Playing It Safe at Sundance

Still, the main indie studios--October, Sony, Miramax, and Fine Line--were relatively timid this year, a fact which many commentators hastily took as a sign of the festival films' lack of commercial potential. ("Sundance so far has been off: No film really shines," read the Strib's wire service article last Saturday.) But the restraint probably had more to do with the studios' fear of recreating their costly feeding frenzy of '96--epitomized by the ludicrous $10 million that Castle Rock Entertainment paid for the bomb The Spitfire Grill, and the public temper tantrum that Miramax's Harvey Weinstein threw after discovering that he'd been outbid for Shine. In fact, notwithstanding the success of Shine, Big Night, and Welcome to the Dollhouse, plenty of distributors were left last year with movies that had either grossly underperformed or struggled in vain to find available screens. Although Weinstein did plunk down $2 million for this year's The House of Yes after its first Sundance showing, and Fox Searchlight picked up the uncompromising crowdpleaser Star Maps halfway through the week, many of the 1997 movies were acquired as a result of pre-festival screenings on the coasts--a new trend that inevitably benefits the purchaser, since a potentially hot film would naturally draw less at lower altitudes, without audience approval.

Such pre-fest purchases may serve as an early indication of where the hype lies, although Sundance is so widely perceived as a powerful springboard that most indie auteurs have their eyes fixed on festival popularity before shooting a single frame. (It's clear that the Sundance Institute's prestigious Directors' Lab functions largely as an off-site factory for soon-to-be Sundance movies.) Thus, as the majority of indies protect their investments by including what Redford calls "commercially identifiable attributes" (i.e. guns and grunge, sex and lies, slackers and dykes), the festival doesn't just reflect trends; it shapes them. So there were several downbeat tales of urban adolescent angst this year, a la Kids (All Over Me, Blackrock, Hurricane). But the ultimate evidence of Sundance's hyper-self-consciousness was the mega-buzzed tearjerker The Myth of Fingerprints, a pedantic melodrama about a guy with sexual hang-ups (Noah Wyle) who comes home for the holidays to discover some familiar examples of WASP repression--namely those out of sex, lies, and videotape and the Bob's own Ordinary People. As it turns out, The Myth of Fingerprints is the perfect title for a movie that exposes the myth of an indie's freedom to carry its own unique identity.

As regards festival hype, the funny thing is that it's never absolute; in fact, you can sometimes feel it change direction during the course of a single showing. And in the case of Fingerprints, the irony was that this exercise in manipulation might have seemed to its producers like a sure thing, although the audience, God bless 'em, wanted something fresher. By the time of the film's squatting-room-only screening on the seventh day, where you could have cut the buzz with a butter knife, the expectation of greatness segued decisively into fidgety disappointment and faint applause. This would not be the Sundance movie everyone was looking for, and there wasn't enough time to cultivate word-of-mouth on another film.

In a longer festival, a consensus might have formed around Eye of God, an impressively solemn portrait of a small-town marriage that contained some audience-friendly melodrama and a heartbreaking turn by Martha Plimpton. But as it was, the only American films to win unanimous acclaim were Miguel Arteta's Star Maps, an engrossing and deeply felt comedy about a teen boy's flirtations with Hollywood and a Mexican immigrant prostitution ring; and the revelatory Documentary Competition-winner Girls Like Us, a real-world corollary to recent girl cinema (and the strongest of seven Sundance docs produced by the impeccably smart, Twin Cities-based ITVS).

Myself, I was thrilled to discover Strays, an often hilarious and oddly sincere investigation of mean-streets machismo by writer-director-star Vin Diesel. But only a selective cult agreed with festival associate Robert Hawk's cheeky observation that this sensitive tough guy was "the Lawrence Olivier of the independent film scene of the '90s." Capped by Diesel's soul-baring rendition of the Tin Man's "If I Only Had a Heart" (!), Strays was apparently too perverse for most viewers. (The film remains unpurchased at press time.) Thus, seemingly by default, the Kids-lite Hurricane and New Line's romantic Love Jones split the Audience Award, while it was left to the Dramatic Competition jurors to make good on Redford's press conference claims by choosing a blatantly uncommercial movie. Which they did: The winner was Sunday, a determinedly glum and pretentious portrait of a middle-aged Queens man's broken dreams, a film so unrepresentative of the festival's identity as a whole that its selection smacks of revisionist history in the making. It's hard to imagine that Sunday will have the slightest chance at vindicating the art-house or directing the course of future festival submissions--but neither does it matter. The important thing is that, at least for now, the Sundance Kid has his happy ending.

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