BACK to basics. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the Telluride Film Festival has championed the small film, the forgotten masterpiece, the voice of the individual artist working outside the world of factory filmmaking. The international film community offered up its small cinematic jewels, and many of these went on to commercial and critical success after their American premieres here. Telluride was known for finding the unique work of film art. This year, the 19th Annual Telluride Film Festival reaffirmed those goals over Labor Day weekend in the graceful old Western mining town tucked high in the mountains of southern Colorado.
Perhaps last year's stars sparkled a little too brightly for the festival directors' tastes. In any case, this time they went digging for the diamonds in the rough.
Some of those diamonds are rough enough but still genuine. Telluride introduced an ingenious little film called "El Mariachi," by 23-year-old Texan director Robert Rodriguez. Made on an impossible budget of $7,500, this taut thriller about a wandering modern minstrel is part parody, part gangster film, and part hero's journey. The bullets fly freely, but there is enough self-mockery in the film to keep the viewer safely distanced from the violence. So, crude as it is, it is a textbook in film technique a nd economy.
"El Mariachi" was one of several films selected by Cuban ex- patriot film critic G. Cabrera Infante. His presence at Telluride, like that of Errol Morris, Bertrand Tavernier, and Laurie Anderson as guest directors in years past, brought a special flavor to the festival, an expertise outside the mainstream that illuminated work few North Americans know about.
The concept of light was an issue, too - literally and metaphorically. The titles of two documentaries seem to capture the spirit of Telluride this year: "Visions of Light," by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, and Stuart Samuels, and Werner Herzog's "Lessons In Darkness" describe opposite attitudes toward filmmaking as well as extremes of human experience. "Visions" is a magnificent investigation of the art of the cinematographer - the kind of film that helps you see each shot as a composition in light. L ove for the art form is palpable in this piece. It leaves one feeling inspired and grateful for the form itself.
"Lessons," on the other hand, tracks the destruction of Kuwait after Saddam Hussein set the oil wells on fire. Mr. Herzog refuses to take an obvious political position - there were human-rights violations on both sides.
But he shows you rooms of instruments used in torture, interviews with women who lost husbands and sons, etc. On the sound track, you hear Wagner's music. Herzog himself reads from the Book of Revelation. Herzog is trying to teach us a lesson about man's destructiveness, but he makes that horror beautiful and powerful.
Telluride has always reflected more than trends in film: It picks up on major currents of the world community as reflected by world cinema. This year those currents ran dark and deep. Degradation, despair, child abuse, ecological disaster, drug abuse, political inanity, and violence assaulted the eye. Even one of the most light-hearted of the films, Kenneth Branagh's delightful "Big-Chill" styled comedy, "Peter's Friends," sobers up over the issue of fatal illness just as its important message about prof ound human affection hits home.Some of the films deal in darkness for its own sake. "Reservoir Dogs," a gangster film with little to recommend it except an exceptional ensemble cast, was part of a tribute to actor Harvey Keitel, whose new film "Bad Lieutenant" projects the life of a crack-addicted, utterly corrupt policeman. A brilliant, risky performance by Mr. Keitel doesn't save the film from its poor writing, its gratuitous violence, and its inadequate ending - a twisted form of "redemption" from his lo st life. And yet, despite its worst faults, the NC-17 rated film throws some light on the issues it takes up. No one could possibly look at this film and aspire to the lieutenant's depravity. It's so hideous, depressing, impotent, and boring.
The issue of child abuse came up in several vastly different films. Agnieska Holland's "Olivier, Olivier," takes up the cruelties of dysfunctional family life with some intensity if not much insight. Russian director Mikhail Kalatozishvili's severe "The Chosen One" begins as an investigation of the horrors of the Communist take over of Georgia but ends inexplicably with the execution of a small child at the hands of his own father. What might have been a revelation of the early days of communism turns in to a bizarre treatise on primitive "honor." Disappointing in the extreme.
A scathing black-comic short film called "A Sense of History" attacks the arrogance of the British aristocracy at the same time as it describes the tragic effects of child abuse on one lord of the manor. As inky as the humor is, "History" does more to enlighten the viewer on the subject than most.
And then there was light, at last. "Close to Eden," by Russian director Nikita Mikhailkov, was for me the brightest film of the festival. The life of a Mongolian shepherd living peacefully with his small family is suddenly upended by contact with a Russian truck driver who crashes near Gombo's yurt (hut). Amusing and touching, this ethnographically correct film is full of gentle surprises, dream imagery, and comic touches that tend to reaffirm one's belief in the goodness of the human heart, especially w hen uncorrupted by materialism.
THE affirmation of the function and power of art (specifically music) came in Alain Corneau's elegant tragedy "Tous les Matins du Monde." This modest period drama is based on the true story of 17th century French composer Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and his student and rival Marin Marais (played by Gerard Depardieu and his son Guillaume at different ages). Sainte-Colombe's melancholy life would be all tragedy were it not for a moment of profound communion with another musician. That sense of co mmunion illumines the composer's own dedication to music and the struggle for expression.
It was a good year at Telluride, but a tough year - hard issues, few answers. Rediscovering its real function was another step forward for this significant Colorado arts festival. And in the end, even the darkest corners of human experience require illumination.