NOTES FROM THE TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL
TELLURIDE, Colorado--It's the fourth and final day. The 20th annual Telluride Film Festival is almost history. Everyone's getting ready to blow town.
Each Labor Day weekend, this film festival draws film buffs from all over the country. They watch four or five films per day, and grow punchy from being exposed to so many flicks in such a short period. And then they rush back home.
Over and over, they keep asking themselves the same questions: What did I see here that was really worthwhile? Which director stood out? Was there an actor or actress who delivered an unforgettable performance? What will I remember a month from now?
It's a tough weekend, but everyone thrives on it.
When they are not sitting in ancient, cramped seats that Dan Harkins would never allow on his premises, they are standing on long lines at the moviehouses or waiting to gain entrance to overcrowded restaurants.
The price of a festival pass is $325 per person. I have never heard anyone complain it was too expensive.
Many forgo the restaurants. They settle for sandwiches or chocolate bars hastily downed while waiting on line for the next film. A cup of hot coffee--if you can find one--is like a gift from heaven.
Nobody dresses up. The predominant uniform of the festival seems to be blue work shirts and Levis with sandals or jogging shoes. Sweaters or light jackets are donned for early morning and evening.
This is the town in which Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank. William Jennings Bryan (remember Fredric March?) made his "Cross of Gold" speech at the Sheridan hotel, in the center of town.
The town provides an awesome setting, surrounded by mountains more than 12,000 feet high. Just walking up the hills to the theatres makes you gasp for air until you become acclimated.
There are late-afternoon showers and spectacular sunsets. In the morning, the air is crisp. The rising sun creates deep shadows on the mountain walls that rise above you on all sides.
The permanent population of approximately 1,200 seems to consist largely of dropouts from the Sixties and Seventies, supplemented by several hundred trust funders.
Celebrities like Ralph Lauren, Oprah Winfrey, Daryl Hannah and Keith Carradine maintain homes outside of town. Generally, you can spot the stars of the films all around town.
Lauren, the clothing designer who buys those perfumed ads in Vanity Fair magazine, has a bottomless wallet. He reportedly paid more than $100,000 just for the buck-rail fence that surrounds his vast property.
The town bulges with visitors during the ski season and its many festivals. But if you remain a day past the festival, you will see it turn into a deserted hamlet.
Dozens of unleashed dogs roam the streets. Seemingly, the only way to make a living here is to own your own business or wait on tables in one of the many bars or restaurants.
There was a total of 25 films and special events on this year's program, not including the seminars. Film showings began at 9 each morning in five different theatres. That doesn't count the Abel Gance outdoor theatre, which shows films free of charge after dark.
Each day's schedule ran past midnight. And still, it was logistically impossible to see everything. You must always make a decision to miss something worthwhile. Generally, I would pass on a film like this year's The Joy Luck Club, which I know will play in the Valley within the month.
@body:The events I enjoy most are the ones in which directors talk about how they create their films.
A director with a new film is like a writer who has just finished a novel. He is anxious to explain how he has overcome great obstacles in putting his film together.
And despite the seeming arrogance of many, directors are all obviously needy of your approval.
John Ford once said that the best things happen in pictures by accident. Orson Welles agreed with him. Welles described a director as a man who presided over accidents.
This year, there were five directors on hand to present and discuss their work.
John Boorman from England, who was honored as the guest director, is a big man with a ruddy face and rumpled, gray hair.
Boorman spoke confidently and with self-deprecating humor. He has the look of a man used to command.
Boorman has known great success in the film business. After years of making documentaries for the BBC, he hit it big directing Lee Marvin in Point Blank back in 1967.
Boorman also directed 1987's Hope and Glory, a film that earned five Academy Award nominations. Boorman still frets because none of his nominations resulted in the big prize.
Boorman quickly introduced his new film, I Dreamt I Woke Up.
"This is a short film I made for the BBC," he said. "It is a documentary designed to show some aspect of my life. I chose to show my house in Ireland. Since I was the subject and I can't act, I asked John Heard to step in for me in the parts that required real acting."
Boorman assured us that the film would not be as self-indulgent as it might appear to be. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
Why do people think that anytime they use life in Ireland as a backdrop, the resultant film will ooze the same kind of charm as John Ford's The Quiet Man? All this one did was demonstrate that Boorman still has enough money to live like a prince.
It reminded me of something John Huston once said about how far wrong filmmaking can go:
"I don't know what my best friend or my wife would like. I only know what I like, and I hope there are enough people like me that feel the way I do about it."
I couldn't get into Boorman's world. I lasted little more than 30 minutes and then fled the theatre. I wasn't alone in the rush for the exits.
Boorman has experienced disappointments before. He has learned how actors with reputations for box-office appeal become so powerful that they can control the way a film is made.
In 1990, Richard Gere approached Boorman and asked him to direct a film that was ultimately called Final Analysis.
Boorman hired people to help him, and he spent a year sharpening the script. When Gere looked at the project a second time, he hated it. He told Boorman the story was no longer right for him.
He refused to play in Boorman's version. Boorman realized that what the studio and Gere wanted was to attract the same audience that loved and flocked to Fatal Attraction.
So Boorman had wasted a year on a project he couldn't direct because the leading actor had control. It ended with the studio's hiring of a 30-year-old director who was only too happy to make it Gere's way. The film was a box-office flop, but that didn't help either Boorman's psyche or his bank statement.
The French director Bertrand Tavernier was also on hand.
Tavernier directed and even helped write the script for Round Midnight, the 1986 film about Dexter Gordon, which brought the jazz musician overnight stardom late in his life. It is a film you can watch over and over again. You don't have to know anything about jazz and, in one sitting, it will teach you to love the music of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
Tavernier is not only a successful director in France, but was for years a leading French cinema critic.
I suspect he is badly in need of a hit film. Tavernier came to the festival a couple of years ago and presented an autobiographical film called Daddy Nostalgia. I loved it. The critics hated it, and it disappeared.
Tavernier spoke passionately about his new film, L627. It is a long, dispassionate probing of the inner workings of the Paris police's drug squad.
What L627 clearly shows is that the whole police operation is caught up in red tape and staffed by department heads who are seeking glory for themselves.
French politicians are no different than our own self-serving county attorney, Richard Romley.
Tavernier reveals that French officials care more about making themselves look good on the record than they do about stamping out the drug problem.
Think back on the role Romley played in the temple murders. Every move made by Myrna Parker and Paul Ahler, his lead prosecutors, was designed to heap glory on Romley's shoulders.
It never mattered to them how many innocent people they detained behind bars. What did it matter? None of the victims had any political clout.
Tavernier seemed pessimistic.
"So far, my film has been turned down by all the distributors in America," he said. "They say it is too bleak."
He smiled sadly.
"But, after all, this is what I have been hearing about my work all my life."
He explained that the unusual title L627 refers to the French law passed to prescribe punishment to drug pushers.
"I spent months with this cop, who was totally dedicated to his job. He was obsessed by his work. I went around with him day and night. I learned how he lived.
"You will see that this film is not only about drugs, but about the state of life in France in 1992."
Tavernier ran his right hand through his long, gray hair. He took a breath.
"Let me tell you a story. I had lunch one day with the French prime minister. He was a socialist, a man for whom I voted.
"The politician made an effort to take me into his confidence. He asked me what subject I thought was of enough importance that it must be dealt with before everything else.
"Excitedly, I began to tell him about what I learned about drug trafficking on the streets of Paris.
"He cut me down at once.
"I told you to speak about important subjects,' he said.
"I got so angry, I decided that I must do this film."
Unfortunately, L627 actually is bleak. It is a French version, with subtitles, of all the drug procedurals we have watched for years on nightly television.
The acting is fine. There is a strong narrative thrust. But I'm afraid L627 says nothing we didn't learn from The French Connection.
Also, it is 145 minutes long. And there are no car chases. So I'm afraid Tavernier has struck out again.
Ken Loach, a director from England, presented a film called Raining Stones, which had won the Jury Prize earlier this year at the Cannes festival. That alone will assure it of success in Europe.
Raining Stones is about a jovial, hard-drinking, unemployed Irish plumber. He lives in Manchester, England, where it is hard to find a job these days.
He is so desperate to buy his daughter a Communion dress that he borrows money from a loan shark.
The loan shark sells the loan to an underworld figure, who beats up the plumber badly. You can sense disaster coming. But the plumber, in defending himself, accidentally kills his assailant. I was prepared for the plumber to go to jail. But the plumber's fortunes turned when he sought absolution in confession from his parish priest.
How many times have you seen a movie priest advise a lawbreaker that he must go to the police and spill his guts?
This priest, God love him, tells the plumber to pray for the underworld figure's soul. But the priest further orders the plumber not to bother telling the police that he, the plumber, was responsible for the man's death. The ending seemed just right.
Director Loach, who always strives for the offbeat in his films, spoke about how difficult it is for him to get financial backing.
Loach said, "The way the cinema is now structured, the films we get this year tend to be new versions of the ones that made a profit last year. So the range of choices constantly narrows."
He might have been restating Boorman's tale about Richard Gere and Final Analysis.
Wim Wenders, the German director, was also on hand.
Wenders has developed almost a cult following since Paris, Texas, starring the great Harry Dean Stanton. Wenders has also given us films like Hammett and The American Friend. They have proved great favorites.
Five years ago, Wenders directed Wings of Desire, which followed the lives of angels watching helplessly over people in a still-divided Berlin.
Now, in his latest film, Faraway, So Close, Wenders has gathered together some of the same actors, including Peter Falk, to do a follow-up story about angels.
One angel renounces immortality and accepts human life in order to help the human beings with whom he sympathizes. We watch in fascination as his battle with ordinary life destroys him.
"This is not a sequel to Wings of Desire," Wenders said. "I thought for a couple of weeks as we made it that it was. But that made us all miserable. This is merely a story of the same city, six years later, with many of the same actors."
I took Wenders at his word as he told us this. It is his film, and he can call it anything he likes.
However, after viewing the film, I don't see how he can call it anything but a sequel.
After speaking a very few moments, Wenders halted. Like many Germans, he speaks excellent English. Unlike the French and the British, he understands the power of brevity.
"Believe me when I tell you this is a film that needs your eyes and your heart more than normally. You'll understand why in the course of the film. You see, you must rewrite it in your own mind as you watch."
The Telluride program promised that Wenders' film was the "most beautifully crafted work of pure cinema at Cannes, where it had won the Special Jury Prize."
For once the festival program wasn't overstating the case. Faraway, So Close is a fine film. I don't think it's commercial enough to make big money, but it struck me as one of the most thought-provoking films of the entire festival.
@body:I've already seen a dozen films. They have bombarded my perceptions. Right now I don't know which will prove memorable. I have developed a stiff neck and an aching back from staring up at the various screens.
In years past, if you missed the first showing of a superior film, word of mouth would spread around the festival, warning you to catch it on the second showing.
In recent years, the word spread swiftly about Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Stephen Rea in The Crying Game and Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune. Lewis and Irons were later honored with Academy Awards, and Rea with a nomination.
I remember that the first showing of the TV pilot of Twin Peaks proved a sensation. Then it quickly roused howls of dissatisfaction from the audiences when it became obvious we were not to learn who killed Laura Palmer. Come to think of it, I still don't know who killed her. And now I simply don't give a damn. Is that a familiar line?
There have been no events electric enough to raise that much fervor here this year. The Piano might have been that film. The problem is that I saw it on its first showing and was disappointed. People keep coming up to me and telling me it's great, but I don't agree.
You keep reading that The Piano will figure in this year's Academy Awards. Maybe it will. But it no longer seems likely to me.
Everyone here knew that The Piano had won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes festival and that Holly Hunter, who stars as a mute Scottish widow, had won the prize for Best Actress.
Harvey Keitel, the powerhouse, plays opposite Hunter. Keitel, who is on the cover of this month's Esquire, has belatedly seized recognition as one of Hollywood's most forceful actors.
The salute is late in coming, because Keitel was every bit as effective a screen personality back in 1973, when he played opposite Robert De Niro in director Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.
My problem with The Piano was that after the first 30 minutes, there was not one character I would not gladly have ordered dropped into a kettle of boiling oil.
There is more stiff, self-conscious acting in The Piano than in any period costume drama since John Huston's Moby Dick.
Directors tell you that the actual shooting of a movie is a painful, agonizing process that consists of constant minor disappointments. They insist there are some films in which they feel that with each scene, something valuable and irretrievable is being lost.
The Piano starts off with a bang.
Holly Hunter arrives on the beach of primitive New Zealand to meet her new husband. She does not have the power of speech. But she is imperious. She refuses to leave the beach until her piano is carried through the forests.
Here, we have a tiny, tightlipped, prim woman who can't speak and will do nothing but play the piano for the entire film. And then, without much ado, she hops into bed with Keitel and almost gets herself killed by her jealous husband.
Admittedly, there are a few highly charged moments in the film. One of them may even be unforgettable.
I say this with a caveat. It's memorable only if you regard it as high art to see Hunter's jealous husband chop one of her fingers off with an ax so she can no longer give piano lessons to Keitel.
I think Keitel steals the film. But, then again, I think he has stolen virtually every film he's ever appeared in.
But Keitel does so this time at tremendous cost to the film's unity. He goes native, paints his face and, at one point, strips naked, almost gleefully exposing his genitals.
Keitel began this striptease routine last year in Bad Lieutenant.
This was probably not a performance dictated by the director. This was a volunteer job. It had to be Keitel's own idea. And if he keeps this up, he may someday earn a special citation from the Academy: the award for Distinguished Full-Frontal Nudity.
But one wonders when Keitel will finally find a scriptwriter who will provide him with a legitimate reason for disrobing.
In The Piano, Keitel is provoked into removing his clothes by the dubious stimulus of a classical piano lesson given to him by Hunter.
In Bad Lieutenant, there was even less justification for disrobing, but Keitel leaped into his routine with equal gusto.
Film critics expend so much energy complaining about gratuitous violence. When will they realize that Keitel's aggressive disrobing scenes are nothing more than gratuitous nudity?
@body:The film that created the most excitement was not even a film about to be released to theatres. The Boys of St. Vincent was a two-part TV special, made by Canadian television, about sexual abuse in a Catholic school.
There is an enormous fascination about this sort of thing. I could sense while standing on the very long line that formed outside the theatre how concerned most people were that they might not get a seat.
The Boys of St. Vincent is a harrowing tale of the sexual abuse of young schoolboys by members of a Roman Catholic religious order. In the book, written about the actual incident, it was identified as the Irish Christian Brothers of Newfoundland.
The film hits the mark. Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien should order it shown in all of the Catholic schools in Phoenix.
No punches are pulled. So, naturally, it's been banned on television in both Toronto and Quebec.
@body:A high note of the festival was the special tribute given to John Alton, the 91-year-old cinematographer noted for his work in film noir. The organizers have been trying to locate Alton for years.
He earned an Academy Award for his filming of the ballet scene in An American in Paris, and he was at the height of his career in 1960 when he shot Elmer Gantry, which won an Academy Award for Burt Lancaster.
It was at this point that Alton walked away from Hollywood, never to return.
Alton was interviewed by the Frenchman, Tavernier, who admitted that Alton's camera work on Anthony Mann films like Raw Deal, T-Men and Border Incident had inspired him as a young man.
Tiny but feisty, Alton was clearly enjoying himself to the fullest before the big crowd.
"What do you think of the films made since you left the business?" Tavernier asked.
"I never look at them," Alton shot back.
"And why did you decide to leave and never come back?"
"It's simple. The people making movies had one aim: to make money. I had one aim: to make beautiful pictures. It was time for me to move on."
The house lights went up. The big crowd stood as one to give the old man a standing ovation.
He strutted down the aisle. Flash bulbs popped as his picture was taken over and over again. There was a broad grin on the old man's face. He raised his hands over his head in triumph, as if he were playing the title role in Rocky.
@body:Why do I think that Jennifer Jason Leigh is the single best actress now working in American films? I normally would resent hearing her being compared to Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Shirley MacLaine.
Leigh's portraits of prostitutes and sociopaths, all created since 1982, are remarkable. Nobody, not even Jodie Foster, has created a woman of the streets as memorable as her Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn.
I went to the tribute to Leigh held on the festival's final morning. Clips from films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Men's Club, Miami Blues, Rush and Single White Female were shown.
Leigh is so strong in Single White Female that I think she deserves the comparison to Bette Davis. The house lights came on after the showing of the film excerpts, and there was Leigh, sitting alongside Roger Ebert. There was no Gene Siskel.
Ebert was magical with her. He let her do most of the talking.
"I remember," she said, "one day I saw a woman standing behind a cameraman on the set. She was just hanging out, smoking cigarettes like a chimney. She looked like shit. She even had a tooth missing in the front of her mouth.
"I heard her say: 'You know what I did today? I got my man a $500 ring.'"
"And I just thought, 'I wanna play this woman.' I fell in love with her, you know. Just this one moment made me feel like I can play these kinds of women the rest of my life."
This may be the year Leigh becomes a big name. First of all, she will appear in director Robert Altman's Short Cuts, a version of the short stories of the great Raymond Carver.
Leigh stars as a brassy reporter in the Coen brothers' new film, Hudsucker Proxy. And she also has the title role in the biography of the late New Yorker magazine writer Dorothy Parker.
They showed film clips from all three. She was remarkable in each.
I left the festival carrying with me the memory of an incredibly poignant scene in which Leigh, as Parker, asks her psychiatrist to explain her unhappiness.
"Please tell me why I'm so goddamned unhappy and why I can't write anymore.
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