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Silver Mining 

Digging for the genuine article at the Telluride Film Festival's 25th anniversary celebration

Wednesday, Sep 23 1998
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Like an annual production of A Christmas Carol, the Telluride Film Festival never fails to invoke the Spirits of Past, Present, and Future. For their silver anniversary in the Colorado mining-town-turned-resort, festival directors Bill and Stella Pence and Tom Luddy succeeded more than ever in making the antique look brand-new -- and in making this rustic village a place where new movies get "made." From Sept. 3-7, they peppered a dozen-and-a-half American premieres into a five-day bounty of retrospective celebrations and a wide-ranging discussion of the festival's roots, titled "The Silver Age: The American Film 1967-74."

The festival did not focus exclusively on American film's creative burst in the Vietnam era -- the former Hollywood upstarts in attendance pointed out that they took their cues from the French New Wave and England's Angry Young Men. So it was especially fitting for distinguished and controversial cineastes from around the world, including Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon, Round Midnight) and John Boorman (Hope and Glory, Beyond Rangoon), to join the festival's 25th incarnation.

They introduced, analyzed, or merely gaped in awe at some of the greatest and/or weirdest films of all time. Topping everything were restorations of Paul Leni's horrifically poignant 1928 spectacle The Man Who Laughs, and Sergei Eisenstein's shattering 1921 piece of agitprop Strike -- in its take-no-prisoners style, arguably the most violent movie ever made. The three-piece Alloy Orchestra, specialists in creating percussive music for revolutionary Soviet movies, augmented Eisenstein's ripsaw editing with an original score.

The festival also offered lesser yet illuminating one-time-only curiosities. Tavernier explicated Edmond T. Greville's 1934 French production Remous, a mishmash of straightforward and modernist technique that was probably the first film treatment of impotence. Boorman did the same for Arthur Robison's 1929 The Informer, presenting it in a part-silent, part-talkie version. Based on Liam O'Flaherty's classic novel of an IRA soldier who betrays a friend and comrade for reward money -- the same book John Ford adapted to thunderous acclaim six years later -- Robison's film takes its own distinct tack, tracing the intersection of sexual envy and street politics through a teeming Dublin. The silent portion was skillfully upsetting; the talkie portion merely proved that silent-film performances don't lend themselves to dubbing.

Peter Bogdanovich, the festival's guest programming director, came on like a revival squad all by himself. He presented four films from the silent era's crowning year, 1928, and discussed John Ford with Tavernier, Clint Eastwood, and Ken Burns (after a screening of Bogdanovich's 1970 documentary Directed by John Ford). But at the center of this 25th "Show" (as the Pences call their filmic blowout) was a consideration of the period of American moviemaking that triggered the creation of the festival.

Advertising and promotion may still turn action films and crazy comedies into "must sees," but few films of the '80s and '90s have advanced and electrified pop culture in the crucial ways that The Godfather and Nashville did in the '60s and '70s. TV pundits and literati alike have complained that most movies were better back then -- and so have typical members of what Telluride tributee and New Republic critic Stanley Kauffmann once called "the Film Generation." Today, the major studios' hunger for blockbusters has hemmed in mainstream filmmakers; foreign pictures have settled into a malaise; and the most lauded independent films are puny and enervated compared to, say, Mean Streets. And no one seems to know exactly why. Cashing in on a widely shared fascination with Hollywood's '60s watershed, Peter Biskind's recent book Raging Bulls, Easy Riders churned up a septic tank of gossip, and left the impression that the era's pioneering filmmakers simply self-destructed.

Of course, big-time directors can be self-destructive. But businessmen can also plot to break them, because when they're broken, they're controllable. And it's the businessmen who have become the off-camera stars of '90s Hollywood -- profiled in slick magazines for cashing in on massive stock options and pioneering new frontiers of marketing and resales. Reading paeans to Disney's Michael Eisner is enough to make you yearn for the time when Michael Cimino was considered a major figure. Telluride's salute to "The Silver Age: The American Film 1967-74" was refreshing and revealing because it provided direct testimony from some of the best filmmakers of that period, answering questions from Variety chief critic Todd McCarthy and a packed house.

These filmmakers made it clear that the "us against them" mentality that once united iconoclastic movie folk against the Old Guard now unites the few surviving mavericks against an onslaught of organization men.

In addition to Bogdanovich, who made Targets, The Last Picture Show, and Paper Moon in the years between '67 and '74, the participants included Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance), Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces), Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile), Berkeley-based producer Saul Zaentz (Payday, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate).

The most trenchant voice belonged to Boorman. No one spoke with greater authority, because Boorman had produced, directed, and written his crackling new Irish crime film, The General, outside the studio system. And he stated point blank that it would be impossible to make Point Blank in the studio climate of today.

In 1966, Lee Marvin was shooting The Dirty Dozen in England when Boorman approached him about appearing in the director's first American movie. Marvin liked the lead character enough to say he'd do Point Blank on one condition: they throw the script out the window. In seconds, the pages went fluttering to the ground from Marvin's seventh-floor hotel room. Without committees offering script notes or advance plans for marketing, Boorman was soon jetting to San Francisco to make the movie. Boorman testified that a quarter-century ago, even when the conditions of mounting a project were comparatively conventional, they were at least more casual and based on trust than they arein 1998.

"On Deliverance," he said, "I wrote a draft of the script, I showed it to [Warners production chief] John Calley, and he said, 'Sure, let's do it.' " Executives such as Calley gave budding auteurs like Boorman the idea that "directors were in charge -- and that's not so today. Now it's the studios first; then the stars; then the producers; then the directors." The movies' great leaps forward have always occurred when directors have been allowed to seize control of their art.

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Michael Sragow

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