Standing in front of a big-city multiplex recently, a colleague saw lots of teenagers heading into a movie being heavily advertised to their age group. Then she noticed many women buying tickets to a film pitched at female audiences, while men flocked to a "guy picture" next door. The only film attracting a wide range of viewers - young and old, male and female - was a summer blockbuster with a huge promotional campaign based on boisterous action and special effects.
Moviegoing used to be an occasion for people of all kinds to enjoy themselves together, my fellow critic noted. It's sad that controversial content and "niche marketing" techniques have fractured audiences into different groups with separate entertainment agendas, she added. And it's even sadder when the only pictures that do bring us together rely on bombast and violence, rather than values anchored in community and common interest.
I thought of these matters at the recent Telluride Film Festival because of all the film events I know, this annual festival in the heart of the Rocky Mountains provides the best antidote to the fracturing and fragmenting of today's movie environment.
Held each Labor Day weekend in theaters and auditoriums clustered about the atmospheric main street of a century-old mining town, it attracts a remarkably varied crowd that's less interested in quantity - only about two dozen programs are shown - than in excellence. And there's as much commitment to the conversations in the lobbies as to the pictures on the screens.
As the three-day schedule unfolds, the art of watching, discussing, and loving movies becomes again the communal activity it used to be, and could be again if the lessons of this "people's festival" were more widely heeded.
The films themselves were of unusually high quality this year, and many of the best will open in American theaters over the next few weeks.
These include some impressively produced family entertainments and movies focusing on children or adolescents - a trend I noted at the Montreal filmfest recently and observed again in the Telluride lineup.
The first youth-oriented picture I saw here was "Fly Away Home," starring Jeff Daniels as a Canadian inventor and Anna Paquin as his 13-year-old daughter. She's a budding nature-lover who hatches a bunch of goose eggs just for fun, but then realizes that her new pets have no parents to lead their migration when it's time to fly south for the winter.
Teaming with her dad, she learns to fly a lightweight aircraft and sets out on an epic journey, personally escorting her brood to a new home in the United States where (as a bonus) their presence will prevent a greedy developer from spoiling a patch of pristine wilderness.
The movie has moments of sentimental excess, but its aerial photography is astonishing - it was directed by Carroll Ballard, of "Never Cry Wolf" and "Black Stallion" fame - and the story has a heart as big as all outdoors.
I saw "Fly Away Home" in an ideal setting: the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema, an outdoor venue where movies are screened after sunset against a backdrop of true mountain splendor.
A couple of nights later "Microcosmos" was also shown in this setting. It is a stunningly photographed look at the world of insects. The film has no plot to speak of, but its images are extraordinary - so that's what a grasshopper looks like magnified 100 times! - and I'm sure Miramax Films will recoup the investment it's making in a theatrical release next month.
This movie was introduced by its directors, French filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, and Nuridsany got the evening's biggest laugh. "I am happy to see you here on the grass," he told the open-air crowd, "but I'm afraid you may be sitting on our stars!"
Among the movies dealing with young characters, one of the most enthusiastically received was "Sling Blade," written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also plays the leading role. The story centers on Karl, a mentally slow man who once committed a terrible crime but has now been declared sane and sent back into the rural Arkansas world where he grew up years ago. There he befriends a youngster who's less suspicious of him than adults tend to be, moves in with the boy's troubled family, and ultimately makes a tragic sacrifice that he believes will help his new friend to a happier life.
While it's hardly a family film, it takes a thoughtful and sensitive approach to a challenging subject.
Other films due in theaters before long include "Twelfth Night," an adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy with Ben Kingsley as Feste the clown, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio, all directed by stage wizard Trevor Nunn; "Swingers," a brashly amusing visit with a young man who can't find a new girlfriend until he gets his old one off his mind; "Beautiful Thing," about a British teenager who discovers he is a homosexual; and "Kolya," a Czech production that blends politics and drama in the touching story of an aging man who finds himself the unexpected guardian of a five-year-old boy.
Still other highlights were "Secrets & Lies," the brilliant new Mike Leigh film shown at the Cannes film festival last spring, and "Breaking the Waves," a Danish drama sure to spark debate when it opens commercially. Add some superbly chosen retrospective programs - including "Le Samoura" and "Le Trou," two French gems of the 1960s - and the result was a three-day excursion through cinema at its most stimulating.
Here's hoping Telluride's best attractions will arrive in theaters complete with the unifying influence they exerted on the movie-lovers who saw them here.
*Tentative theatrical dates for some of the Telluride's features: 'Fly Away Home,' Sept. 13; 'Secrets & Lies,' Sept. 28; 'Microcosmos' and 'Beautiful Thing,' Oct. 11; 'Swingers,' Oct. 18; 'Twelfth Night,' Oct. 25; 'Sling Blade,' around Thanksgiving; and 'Kolya,' early next year.