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Telluride clears perspective

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- In the blazing noon sun of Labor Day, on a panel discussion in Elks Park, the veteran critic Stanley Kauffmann put his finger on the kinds of films that the Telluride Film Festival does not exist to support: movies made of special effects and technology.

"Ingmar Bergman always says that the greatest subject of the movies is the human face," Kauffmann said. "In recent years we've seen a growth in films that are not about faces and stories, but about technology. This trend started with Stanley Kubrick, with '2001,' and it's accelerating. It is now possible to make an entire movie with machines, without really involving human stories at all."

Sitting next to him on the panel, I thought how true that was, and meditated on some of the recent films I'd seen, like "Armageddon," which were really about nothing - or nothing except for mindless spectacle manufactured by special effects. That movie starred Bruce Willis, but for all the humanity embodied in the role, it could have starred Robby the Robot.

Such thoughts come to one at Telluride, which is like an annual recess where the film world can play and dream, before the bell rings and everybody goes back inside to start counting the grosses.

Other true words were spoken by San Francisco critic B. Ruby Rich, who regretted the great emphasis on "production values," when the most interesting films are often those heavy on characters and ideas but light on budgets. For many years, she said, independent films were penalized because they just didn't look expensive enough; only now that Sundance is seen as a supermarket for hot young directors are the indie (and women's, and black, and gay) films getting a more "professional" gloss.

On another panel discussion, about the Hollywood golden age that began with "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967 and ended with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975, several directors who flourished in those days recalled a time when a script could get filmed without countless memos and input from "executives" whose job is to sniff out originality and squish it.

"I remember discussing making 'Point Blank' with Lee Marvin," John Boorman remembered. "We met in a London hotel. We both hated the script. He said he would do the film on one condition, and threw the script out the window. He committed on a conversation. That can't happen anymore."

Directors were in charge at that time, Boorman said. Today, the power resides first with the studios, then with stars, then with producers and agents, and only then with directors.

The result is assembly-line filmmaking, endless recycling of predictable formulas. Executives who are not creative protect their jobs by remaking last week's hits. Commenting on a series of clips from golden age classics such as "Five Easy Pieces," director Michael Ritchie said, "None of those films had a happy ending. Today, you know the happy ending, engineered by the studio, is going to be there."

Even rarer is the ambiguous ending. The last film I saw at Telluride this year was the observant, thoughtful, funny, sad "My Son the Fanatic" by Udayan Prasad, about a British cabdriver from Pakistan. In Manchester, he drives the night shift, growing friendly with a hooker and then recommending her to a heartless visiting businessman. At home, his marriage is sterile, but there is cause for cheer: His son is engaged to the daughter of the police chief inspector. Then the son breaks off the match ("I don't want to bring up my children in this country") and joins a fundamentalist Islamic group.

The driver (Om Puri) values his friendship with the hooker (Rachel Griffiths), even though he is alarmed when it turns physical. "Am I to spend all the rest of my days sitting behind the wheel, without the touch of a human hand?" he asks, justifying himself to a friend who emigrated from Pakistan when he did. This new relationship challenges his morals, but his son's group "imposes mad values," he thinks, and at the end of an eventful film he pours himself a drink, and thinks, and thinks. That is an effective ending for the film, but you can bet in Hollywood it would have been assigned a happy one.

The romance in "My Son the Fanatic" is not the kind of simpleminded lunacy that passes for adult relationships in most modern movies. Neither is the romance in Eric Rohmer's "Autumn Tale," a glowing film I saw last week, and wrote about earlier. For now let's set aside the details of the film, and look at how Rohmer works. His plot (a woman's best friend places a personal ad for her, and secretly arranges for her to meet a likely candidate for marriage) could be the stuff of soap opera, sitcom or paperback romance. But not the way Rohmer approaches it.

A director who is still inventive and curious at 78, he has two valuable qualities: patience and attention. He allows us to meet the characters. To hear them talking, to see them living. They explain themselves. They discuss their lives. He's in no hurry to get to the payoff (and indeed the film has no love scene). He involves us in the lives of these people, and in what Bergman means by their faces. We grow to know them and care for them.

The challenge for the actors (especially Marie Riviere, as the widow) is enormous. The camera is not interested in their "acting" so much as in their essence, and as Rohmer attentively regards these people, we find ourselves in sync with their breathing and their inner natures. It's scary, almost, the way the movie cuts free of conventional pacing and allows us into the character's real time.

The film was introduced by its producer, the director Barbet Schroeder, who said Rohmer has his ideas long in advance of filming, but doesn't write a word of the script until he has spent weeks talking with the actors, "so that they will never have to say anything they wouldn't really say."

Schroeder told a story about one of Rohmer's earlier films, "Claire's Knee" (1971). "There is a scene in that movie where they pick a rose," he said. "Rohmer knew where the scene would be shot, and there he planted that rose, one year earlier, so that it would bloom just on time."

Sometimes at Telluride it feels as if we are all planting roses, before we return to the land of the artificial flowers.

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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