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Labor Day in the Mountains: The 2002 Telluride Film Festival

The particular dynamic that makes the Telluride Film Festival — held each Labor Day weekend — so special is the combination of filmmakers and film lovers gathered together in a dramatic alpine setting to observe an eclectic mix of the best in world cinema, unique programs and seminars involving various aspects of the art of motion pictures.

Because of this, the most seasoned festivalgoer knows that Telluride is the one can’t-miss event on the film festival circuit. This year (Telluride’s 29th) was no exception, with over 40 feature-length films including silent films, 20 short films, many special programs including intimate conversations, outdoor seminars, and official (as well as unofficial) before, during, and after festivities.

There was a considerable buzz on three films. One was the Brazilian film City of God (Miramax) a powerful film about poor gang kids growing up on the violent ghettos of Rio while sporting a lot of guns and attitude. The second was Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (United Artists) an agitprop documentary about guns and fear in America. And the third was Safe Passage (Empire Pictures) from the venerable Bertrand Tavernier, about the resilient French film industry during the German Occupation of World War II.

Many of the films this year, on the surface, were provocative, controversial and downright bleak. But optimism raised its head in many movies, and there was a lot to relish from the variety of shows that were exhibited, including anti-war films (Cuckoo, The War), contentious violent films (Irreversible, Ken Park), personal journey films (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Morvern Callar), music documentaries (Willie Nelson: Still is Still Moving, Only the Strong Survive), psychological dramas (Spider, Respiro), neglected classics from Italy (Bandits of Orgosolo), and France (Le Corbeau), as well as two silent films with live musical accompaniment (The Black Pirate, Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrowna).

Most of the films shown already had distribution, making the festival seem at times a bit like a preview festival. In fact, Sony Pictures Classics had eight titles and Miramax had four. (Co-founder Bill Pence pointed out that the films were chosen before the deals were made.) Regardless, the fest’s special programs were exceptional. One such program was This is (Almost) Cinerama, which featured various short subjects from the 1950s, when Hollywood went widescreen. This program used a three projector projection system onto a specially curved screen and seven-track stereophonic sound.

One of the best recent additions to the festival is a program of intimate conversations between critics and filmmakers that are held in the old courthouse on the main street. Some of the best of this year’s conversations included political writer Christopher Hitchens and Michael Moore (which was actually held outdoors in the main park), critic David Thompson and filmmaker David Cronenberg, New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell and actor Willem Dafoe, and the one not-to-be-missed talk between Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam.

Each year Telluride gives three major tributes. This year they went to distinguished English actor Peter O’Toole, who has been in over 60 films from Lawrence of Arabia to The Stunt Man; neglected auteur Paul Schrader who is best known for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull but who has directed some excellent features including The Comfort of Strangers and Affliction; and to the distinctive documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker who made such documentaries as Don’t Look Back (about Bob Dylan) and The War Room.

So what did we see? Some capsule reviews of this year’s highlights.

Auto Focus
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Paul Schrader delves into the dark sexual world of Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), the actor best remembered as the star of Hogan’s Heroes. The film explores in a fairly straightforward manner the incongruity of Crane’s life: a man who was considered an all-American actor but in fact was living a life of sin by collaborating with a friend (Willem Dafoe) in making and staring in underground pornography, which eventually lead to Crane’s murder. Kinnear plays the part with a winsome smile. The film plays like a TV sitcom in the first half and then veers off into darker cinematic tones in the second half. Still the film never becomes as disturbing as Schrader would like it to, mainly because of its flippant tone.

Irreversible
(No distribution yet)
This bold, controversial French film by Gaspar Noé is about the rape of a woman and the revenge that her two friends take out on the alleged violator. Cinematically impressive, the film winds its way backwards (Memento-style) from terrible horror to tender happiness. Each scene is done in a single take and quite often has an unhinged camera that twirls, flies, and floats through each scene. The film is very affecting and makes a very candid (albeit grim) comment on the concept of time: The film’s central idea is that ‘time destroys everything.’ But more importantly it makes us confront violence in ways that films rarely do.

Lost in La Mancha
(IFC Films)
This entertaining and fascinating documentary — subtitled ‘The Un-making of Don Quixote’ — is about a recent failed attempt by Terry Gilliam (Brazil) to make a film about Don Quixote. Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe — using a fly-on-the-wall video camera — show us a firsthand, behind-the-scenes account of a chaotic film production that runs into a heap of bad luck. The most remarkable aspect of the documentary is the way that Gilliam tackles each and every challenge as if it is the mere illusion of a dragon. The irony being, of course, that Gilliam can be compared to Don Quixote himself.

Morvern Callar
(Cowboy Booking)
This second feature film by Scottish director Lynne Ramsey proves that her first feature Ratcatcher was no fluke. This one is about a woman’s (Samantha Morton) capricious journey from personal hell to exhilarating independence. After the suicide of her boyfriend she takes all his money, sells his unpublished novel (in her name), and whisks away her best friend on a trip to Spain. Told in an impressionistic analytical editing style, the film is purposely difficult to grasp since it tries — through an elliptic narrative structure — to approximate her alienation. Ramsay proves with this film that she can bring a fresh approach to familiar subjects.

Naqoyqatsi
(Miramax)
Godfrey Reggio returns with the third film in his trilogy of films (the other two being Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi) about the evils of technology, capitalism, commercialism, and science. Using an assemblage of stock footage and remarkable music by Phillip Glass, the documentary shows us a world dominated by computers, cloning, consumption, and malaise. Heavy-handed at times and ultimately too long, the film is still an impressive visual and aural feast.

Respiro
(Sony Pictures Classics)
The setting of this captivating film, directed by Emanuele Crialese, is a small fishing village in Sicily where everyone smothers one another. The particular story involves slightly off kilter mother of three (Valeria Golino) who becomes estranged from the village and decides to run away. Her son helps her with the hope that the town will miss her and ultimately accept her again. The film has shades of Italian neo-realism with its use of a grimy setting, poor working class kids, and non-professional actors but it also has many poetic interludes which give it a distinctly positive outlook on life, love, and family.

Russian Ark
(Wellspring)
This amazing Russian film by Alexander Sokurov is about a filmmaker who unwittingly finds himself in the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum in the 1700s. The film winds its way dreamily through Russian history, 33 rooms filled with artistic splendor, and numerous people all dressed in period attire. What’s most impressive about the film is the fact that it is the first full-length feature film to be shot straight through in a single take with no edits or cuts. The filmmaker accomplished the feat using the same high definition camera that George Lucas used for his latest Star installment.

Spider
(Sony Pictures Classics)
David Cronenberg’s latest film comes with the tag line ‘The only thing worse than losing your mind is finding it again,’ a pretty novel way of saying some memories are best left forgotten. The film is a psychological drama about a mentally afflicted man (Ralph Fiennes) who recounts his childhood trauma concerning the murder of his mother and the crime that he may or may not have been instrumental in committing. The film is slowly paced but is involving and cinematically graceful as it follows Fiennes’s character in flashbacks to his childhood and the various events that lead to his mental demise. The one thing that distinguishes the film from its predictable plot line is Miranda Richardson, who plays three roles.

Talk to Her
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Pedro Almodóvar proves he is one of the best directors in the world today with his latest film. As usual he has a wry soap opera thread weaving through the narrative: In this case a sensitive male travel writer who is in love with a woman bullfighter, and a male nurse who is in love with his coma patient. Needless to say the film takes some odd twists and turns – the best being a silent movie section that Almodóvar throws in to further the narrative. But where Almodóvar used to be full of bravado and garish moments of over-the-top sexual humor, he has now settled down into complex narratives with full-fledged character development. One of the best things he does with this film is make us understand a character that we normally would be completely repulsed by.

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