Panic in Park City

Fear is the driving force at this year's Sundance Film Festival

So much for not feeling defeated.


Allow me to argue that the preceding vignette isn't only a self-indulgent means for the tired critic to fill nearly half his story with experiential detail--that it's also representative of the larger picture: Sundance as an event ruled principally by Fear.

What--no cell phone? Joaquin Phoenix in Thomas Vinterberg's 'It's All About Love'
Nimbus Film International
What--no cell phone? Joaquin Phoenix in Thomas Vinterberg's 'It's All About Love'

You've heard that Sundance is all about Money and Power? Nah--it's all about Fear. Critics are afraid of missing movies that other critics will be talking about--so afraid that they'll stupidly risk their lives to see a lousy film. Publicists are afraid of critics who'll dis the movies they're publicizing, which is why they're constantly offering interviews with a film's "talent"--the logic being that interview-based articles will at least be polite. Industry execs are afraid of being outbid for the year's requisite "buzz movie"--hence the reasoning behind Weinstein's $6 million payment last year for the deformed Tadpole, which grossed less than half that amount (and grossed out more than half the audience).

I could go on. Programmers at this "indie" showcase are afraid of making movie stars feel marginal, which is why the typically butt-kissing program blurb for Miramax's People I Know maintains that this Al Pacino vehicle exposes the "unsavory underpinnings of celebrity entitlement" and that "Pacino heats up the screen." And festival volunteers in charge of crowd control, ticket sales, or shuttle guidance are afraid of bearing the brunt of some more powerful person's fear-induced hissy fit, which is why even basic questions like "Where's the bathroom?" tend to cause other volunteers to gather round and close ranks--just in case Volunteer #1 should require backup. Funny thing: One of the pre-film trailers at Sundance this year ("Pursuing the Dream," it's called) uses the image of fish heroically fighting the current to swim upstream as a comic metaphor for life in the movie industry. The punch line to this little joke comes when one of the fish is snatched up by a bear and carried off to be eaten alive. Yikes. What's the message of this movie? That the sort of predatory behavior one encounters at Sundance is...natural?

In any case, when young director Scott Saunders tells a packed crowd at the Eccles that his film The Technical Writer is "about panic," everyone chuckles in recognition. Filmmakers have reason to be fearful, too--some of them more than others. Indeed, I'd venture to say that Saunders ought to be terrified. Though The Technical Writer's New York-based PR flack saw fit to bend my ear last week in praise of its innovative visuals--the product of a $40,000 digital video camera that he said would make Tadpole look like pond scum--the movie's unsightly scenario makes a moot point of the means of production. Playing a well-scrubbed Manhattanite who inexplicably comes to the aid of the scraggly, agoraphobic, misanthropic writer of the title, Tatum O'Neal pulls the same trick to convey Deep Concern that she did almost 25 years ago as the daddy's girl in Little Darlings: She scrunches her eyebrows. When, about 20 minutes into the film, O'Neal's character discusses her husband's panic over an upcoming role in a movie by saying, "It's just acting--how hard can it be?" (and scrunching her eyebrows), your reviewer strains to stifle a laugh. And then he flees.


In this, my ninth consecutive year at Sundance (I can remember when Abel Ferrara still had investors around here, Sonny!), it takes me less time than usual to turn my back on the star-driven dreck that tends to pass for award-worthy fare in the fest's Dramatic Competition category. (Twenty minutes of The Technical Writer was excruciating enough.) So I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about the Katie Holmes-cooking-Thanksgiving-dinner drama Pieces of April, or the William H. Macy-as-insatiable-gambler drama The Cooler, or the Don Cheadle-as-prison-teacher drama The United States of Leland--including how it was that these films managed to inspire protracted bidding wars among the half-dozen mini-major distributors in town. (My best guess: fear.) As for Detective Fiction, the clever, Minnesota-made neo-noir screening as part of the festival's American Spectrum sidebar, that's another story (and that story is included below).

Besides Fiction, nearly the only other narrative film I can tolerate at Sundance is one that, adding to my sense of alienation, provokes widespread critical disdain and audience heckles: It's All About Love. Shot in widescreen 35mm by former Dogme disciple Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), this cornball romance-cum-sci-fi headscratcher conjures an indelibly bizarre dreamscape in which to explore the existential crises of a divorcing young couple played by Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes--the latter of whom actually plays four roles, since her champion-figure-skating character is cloned three times by industry bosses of near-Weinsteinian ferocity. Vinterberg's breathtaking images aside, I appreciate It's All About Love for offering the naive possibility that, even in an absurd, paranoid world where celebrity-driven spectacle turns stars and spectators alike into jittery clones, it isn't all about fear.

And yet even all that isn't enough to redeem the narrative form in the critic's bleary eyes. Tonight I fall asleep on frayed linen feeling ashamed of the reckless energy I had invested in the likes of The Singing Detective and The Technical Writer--and dreaming of whether I could persuade my editor to let me report only on Sundance documentaries from now on.

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