Each year in the bleak midwinter, we who love independent movies put our faith in the Sundance Film Festival to reveal provocative new trends, subvert the mainstream, and preview the artistic high points of the forthcoming year in alterna-cinema--unrealistic expectations, to say the least. For one thing, it's impossible to say whether Robert Redford's increasingly powerful 10-day movie party reflects or dictates the direction of indie film: If this was the year that the women's picture seemed to supplant phallus-waving pulp as the predominant indie genre, it may have owed less to the "natural" urges of filmmakers and money-(wo)men than to Redford & Co.'s interest in providing a kinder and gentler repertoire. In other words, the notion that an ultraviolent movie like The Doom Generation could prompt mass walkouts and scattered raves has gotten both boring and dangerous--not least to the programmers themselves. Besides, it's been clear for years that Sundance is the mainstream, in the sense that the festival's more exhibitionistic films remain independent for about as long as it takes to thread a projector.
The good news was that the festival expanded significantly this year to include some 117 features--meaning that it was entirely possible for a committed buff to avoid heavily hyped fare in favor of uncommercial product in the World Cinema, Documentary Competition, and New Native Cinema categories. Although I felt professionally obliged to look for trends among movies I wouldn't go to see on my own time, it was more pleasurable to do so than last year. Even soon-to-be hits such as Precious, an abortion-debate comedy starring Laura Dern as a pregnant glue-sniffer, contained faint hints of depth; sell-out studio premieres were limited to Kenneth Branagh's universally panned A Midwinter's Tale and another "romantic comedy" with Sarah Jessica Parker called If Lucy Fell; and blatant crowdpleasers like Late Bloomers and Walking and Talking also provided encouraging evidence of inroads made by women auteurs. Plus, a makeshift screen in a Park City hotel (and one theater's special waiting list for the working press) made it easier to see great movies like Girls Town and The Whole Wide World, both of which conjured old Sundance magic by seeming to come out of nowhere.
That said, the festival seemed more insane, desperate, and hostile this year than last, typified by Miramax copresident Harvey Weinstein's public temper tantrum at Mercado, an expensive new eatery built expressly for such displays of Hollywood egotism. Reportedly, when Weinstein discovered that his bid for the domestic rights to Shine, an Australian movie that he loved and expected to buy, had been one-upped at the last minute by Fine Line Features' offer of $2.5 million, he told one rival VP to "shut up" and another that he was going to need multiple lawyers. Miramax, never more in need of a hit than now, had been accustomed to snapping up whatever Sundance movie it wanted; but obviously, Weinstein's outburst served as a measure of how competitive the indie market has become of late. Apparently, what made this event so endlessly discussable was the tension between how pathetic the executive looked on the one hand, and how familiar his rage felt on the other. Indeed, no one here was immune to losing his or her cool amid white-out weather conditions, unnavigable streets (pushing was the favored means of cutting a path), and ridiculously long lines for films, food, and transportation.
As always, the festival's documentary fare could be counted on to deliver more authentic drama than the parties and schmooze-fests about town. Barbara Hammer's radically styled Tender Fictions left lots of folks scratching their heads, and a few others grateful that challenging and personal visions could still get screened here. Only the thrilling When We Were Kings, which chronicled the classic 1974 Ali-Foreman bout, managed the rare feat of combining substance and diversion. Otherwise, the intensity of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a bold and aptly disturbing portrait of the media's multivariate relationship to killers, was matched at the other extreme by a trio of buff-oriented docs devoted to auteurs William Wellman (Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick), Samuel Fuller (The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera), and Orson Welles (The Battle Over Citizen Kane). More ingratiating still was Hype!, a Seattle-scene doc that favored live music clips and band-member interviews over an investigation of why the music had hit a nerve in the first place. Still, this facile overview of grunge wasn't without a valid subtext in its exploration of the inevitable corruption of artistic expression (it might well have been subtitled The Sundance Story).
Speaking of trendy commerce, the Fried Green Tomatoes-style soaper Care of the Spitfire Grill managed to draw an outrageous $10-million from Castle Rock Entertainment even before it had won the coveted Audience Award. Apparently, the majority of Sundance viewers believed that Spitfire Grill and Welcome to the Dollhouse--the phenomenally mean-spirited Grand Jury Prize-winner about a prepubescent girl's suburban woes--represented the commercial maturation of the women's picture. Perhaps, although from a critical standpoint these two films seemed fraudulent and unduly comic, the latter one dangerously so. The extent to which Dollhouse stacks the deck against its poor heroine (well-acted by Heather Matarazzo), and the manner in which it plays common horrors like the threat of rape for both surreality and laughs, makes it clear that director Todd Solondz hasn't gotten over his own girl-hating phase. Certainly, this nasty piece of work appeared even more so by comparison to the teen film Girls Town, a warm, gritty, and empowering drama that invests a palpable commitment toward helping its three high-school senior girls--and their counterparts in the real world--find their self-esteem.