Losing It at Sundance

The Amerindie film fest continues to inspire madness and money--and occasionally, art.

Park City, Utah--

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.

Like any courageous movie, Girls Town will require special attention to find its audience. Luckily, it managed to win the Filmmakers Trophy, and it has the support of the peerless Lili Taylor--who, besides turning in another riveting performance as one of the three girls, says she intends to follow the film around the country and discuss its messages with high-school kids. Taylor certainly deserved her status as the belle of the Sundance ball based on her roles in Girls Town and the flawed but captivating Valerie Solanas bio-pic I Shot Andy Warhol: She's one of the few actors around whose progressive sensibility is traceable across all her films, and who remains committed to daring cinema at a time when it would no doubt pay better to do otherwise. For me, the cost of Sundance this year was the burden of sitting through some poor and mediocre films in order to find a handful of good ones, a couple of great ones, and Girls Town, the kind of movie that comes once a year, if that. And it was well worth it.

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

The Whole Wide World. This rich, beautifully directed, and blatantly old-fashioned love story feels like a cross between Splendor in the Grass and Days of Heaven. Set in the Texas farmlands of the mid-'30s, it tells of the tumultuous relationship between Robert E. Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger). He's the volatile pulp writer famous for Conan the Barbarian and a self-described "morose, ungainly misfit among men"; she's a feisty schoolteacher who believes in stories about ordinary folks; both are completely honest with each other, to their benefit and otherwise. The movie's '30s-era period detail is note-perfect, although the tragedy of this story is modern if not archetypal. Both times I saw it, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

American Job. Much funnier than Clerks, this droll piece of realist fiction follows an ordinary guy through a succession of seemingly banal service jobs. Besides giving screen time to an undervalued populace, Milwaukee auteur Chris Smith dares to withhold judgment on his deadpan hero, which requires viewers to make up their own minds. Is the hourly wage worker to be pitied or exalted? What would it mean if he's working for us and not getting a thing out of it?

The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera. B-movie master Sam Fuller finally gets the props he deserves in this affectionate doc narrated and co-produced by Tim Robbins. Scorsese, Jarmusch, and Tarantino turn up as well, to salute the man who directly inspired them by inventing the paperback movie; and Fuller, at the youthful age of 83, is just as crotchety and endearing as he ever was. The Independent Film Channel plans

to air this hour-long love letter to movie buffs sometime in June.

Walking and Talking. This female buddy movie directed by newcomer Nicole Holofcener is rather too precious and mainstream-minded, although its insight into the dynamics of female relationships and the abundant laziness of guys is still plenty rare. Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston will be jealous that this isn't their vehicle.

When We Were Kings. This documentary portrait of the most brutal and compelling boxing match ever--the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman--is no mere sports highlights reel, but an astonishing collection of archival footage: candid interviews with the two tough-guys, play-by-play commentary by none other than Norman Mailer, and concert footage of James Brown and B.B. King, who went along with the fighters to Africa for a cross-cultural roadshow of unprecedented significance. Among the film's many nostalgic elements is its reminder of how much more possible it was then for celebrities to talk in political terms about race without fearing for their livelihoods.

Girls Town. To call this the female version of Kids is probably accurate, but not nearly respectful enough to its ambition and achievement. Shot in grainy 16mm and characterized by verite-style long takes, it examines a group of high school senior girls (one of whom is played by the great Lili Taylor) after their sudden decision to empower themselves in the wake of their friend's suicide. Unlike Sundance's other, more popular girl stories, this film cares deeply about its heroines, burrows into their lives, looks for solutions to restore their self-esteem, and stays real. October Films, fast becoming the coolest indie distributor on the block, bought the movie after its first screening and is planning a June release.

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