Despite its reputation as an extremely erudite festival far more inclined to show the latest Iranian docu-drama than the newest in genre films, the annual Telluride Film Festival, nestled in Colorado's bucolic San Jacinto Mountains, unspooled a diverse array of sci-fi and horror films over the Labor Day weekend, much to the delight of audiences.
Spearheading the drive to justify science fiction as a legitimate genre warranting serious attention was this year's guest director, author Salman Rushdie, who chose to showcase such films as ALPHAVILLE, Andrei Tarkovsky's cerebral sci-fi masterpiece SOLARIS and Fritz Lang's silent classic METROPOLIS as part of an impressive retrospective slate designed to bolster his case. Rushdie hailed the latter film, accompanied by the musical strains of Boston's Alloy Orchestra, as "a brilliant piece of science fiction," calling for a fatwa against today's vacuous, overblown sci-fi films such as STARSHIP TROOPERS and THE PHANTOM MENACE.
Rushdie introduced Lang's genre classic by commenting that the best "sci-fi isn't about the past or the future. It's about the present." He astonished the crowd by relating an anecdote in which festival booster Pierre Rissient told him that Lang absolutely hated the movie. "He was wrong," Rushdie stated categorically to the crowd's rapturous applause. He proceeded to dismiss the Giorgio Moroder re-score of this silent classic from the mid-'80s as "pure trash."
METROPOLIS presents a miraculous view of the future whose stunning sci-fi iconography including a C-3PO-like robot, BLADE RUNNER-like cityscapes, ghoulish scientists set on defying the laws of God and man, and evil industrialists bent on subjugating the masses has been copied by many filmmakers in subsequent decades.
Also unspooling in the oxygen-depleted heights of Colorado was David Lynch's latest, MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, a surprise addition to the Telluride lineup. Starting with an unsold TV pilot he made for ABC, Lynch constructed an entirely new feature film around it, shooting 10 days of additional, and far more extreme, material. If BLUE VELVET was a perverse Hardy Boys adventure then MULLHOLLAND DRIVE is a nasty Nancy Drew mystery. Although I didn't like its enigmatic climax as much as some others as it veers into LOST HIGHWAY-like incomprehensibility, the film is so filled with striking imagery, a brilliant sound mix that is almost a living presence, a diverse array of bizarre Lynchian oddities and terrific performances from Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts that I couldn't help but be thoroughly captivated by it despite its missteps. While it's not as accessible as BLUE VELVET or TWIN PEAKS, it's still among the more engaging works of Lynch's oeuvre because of its sheer visceral impact, quirky humor and audacious images.
On the horror front, director Guillermo Del Toro was on hand with the domestic debut of his new horror film, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, which is set during the Spanish Civil War. Taking place at a home for orphaned boys who are menaced by the ghost of one of their former peers, the film is a stylish and spooky ghost story. Filled with Del Toro's trademark colorful horror iconography and stunning cinematography by collaborator Guillermo Navarro, the film was one of Telluride's most mainstream movies this year, and probably one of its best. A brilliant short preceded it THE CAT WITH HANDS, a creepy and imaginative five-minute short about a mysterious cat that metamorphoses into its victims.
Also delightful was Leonard Maltin's panel on THE FORGOTTEN WALT DISNEY. Maltin was thoroughly engaging and screened some truly wonderful gems from the Disney archives, including Disney's first Technicolor short, THE OLD MILL and a number of Silly Symphonies, including the classic WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN? in which a songbird vamping like Mae West testifies against the presumed murderer of her true love. Maltin plugged an upcoming DVD, which will feature much of this material. The festival also debuted the new documentary about the life of Walt Disney, WALT, which although it is fully authorized and thus promises to soft-peddle much of the less-Mickey Mouse-like aspects of his life, was appreciated by many in the crowd.
And, of course, it wouldn't be Telluride without the annual tributes, which this year included French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, Indian actor Om Puri and British rabble-rouser Ken Russell. The septuagenarian Russell continued to be a wily provocateur and gave an animated introduction to his sacrilegious '70s classic THE DEVILS. The festival unearthed a rare Technicolor print of the film from the Warner Bros. vaults for the occasion and, to everyone's surprise, the sparkling print included most of the material that Russell was later forced to discard, including a nun masturbating with a crucifix and copious amounts of female nudity (or "too much pubic hair," as Russell noted in his introduction). Oliver Reed gives one of his best performances in this eye-opening, outrageous classic.
Much to my disappointment, the tribute didn't cover two of my favorite Russell films, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM and the final film in the Harry Palmer trilogy, BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, which has a special resonance given its subject matter: a nutty Texas oil billionaire who declares war on a foreign country and uses his private army to accomplish his own nefarious ends in the name of misplaced patriotism and nationalist fervor.
Perhaps the most spectacular sci-fi treat of the festival was the town's newest theater, the Galaxy. Jury-rigged from an elementary school auditorium, the Galaxy featured a state-of-the-art sound and projection system. Films were preceded by a remarkable video and audio program of classic Victorian images of astronomy and solar exploration. The theater itself, featuring stadium seating, was encircled by classic images of space and science and included a wonderful frame blow-up from George Melies A TRIP TO THE MOON in which shadow dancers performed prior to each performance surrounded by ancient telescopes.
All set under the gorgeous starlit skies of this former mining town, the Telluride Film Festival not only honored the best of international filmmaking once again, but also managed to highlight the genre at its best, vividly illustrating that sci-fi needn't be just regarded as kid's stuff. And you needn't take my word for it just ask Salman Rushdie.
MARK A. ALTMAN is a writer/producer in Hollywood. He writes a regular column about movies for CINESCAPE.