Capital Cinema

The money swapping was typically dubious. The movies were surprisingly bold. A story treatment from Hollywood's mountain outpost, Sundance 2001.

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.

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.

Shock Corridor

Park City, Utah--

 

THE ONLY MINNESOTA filmmaker to earn major festival exposure in Park City this year was Mark Carter--and he moved to Los Angeles 12 months ago. Just before leaving the Twin Cities for warmer climes and bigger prospects, Carter completed "The Ballad of Little Roger Mead," an eight-and-a-half-minute comedy of familial humiliation and artistic revenge that was selected from more than 2,500 submissions to screen in one of the free "Lounge Shorts" programs at the Slamdance Film Festival. (Even more impressively, Carter's film ended up winning the festival's Spirit of Slamdance Award, voted by fellow directors.)

Shot in Super 16mm, mostly at the Risen Christ Catholic Church in south Minneapolis (with downtown Hastings serving as the film's pointedly named "Minor, Minnesota"), "Little Roger" follows a small-town 12-year-old (Liam Kearns) whose rebellious talent-show performance culminates in a flamboyant "pitch and catch" of his own vomit. Naturally, high-tech digital technology plays a role in the rendering of this "special" effect. (Seems little Roger had been holding a goldfish in his tummy, among other things.) Still, this being Slamdance (that is, the emphatically déclassé alternative to the corporate-groomed Sundance), Carter made sure to work the grassroots angle as well, distributing promotional barf bags that listed screening times for his film in addition to its Web site (www.littlerogermead.com).

As with another made-in-Minnesota Slamdance short from 1998, Wyatt McDill's "Shortwave," what's most interesting about "Little Roger" is its reflexive allegory of artistic inspiration. To put it another way, Carter's film suggests vulgar shock as being crucial to both the artist's honesty and his potential for getting noticed in a competitive market--a fact not lost on the filmmaker at the obligatorily "edgy" Slamdance.

"In any short-film program," says Carter, "you need to say something fast, and you need it to be memorable. In many ways, a short film is a joke--which isn't to say that the format is a joke, but you're telling a joke: You set it up, you deliver the punch line, and you get out. I was very cognizant of that when I set up to do this film. I knew from the get-go that even if people hated it, they probably wouldn't be able to shake the sight of that kid vomiting ten feet in the air. The subdued, quiet work in any medium is good, obviously, and you can appreciate it. But it doesn't necessarily cut through this whole slew of other product--especially when you're someone like me, who's still trying to get noticed."

The 30-year-old Carter did get noticed, however, for his direction of the storied Jesse Ventura "Action Figure" campaign ad, made while he was working at the production company Metropolitan Hodder Group in Minneapolis. And his first short, the 20-minute "It's Not True," has screened at festivals in London and Palm Springs, and on the Independent Film Channel. Although it was a big step for Carter to move to L.A., where he has been directing promotional clips and writing his first feature, the filmmaker reports that he's just as pleased with his progression in storytelling.

"I could have easily just filmed this vomit trick by itself, or had a street musician do it," says Carter, whose early VHS work as a student at St. Paul Central High included the likes of "Bill the One-Legged Veteran" and "Popped Zit." "But there's something to be said for putting it in the context of a story, having it come out of a real character--literally and figuratively." (Rob Nelson)

 

"The Ballad of Little Roger Mead" can be downloaded for viewing atwww.atomfilms.com.

Flying Dutchman

by Mark Peranson

The International Film Festival Rotterdam dooms the giddy cineaste to navigate an endless sea of artful cinema

Rotterdam, the Netherlands--

 

If God were an alternative filmmaker, and if the deity didn't like to ski or eat particularly good food, the International Film Festival Rotterdam might be where he'd come to present his latest cinematic venture. If not God, then at least film critics and programmers--three of whom have actually directed films that premiere this week. A well-programmed, unpretentious, insanely draining film marathon for The People, the IFFR understands that cool is something to be earned--not something you can buy...or that studios can buy for you. If most film festivals (including Sundance) are opportunities for journalists to catch the advance word, the hype, the whassup, then Rotterdam is where the proud, the tired, the few--the cineastes--go to keep it real.

January 24th's opening night in the Dutch port set the tone for the IFFR: Instead of a star-filled opening the festival had a simultaneous 17-screen surprise film unveiling in honor of its 30th anniversary. (Not that Rotterdam usually opens with stars; two years back the glitzless "gala" was a well-directed, somewhat dolorous Indonesian film aptly called Leaf on a Pillow.) Okay, so this year's 100-foot plumes of burping fire outside the festival center added a bit of ceremony, and warmth, to the brisk evening. The pyromaniacal touch certainly provided more thrills than the "surprise": a crappy German go-carting film that gave me the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed rest.

Flipping through the Rotterdam catalog reveals an embarrassment of riches (some of the gleeful program mistranslations from Dutch to English are just plain embarrassments). There are some 250 features, more than 90 shorts, and numerous museum installations. Besides the 60-odd world premieres, the IFFR program features choice bits culled from festival premieres last year--including Jia Zhangke's tremendous post-Mao cultural epic Platform, which controversially debuts in a shorter, final cut of only 150 minutes--and also the best work that has turned up since, especially from Asia.

This lineup includes a smattering of new selections from that latest film hotbed, South Korea, and, in the wake of last year's retrospective of offbeat Japanese helmer Kinji Fukasaku, his wrestling-free Battle Royale. This cross of Lord of the Flies and Survivor takes place in a "near future" where the government has retaliated against school violence by choosing a random class to play a three-day "game" on an isolated island that must end with only one victor. Even worse for the poor kids, the game is run by lord overseer Takeshi Kitano. Both Battle Royale and a Dutch film called Forgive Me--an intentionally provocative, and unintentionally bad, docudrama with real-life junkies, invalids, and alcoholics that plays like a too-long episode of Jerry Springer--herald the bleeding of the reality-TV craze into feature films. More such tiresome fare can be expected in the very near future.

Many of these filmmakers owe the IFFR some serious thanks for a jump-start. Rather than submit to becoming a mere platform for deal-making American distributors, Rotterdam has established institutional means for actually improving the film world. The festival moderates the Hubert Bals Fund, which gives money to filmmakers from developing countries and helps them gain distribution in the Benelux countries. (Platform, in fact, is one such project.) Equally beneficial is the Tiger competition for first or second features: The three winners are actually awarded a Dutch distribution deal. Many past honorees have returned this year, including U.K.-born, Los Angeles denizen Christopher Nolan, winner two years ago for the bare-boned noir Following. His sophomore triumph, Memento, is a head game of twisted subjectivity on a par with Vertigo.

Memento inverts the detective story and subverts the revenge drama in telling, backward, the story of an obsessed insurance adjuster named Leonard (Guy Pearce) hunting down his wife's murderer. As if that weren't enough, he has lost his short-term memory. This is a true condition: You could look it up, or go to a film festival to feel what it's like. While Leonard could be any die-hard Rotterdammer, Nolan strives to be more than your ordinary director: He keeps you in Leonard's head, piecing the puzzle together. Nolan clearly has his own interpretation of events, but what's great about Memento is that you have to make up your own mind.

The idea of looking through the eyes of one's subject is precisely what's going on in a new, ambitious documentary by Canadian filmmaker Peter Lynch (Project Grizzly) called Cyberman. In his Roger & Me for the William Gibson generation, Lynch uses an array of technologies and formats to paint a portrait of cyborg and privacy advocate Steve Mann, a one-man Internet portal, who for the last 20 years has lived with cameras affixed to various parts of his body, relaying what he sees--letting us "be" him--on the Internet. Although ethically questionable, many of Mann's privacy-robbing inventions can be used to fight back against a world where we are no longer in control of our own images. Just as Mann worries about the panopticon-ing of the postmodern world, Lynch envisions a future where the credited director of the film is more of an enabler than an obsessed craftsman. I Am a Camera, indeed.

This year's IFFR promises to be extra special, as Rotterdam, along with Portugal, serves as Europe's co-cultural capital. To honor itself, the festival has commissioned ten digital-video diaries on harbor cities, which have been included in the "On the Waterfront" program. The best is a 20-minute short from last year's discovery Lou Ye (director of Suzhou River), who, with customary voiceover, reveals Shanghai to be a place of both attraction and danger. Rotterdam also is famous for its archival selections and this program also affords the opportunity to see Fassbinder's Querelle or, heavens, Gene Hackman in French Connection II at the greatest multiplex in the world, the Pathe.

Perhaps the best thing about the IFFR is that the programmers will show films that aren't the newest of the new--an approach that is anathema to most hype-obsessed festivals. (As one American festival director once told me, the compulsion to show only premieres is "like wanting to fuck only virgins.") Even though it played in Venice two years ago, an eternity in film-festival time, Claire Denis's magisterial Beau travail is here. Because it hasn't been distributed, this might be the only opportunity for the Dutch public to see it.

I'm here for another week, and with all of this action, I suspect I'll have even more of a problem cutting off cold turkey than Mr. Hackman-qua-Popeye. Worshiping at this mass of moving pictures might be a critic's communion with the godhead--but then God himself took a rest after six days.

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