Panic in Park City

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

I'm halfway through the mountains between Salt Lake City and the Sundance Film Festival, speeding down a dark and twisty road in a rented Neon that wasn't exactly built for performance, when suddenly I realize: Oh, my God--I might actually be able to make it to that 10:30 press screening!

Okay, I think. Let me get my bearings. The time is 10:11 by my watch--or 10:07 according to the clock in the Neon. I don't trust the Neon. So that means I have less than 20 minutes to cover 25 or so miles, some of them in heavy traffic. And find parking: Parking is a nightmare at Sundance. Good thing I have enough gas in the tank. And where's my press pass? Oh, that's right--I don't have one: I'm fresh off the plane from Minnesota and haven't checked in at festival headquarters yet. Now headquarters is closed for the day. So the festival volunteers policing the screening will need to accept my "official letter of accreditation," which was sent last week on Sundance letterhead (and which, at last check, was in my bag--or was it?). Alas, my experience of festival volunteers has been that they don't accept much of anything. So I'll have to turn on the charm. How much of that do I have in the tank?

Eyes on the road. I'm doing 85 or 90 on the straightaway, about 75 in the curves. Then I remember: No insurance. See, I opted against paying $170.11 for "basic coverage" on the Neon, figuring that $170.11 could more basically cover...uh, the better part of a week's lodging at the fleabag motel in Heber City where I habitually hang my hat, some 15 miles from Park City and festival action. (Don't worry about those frayed linens in my digs, dear reader: Just as soon as I start writing for Entertainment Weekly--a "presenting sponsor" of Sundance--I'll be in Fat City. Or at least in Park City.) Anyway, bottom line is: I'm gonna try not to crash the car. But I do need to catch this screening--of The Singing Detective, director Keith Gordon's new adaptation of Dennis Potter's ingeniously acerbic musical, previously filmed as a nine-hour miniseries for the BBC. I mean, what if The Singing Detective turns out to be the festival's consensus masterpiece and I haven't seen it? How could I live with that? In Gordon's film, Robert Downey Jr. plays the lead role under heavy makeup, since his character, Dan Dark, is scarred from head to toe--not from a car crash, as I recall. Or was it?

Eyes on the road. It's 10:24 p.m. I decide that I cannot, cannot miss this movie--for psychological reasons. Feeling defeated is no way to begin a 10-day endurance test that dangles some 125 features before the film geek and dares him to see even a quarter of them at the expense of sleep, sanity, and safety--all the unimportant things. Granted, the sense of defeat here--what with the clogged thoroughfares, the ubiquity of corporate logos, the alienating hucksterism that regularly rewards cinematic mediocrity over experimentation, the overwhelming smell of privilege in the air--is inevitable. Even if you're Harvey Weinstein, defeat is inevitable. (I'm thinking of the legendary temper tantrum that the Miramax heavy threw in 1996, when Fine Line Features shrewdly pulled Shine's distribution rights out from under him. "You fucked me!" he told a Fine Line boss in a crowded restaurant. "You fucked me!") Maybe I can manage to hold my own humiliation at bay--at least until tomorrow morning.

Which reminds me: There's a public screening of The Singing Detective at 9:00 a.m., but it was sold out weeks ago. I've been trying all day to reach the film's publicist, who could score me a ticket or otherwise slip me in tomorrow morning at the risk of causing a riot on Main Street, but he hasn't returned my calls. (Again: I don't write for Entertainment Weekly.) So it's now or never. But where? I can't recall whether the screening is at the Yarrow, a hotel on the edge of town, or at the Eccles, a high school theater venue that plays host to arguably more sophisticated productions each January. With 50/50 odds (and the good sense not to boot up my laptop at 85 mph), I decide to guess that the screening is at the Eccles--mainly because I know of a semi-secret parking spot nearby. (I'll never tell.)

Swerving through a swarm of SUVs in the home stretch, I pilot the Neon to within a football field of the Eccles; get out and sprint across an icy lawn, my hundred-pound bag of PR material in tow; make it to the screening room; discover that The Singing Detective is, indeed, unspooling here (whew!); implore the volunteers to let me in with a letter; thank them profusely (on Day One, the volunteers--unlike the critics--apparently haven't had time to get crabby); head into the press "theater" that looks like a boiler room with a hundred folding chairs and a white sheet hung at one end (hooray for Hollywood!); locate one of the last remaining seats in the back row; barely catch my breath; start watching the movie with another critic's head blocking my view of about an eighth of the screen; and discover, after about 15 or 20 minutes, that The Singing Detective, despite predictably impeccable production design and razor-sharp cinematography (seven-eighths of it, at least), pretty much blows.

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.

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.

Editor's note: Rob Nelson will report on Sundance documentaries in next week's issue.  


Fiction Becomes Fact

The standout story among Minnesota filmmakers in Park City this year belonged to Minneapolis-based writer-director-actor Patrick Coyle, whose slyly resonant neo-noir Detective Fiction became the first fully Minnesotan feature to be presented in the prestigious American Spectrum portion of the Sundance Film Festival--on Coyle's 44th birthday, yet. Addressing the crowd at the sold-out world-premiere screening of the movie last Monday night, Sundance programmer Shari Frilot proclaimed that Detective Fiction "heralds a smart, fresh voice" in American cinema; then a sax player proceeded to serenade the Nebraska-born auteur with a surprise rendition of "Happy Birthday" while the audience sang along. It was a sweet moment, one well-earned by a filmmaker who has dared to defy current indie convention by creating a quirky drama that refuses to appear slick either in content or presentation. In fact, the stage-trained Coyle goes a step further by directing himself in a role that requires him to pull off a discomfiting form of anti-charisma in relation to MADtv's Mo Collins (a Minnesota native), who plays the Coyle character's estranged wife.

The day after the premiere, Coyle and I met for coffee in a bustling café at festival headquarters in the Park City Marriott to discuss the movie (adapted from his like-titled play), in which he stars as a recovering alcoholic pounding out pages of a hardboiled novel while struggling not to pound back drinks.

 

CITY PAGES: It has been almost 24 hours since your first screening. What has happened since then?

PATRICK COYLE: Well, some of it may not be printable [laughs]. Or maybe it is printable in City Pages.

CP: It is.

COYLE: Okay [laughs]. We had a Detective Fiction party at a bar last night, and it ended up being the place to be on Main Street. There was a line around the block. My wife and I went home at 1 a.m. to be with our daughter, and there was still a line of people waiting to get in the door. Anyway, after the bar closed, the party moved to a condo and lasted until 6 in the morning. I've been told that at one point a woman walked in completely naked with her boyfriend, who was also naked. Actually, he was on a leash. And they spent the evening like that. There was another woman canvassing the party, telling people that she was doing research for a documentary she's making called Third, about ménages à trois. She said she was looking for a couple that she could have sex with--for "research." The report I got was that she did find a couple, and the three of them did have sex at the party.

CP: "Coming soon to a film festival near you."

COYLE: Exactly.

CP: How 'bout the buzz on your movie?

COYLE: We've received really positive feedback from a variety of sources. And I found out from my publicist that there were a couple of heavy-hitter reviewers at the screening [including Variety's Todd McCarthy], so we're expecting some ink. As for sales, my agent said it's his policy not to sell a film at a party: The atmosphere is too energetic, too emotional, too loaded with friendly fire. But there's definitely some interest out there.

CP: It seems to me that the challenge of this film for distributors is that it looks and feels like a true, old-fashioned indie--with dialogue rather than action, actors rather than stars. It's rough around the edges. And it was shot on film rather than video. Did you meet resistance from investors when you told them you were going to shoot in Super 16mm?

COYLE: Not from investors, but from my producer [Paul Johnson]. We had a big fight--or let's call it a really good argument [laughs]. He's a huge fan of digital video. He said that if we had $100,000 to spend, it would be absolutely foolish to spend it on film. We went back and forth on it, and I won the battle. As a result, the movie has a grainy look to it--a sort of timeless look--that we both love. I think it adds to the story. But it meant that I had to be incredibly organized with my shot list and my storyboards going in. And the actors had to be really well-rehearsed before we started: That was crucial. As for actually raising the money, we did it pretty quickly. I told my wife that if I couldn't raise the money in a year and a half, I wouldn't make the film. I looked her in the eye and swore that.

CP: That's interesting, because the movie itself is about the promises and negotiations that come with marriage, right? In fact, in the press kit you're quoted as saying, "Fundamentally, Detective Fiction is about the politics of sex."

COYLE: I think politics begins with yourself. Then you make a decision to move beyond yourself, to forge a relationship with another person, and you create this world. You decide to work at it: You negotiate with the other person, you compromise, you give and take, you choose your battles. Someone once asked me if Detective Fiction was a political film, and I said, "Yes, it's a very political film: politics at its most fundamental level."

CP: It's also very much about writing: about the anxiety of writing, the tricky relationship between the writer and his or her self-esteem, and how all of that fits--or doesn't fit--into the context of an intimate partnership with another person. To the degree that the film is a personal project for you, I want to ask: What inspired you to write it? What was going on with you personally at the time?

COYLE: I was in a pretty ragged place emotionally. Without getting too specific about it, I'll just say that I had been in a relationship that went bad--at the exact same time that some things had gone bad for me professionally. I found myself alone, needing space, afraid to move on--afraid to leave the house. The one place I knew I could go was my imagination: sitting by myself and writing. That's the one thing that really connects me to the character I play in the movie: his struggle to make contact with something other than his imagination. When you're creating--creating a screenplay, especially--a writer gets to play God: Everything in the world of this fiction stems from you. For John, the world he knows is alcoholic and dysfunctional, but at least he knows it. The hell you know can be better than the hell you don't know.

CP: Now your own creation--the movie--is out there in the real world. What do you hope it will achieve out there?

COYLE: In a way, it has already achieved everything I could have dreamed of. I've gotten my small, low-budget independent film to the Sundance Film Festival. I've done as much as I can do.

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