Dracula," with a new score composed by Philip Glass, who conducted a live performance of it with the Kronos Quintet.
Then again, I also saw three wonderful new features. I might have seen four, but at midnight I was just too tired to drag myself to "Wisconsin Death Trap." The new films were "Me Myself I," a gentle comedy about a woman's life choices; "The Girl on the Bridge," an enchanted love story, and Carlos Diegues' "Orfeu," a retelling of the same myth that inspired the 1959 Oscar winner "Black Orpheus."
"Me Myself I" is an Australian film that has the kind of breakthrough potential of "Shine;" it was directed by Pip Karmel, who edited that film. It stars the intelligent, expressive Rachel Griffiths as a journalist who yearns in her 30s for the right man, and sometimes wonders why she didn't marry her first love. Through a supernatural transformation scene, she is inserted into that alternate lifeline, and finds herself married and with three high-spirited children.
It's one thing to dream about sleeping with the man you loved 13 years ago. It's another thing to find yourself in bed with him at a troubled time in the marriage. It's one thing to wonder if you should have had children. It's another thing to be asked by the youngest to wipe his butt. This is the kind of sweet, thoughtful comedy that could be enormously appealing to women, because it combines high-flying romantic notions with the nitty-gritty of actually being a working mother.
Patrice Leconte is the inventive director of three of the best films of the decade: "Monsieur Hire," based on a Simenon story about a voyeur who turns into a killer; "The Hairdresser's Husband," about a fetishist who falls hopelessly in love with the woman cutting his hair, and "Ridicule," about a rural architect who visits the decadent court of Louis XVI, finds that verbal irony is valued there and develops a latent skill at insult.
Now comes "The Girl on the Bridge," an unclassifiable love story about a circus knife-thrower who is haunted by the eyes of a woman about to throw herself from a bridge. He recruits her for his act; if she is willing to die, why not take a chance with his knives? The story takes them aboard a cruise ship (it's risky to throw knives in a storm) and to Istanbul, whose Turkish music exerts some kind of fascination for Leconte, whose hairdresser's husband sometimes did weird Middle Eastern dances right there in the salon.
"Orfeu" is by Carlos Diegues, whose "Xica" and "Bye Bye Brazil" were triumphs of the Brazilian New Wave. The new film returns to the materials of Marcel Camus' 1959 "Black Orpheus," telling the tragic story of Orfeu, a man who leads a Carnival dance troupe and falls in love with Euridice, a girl from a rural area who comes to visit her aunt. The story has been updated to involve tension between the police and Rio's hill dwellers, whose ghetto is poor but overflowing with life and energy.
The film incorporates the light and music of Carnival with the daily lives of the slum dwellers, and magic realism with flamboyant passion. It succeeds in telling the mythical characters' stories in a way that includes hard realism about drugs and corruption.
Werner Herzog's birthday is Sept. 5, and the great German director celebrates it most years at Telluride. He was here this year for the screening of "My Best Fiend," his documentary about the wild-man actor Klaus Kinski, but a surprise screening was arranged on Sunday afternoon of "Wings of Hope," his newest film, and then a big birthday cake was served outside the hall.
"Wings of Hope" follows "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" (1998) in a series Herzog calls "Voyages to Hell." It tells the story of a Peruvian aircraft that crashed in the rain forest on Christmas Eve of 1970. All were presumed dead, but more than a week later a teenage girl named Juliana Koepcke walked alive out of the jungle.
Herzog has a special interest in that flight; he was booked on it, to travel to his locations for "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," and was bumped off - saving his life and all of his subsequent films. He finds the young survivor, now a middle-aged woman who still works as a naturalist in the jungle, and retraces her walk back to civilization. It is easy to see her natural spunk as she crawls inside a hollow tree to study the nocturnal habits of bats.
The film is filled with stark images: a child's coin purse, found on the forest floor; parts of the fuselage and control panels; the heel from a woman's shoe. The woman wonders if she was saved by being strapped into one chair of a row of three, which spiraled down like a maple leaf, its descent broken by vines. She describes her wounds, her strategy of following jungle streams, her lucky knowledge that crocodiles wouldn't harm her but stingrays would. It is an amazing film.
And then to "Dracula," which must have as many famous lines as any movie ever made ("I never drink . . . wine"). The movie was made at the dawn of the sound era and lacked a musical score; Glass has matched his new composition with Tod Browning's eerie images, and he conducted the Kronos Quintet in a performance that underlined the experience without upstaging it.
This is my final Telluride report; I'm off to the picnic in the city park, and then it's on to the Toronto festival. At the end of a summer with too many moronic action pictures, Telluride and Toronto are reminders of how the movies can sometimes be wonderful, even noble.