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The Rocky Mountain High of Telluride Film Festival

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The moment that best captured this year's Telluride Film Festival came when three musicians from Cambridge, Mass., were creating a percussion thunderstorm during a silent film from Germany, while a real thunderstorm boomed outside.

The film was a previously unknown 1923 feature titled "Sylvester," by an obscure director named Lupo Pick. The musicians, called the Alloy Orchestra, used an electronic keyboard and an array of percussion instruments and sound effects devices to create a whirlwind of ominous portents. On the screen, a bartender dealt with the drunken New Year's Eve crowd in his saloon, and then went back to his living quarters - where his wife and his mother were engaged in a Gothic struggle for him.

The story is so simple (at one point, the man is literally the subject of a tug of war between the two possessive women) that any synopsis does it an injustice. It's one of the most peculiar, nightmarish films I've seen, underlined by the unsettling music. But the point is, only at Telluride would you get a program like this, introduced by Hisashi Okajima of the Tokyo Film Center, who found the long-lost print among a private collector's treasures in Tokyo. Because only here would the print, the orchestra and the audience be brought together for such a rare cinematic experience.

Telluride celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, up here in the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains. For four days over the Labor Day weekend, some 2,000 film lovers lined up for screenings and tributes in the old Opera House and Nugget Theater, both built during Telluride's 19th century boom-town days, and in the Mason's Hall, the quonset-hut Community Center, the Strand Theater (actually the high school gym) and outdoors at Elks' Park.

Some of the programs were high-profile. The co-winners of this year's Cannes Film Festival, Jane Campion's "The Piano" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," got their American premieres here, for example. So did "The Joy Luck Club" (see related story), based on Amy Tan's best-seller and likely to be a box-office hit this autumn.

But there were also films so rare that if you weren't here, you may never see them. In the case of Stanley Kubrick's long-suppressed first film, "Fear and Desire," made in 1953, that might not be such a bad thing. Kubrick tried to destroy all prints of the film, but one was found, and presented by director John Boorman ("Deliverance"), this year's guest programmer. Kubrick was right about it: It was a labored beginner's effort, the story of four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, told with ponderous philosophizing.

"If this is the last print, let's burn it," quipped "Civil War" director Ken Burns in the audience. But at least we got to see it.

We also got to see four rare film noirs photographed by the master of shadow, legendary cinematographer John Alton (see related story). And new work by Britain's top two maverick directors: Mike Leigh, whose "Naked" portrays a hapless, cruel drifter in post-Thatcher England, and Ken Loach, whose "Raining Stones" tells an equally bleak but much funnier story of an unemployed man determined to buy his daughter a confirmation dress. And in its tradition of honoring not only great work from the past but up-and-coming greatness, the festival gave its medal to the young actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (see related story).

Telluride is one of the few festivals that are not simply business for the professionals who attend. Every year, major directors turn up simply to see the films, and this year you could hang out on Main Street and see not only Boorman but France's exuberant Bertrand Tavernier ("Round Midnight"), Germany's mystical Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire"), Switzerland's saturnine Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune"), America's conspiratorial Oliver Stone, and such other visiting celebrities as Daryl Hannah, who showed a short film she had directed, famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters, actress Joan Chen, performance artist Laurie Anderson, folk singer Peter Yarrow, producer Saul Zaentz ("Amadeus"), "Megatrends" author John Naisbett and the omnipresent Pierre Rissient, a French author, critic, producer, distributor and publicist who has befriended so many people in the film industry that he was given a Telluride medal this year just for being who he is. The movies unspool from 9 a.m. to past midnight. The restaurants are jammed with tables where the talk seems more important than the food. The annual Labor Day picnic this year gathered a thousand people in the town park for a barbecue and a panel discussion on eroticism in the cinema. It's as typically contentious; Boorman complained that ordinary sex scenes were not dramatic because they did not involve conflict and were too predictable. Film scholar Linda Williams suggested that maybe S&M would provide more conflict. Jennifer Jason Leigh, rejecting the familiar complaint that nude scenes exploit actors, seized the microphone to say she liked doing such scenes because they were truthful, and a challenge, and that the MPAA ratings had created a hypocritical atmosphere in which adult themes were being punished. Canadian director Denys Arcand offered a reasonable definition of how to tell pornography from art: "When it is done only for the money." But Williams shot back, "That would include 90 percent of the movies."

No one person can see all of the films at Telluride. Some of the others I saw were Lodge Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven," a harrowing portrait of the last days of a schizophrenic; David Siegal and Scott McGehee's "Suture," about a man who assumes another man's identity; "The Boys of St. Vincent," a Canadian TV docudrama about the sexual abuse of children in a Catholic orphanage; Tavernier's angry, exuberant "L627," about overtaxed, exhausted Paris narcotics police, and Carlo Carlei's "Flight of the Innocent," about an Italian boy who survives the murder of his family and becomes the center of a kidnapping plot.

"Clean, Shaven," done on a shoestring, was a masterful creation of a character's state of mind. Kerrigan said he has a friend who is schizophrenic and was frustrated by the unrealistic portrayals of mental illness in the movies. His is founded on fact, and is painful and unforgettable. "Suture" had a weird plot made weirder by the non-traditional casting of black actor Dennis Haysbert as the long-lost brother of a rich white man. Both men agree they have an uncanny resemblance. The rich man tries to stage his own disappearance by blowing up Haysbert, who survives, and is nursed back to health while gradually overcoming amnesia and determining to take the role that was forced upon him. Shot in wide-screen black and white, the movie was like a 1960s psychological drama with ironic self-awareness.

The Canadian film was disappointingly superficial, offering no psychological insight or depth of characterization and simply showing us evil clergymen and victimized children as cliches in a morality play. Tavernier's work was mesmerizing, drawing us into the chaotic, under-funded battle against drugs and showing us the minutiae of a Paris cop's exhausting existence. The Italian film seemed more style than substance.

The two Cannes winners drew big ovations. "Piano," which I've written about earlier, stars Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel in an odd, touching love story that takes place in a bleak settlement in New Zealand 100 years ago. "Farewell, My Concubine," from China, where it has been banned, is a threehour epic that views China's 50 years of social and political upheaval through the eyes of two members of the Peking Opera. It is beautiful, heedlessly melodramatic and sexually complex: One of the singers is a homosexual who plays transvestite roles, and loves his stage partner, who rejects him to marry a prostitute.

Like all Telluride festivals, this one had great moments, as when 92-year-old John Alton recalled discovering Maurice Chevalier in a Paris nightclub and filming him in a screen test, only to have MGM turn him down (Paramount saw more promise in the performer). Or when Jennifer Jason Leigh generously described how she had wanted to audition for "The Piano" but couldn't because she was shooting another film, and now was glad she hadn't, "not that I would have gotten the part instead of Holly Hunter, but because I wouldn't for the world have missed the gift of her wonderful performance."

Or when Boorman, introducing a new print of his 1967 Lee Marvin thriller "Point Blank," recalled how he was too exhausted to think one early morning on the set, and Marvin helpfully pretended to be drunk to give the director time to recuperate.

Or when Tavernier gave his exuberant introductions to Alton's film-noir classics, with breathless enthusiasm for "the incredible chances he takes with light."

Or when Tavernier and Schroeder, two European intellectuals, got into an argument over the name of Hopalong Cassidy's horse, and William K. Everson, the world's greatest expert on Western films and themes, wearily intoned, "Topper."

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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