September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

During the Telluride Film Festival’s customary mid-fest mountaintop picnic, surprise guest Clint Eastwood quipped to his Bridges of Madison County costar — and 1998 Telluride tributee — Meryl Streep, ”You see, Francesca, I didn’t die. I’m back for the sequel.” Likewise undying is the zealotry that led the more than 2,000 film loyalists to turn a cold shoulder on end-of-summer barbecues — as well as posher festivals like Deauville and Venice — and spend their Labor Day respite sifting through a top-secret slate of movies in this old Colorado silver-mining town.

Celebrating its silver anniversary, Telluride offered fewer world premieres than usual, a fair number of its better-regarded films having already been the buzz of Cannes — including John Boorman’s bravura gangster pic, The General, and Todd Solondz’s hate letter to suburbia, Happiness. But filmgoers did get a first listen to Streep’s latest dialect in Dancing at Lughnasa, an Irish period piece about girl powerlessness that met with mixed reactions. Ironically, it may have been the lone studio feature, Disney’s delightfully original prep-school comedy Rushmore, directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray, that garnered the closest thing to unanimity. Inevitably bringing out the greatest zeal, in any case, was the fest’s canny historical programming, including a Peter Bogdanovich seminar on John Ford which found the legendary high-plains drifter on the panel. Telluride is ”so noncommerical and relaxed,” Eastwood says, ”unlike Cannes, which I suppose is the primary example of a madhouse.”

Telluride managed to best Cannes with at least one premiere, of the Touch of Evil restoration, which was pulled from the Croissette at the last minute because of a legal tussle with Orson Welles’ daughter. ”It was fitting that it be here,” says Evil costar Janet Leigh, a quick convert to the Telluride cult. ”I’m sorry for the French…only because they never did lose faith in Welles. But there’s a purity about this festival, and now we’re seeing [the movie] almost pure Orson.”

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