The Wanderers

Seeking Signs of Civilization--and Artistic Sustenance--at the Sundance Film Festival

 One of these days I'll learn that just because a new film or film event sounds fascinating to me doesn't necessarily mean that it'll sound fascinating to other people. And then I'll be spared the time it takes to arrive early for a screening or symposium that I have imagined will be jam-packed, only to discover, less than an hour before it begins, that I'm the only one in line. Even more crucial to my survival as a movie lover: I'll be spared the disappointment.

See, it's only in my dreams that the Sundance Film Festival's "Stories From the Field"--billed in the festival catalog as a forum for "documentary filmmakers [to] give candid accounts of [their] trials and tribulations"--would draw as big a crowd on a Saturday morning as the one that greeted aging über-producer-cum-gigolo Robert Evans (Love Story) the previous night at the world premiere of his enjoyably immodest autobiographical doc The Kid Stays in the Picture. Because the reality is that even when a hundred or so sleepy-looking folks have finally gathered at the fest's hospitable House of Docs for said discussion, moderator and documentarian Kirby Dick still feels the need to sell the event--to make it "sexy," as they say. And so he opens the convocation with the gratuitous story of a "buttball" that came into play during the shooting of his S/M epic Sick. I mean, only the presumption that people don't much care about the scheduled topic would inspire Dick to insert the likes of that into the body of his presentation. Still, to the extent that I have used the tale for my own penetrating lead (Do I have your attention now?), I suppose I understand the impulse.

And come to think of it, buttballs of one sort or another are abundant at Sundance, the annual ten-day film-industry orgy that somehow makes room in the hindquarters of Park City, Utah, for both Britney Baby and Derrida, Killing Time and Storytelling: that is to say, independent film and "independent film." The way it works here is that the appearance in person of a buttball like Matthew McConaughey--who came to chat up his role in the pretentious ensemble talkathon Thirteen Conversations About One Thing--clears space in the rear of the schedule for the esoteric likes of "frontier shorts" and "digital dialogues." (Even I know that there's no need to arrive early for those attractions.)

Let's get lost: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in 'Gerry'
Savides/Van Sant
Let's get lost: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in 'Gerry'

And, despite a year that decidedly lacked the volume of new classics that unspooled here in 2001 (e.g., Waking Life, In the Bedroom,, Beaver Trilogy, Memento, Series 7, Sexy Beast, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the balance at Sundance between crass commercialism and commitment to the craft remains. After all, a fest long defined by its low- and medium-budget American product wouldn't need to include a ten-film sampling of vital world cinema (or more than a dozen documentaries, for that matter), but it does. And fest founder Robert Redford's public announcement this year of a forthcoming Sundance Documentary Channel on the cable dial seems all but guaranteed to support his long-held claim that the promise of giving wide exposure to esoterica can end up stimulating its production as well.

People talk about Sundance existing mainly to provide the infotainment conglomerates with a place to preview their coming attractions--which it does, of course. But from where I sit, the festival still appears to take a little from the rich and give to the poor.


Amazingly, Sundance also managed this year to steer clear of winter Olympics preparation. The widely feared clogging of Park City thoroughfares by TV-sports reporters, athletes, and their equipment never came to pass. Indeed, three short weeks before the start of the games, the only evidence I could find of non-film-related competition was the construction of makeshift parking lots and media tents at the base of some very daunting-looking ski hills.

Thus, perpetually crabby festivalgoers who had planned to complain about Olympic inconveniences this year were forced to find other targets for their wrath. (Me, I was pissed about having to sacrifice my ritual popcorn at the endearingly decrepit Holiday Village Cinemas: once and future home to the fest's documentary features, and currently under much-needed reconstruction.) But anyone bitching about having to wait a short while in the cold for a shuttle bus to take him from one of a half-dozen screening locations to another here would have been sufficiently humbled by Gerry, a monumentally bleak and beautiful drama about a pair of pretty boys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck)--or buttballs, as you prefer--who wander lost in the desert without food and water for the better part of a hundred minutes of screen time. For me, this provocatively abstract, gorgeously photographed, and deeply unsettling L'avventura for the Era of Whatever was the closest thing to a masterpiece that I saw at Sundance.

Suffice it to say that Gerry marks a triumphant return to form for indie pioneer Gus Van Sant, whose recent round of goodwill hunting at the major studios appears, at least for the moment, to be on hold. Still, the Gerry joke even among those who love the movie is that Van Sant, following his notoriously ill-considered shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho, has simply chosen to rip off more rarefied and less widely known masters: Antonioni, Akerman, Kiarostami, and, particularly, the Hungarian maker of the seven-hour Sátántangó, Béla Tarr.

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