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Telluride and the Power of World Cinema

Every year over Labor Day weekend, a few thousand film buffs descend on the Colorado mountain resort of Telluride to indulge in three feverish days of movie watching. Telluride is no Cannes. Star sightings are not the central sport nor are deal-making cocktail parties for industry folks. Telluride is the film festival for people who believe that film is art -- and that Hollywood, for the most part, is making something quite different.
 
 
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Has it ever occurred to you, after the lights go down and the Dolby stereo of the latest Hollywood flick starts pumping, that you may not want to enter into a world of predictable dialogue and cliche? Do you wonder at the millions of dollars spent on films whose main character is a sinking luxury cruise liner or a sea creature that lives and feeds with mind-boggling, computer-generated realism? Or does it disturb you that in almost any city in the world the latest American action-adventure is finding thousands of patrons? Then there is a place for you.Telluride. Every year over Labor Day weekend, a few thousand film buffs descend on the Colorado mountain resort of Telluride to indulge in three feverish days of movie watching. Telluride is no Cannes. Star sightings are not the central sport nor are deal-making cocktail parties for industry folks. Rather Telluride is the film festival for people who believe that film is art -- and that Hollywood, for the most part, is making something quite different."We are in an era of genre film," said Peter Sellars, the maverick L.A.-based theater and opera director who served as this year's guest curator at Telluride. Sellars has little patience for movies with formulaic narratives that are driven by the bottom line. "I have a problem with a certain type of supped-up, over-amped Hollywood movie," he said in a Labor Day conversation with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. "In these movies, you're being sold product and you're being treated as a consumer and you are given no space for your thoughts. It is important to note that so many films you see today are written by very angry people living in mansions in Beverly Hills."Sellars believes that cinema, especially world cinema, has the potential to do just the opposite: to make people think and open up their cultural and political perspectives. For him, the excitement of film stems from its democratizing force. "Film is our most powerful creative technology," Sellars said. "And because of the increasing access of that technology, we're seeing all kinds of interesting ways in which lots of people can tell their stories and histories." At the festival, Sellars presented a series of little-seen though highly influential Asian films, including Chinese director Hou Hsaio-hsein's "Dust in the Wind," a searing portrayal of two young people who leave their village to find work in the city, and South Korean director Im Kwon-Taek's "The Taebeck Mountains," which is the first movie to examine the prelude to the war that has divided North and South Korea.Sellars' picks were not what drew most people to the festival, however. Telluride, now in its 26th year, has a reputation for selecting and premiering such important works as "Paris, Texas," "Blue Velvet," "Babette's Feast" and "Stranger Than Paradise."This year's surprise showings (the program is not released until the day before the festival begins) included the world premier of Woody Allen's best film in years: "The Sweet and Lowdown," starring Sean Penn as a flamboyantly self-destructive 1930s jazz guitarist; James Toback's "Black and White," a mostly vapid, though racy, attempt to examine privileged white kids' fascination with rap culture with performances by Brooke Shields, Mike Tyson and Ben Stiller; "I'll Take You There," a sweet (but formulaic) romantic comedy by actress-turned-director Adrienne Shelley, starring Ally Sheedy as a bewitchingly vengeful 30-something urbanite; as well as "Jesus' Son," an upbeat adaptation of Denis Johnson's cult novel directed by New Zealander Alison Maclean, which, thanks to lead Billy Crudup's incredible emotional range, will likely be among the indie hits of the year.Festival-goers bounding up Telluride's mountains in state-of-the-art gondolas or strolling along the town's impeccably quaint streets in chinos and fleeces were also raving about David Lynch's latest, "The Straight Story," a slow-moving middle American saga starring B-movie star Robert Farnsworth, which will open in theaters in October. Based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a legally blind 73-year-old widower who traveled hundreds of miles on a John Deere lawnmower to see his ailing brother, Lynch's movie is a surprising departure from the haunting parables he gave us in "Eraserhead," "Wild at Heart" and "Twin Peaks."German director Werner Herzog, who led a special tribute to Lynch as part of the Telluride program, hailed "The Straight Story" as an American masterpiece. "The dark strangeness, the hyperbolic weirdness is gone," said Herzog. "In its place, is a tenderness for the rhythm of human life. I see a profound deficit of storytelling in Hollywood; however, in 'The Straight Story' we have the storytelling tradition once more. Farnsworth embodies the heart, consciousness and kindliness of America."In a kind of deadpan bow to this praise, Lynch explained that his new film wasn't really a departure from his previous work. "If you fall in love with a lot of brunettes," he said, "people think you only like brunettes and then along comes a blonde. The main thing is the ideas, the stories. They dictate everything."Although Telluride gives movie buffs a chance to catch independent American films before they open across the States, the draw for many is the opportunity to see foreign films that will have limited or no U.S. distribution. "We want people to go back home turned on about films by directors from around the world. We want the festival to have a ripple effect," said Tom Luddy, Telluride's co-director, who has succeeded in helping dozens of foreign films find audiences in the U.S.Among this year's foreign favorites was "Mifune" by Danish director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen. The movie is the third production of "Dogma 95," a group of Danish collaborators who have agreed to forsake almost all of the things that make movies movies today -- sets, artificial lighting, special effects and even action that involves guns and murder -- as a means to distinguish itself from American filmmaking. But the picture, which will be released this fall by Sony Pictures Classics, is not a yawner, nor, unlike the prior Dogma film "Celebration," is it limited by lack of technical high-jinks."Mifune" tells a quirky story about a Copenhagen yuppie whose wife leaves him once she discovers his redneck past and whom he lets go when a gorgeous hooker-turned-housekeeper arrives on a his family's ramshackle farm. It is a humorous, tightly paced film that proves you don't need cranes, filters, dollies, and spotlights -- in other words, an enormous budget -- to make an entertaining movie.On the other side of this year's favorite foreign film spectrum was "Journey to the Sun," a spellbinding tale about the brutal treatment of Turkey's Kurdish minority. Written and directed by Yesim Ustaoglu, "Journey to the Sun" won prizes at the Istanbul and Ankara film festivals this year, but has not found a distributor in Turkey due to the film's controversial subject matter. Ustaoglu called her film, which follows the emotional and political development of a working-class man with dark skin, a response to "the pervasiveness of prejudice in Turkey."Although "Journey to the Sun" can be considered a political movie about a faraway place that Americans don't care about, it is also a romantic story that shows how two young people inch and ache toward first love. As such, "Journey to the Sun" succeeds where many American movies often fail -- or simply never go. For it provides the familiarity of a love story within the frame of a political situation. One learns about modern-day Turkey while watching two teenagers fall for one another.The same can be said of "Kadosh," an extraordinary new film by Israeli writer-director Amos Gitai that takes us into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Like Ustaoglu, Gitai constructs a love story within a complicated social context. "Kadosh," which means sacred, tells the story of a deeply devoted Orthodox couple who are forced to separate because their marriage is childless -- evidence, according to the Torah, that the wife in not pure and the marriage is purposeless. Although the politics of "Kadosh" are modern and quietly feminist, Gatai's message is not anti-religious. His interest, he said, "is to explore how intimacy and sensuality intersect with religion at a moment when the spiritual is often absent."Like many foreign directors, Gitai is angry about the way that Hollywood fabricates and promotes what he calls an "ideology of consumerism" and "the aesthetics of the American living room." But he believes there is tremendous potential in future of cinema, even American cinema. "I think cinema needs a context, social and political. Cinema is an extraordinarily powerful way to expose different situations." But Gatai does not pretend that film is a revolutionary medium or even that it is capable of political transformation. "You cannot convert reality through cinema. There is a limit. But you can expose it, you can mobilize it in the minds of people. That is its power."At Telluride, that kind of power is what continues to keep a small crowd passionate about film.Tamara Strauss is a San Francisco-based writer.