Cold Fever

The annual case of contagious hype and acquisitions mania at the Sundance Film Festival

Park City, Utah--

In these post-Shine and Full Monty days, so much about the Sundance Film Festival is a cliché. To add "color" to this overview of the last great American film festival of the 20th century, I could tell you all about the snow- and ice-covered Park City streets slipped upon by starlets and ski bums alike; or how the shuttle-bus rides between screening sites regularly feature five or more cell phones working simultaneously (even the festival volunteers had phones this year); or how the presence of Eric Stoltz proves as ubiquitous off the indie-film screen as on it. But these are clichés. Rather, I'd say the most resonant image of Sundance '99 was that of a news photographer taking a picture of me, the critic, waving my press badge in the air and looking altogether desperate for one of the last remaining seats at the Happy, Texas press screening--packed not with journalists but with studio acquisitions people. (I got in by the skin of my teeth after one of the most panicky film-fest press lines I've ever seen: Day of the Locusts had nothing on this crowd.)

That Happy, Texas turned out to be the sort of pleasantly innocuous Full Monty-meets-Some Like It Hot-type farce that one might be thrilled to discover on late-night cable isn't the point here. The point is that the press at Sundance is beside the point, even at press screenings. Happy, Texas--in which Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam play a dumb-and-dumber pair of escaped cons who pass themselves off as gay directors of an all-girl kindergarten musical in Hicksville--is an "independent film" that epitomizes the same review-proof mentality behind such aggressively fluffy Hollywood hits as Patch Adams and The Waterboy. To wit: Miramax secured the film for an amount that ranged in trade-paper reports from $2.5 million to upwards of $9 million. This Happy event was one of many examples of movies on the Sundance roster that were either snapped up early by mini-major distributors or came to Park City with their deals already struck--thus rendering the festival akin to a mere preview of coming attractions and putting advocacy-minded criticism another step closer to extinction.

Night on witch mountain: Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project
Night on witch mountain: Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project

Even festival guru Robert Redford had to admit publicly this year that Sundance has become a "market." No shit, Bob. And yet it remains essential, not only because Park City has perhaps the only pizza joint in the country where you can get a two-slices-and-soda lunch special for $4.60 and overhear the following question spoken into a cell phone: "Did you get word to Altman?" It seemed to me an obvious irony that, three days into a 10-day independent film festival, the most exciting thing I'd seen was Antonia Bird's riveting Ravenous, a big-studio thriller due out in six weeks. But then two brilliant, bona fide indies came along to restore the reputation of the old Sundance as a place where worthy work can move from the fringes onto national art-house schedules. Chris Smith's hilarious documentary American Movie and Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's shiver-inducing horror flick The Blair Witch Project are the real deal: low-budget films whose scrappy creativity and engrossing stories amount to everything one hopes for when imagining what a young artist might do with a cheap camera and a skeleton crew.

As it happens, both of these movies measure the costs and rewards of independent filmmaking. Shot mostly in Hi-8 video, The Blair Witch Project is a mockumentary that follows three student filmmakers deep into the woods of Maryland, where they hope to capture the mystery of the fabled Blair Witch. What they discover instead is both ambiguous and truly terrifying, depicted through the characters' posthumously found footage in which their handheld cameras swirl vertiginously around the same menacing patch of wilderness and eventually happen upon a remote and run-down cabin--the classic nightmare scenario. The Blair Witch Project's violently elliptical editing--dictated, naturally, by the harrowing circumstances--brings the viewer back again and again to sudden darkness and the threat of horrible death, as the starving and sleep-deprived protagonists sit in their tent hearing faint cackles and howls until daylight brings another bad, bloody omen. After the screening, a few real filmmakers were heard to debate the logic whereby the characters' battery packs seem never to run dry, although the majority of us were left stunned and shaking, in awe of this project's ability to deliver authentic horror through the most elemental means.

Suffice to say Blair Witch is the sort of bare-bones shocker that American Movie's protagonist would do anything to create. Ironically subtitled The Making of "Midwestern," Smith's film (his long-awaited follow-up to the ingenious American Job) chronicles the failed efforts of Menomonee Falls, Wis., horror director Mark Borchardt to get his feature-length dream project in the can. "Kick fuckin' ass--I got a Mastercard!" exclaims the poor Borchardt at the start of this gruelingly funny portrait of the artist as a young loser, as Movie goes on to depict two painful years in the life of a long-haired Ed Wood. Using his mom as camera operator and black-hooded extra as the situation requires, sleeping on the cement floor with his kids in the editing room of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's film department, borrowing money from his ancient, trailer-park-residing uncle in trade for bathtub washing sessions and shots of peppermint schnapps, Borchardt is nothing if not dedicated to his craft.

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