In My First Mister, an ingratiating melodrama that opened this year's Sundance Film Festival and was nearly forgotten by the next afternoon, Leelee Sobieski plays a multiply pierced goth-punk chick who strikes up a close companionship with a bland, politically conservative, socially skittish, and terminally ill clothing salesman (Albert Brooks). If the movie reads as an allegorical exploration of the taming of the "indie," Brooks's middle-aged Caucasian geek seems a clear stand-in for Sundance programming director-cum-boutique-movie-gatekeeper Geoffrey Gilmore. To wit: The film's Gilmore surrogate succeeds in getting Sobieski's clichéd rebel to take the "silverware" out of her face, wear a "Republican" dress, and generally prepare to enter the marketplace. Yes, it's a happy ending: By the final scene, the former goth-punk chick has taken to wearing pearls.
Now, perhaps you think this meta-reading is a stretch as extreme as the one given to the heroine's tight leather pants. But bear in mind that these days producers of low- and medium-budget American films (let's not call them "indies," okay?) naturally make movies with Mr. Gilmore in mind, and festival programmers just as naturally select opening-night attractions based on how well those movies represent their ideals. (Is it any wonder that Gilmore's typically effusive program note hails My First Mister as "sincere and real...full of emotion, revelation, intimacy, and range"?) Of course, Hollywood's canny co-optation of the "specialty film" market embodied by this festival has been in development for years--to the point where even junior Sundance program blurbmeisters have come to avoid using the term independent in describing what are essentially cheap studio movies. Which isn't to say that the catalog "reviews" have improved this year: A special Sundance award belongs to the festival scribe who dared call Wet Hot American Summer (starring Janeane Garofalo) "the first great summer camp film of the new millennium."
Still, the 2001 Sundance odyssey did register some notable alterations in the alt-film flight path. For one thing, the demented dot-com deluge that brought Silicon Valley's vapor fortunes to Park City is clearly over. In fact, last year's Trend was satirized this year by the scathingly funny doc Startup.com (co-produced by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker), in which a rivetingly pathetic pair of twentysomething Web hustlers scratch and claw their way toward an IPO but get what's coming to them instead. In the wake of all those failed Net outfits that fell off the digital bandwagon, the new deal du jour involves the creative combination of established players under exclusive contracts. Thus, Lot 47 Films (The War Zone) announced plans to distribute product from the all-digital Blow Up Pictures (Chuck & Buck). And Lions Gate Films (Shadow of the Vampire) acquired the first five works from InDigEnt (that's Independent Digital Entertainment, you know), an Independent Film Channel collaborative shrewdly premised on giving established artists such as Richard Linklater both final cut and a financial stake in their low-budget digital dream projects.
Given this seismic shift away from case-by-case acquisition and toward visionary conglomeratization, it's no surprise that former "producer's rep" and "indie guru" John Pierson has ceded the Sundance scenester throne to überlawyer John Sloss. It was Sloss who, at the InDigEnt launch party, wittily summarized the new company's desire that "the [digital] aesthetic would not be defined only by those people who have no money." (Brilliant the films may be, but this giddy prediction of a capitalist avant-garde has the faint odor of cinematic Gingrichism.) Seemingly working the other side of the tracks, the upstart Civilian Capital--whose partners include the Minneapolis-based filmmaker and -financier Wrye Martin (Aswang: The Unearthing)--touted giving power to the people through an online brokerage firm (www.civiliantrading.com) that will allow Joe and Jane Public to buy shares of a new movie by their favorite director. So: Anyone care to invest in, say, an Abel Ferrara remake of The Family Man? Or a shot-by-shot, Gus Van Sant-directed remake of Psycho? (Come to think of it, an endeavor that preposterous might be more appropriate to junk bonds.) The Civilian concept, one has to say, is fairly brilliant: Why not give the average moviegoer more control over content--or at least the sense of having more control? Of course, the ubiquitous Sloss is a key player in Civilian, too--while even the company advises that this sort of trade is appropriate only for those "civilians" who can afford to lose.
Oh, by the way--did I mention that the movies were great this year? Coincidental to the restructuring of the industry, films about personal transformation--three of them featuring transgendered heroes--made an indelible impression at Sundance. The Grand Jury Prize winner for best documentary was Kate Davis's Southern Comfort, an unforgettable portrait of a tight-knit group of transsexuals living in the trailer-park community of Toccoa, Georgia. That one of the men, the camera-loving cowboy Robert Eads, is fighting terminal ovarian cancer after more than a dozen doctors have refused to treat him gives the film its pathos and its politics. That a pair of assholes in the row behind me insisted on inappropriately chortling throughout the movie's more poignant passages reminded me that this isn't merely a feel-good, preaching-to-the-converted "celebration of the human spirit," as the saying goes. In the end, Southern Comfort may not convince stupid people that transsexuals have a right to health care, but it certainly does the documentary's duty of illuminating a marginalized subculture and advocating for its survival.