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.)

And, despite a year that decidedly lacked the volume of new classics that unspooled here in 2001 (e.g., Waking Life, In the Bedroom, Startup.com, 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.

But if you're going to borrow, why not borrow from the best? And besides, what Van Sant has accomplished here--better than anyone since Jim Jarmusch with Dead Man in 1995--is to import (or smuggle, really) the rhythm and texture of the more rivetingly snail-paced and site-specific world cinema into an American commercial feature perversely toplined by a major Hollywood hunk. Yes, Gerry is an act of subversion--damn right. Cast as a pair of hopelessly naive recreational hikers--both named Gerry--who immediately stumble off trail and then drag themselves in near silence through an immense and unforgiving wasteland (the film was shot in remote Argentina and in Death Valley), Damon and Affleck are, of course, the ostensible stars. (They also co-wrote the script, such as it is, with their director.) But the infinitely stronger impression is made by the supporting cast: blinding sunlight, waves of intense heat, endless rock and sand, the sky, the wind.

What Gerry communicates to the audience seeking pleasant diversion--another Good Will Hunting, perhaps--is precisely what the situation itself communicates to the characters: How dare you take the natural elements for granted. Van Sant's film, comprising a mere 100 shots (most of them long enough to make one ponder their duration), is suffused with the inevitability of death. Nothing lasts: not a reel of film, not a walk without food and water, not a famous movie star, not a friendship--not anything. What's initially shocking and then exhilarating about Gerry is how matter-of-factly it exposes the essential truth that commercial art and entertainment so often seeks to conceal: The basic narrative of all our lives is that we wander, desperately seeking sustenance and occasionally finding it. And then we die.

 

Gerry would seem a haunting movie in most any context (except, perhaps, at home on videotape). But at Sundance, where arrogant adventurers roam rough terrain in search of something, anything to consume, its surreality began to look like vérité. If last year's fest appeared to find the industry in a creative economic and artistic rebound from the dot-com crash, this year's suggested an aimless journey without a map, slow to reveal any kind of mission or trend either onscreen or off. (Eventually I noticed an alarming number of movies in which depressed young female characters ritually cut themselves with sharp objects. Make of that what you will.) Indeed, everyone from critics to stargazing tourists toting $5,000 festival badges seemed to agree that the quality of American movies was down this year. Yet the high-priced sales of those movies to mini-major distributors (e.g., Miramax, Sony Classics, Lions Gate) were up, as befits a time when the boutique divisions of mega-conglomerates are eager to prove that they're still flush--and wouldn't really know what to do without a checkbook anyway. (Even in a recession, shopping is still the best cure for a hangover.)

Halfway through this year's annual endurance test, a publicist acquaintance of mine talked to me about "the climate of fear" at Sundance--guardedly, of course. He was trying to explain how one company after another proceeded this year to shell out millions for movies--including the heavily hyped Tadpole, which offers the slight suggestion of Whit Stillman remaking Rushmore in digital video--that will likely frustrate both marketers and ticket buyers in lower altitudes. The rationale for these corporate acquisitions seems to have been: If we don't buy it, we'll be afraid that someone else will. There were other theories to explain the flurry of cash: the frustrating interruption of purchases at the Toronto Film Festival by the events of September 11; the suspension of new production last year by the threatened writers' and actors' strikes; the embarrassing failure of execs to recognize the commercial potential of Memento, which premiered at Sundance last year but didn't sell until March (and then went on to gross an astonishing $25.5 million); and the recent gravitation to medium-budget Indiewood of bankable stars such as Jennifer Aniston and Robin Williams.

All these explanations for profligacy make perfect sense, I suppose--but less so in light of Filmmaker magazine's latest charts listing box-office receipts for films that premiered the previous year at Sundance. Rarely if ever offering proof of anything like a bona fide "indie" gold rush, these dispiriting figures seem strategically timed to offer a wake-up call to spendthrift acquisitions people--who invariably choose not to heed it. But this year's results are particularly grim. Not counting Memento, the average box-office take last year of a Sundance-premiering movie was less than a million bucks--measured against the untold millions spent by mini-major distributors to release these turkeys.

So why on earth do these companies continue to invest their fortunes in a losing proposition? Is it because their corporate parents--whose annual reports are hardly dependent on the successes of a few medium-budget movies--need them to appear "edgy" and "arty" for the purpose of titillating like-minded shareholders? Is it so that executives can have a place to ski and schmooze every January? Or--the least likely theory--do they actually believe that they're making the world a better place by subsidizing great works of art?

I guess I have to say that I don't really know. One thing I do know, however, is that my favorite Sundance documentary this year is--conveniently--a highly personal response to corporate ignorance and greed. In Blue Vinyl, co-directed by Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold, what initially appears as a classist poke at suburban domestic kitsch (Get a load of the tacky vinyl siding on those Long Island ramblers!) peels away to reveal something far more textured and humane. And no wonder. Helfand's entrée into the topic of "poison plastic" is, well, two-sided: Her own parents are among those North Americans who account for a new vinyl-lined home every three seconds; and her own bout with cervical cancer (profiled in her earlier film A Healthy Baby Girl) informs Helfand's mission as an activist documentarian specializing in issues of chemical toxicity. The fact that she and her colleague Gold apply a thick sense of humor to their storytelling structure gives Blue Vinyl yet another layer of substance.

Spanning the globe in search of PVC-production horrors, the filmmakers travel to Lake Charles, Louisiana ("the vinyl capital of America") to discover evidence of overwhelming environmental hazards and corporate concealment of the facts; and to Venice, Italy, where 31 vinyl-industry executives stand trial for manslaughter in a landmark case. And then Helfand literally brings it all back home, struggling to convince her obstinate mother and father to replace the vinyl siding on their home with an environmentally sound product as a symbolic gesture. While the merits of making an ultimately upbeat film about a largely unknown global crisis are arguable, the optimism isn't entirely unearned in this case. In the end, the message of Blue Vinyl is that if you can radicalize your parents--or, even tougher, the parent company--then maybe anything is possible.

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