Cold Fever

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

One of the things that gives this real comedy its dramatic charge is our constant awareness of Smith's great expectations relative to his working-class subject: Clearly, not all indie directors are created equal, despite Smith's typically genuine postscreening claim that Borchardt is "the ideal independent filmmaker--his only goal is to capture his own vision, not necessarily to get connected or make money or move to L.A." On the other hand, while Smith and his co-executive producer Michael Stipe saw their film sell to Sony Pictures Classics for a cool million bucks, American Movie did succeed at giving its subject a leg up: Borchardt's 40-minute "Coven" was rewarded with a midnight showing at Sundance.

American Movie's press kit appropriately included a one-dollar "Jack o' Lantern" lotto ticket, although it's Smith who hit the jackpot at Sundance: Besides his big distribution deal, the twentysomething filmmaker from Milwaukee received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary. Less deservedly, the young writer-director Tony Bui took both the jury's prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic category for his visually gorgeous but inert and derivative Three Seasons, a multitale portrait of modern life in Vietnam. Whether this October Films property will be better able than such past winners as Slam and Sunday to parlay Sundance award distinction into box-office grosses remains to be seen. (I'd guess not, as festival prizes have generally meant next to nothing in commercial terms, and the only other clearly marketable element of Three Seasons is Harvey Keitel's unmemorable role as a grief-stricken American war vet in Vietnam.)

Albeit unique in its acclaim, Three Seasons was unexceptional in another sense: Even more than in past years, the case of young, first-time directors making highly mannered, technically fluid, and essentially boring features became a trend at Sundance. Such well-trumpeted melodramas as Audrey Wells's Guinevere, Lisanne Skyler's Getting to Know You, and Toni Kalem's A Slipping-Down Life (all marking the misguided debuts of talented women, alas), appeared far more contrived than felt. And with the exception of Hampton Fancher's effectively Bressonian serial-killer thriller The Minus Man (due in the spring from upstart distributor the Shooting Gallery) and Gavin O'Connor's familiar but transcendent mother-daughter portrait Tumbleweeds (acquired by Fine Line Features late in the fest), the strongest films in dramatic competition--Eric Mandelbaum's intriguingly obtuse Roberta and Eric Mendelsohn's playfully surreal Judy Berlin--drew minimal buzz and therefore might scarcely be heard from again.

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

I could surely go on about how these last two movies dare to forgo celebrity cameos and conventional dramatic clarity in favor of instilling longer-lasting impressions in a much smaller audience--but that thumbnail description is probably sufficient to make the point. Besides, even more profoundly than during my four prior visits to Sundance, this year's festival has put me in touch with the depressing thought that anything a critic might write about the likes of Roberta or Judy Berlin is apt to have no bearing whatsoever on whether they'll make it to these parts, or when. Having become just like any other big industry trade show, Sundance is obviously less about art than the art of the deal.

So, aside from watching a parade of celebrities in designer parkas, how might the consumer draw a hand in this game? Another indie year has passed and Robert Redford's previously announced plan for a fringe-focused national chain of Sundance Cinemas remains an ideal rather than a reality, while the festival's well-attended panel discussion of "Low-Budget Films and the Distribution Crisis" served mainly as a reminder of how consolidated the base of power is even in the indie milieu. Will executives at Landmark Theatres and Blockbuster Video really take the time to look at your low-budget film that has no distributor? Probably not, although, in the spirit of grassroots indie optimism, it bears mentioning that a tape of Mark Borchardt's horror masterpiece can be purchased for $15 at www.americanmovie.com.

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