Braving the Elements

I'm havin' a rough Sundance. People here are creepy.

--Vincent Gallo

Can't say I disagree with the above comment, made by actor-writer-director Vincent Gallo after a screening of his outrageously entertaining Buffalo '66. Gallo's film is a sort of comedic version of Taxi Driver in which the star's wimpy Travis Bickle brings a scantily clad piece of jailbait (Christina Ricci) home to Mom and Dad, passing her off as his wife before heading out to kill the former Buffalo Bills field-goal kicker who ruined his big bet. Stories about Gallo--the bizarre-looking indie actor from Palookaville and The Funeral--became legend among the "creepy" players at Sundance. He nearly perished, supposedly, while driving himself to the wintry Park City across patches of black ice. When the sound went dead five minutes before the end of one Buffalo screening, he told the theater manager to go fuck herself (in a crowded lobby, yet). During a Q&A, he referred to director Gus Van Sant as "a twisted queen from Portland." God only knows what he did in private.

The party line on Gallo: riveting actor, talented filmmaker, miserable human being. But in a way, you can't completely blame the guy for wanting to scare up some cheap publicity for his low-budget picture. With more than 120 films unspooling in a half dozen theaters over 10 days--many of whose acquisition fees are hyped at such volume that the movies themselves seem beside the point--it can be hard to make yourself heard. In the inner sanctum of Miramax's Weinstein brothers and in screening and sandwich-shop lines alike, the industry mentality is standard: Just about every interaction here amounts to some sort of power play.

Embodying this aesthetic in more ways than one, director Nick Broomfield's largely unseen, notoriously muckraking doc Kurt and Courtney drew a line in the snow. Reportedly premised around the notion that Kurt Cobain's wife Courtney Love exerted so much control over his life as to drive him to his grave (regardless of whether she literally had him "whacked," as some interviewees claim), the film was pulled from the festival in deference to Love's threatened lawsuits over music rights. Then, just when it seemed this movie had been buried along with its subject, K&C had a single non-fest screening at midnight for a select audience of 150 cool people (this reviewer not included). Once again, the power trip.

In terms of hype, you can't get more underground than a withheld film about a dead grunge rocker, and yet indieness is still in the eye of the beholder. On the morning after the opening-night showing of Sliding Doors--a Miramax/Paramount melodrama that might as well be subtitled "Gwyneth Paltrow and Her Two Haircuts"--the local daily's front-page headline read, "Sundance premieres with heavy-hitting film." Really? By what standard? To some of us, what hit hardest was this soaper's unconscious celebration of a woman's right not to choose. Worse still, the condescendingly male-directed women's picture turned out to be a Sundance subgenre. The Bostonian love story Next Stop, Wonderland had its charms but likewise put a woefully undefined debutante (Hope Davis) at the mercy of Romantic Fate. (Early in the fest, Miramax shelled out $7 million for Wonderland in a move that many saw as mere muscle-flexing.) Seeming to reflect on this trend, the weird Miss Monday concerned a sexist screenwriter who breaks into a bulimic woman's house for "research." The ends justify the means: The man finishes his script.

But hey, don't get me wrong: This was the strongest selection of Sundance films I've seen in four years. And by erecting a new 1,300-seat theater on the edge of town, festival organizers at least succeeded in making it more possible to see this stuff. Even some of the jam-packed, high-profile premieres qualified as independent in spirit: The Coen Brothers' slapstick noir parody The Big Lebowski seems their funniest, gentlest, and most visionary work to date (granted, I've never been a fan until now); Brazilian director Walter Salles's Central Station wrung well-earned tears from the story of a middle-aged woman who takes a young orphan on an epic search for his father; and Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals earned the festival's Audience Award without compromising its intimate portrait of life on the rez seen through a son's gradual forgiveness of his alcoholic father.

Speaking of abuse passed down and laid bare, auteur-of-machismo Paul Schrader merged with novelist Russell Banks to devastating effect in Affliction--which, like The Sweet Hereafter, uses a winter accident as a foil to reveal the subtler chill in family relationships. The film's pervasive tone of grief is powerful enough, but the scene in which Nick Nolte's booze-swilling sheriff tears an aching tooth out of his head with a pliers is as vivid an image of tough-guy masochism as anything in the Schrader-penned Raging Bull.

Elsewhere, two great docs likewise tackled the topic of drunken men. Penelope Spheeris's aptly depressing The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III revisits punkdom by following a group of homeless and alcoholic L.A. kids, one of whom confesses that when the first Decline came out he was "just an abortion that didn't get paid for." Where these fans of Naked Aggression form a doomed community around their sense of being oppressed, the brotherhood explored in Frat House comes from the consolidation of power found in sadism and misogyny. One could think of it as a real-life prequel to In the Company of Men, a film that captures the ugliest sort of malehood in the making.

Narrating in voiceover, co-director Todd Phillips describes Frat House (which deservedly took the jury prize for Best Documentary) as "a study of the lengths men go in order to belong." And in so far as the film shows its own maker surrendering to the nightmarish hazing process in trade for access--at various points being hit in the face, forced to press his face in vomit, and shoved into a dog cage--it also proves the lengths to which fledgling directors will go to get their movies made. (The running gag in Frat House is that you may have to go through hell--or rather Hell Night--if you want to be a filmmaker.)

Directorial obsession and self-sacrifice were also plainly visible in the fest's other major prizewinners. The winner of the Filmmakers' Trophy, Darren Aronofsky's intense, brilliantly photographed ¼ is an obvious labor of love that strongly resembles David Lynch's Eraserhead--both in its starkly experimental black-and-white dreamscape and its surreal portrait of a loner mathematician (Sean Gullette) with a serious headache. And Marc Levin's Dramatic Competition-winner Slam brings a startlingly immediate, Kids-like mix of vérité and fiction to bear on the metaphoric tale of a young black convict (Saul Williams) who uses his rap and poetry-slam skills to reinvent himself.

All told, this was a Sundance for the annals. But even though both ¼ and Slam managed to get picked up by smaller distributors, the question remains: How much of the festival's repertoire will appear in these parts before the year's out? No doubt we'll be seeing plenty of innocuously diverting fare such as The Castle, a year-old Aussie farce for which Miramax paid $6 million, apparently fearing they'd miss out on the next Full Monty. But what about the gutsier likes of Affliction--which, despite Nolte, Schrader, and some well-earned critical raves, is still without a distributor? Or an unusually rich road movie like Spark, brilliantly directed by former Minneapolitan Garret Williams (see Culturata)? Or a modest, intelligently crafted character study like Meg Richman's Under Heaven--which, despite being loosely based on Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, will probably have to struggle to find a screen amid another crop of easily marketed Tarantino rip-offs like Montana and the execrable Jerry and Tom?

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Sundance '98 was Robert Redford's press-conference announcement that his Sundance Cinemas--a chain of arthouse theaters committed to showing world cinema and other fringe product, including films without distributors--will begin to appear before year's end in Austin, Philadelphia, and Chicago, with other cities to follow. But is it horribly naive to trust in Redford's claim that the movies at Sundance Cinemas will "not be subject to the same requirements as films shown in most cinemas currently existing in America, where the lines of communication between the distributors and exhibitors have become clogged"? Very possibly. Indeed, no one who braves the elements of art and industry at Sundance--seeing, as I did, some 32 films in 10 days--survives without an overabundance of blind faith.

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