The Sundance Shuffle

Hollywood shifts to the slopes for another week of reeling opportunities

 Park City, Utah--
Before the "buzz," the chirping cell phones, the Gap-sponsored accouterments, the industry piranhas, the beleaguered volunteers, the bevy of SUVs, the first overheard boast that "we were down there for a week with Leonardo [pause for dramatic effect]...DiCaprio," or any other such Sundance Film Festival cliché, the soon-to-be-weary moviegoer is wont to spend a little quiet time with his official catalog.

As I peruse this impeccably advertised guidebook at the start of another Redford-endorsed schmooze-fest (how many corporate sponsors can an "indie" festival fit in one volume?), a few things come immediately to mind. First, there's no way anyone could possibly witness all 108 features and 76 shorts on the menu (I managed to catch three dozen), which naturally stands to frustrate or exhaust those of us who may be a little obsessive about this stuff. One arrives here already feeling defeated. Second, the festival programmers' huckstering "reviews" offer no help whatsoever in deciding which titles to skip--although these blurbs, of course, are hardly the most egregious of sales pitches at Sundance. As both "indies" and indies seem to require the casting of known commodities no less than studio films, a good portion of the roster this year comes girded with celebs. Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey may be MIA in 2000, thank God, but fellow youth properties Heather Graham, Christian Bale, Chloë Sevigny, Courtney Love, Calista Flockhart, Omar Epps, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Ben Affleck, and, er, Dominique (Lolita) Swain each have a movie to stump for this year. And apparently, if you're not part of the publicity, you're part of the problem: One coast-based flack whose "talent" I turned down for interviews actually sniffed at me--twice.

But let me not sound crabby. For, while even the documentaries weren't immune to this sort of star treatment (small wonder that films about Tammy Faye, George Wallace, and the Sex Pistols titillated the crowd rather more than those about incest and homelessness); and while the digital-video feature has mainly become a marketable eyesore just a year after The Blair Witch Project; and while wacky films about freaky sex haven't yet followed the Tarantinoesque crime thriller into extinction; and while there may have been nothing this year to equal the one-two punch of '99's Blair Witch and American Movie (representing the horror and the hallucination of indie filmmaking, respectively), this was still a very solid Sundance. Granted, to some, looking good on the festival shuttle bus might seem as important as looking good on celluloid: The hipoisie costume of choice at the 2000 fest was a turquoise cashmere sweater and black leather pants (anyone who wears it next year will be a laughing stock, no doubt). Yet to this critic's eye, neither the meat market nor the acquisitions racket could hold a keylight to the coolness onscreen.

For one thing, this proved definitively to be The Year of the Woman--that is, in the inimitable words of Variety, there were more than 25 "femme-helmed" features on view at Sundance. Mary Harron delivered her exceedingly droll American Psycho, a black-comic portrait of an Eighties-era corporate bloodsucker that may not exceed the period's own Vampire's Kiss, but hits the jugular anyway. Shirley Cheechoo brought her native drama Backroads (co-produced by the Minneapolis-based Christine Walker; see sidebar, right), which manages to tell a tale of racism and domestic abuse with both considerable humor and a critical eye. Barbara Kopple sent her long-winded but suitably despairing investigation of Woodstock then and now, My Generation, a work in progress that doubled as an ironic allegory of Sundance's own ever-increasing commercialism. Sofia Coppola enjoyed the U.S. premiere of her weird and indelibly haunting adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, which is, as her father Francis once said of his Rumble Fish, "an art film for kids." And Gurinder Chadha served the opening-night entrée What's Cooking?, a comedy-drama whose study of Jewish, Latino, Vietnamese, and African-American families on Thanksgiving in L.A. epitomized the new Sundance p.c. but also entertained and enlightened in equal measure.

At the same time, it may not surprise you to hear that a good many movies were male-directed laments for how hard it is to be a white guy these days--such as Stanley Tucci's snail-paced Joe Gould's Secret, the Mametian Big Kahuna, the American Beauty-like Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, and the aptly named Panic, the last of these giving William H. Macy's midlife loser not only a crush on Neve Campbell's acey-deucy swinger but a hit man's crisis of conscience. (Maybe Quentin hasn't left the building after all.)

Still, the overall diversity on hand extended to a stronger-than-average selection of world cinema, including Claire Denis's typically dense and subtle Beau Travail, a dissection of military male bonding, loosely modeled on Melville's Billy Budd; and a pair of Iranian-influenced portraits of tireless children, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less and Khyentse Norbu's The Cup--the latter being the first-ever Bhutanese film to reach the world stage, and concerning, not coincidentally, a teenage monk's obsession with satellite-beamed soccer.


And then there was Slamdance, which, in its sixth season of passing off Sundance's table scraps as tofu, proudly served the scraps unadorned this year with the opening-night selection of R2PC: Road to Park City, a clever comedy that nonetheless registers as yet another mock-documentary lampoon of a struggling artist whose desperation is indistinguishable from the film's. One could hardly blame the Slamdance programmers for taking a well-crafted, self-reflexive diversion where they can get it. But the fact that the filmmaking protagonist's stated goal is to make it into Sundance rather than Slamdance does little to reinvigorate the latter's dwindling reputation as an aesthetic alternative.

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