TELLURIDE, Colo. For its 25th anniversary celebration, which more or less coincides with the first century of film, the Telluride Film Festival is plunging gleefully into the past. Although there's the usual selection of premieres, at least half of the screenings this year are retrospectives: a look at 1928, the last great year of silent film; personal selections from the festival's guest programmers over the years, and a salute to black-and-white cinematography.
The festival was to get rolling Thursday night with a tribute to Meryl Streep and the premiere of John Boorman's new film, "The General" (1999) which won him the best director award at Cannes. Also premiering Thursday: "I'm Losing You," by Bruce Wagner, about the way they live now in Hollywood; Rolf de Heer's "Dance Me to My Song," a film starring cerebral palsy patient Heather Rose in what is said to be a wrenching performance, and Todd Solondz's "Happiness," one of the most controversial offerings at Cannes, about a group of depressed, solitary losers and their sometimes perverse searches for what they would define as happiness.
Streep's tribute comes a day before the premiere of her new film "Dancing At Lughnasa," based on Brian Friel's play about an Irish family in the 1930s. Pat O'Connor ("Circle of Friends") directs. Streep has two much-heralded releases this fall, "Lughnasa" and "One True Thing," about women who cope with bad times in radically different ways: one with almost biblical strength, the other by becoming a Martha Stewart clone. Either film could win her yet another Oscar nomination.
The other tributes this year are to the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ("Apocalypse Now," "The Last Emperor") and Susumu Hani, the 70-year-old Japanese director. The Telluride Silver Medallion will be presented to Stanley Kauffmann, observing his 40th year at the New Republic, where he is now the magazine's film critic.
This year's Telluride lineup is heavily influenced by nostalgia for the 24 remarkable festivals that went before. Former guest programmers have been asked to pick one film they'd like to see revived; the only requirement was that it be in black and white. Their choices range widely: Performance artist Laurie Anderson picked "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y," which combines Don DiLillo's prose with footage of skyjackings; experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (who will be honored with a documentary about his work) chose Charles Laughton's surreal classic "The Night of the Hunter"; festival co-founder James Card chose Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night"; John Boorman, whose "The General" is about a man who bucks the IRA, chose another film on the same theme, John Ford's "The Informer."
This year's guest programmer, director Peter Bogdanovich, will show his 1968 documentary "Directed by John Ford," then lead a tribute to Ford's work and introduce a newly re-edited version of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," which reflects the director's original ideas before the studio recut it.
Telluride usually programs something attendees will never be able to see anywhere else, and this year it is the program hosted by filmmaker Murray Lerner about the ups and downs of 3-D films. The principles behind 3-D were known even before the movies began; the Steriopticon was a device that allowed viewers to peer at photos that seemed to be in 3-D. There have been booms in 3-D movies over the years, most notably in the early 1950s and 1970s, but mostly it's been a bust - viewers ultimately find it a nuisance. Now the new IMAX 3-D process, startlingly good, may resurrect the format again.
It's rare to see silent films in 35-mm., and this year's festival offers some masterpieces: Not only the tribute to great films of 1928 ("The Crowd," "The Wedding March," "The Last Command") but also a restored version of Sergei Eisenstein's 1924 debut film, "Strike," with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, annual Telluride visitors who achieve an amazing bandwidth of music and sound effects.
Not to be outdone, the nine-piece Octour de France Orchestra is here to accompany a screening of the 1928 film "The Man Who Laughs," which put Universal on the map.
So many new films are just clones of recent successes. As you wander from theater to theater, from the quaint Sheridan Opera House to the state-of-the-art Max to the Quonset hut community center, you're reminded of what riches the movies have to offer. Telluride finds such treasures. You sit in the dark and look at a silent classic while three guys up front go berserk in the midst of a forest of sound equipment, and you feel a tingle of joy.
One cloud looms on the horizon. Several, actually. Hurricane weather is expected up this way, and the laidback announcers on the local community radio station are warning of "significant" rainfall by Saturday. Well, we didn't come here to enjoy the great outdoors.