What Trent Harris's Beaver Trilogy does isn't so clear, but clearly there's never been anything like it. Shot in three parts over the course of 18 years, this flamboyant Warholian hybrid begins with a half-hour video documentary (circa 1979) of a fearless small-time impersonator and natural-born ham from Beaver, Utah, named Groovin' Gary, who dares to dress up as Olivia Newton-John and perform one of her lesser hits before a gape-mouthed audience at the local talent show. This vintage slice of camp realism would be bizarre enough by itself, but then Harris reenacts the doc twice--first as a black-and-white fictionalization with a pre-Fast Times Sean Penn in the lead role, and then again (in color) with the mid-Eighties-era Crispin Glover. Each time Harris adds layers of impersonation as well as crucial snippets of context that seem to implicate the filmmaker in the subtle ridicule of his innocent protagonist.
The sight of the young Penn in a wig shrieking, "Please don't keep me waiting!" is now permanently etched in memory, although, as a cross-dressing tour de force, the performance is nothing compared with John Cameron Mitchell's turn as the titular diva in the truly exhilarating glam-rock musical dramedy Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This well-deserved Audience Award winner (adapted from Mitchell's own off-Broadway musical) might sound like one of those prefab, post-Rocky Horror midnight movies. But writer-director-actor Mitchell, parading each of his three hats like a lavender-colored taffeta pillbox, fully earns his place at the cult mantle, allowing a series of high-volume, vintage Bowie-style rave-ups to advance the drama.
Besides this gender-swapping triptych, there were plenty of other thematic trends at Sundance this year, and, for whatever reason, violent revenge factored heavily in the dramatic competition category. Alas, the big prize winner, Henry Bean's The Believer, came off as a minor variation on American History X (problematically substituting self-loathing Jewishness in place of white-suburban angst), and the noir thriller The Deep End adapts the same book that inspired Max Ophuls's The Reckless Moment while totally missing the trenchant class critique that made the earlier film a masterpiece. But two other eye-for-an-eye dramas will go down in Sundance history as classics. Christopher Nolan's Memento might well be the most narratively tangled film noir ever made (notes on that one can be found in our festival coverage from Rotterdam. And even more impressive from a purely dramatic standpoint was In the Bedroom, which aptly brings a snail's pace and a surgeon's precision to bear on the tale of the interminable grief suffered by the upper-middle-class parents (Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson) of a murdered high school senior (Nick Stahl). Even amid the harrowing circumstances of the third act, In the Bedroom manages to chronicle the bottomless courage required by real love.
Given this bent, it's perhaps not surprising that actor-turned-director Todd Field courageously resisted distribution offers that stipulated the cutting of his carefully measured, 134-minute movie--although the eventual news that Miramax Films (hardly known for its hands-off policies) picked up In the Bedroom for a million bucks suggests the possibility that Field's devotion may be put to the test yet again. Clearly, final cut is a commodity more valued by filmmakers of integrity than any on-set perk, which is why the aforementioned InDigEnt can be in business with such filmmakers even at a relatively low price. And the dividends are paid in onscreen daring, at least judging from InDigEnt's two Sundance features. Bruce Wagner's Women in Film writes a love letter to three fine actors (Beverly D'Angelo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Portia de Rossi) in the form of uncommonly articulate monologues and unconventionally flattering digital videography. And Richard Linklater's Tape, like his subUrbia, cleanly adapts the work of a playwright (Stephen Belber, in this case) for the purposes of showcasing his own gift for camera placement as well as the genius of a dedicated ensemble (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Robert Sean Leonard) working in close quarters.
And yet Tape was a mere trifle compared with Linklater's other Sundance feature, the uniquely animated Waking Life--which, regardless of its questionable commercial potential, is a triumph of interwoven form and content, a sneaky and perhaps even revolutionary smuggling of philosophical ideas into the commercial cinema, and the first bona fide alt-film blockbuster since Pulp Fiction. Like a Hollywood action movie, Waking Life means to alter your consciousness, but without taking it away. (Not even Walt Disney could have dreamed up this fantasia.) Starting with a live-action feature, Linklater's team of Austin-based animators drew in digital crayon over every frame of the original film, liberally embellishing and abstracting the actors and scenery along the way. Through this radically innovative process, Linklater delivers a techno-psychedelic Slacker whose passive protagonist (played by Dazed and Confused's Wiley Wiggins, under heavy coloring) keeps waking from one dream within another within another.
With its ultra-flared colors and pulsing figures, the movie (projected digitally at Sundance in the most convincing such presentation I've ever seen) is beautiful enough to make you weep. And in terms of the screenplay, while graduate students in philosophy may well balk, the rest of us have 97 minutes of what the movie itself calls "holy moments." What would cine-theorist André Bazin, whose reality-based "ontology of film" is referenced by the characters at length, make of Linklater's emphatically anti-realist head trip? And who in his right mind would want to see "the first great summer camp film of the new millennium" after a life-changing experience like this? Sure enough, after screening Waking Life, I was spoiled for other films: This waking dream of a movie makes regular cinema look--ho hum--like real life.