Old mining town screens some shining film nuggets

Home to winter skiing and summer festivals, the old mining town of Telluride would seem an odd place for an international film festival. But this 12-year-old event has become highly regarded for its intelligence, integrity, and intuition -- qualities that have produced one of the most unique film festivals in the country. It draws the attention of critics like Sheila Benson and Kevin Thomas from the Los Angeles Times, Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun Times, film historians and theorists, as well as the usual distributors, producers, and avid film buffs. The expensive tickets ($150-$250 apiece) sell out long before showtime.

The reasons for the Telluride Film Festival's prestige are not hard to find. Always carefully designed, this year's festival packed nearly 40 films (many with multiple screenings) into the four nights and three days of the Labor Day weekend.

A dedication to film-as-art (rather than as merely an entertainment commodity) includes a profound understanding of the great films of the past, a recognition of their contributions to cinematic language, and an appreciation for their continued currency as works of art.

Few Americans knew of Abel Gance's silent epic ``Napoleon'' until its resurrection in Telluride more than five years ago. This year the festival offered the North American premi`ere of the original version, newly restored, of Carl Dreyer's ``The Passion of Joan of Arc,'' as well as ``One More Spring,'' an all but lost depression-era classic by the director of ``My Man Godfrey,'' Henry King.

Festival audiences were treated to Emilio Fernandez's magnificent ``The Pearl'' (1945), as well as scenes clipped from seven other works. Fernandez was well known to Americans in the '30s for his character roles in Hollywood movies. But his return to Mexico in the '40s signaled the beginning of his career as one of the great directors of Mexican cinema. Eschewing the themes and storytelling techniques of Hollywood, Fernandez made elaborately poetic films depicting the plight of his country's Indians. Hi s social consciousness, enriched by his singular vision of Indian culture, landscapes, folklore, and Mexican traditions, gave his films an utterly unique look and purpose.

A glimpse of the scope and power of Fernandez's work, his long career (writing and directing 25 feature films) was a revelation to the festival audiences. The Telluride Film Festival deals in revelations. Because those revelations are not limited to important new work, viewers see film in the context of its history, and that context informs and enriches the experience of all movies, teaching visual discernment.

Aesthetic perceptiveness is important. But more important, the Telluride approach to film viewing fosters understanding of narrative film as a chronicle of human thought -- of the ethics, concerns, obsessions, distortions, aspirations, and struggles of the human spirit. Even the emergent themes of the festival reflect the flotsam and jetsam riding the currents of world thought.

Each year, specific themes emerge at the festival, not because the festival directors set out to impose their own, but because, as festival manager Stella Pence pointed out, ``We have observed that world cinema really does seem to rise in waves -- especially over the last five or six years. One year the major concerns included nuclear holocaust, another year families were the focus of filmmakers around the world.''

This year seems to be the year of the documentary. Asian and Mexican narrative films reflect a new vitality, too.

``Frida,'' by Paul Leduc, is a dramatic biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Impeccably shot, acted, and edited, ``Frida'' attempts to reveal the origins of the painter's creative process. Graphic glimpses of her physical suffering, however, while explanative of her imagery, become ultimately stifling.

``Nicaragua Was Our Home,'' by Lee Ditman Shapiro, reports on the plight of Miskito Indians, building a case against Sandinista policy toward them. Balancing the program was ``Harvest of Peace,'' a defense of the Sandinistas and their reforms.

``The Funeral,'' by Japan's Juzo Itami, presents a contemporary Japanese family caught without its traditions at a family funeral. The black humor of the film underscores the inadequacies of modern culture faced with an age-old problem. Videotapes on etiquette seem ludicrous, but what's a family to do when the loss of prescribed cultural behavior (like traditional ritual) has not been replaced by anything at all?

``Yellow Earth'' offers a glimpse of Chinese dramatic film, while ``The Great Wall Is a Great Wall,'' by Chinese-American Peter Wang, comically notes the cross-generational as well as cross-cultural conflicts between Americanized Chinese and their relatives in Peking.

Telluride's best American films this year were all documentaries, with the one exception of ``Mishima,'' by Paul Schrader (``American Gigolo''), a film about Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima -- made in Japan in Japanese. Les Blank and Ricky Leacock, perhaps the most important documentary filmmakers on the scene today, were both there with their new films. Mr. Blank's ``Cigarette Blues'' elicited high praise from Mr. Leacock, whose own ``Lulu in Berlin'' is an intense portrait of silent film star Lo uise Brooks.

Telluride nurtures American independent film. ``We can do something for independent film,'' Mrs. Pence said. ``Our secret love is finding those good films and getting them out. Greg Nava's `El Norte' found a distributor at Telluride.''

The work of Stan Brakhage, experimental film artist, has been collected by many of the best museums in Europe and America. Brakhage's new films based upon Dante's ``Divine Comedy'' are hand-painted and startlingly beautiful.

The tribute to one of Europe's most visible and talented actresses, Hanna Schygulla, and another to Alexander Trauner, who designed the sets of so many fine films from ``Les Enfants du Paradis'' to ``The Man Who Would Be King,'' found an educated, intense audience.

Telluride is an odd place for a festival. May the tradition long continue.

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