Last Tango In Utah

Searching the slopes for signs of independence at the Sundance Film Festival

Park City, Utah--

"An orgasm is better than a bomb," gushed Bernardo Bertolucci by satellite from London just before the premiere of his sexually explosive drama The Dreamers at the Sundance Film Festival. In the spirit of Bertolucci's rapture, I'll endeavor for a change to make love, not war in my latest coverage of an annual hype machine that's never without its little ecstasies no matter what the prudish programmers might appear to prefer. Indeed, with more than a hundred features and nearly as many shorts unspooling all across this chilly resort town over the course of 10 days, the critic couldn't help but find a few pictures to keep him warm.

Or hot in the case of The Dreamers, whose ménage à trois of sex, politics, and cinephilia seemed to spill off the screen and seduce even the industry workaholics who might make room in their Palm Pilots for one or two of those felicities in a given day, but never all three. Since Bertolucci's period tale of a trio of young movie lovers who play house with their clothes off while Paris burns is set to open wide in a matter of weeks, I'll get in bed with it then. For now, let me just mention what the Italian director would surely have recognized if his bad back hadn't prevented him from enjoying a last tango in Utah: that Park City circa 2004--where the most heated debate was over Peter Biskind's new Redford- and Weinstein-bashing bestseller Down and Dirty Pictures--has absolutely nothing on the City of Light circa 1968.

No surprise that politics would prove scarcer at Sundance than sex or cinephilia, or that their occasional appearance among the generally frivolous fiction fare would be cause for celebration. Walter Salles's much adored road movie The Motorcycle Diaries follows the coming to consciousness of the young Ché Guevara--played with near-flammable charisma by Gael García Bernal--during his nine-month jaunt through South America in the company of buddy Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). The movie's initially odd preference for lush scenery and random incident over history and ideas allows for the startling emergence of a rather lovely message: Revolution can sprout from anywhere and anyone at any time; in fact, it's in our nature.

The personal side of political issues revealed itself in two of my other favorite narrative features. Maria Full of Grace, the sole foreign-language film in the Dramatic Competition category, is an unsettlingly intimate study of a 17-year-old's efforts to serve as a "mule" in the drug trade between Colombia and New York. Hardly full of grace to begin with, Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno)--who's pregnant--is compelled by the promise of her first decent paycheck to swallow five dozen rubber pellets of heroin and somehow keep them in her tummy during the long flight north. Such is the film's incredible proximity to the character that the drama itself feels toxic--and yet never without the potential for great reward.

The terms of that deal are reversed in director Jim McKay's similarly heartfelt Everyday People, wherein the measure of success for bosses and workers at an old-fashioned Brooklyn diner is the strength to resist a gentrifying developer's buyout offer. As in his vérité-style gems Girls Town and Our Song, McKay seems driven to reveal his beloved New York borough in all its rough-hewn vitality while it lasts. Yet in Everyday People (made for HBO), the images of life in a bustling restaurant are sharp, bright, and steady--the better to characterize his greasy-spoon indie as a professional establishment worthy of the industry's respect.

For Sundance itself, with its ubiquitous studio sponsorships and mountains of branded swag, the notion of keeping corporate intervention at bay is a quaint one. But for McKay, who stubbornly continues to work on modest budgets in one of the last outposts of the old America, the story of regional resistance to homogenization is still very much worth telling.

 

On the subject of acting local: Several Minnesotans, current and former, screened new work at Sundance this year. Twin Cities-based producer Ann Luster brought Below the Belt, a marginally witty retro-futurist satire of factory life directed with an impressive array of cut-rate computer effects by 79-year-old indie vet Robert M. Young (Dominick and Eugene). Fallon Worldwide's Jon Nowak came with his well-shot hit-man thriller "Suspension," which played as part of a collection of shorts chosen from among thousands available on Kevin Spacey's unfortunately named Triggerstreet.com site. (Nowak's 14-minute work premiered locally last April at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.) And native Minnesotan David Petersen (who now lives in New Jersey) presented his documentary feature Let the Church Say Amen in the fest's American Spectrum category. Petersen's well-meaning look at the members of an African-American Christian congregation located in a crime-ridden section of the nation's capital doesn't manage to examine the church's role in keeping the community disengaged from activism. But, in accordance with its subjects' practice of faith, the film does observe a number of transcendent moments, most of them musical.

Similarly, the fest's most popular doc--a Michael Moore-style skewering of the fast food industry called Super Size Me--goes only so far in identifying the forces that prevent poor people from fighting the power. As marketable concepts go, Super Size's ranks right up there with the introduction of the McNugget. Director Morgan Spurlock embarks on a monthlong all-McDonald's diet and videotapes its fouler effects by way of proving that the Big Mac Attack is as real as cancer. The question is whether this relatively little movie will manage to reach the type of folks whom Spurlock's camcorder captures largely from the waist down, its occasional shots of their faces digitally blurred in order to obscure the issue of consent. No doubt the bulk of these super-sizers lack the slumming filmmaker's close medical supervision, and Spurlock, who plays his repeated blood and cholesterol tests for big laughs as much as statistical evidence, doesn't seem to include the awareness of de facto corporate food poisoning as being among his many privileges. Important nonetheless, the film--with its already classic scene of Spurlock spewing drive-thru grub out the window of his SUV--may be most effective in convincing time-constrained middle- and upper-class visitors to the Golden Arches that, on a short lunch break, it may be preferable to starve.

Speaking of the powers of persuasion, the Sundance doc that swayed me the most this year is Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, which despite its adherence to the fairness doctrine can be reasonably interpreted as a recruiting film for Al Jazeera. (Where can I send my résumé?) Noujaim, who co-directed Startup.com, secures amazing access to both the Arab independent news network and to Central Command, which conveniently includes the United States' major Middle East military base and its major TV news outlets under the same gigantic roof. Cataloguing countless distinctions between last year's coverage of the Iraq War's victims and the coalition's "victory" by Al Jazeera and CNN/NBC/ABC/E!, Control Room brilliantly exposes the myth of journalistic impartiality during wartime. (How will Big Media review the movie if and when its "indie" subsidiaries acquire it for distribution? Stay tuned.) A senior producer at Al Jazeera--who hilariously confesses to coveting a job at Fox News--observes that "history is written by the victors." Indeed, war is hell and hell is news--and news is war. And an orgasm is better than a bomb.

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