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A filmfest for fans, not insiders. Telluride presented some of the year's best movies, indicating a trend toward stronger roles for women

By David Sterritt / September 18, 1987

Telluride, Colo.

CHUCK JONES, the great Warner Bros. cartoonist, once described the Telluride Film Festival as ``the most fun you'll ever have without breathing!'' He's right. The air up here is as thin as the ribbon of Rocky Mountain highway that winds away from Grand Junction, past Placerville and Sawpit, toward what may be the world's most picturesquely situated movie event. Surrounded on three sides by some of the most beautiful Colorado peaks I've seen, Telluride is the festival that poses the philosophical question: Why would anyone go to the movies when there's so much natural splendor to savor?

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As if to prevent such subversive ideas from occurring, the Telluride organizers put together daily schedules so dense and diverse that no movie fan could resist them. But the mountains demand their due, and - in addition to outdoor seminars each noontime - nightly screenings are held in an open-air cinema under the stars.

Other showings take place in four theaters. The most atmospheric is the Sheridan Opera House, built in the days when Telluride was a wealthy mining center, and later restored to its original condition. It's the jewel in Telluride's theatrical crown, complete with old-fashioned painted curtain and light-bulb-studded proscenium. It's also tiny, so there's continuous need for the town's other screens - in the rustic Nugget Theater, a made-over Masonic hall, and a local community center. All these venues are alive with activity from early morning until late at night during the festival's four-day run ending on Labor Day each year.

Of the film events I've attended, Telluride comes closest to being a real people's festival - unlike the Cannes or New York filmfests, for instance, which spend a lot of energy catering to movie-business insiders and the press. The everyday movie-lovers who make up a majority of ticket-holders are as varied as the films. Some have paid hundreds of dollars for passes to every festival event; others simply stand in line for tickets to individual screenings.

Festival organizers also take pride in their lowest-budget clientele - a yearly contingent of movie fans who camp out in their own tents and divide their time between free open-air showings and low-cost programs in the community center at a cost of $50 or less.

Also unique is Telluride's custom of keeping its programs a secret until the last minute - even from the snoopy press. I arrived with only a sketchy idea of what the 14th annual Telluride festival had in store. Happily, the lineup proved to be splendid, including some of the best films I've seen in this hitherto movie-poor year.

If any trend can be gleaned from these movies, it's a welcome tendency toward strong roles for women. The status of actresses has become better since the male ``buddy movie'' craze of the 1970s, but there's still vast room for improvement. And winds of change blew through the mountain air of Telluride.

One striking example was The Whales of August, directed by British filmmaker Lindsay Anderson. A humane and delicate drama set on the Maine coast, it provides fabulous roles for two of the most legendary women in movie history: Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. There isn't much of a story, and the dialogue is often stilted, but Gish and Davis are luminous as two elderly sisters deciding whether to spend the rest of their lives together. I'll be mighty surprised if Oscar doesn't nod to at least one of them.