At Telluride: a look at films, a time to play

September 18, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Telluride, Colo. -- The major league baseball strike hasn't kept people from playing. When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns had the premiere for his public TV series "Baseball" at the 21st Telluride Film Festival earlier this month, he thought it would be appropriate to produce an actual game.

So Mr. Burns and a team of festival participants went up against a team of residents of this former mining town nearly 9,000 feet high in the Rockies of southwestern Colorado.

The movie team had a surreal quality. Holding down first base was Werner Herzog, the German director with a well-deserved reputation as a mad visionary, thanks to such films as "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo." Mr. Burns played shortstop and, as you'd expect, managed the team. And over at third base was folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, a town resident who showed his true loyalties by playing for the filmmaking team.

How'd they do? Not badly, really, though they're much more adroit with cameras and guitars than with bats and balls. The game's 82-year-old umpire, Negro League star and "Baseball" interview subject Buck O'Neil, could only smile at some of their less-than-professional play. (The first installment of "Baseball" airs on WMPT, Channel 22 and Channel 67, tonight at 8 p.m.)

The subject of a festival tribute, Mr. Burns qualifies as a hit here. Anticipating questions about his recently grown beard, the boyish 41-year-old filmmaker quipped during his tribute acceptance speech: "I grew this beard so I would look a little older, and somebody said, 'Now you look like you're 18, not 16.' "

Mr. Burns' just-for-fun baseball game is an example of what sets Telluride apart from other fall film festivals that serve as indicators of which studio releases and quirky independent films will be coming our way in the months ahead. Unlike the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals -- mammoth affairs -- Telluride is an idiosyncratic little festival that combines major releases with cinematic esoterica.

In that spirit, this year's event included world premieres of Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" and Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," as well as the American premieres of such arcane stuff as an Algerian movie called "Bab El-Oued City."

Truly quirky is that the festival schedule isn't announced until the day before it starts. It's no wonder a recent article in Variety about this season's film festivals described Telluride as "the funkiest of the bunch."

Among the movies that will definitely come down off the mountain and appear in a mall near you is Mr. Allen's delightfully silly "Bullets Over Broadway," a Prohibition-era story in which John Cusack is cast as a playwright whose Broadway debut is bankrolled by the mob. Mr. Allen's script is sharp, the large ensemble cast zestfully over-emotes, and the period set design is more opulent than the frugal Mr. Allen's norm.

More problematic is writer-director Michael Tolkin's "The New Age," about what happens when post-yuppies Judy Davis and Peter Weller lose their jobs and have to scramble to find ways to keep their house beautiful in Los Angeles. As you'd expect from the screenwriter of "The Player," there is some wickedly on-target satire. But Mr. Tolkin is also the guy who wrote and directed "The Rapture," so the New Age mysticism in "The New '' Age" similarly leaves you creepily uncertain about how he feels about such religious outbursts.

Ms. Davis, who promises to become the Katharine Hepburn of her generation, was the recipient of a Telluride tribute. It was

especially pleasing to see clips of this intensely intuitive Australian actress in "My Brilliant Career," "A Passage to India," "Naked Lunch" and other films. After a clip from Mr. Allen's "Husbands and Wives," one of the actors in that film, director Sydney Pollack, stepped forward from the audience to present Ms. Davis with the tribute medallion. It's the kind of clubby moment one can count on out here.

British director Ken Loach, whose brutally rank depictions of lower-middle-class life in such recent features as "Riff-Raff" and "Raining Stones" have brought him a lot of critical attention, was represented by his latest film, "Ladybird, Ladybird."

Starring Crissy Rock in an amazing screen debut, it's the relentless tale of a woman who has four children by as many fathers. The intervention of the British welfare state -- which takes away her children -- evoked such visceral responses in the festival audience that sophisticated people were actually shouting at the screen. Look for this movie to make many "10 Best" lists, and look for Ms. Rock's forceful performance to make her a household name, at least in movie art houses.

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