Tenderness Takes Telluride

A WISE old historian once told his students, "Context is everything." The Telluride Film Festival is the perfect context in which to ponder, discuss, and laud the art of film.The red-rocked, pine-covered mountains are cloaked this year in rich green from the unusual rainfall. Along the few blocks of the old mining town's main street, the movie revelers hunch over their programs trying to select the 10 to 15 out of 30 films they will be able to squeeze into their Labor Day weekend. Everyone will stand in line for 30 to 45 minutes from 8 a.m. until almost midnight for the most popular films. But few mind, since the lines mean spontaneous conversations about film. However lively the arguments, people tend to be kind to each other here. Maybe I recognized that kindness more this year because the strongest film theme I found had to do with kindness: The great need for kindness in the world and the relationship between kindness and wisdom surfaced in film after film. Telluride has never had so many women directors at once, despite an ongoing effort on the part of the festival directors to include them. And the presence of so many women filmmakers did lend a peculiar character to the festival this year. Their films covered a variety of human conditions and periods, and each presented a deeply humane message and a strong heroine with a point of view. But none of them spouted rhetoric. Jodie Foster received a special tribute for her work in film and her directorial debut film, "Little Man Tate," had its world premiere at Telluride. Martha Coolidge's "Rambling Rose," Nancy Savocca's "Dogfight," and Mexican director Maria Novaro's "Danzon" have nothing in common with each other except an unsentimental, hope -filled view of human affection. As a first effort by the amazingly talented Ms. Foster, "Little Man Tate" shows great promise. It's a love story in its way, about a tough-mouthed single-mother waitress (Foster) whose seven-year-old son is a genius. When the child is discovered by an educator of geniuses (Dianne Wiest) the love story turns into a triangle. Some predictable moves mar, but by no means upset, the modest victory of this film. Foster has the wit to avoid too many heart-wrenching scenes, and the pleasant script interjects eno ugh humor and restraint into the misunderstood-child theme. Ms. Coolidge has arrived as a mature director with "Rambling Rose," a serious period comedy about dirt-poor, 19-year-old Rose (Laura Dern) who comes to stay with the middle-class Hillyer family and upsets a Southern town in her misguided search for love. The story has its dark moments and strange values, but one important theme runs its winding course: Genuine kindness produces the deepest insights. The matriarch (Diane Ladd) is a progressive thinker (for 1935), an educated woman working on her master's degree. Her proto-feminist beliefs are set up to sound a little silly, if well intentioned. At the end of the picture when she must defend Rose from a medical conspiracy to tame the wild girl, Mrs. Hillyer's intellectual ideals are seen as decency itself. It has not been all talk, but well-reasoned, deeply felt conviction. The scene invests the whole film with unexpected power and moral complexity. Stunning performances by Ms. Ladd and Robert Duvall as the parents, and Lukas Haas as the observant eldest Hillyer child illumine the excellent script. Dern's performance is overwrought at points. Nancy Savocca's uneven, but compelling, "Dogfight" is another unusual love story. Four young recruits on their way to Vietnam stage a "dogfight a contest in which a prize is given to the soldier with the ugliest date. The terrible humiliation of these women is never sentimentalized. Savocca turns the tables on Corporal Birdlace (River Phoenix) who learns to see beyond the outward appearances. What sustains a man through dark times is love, not anger. The film suffers from its own ambitiousness - the Viet nam war is too big a subject to be a subplot. Maria Novaro's "Danzon" tells the tale of a Mexico City telephone operator who loves to dance. After her dance partner disappears she goes in search of him. Her search for the partner becomes a quest for love, a blossoming into wisdom. Introduced by performance-artist guest director Laurie Anderson, "Danzon" pulsates with unrefined liveliness. These films have in common an idiosyncratic approach to human affection, a perception about love that is never essentially sexual. The fact that they were made by women may or may not be coincidental. Paul Cox's "A Woman's Tale" takes up the issue of love and kindness even more bravely when he tackles old age. An elderly woman who, we learn, is dying, refuses to give in to illness. The feisty lady finds the energy to fight her landlord and care for her neighbor. Her creative response to life lies in her generosity and affection. THE festival honored Sven Nikvist, one of the greatest cinematographers of our time. Mr. Nikvist worked closely with Ingmar Bergman throughout Bergman's career. A tribute to Nikvist's distinguished career with Bergman and many others was presented, and included his own exquisite "The Ox a spare tale of crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption. During a terrible famine in the Sweden of 1868, one-fourth of the population immigrated to the US. Those who stayed behind struggled terribly. But what may actually have sustained them is their rigorous morality. A man kills an ox to feed his starving family - at the expense of another family's well-being. Images of unrelieved suffering break as forgiveness graces the lives of the protagonist and his family. The controversial Peter Greenaway took on the story of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Brilliant, excessive, often hideous, and finally deeply moving, "Prospero's Books" seems to me a breakthrough for the director, both technically and aesthetically. Another film contributed indirectly to the festival's inadvertent investigation of kindness and of woman's experience. "The Double Life of Veronique" by the great Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski is a mysterious tale about a woman who lives two lives. It's a quest film and a love story and its meaning lies ultimately in the affirmation that there is more to experience than can be quantified by science. In the 18th Telluride Film Festival, both female and male directors who took up the issue of tender regard for the "other" did so with minimal sentimentality and profound sentiment. The genius of Telluride is that it usually does locate major trends in world cinema. One can only hope that it has done so this year.

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