Narrating in voiceover, co-director Todd Phillips describes Frat House (which deservedly took the jury prize for Best Documentary) as "a study of the lengths men go in order to belong." And in so far as the film shows its own maker surrendering to the nightmarish hazing process in trade for access--at various points being hit in the face, forced to press his face in vomit, and shoved into a dog cage--it also proves the lengths to which fledgling directors will go to get their movies made. (The running gag in Frat House is that you may have to go through hell--or rather Hell Night--if you want to be a filmmaker.)
Directorial obsession and self-sacrifice were also plainly visible in the fest's other major prizewinners. The winner of the Filmmakers' Trophy, Darren Aronofsky's intense, brilliantly photographed ¼ is an obvious labor of love that strongly resembles David Lynch's Eraserhead--both in its starkly experimental black-and-white dreamscape and its surreal portrait of a loner mathematician (Sean Gullette) with a serious headache. And Marc Levin's Dramatic Competition-winner Slam brings a startlingly immediate, Kids-like mix of vérité and fiction to bear on the metaphoric tale of a young black convict (Saul Williams) who uses his rap and poetry-slam skills to reinvent himself.
All told, this was a Sundance for the annals. But even though both ¼ and Slam managed to get picked up by smaller distributors, the question remains: How much of the festival's repertoire will appear in these parts before the year's out? No doubt we'll be seeing plenty of innocuously diverting fare such as The Castle, a year-old Aussie farce for which Miramax paid $6 million, apparently fearing they'd miss out on the next Full Monty. But what about the gutsier likes of Affliction--which, despite Nolte, Schrader, and some well-earned critical raves, is still without a distributor? Or an unusually rich road movie like Spark, brilliantly directed by former Minneapolitan Garret Williams (see Culturata)? Or a modest, intelligently crafted character study like Meg Richman's Under Heaven--which, despite being loosely based on Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, will probably have to struggle to find a screen amid another crop of easily marketed Tarantino rip-offs like Montana and the execrable Jerry and Tom?
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Sundance '98 was Robert Redford's press-conference announcement that his Sundance Cinemas--a chain of arthouse theaters committed to showing world cinema and other fringe product, including films without distributors--will begin to appear before year's end in Austin, Philadelphia, and Chicago, with other cities to follow. But is it horribly naive to trust in Redford's claim that the movies at Sundance Cinemas will "not be subject to the same requirements as films shown in most cinemas currently existing in America, where the lines of communication between the distributors and exhibitors have become clogged"? Very possibly. Indeed, no one who braves the elements of art and industry at Sundance--seeing, as I did, some 32 films in 10 days--survives without an overabundance of blind faith.