The Sundance Shuffle

Park City, Utah--
Before the "buzz," the chirping cell phones, the Gap-sponsored accouterments, the industry piranhas, the beleaguered volunteers, the bevy of SUVs, the first overheard boast that "we were down there for a week with Leonardo [pause for dramatic effect]...DiCaprio," or any other such Sundance Film Festival cliché, the soon-to-be-weary moviegoer is wont to spend a little quiet time with his official catalog.

As I peruse this impeccably advertised guidebook at the start of another Redford-endorsed schmooze-fest (how many corporate sponsors can an "indie" festival fit in one volume?), a few things come immediately to mind. First, there's no way anyone could possibly witness all 108 features and 76 shorts on the menu (I managed to catch three dozen), which naturally stands to frustrate or exhaust those of us who may be a little obsessive about this stuff. One arrives here already feeling defeated. Second, the festival programmers' huckstering "reviews" offer no help whatsoever in deciding which titles to skip--although these blurbs, of course, are hardly the most egregious of sales pitches at Sundance. As both "indies" and indies seem to require the casting of known commodities no less than studio films, a good portion of the roster this year comes girded with celebs. Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey may be MIA in 2000, thank God, but fellow youth properties Heather Graham, Christian Bale, Chloë Sevigny, Courtney Love, Calista Flockhart, Omar Epps, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Ben Affleck, and, er, Dominique (Lolita) Swain each have a movie to stump for this year. And apparently, if you're not part of the publicity, you're part of the problem: One coast-based flack whose "talent" I turned down for interviews actually sniffed at me--twice.

But let me not sound crabby. For, while even the documentaries weren't immune to this sort of star treatment (small wonder that films about Tammy Faye, George Wallace, and the Sex Pistols titillated the crowd rather more than those about incest and homelessness); and while the digital-video feature has mainly become a marketable eyesore just a year after The Blair Witch Project; and while wacky films about freaky sex haven't yet followed the Tarantinoesque crime thriller into extinction; and while there may have been nothing this year to equal the one-two punch of '99's Blair Witch and American Movie (representing the horror and the hallucination of indie filmmaking, respectively), this was still a very solid Sundance. Granted, to some, looking good on the festival shuttle bus might seem as important as looking good on celluloid: The hipoisie costume of choice at the 2000 fest was a turquoise cashmere sweater and black leather pants (anyone who wears it next year will be a laughing stock, no doubt). Yet to this critic's eye, neither the meat market nor the acquisitions racket could hold a keylight to the coolness onscreen.

For one thing, this proved definitively to be The Year of the Woman--that is, in the inimitable words of Variety, there were more than 25 "femme-helmed" features on view at Sundance. Mary Harron delivered her exceedingly droll American Psycho, a black-comic portrait of an Eighties-era corporate bloodsucker that may not exceed the period's own Vampire's Kiss, but hits the jugular anyway. Shirley Cheechoo brought her native drama Backroads (co-produced by the Minneapolis-based Christine Walker; see sidebar, right), which manages to tell a tale of racism and domestic abuse with both considerable humor and a critical eye. Barbara Kopple sent her long-winded but suitably despairing investigation of Woodstock then and now, My Generation, a work in progress that doubled as an ironic allegory of Sundance's own ever-increasing commercialism. Sofia Coppola enjoyed the U.S. premiere of her weird and indelibly haunting adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, which is, as her father Francis once said of his Rumble Fish, "an art film for kids." And Gurinder Chadha served the opening-night entrée What's Cooking?, a comedy-drama whose study of Jewish, Latino, Vietnamese, and African-American families on Thanksgiving in L.A. epitomized the new Sundance p.c. but also entertained and enlightened in equal measure.

At the same time, it may not surprise you to hear that a good many movies were male-directed laments for how hard it is to be a white guy these days--such as Stanley Tucci's snail-paced Joe Gould's Secret, the Mametian Big Kahuna, the American Beauty-like Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, and the aptly named Panic, the last of these giving William H. Macy's midlife loser not only a crush on Neve Campbell's acey-deucy swinger but a hit man's crisis of conscience. (Maybe Quentin hasn't left the building after all.)

Still, the overall diversity on hand extended to a stronger-than-average selection of world cinema, including Claire Denis's typically dense and subtle Beau Travail, a dissection of military male bonding, loosely modeled on Melville's Billy Budd; and a pair of Iranian-influenced portraits of tireless children, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less and Khyentse Norbu's The Cup--the latter being the first-ever Bhutanese film to reach the world stage, and concerning, not coincidentally, a teenage monk's obsession with satellite-beamed soccer.  


And then there was Slamdance, which, in its sixth season of passing off Sundance's table scraps as tofu, proudly served the scraps unadorned this year with the opening-night selection of R2PC: Road to Park City, a clever comedy that nonetheless registers as yet another mock-documentary lampoon of a struggling artist whose desperation is indistinguishable from the film's. One could hardly blame the Slamdance programmers for taking a well-crafted, self-reflexive diversion where they can get it. But the fact that the filmmaking protagonist's stated goal is to make it into Sundance rather than Slamdance does little to reinvigorate the latter's dwindling reputation as an aesthetic alternative.

Indeed, the main-stage fest has become an irresistible opportunity for all sorts of supporting players to piggyback on its cachet, as evidenced again recently by Newsday critic John Anderson's shrewdly packaged Sundancing, a paperback collecting mostly candid and often hilarious quotes from various festival habitués (and, yes, celebrities). The most unintentionally timely of these comes from former Sundance juror and current New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell, who playfully admits his susceptibility to perks ("All my socialist thoughts went right out the window. Let ME eat cake!"). This just as he's commencing what is arguably the most powerful film critic's gig in the nation, at a newspaper recently reported to rake in an annual $75 million in studio advertising.

Meanwhile, former Times reviewer Janet Maslin extended her own celebrity by serving on the festival's dramatic competition jury (along with director Kevin Smith and producer Lawrence Bender, to name-drop two more). The New Yorker's duty to assess the 16 films in this category may well have been complicated by the inclusion of both "East Coast indies" and "West Coast indies," as distinguished by critic Amy Taubin in Sundancing--a revealing taxonomy for those of us who, residing on neither coast, have naturally viewed both groups as "other."

Curiously sun-kissed in its vision of the L.A. entertainment industry's seedy periphery, the most notable West Coast entry was Miguel Arteta's Chuck & Buck, and not only because it was purchased early in the fest by the Blair Witch sorcerers at Artisan Entertainment. Like Arteta's underrated Star Maps, his latest work transgressively mixes the tender and the tawdry, telling the homoerotic tale of a socially retarded man (brilliantly played by American Pie co-creator Chris Weitz, of all people) who harbors a deep, dark obsession with his childhood best friend (Mike White, also the screenwriter). A few narrative implausibilities aside, Chuck & Buck is ultimately about the pain of recognizing all that one abandons in the course of becoming a "responsible adult." And, shot on the cheap in digital video, it also suggests that the drab appearance of this newfangled format might currently be best suited to tales involving off-color sexual revelations (cf., The Celebration, julien donkey-boy).

From where I sat, the standout East Coast indie in competition was Jim McKay's mellifluous Our Song, which mitigated the off-putting fact of its strong similarity to his Girls Town by being an even better and more courageous movie--and that's no faint praise. Shot verité-style in 16mm, and following another trio of working-class high school girls (Melissa Martinez, Anna Simpson, and Kerry Washington) through their everyday lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, it's as convincing as any doclike drama ever made, owing in large part to the nonprofessional actors with whom the director collaborated. McKay's opening "film by" credit is a list of several dozen members of the cast and crew--a startling antidote, like the film itself, to the egocentric insularity that permeates so much of Sundance, onscreen and off. In short, this is a rare filmmaker whose well-researched insights are matched by a fearless commitment to using his privilege responsibly. (McKay also co-produced Spring Forward, an equally intimate and unforgettable vehicle for Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber as an articulate pair of parks department workers.)

Alas, the jury's main award was split between two other movies, Girlfight and You Can Count on Me, evincing once again the wishy-washy benevolence that allows as many films as possible to market themselves as "an award winner at the Sundance Film Festival" while diluting the distinction. (The documentary jury this year bestowed its honors on no fewer than six films, including the big winner, Long Night's Journey Into Day, which tells the powerful story of postapartheid South Africa by merely adequate means.) In terms of the dramatic competition, it's hard not to interpret the dual award as conciliatory, since the two recipients couldn't represent the two poles of Sundance more completely.  

The upwardly mobile Girlfight is an extremely efficient distaff Rocky set among Latino teens in the Brooklyn projects--which is to say that its jury prize constitutes an uncontroversial nod toward both diversity and what is often referred to as "the universal human spirit." (The film is also the artistic standout among the handful of unabashed crowd-pleasers--including the straight-as-an-arrow rave flick Groove and the Jerry Maguire-inspired Tao of Steve--that sold for big bucks during the festival.) You Can Count on Me, conversely, is a subdued, unpredictable, intricately constructed, and thoroughly accessible comedy-drama about small-town, middle-class white people--and, as it happens, the most thrilling piece of film I saw at Sundance. At the risk of sounding like some cinephilic pervert here, I'll confess that this carefully measured movie reminded me like no other of how much I thrive on narrative foreplay when the lights go down--that feeling of knowing I'm in the hands of a filmmaker who will give me what I need just a little at a time, teasing out the essence of every interaction while building steadily toward...well, you get the idea.

Speaking of the intimate relationship, which is at the center of this film about a brother (Mark Ruffalo) and sister (Laura Linney), her son (Rory Culkin), and her boss (Matthew Broderick), You Can Count on Me came to Sundance with its distributor, the Shooting Gallery, already attached. As if the festival's contradictions weren't acute enough, this upstart indie company (which previously released I Went Down and The Minus Man, among others) will be remembered for having given me the most rewarding two hours and the most disappointing news I had during the ten-day festival. The disappointment was the Gallery's abruptly reversed decision to include Minneapolis in its landmark plan to screen a series of heretofore unreleased festival indies (including Judy Berlin, Adrenaline Drive, and Orphans) in exclusive engagements at a Loews Cineplex outlet in each of a dozen or so markets. (Still included on the list of cities are Seattle, Boston, Houston, Evanston, Tucson, and Indianapolis, as well as smaller towns in Ohio, Maryland, and Michigan.)

Along with Robert Redford's still-unrealized plans to create a national chain of Sundance Cinemas catering to films without distributors, the Shooting Gallery's incestuous link with Loews Cineplex strikes me as the most encouraging example of how to use Ronald Reagan's notorious deregulation of exhibition rules to expand the diversity and accessibility of indie product. But, for now, the revolution will evidently have to happen without us.

Finally, on the subject of the precarious state of indie distribution, I'm reminded that the most stingingly funny scene I saw at Sundance was in Michael Almereyda's contemporary Hamlet, in which Ethan Hawke's indie-filmmaking protagonist delivers his "to be or not to be" speech whilst traipsing through the aisles of Blockbuster Video. Here at home, I'm afraid, now is the winter of our discontent.



Back Roads and Second Chances

Park City, Utah--

ALAS, MINNESOTANS DIDN'T make as big a splash at the Sundance Film Festival this year as in 1999, when a quartet of filmmakers with local connections--Jarl Olsen ("Devil Dog/Ring Pull"), Rick Dublin ("Bubblepac"), Esther Robinson (Home Page), and Mitch Hedberg (Los Enchiladas!)--saw their work unspooled here at indie ground zero. But it was an exceptional year for one Minneapolis-based producer, Christine Walker, whose distaff drama Backroads enjoyed prime exposure at three screenings within the fest's noncompetitive American Spectrum sidebar. Indeed, representatives from Miramax Films, Fine Line Features, and the Samuel Goldwyn Co. all turned up to check out writer-director Shirley Cheechoo's moody tale of revenge and transcendence among Cree Nation women on a Canadian reservation circa 1976. And although the movie hasn't yet been acquired for domestic distribution, Walker holds out hope of recouping the $500,000 budget through "piecemeal" sales to companies worldwide.

"It's a challenging film, and we knew that going in," says the Utah-born Walker, who's well-known among Twin Cities cineastes for her previous stints as the film/video publicist at Walker Art Center, the founding director of the Minnesota Independent Film Fund, and the co-producer of Homo Heights. "There has been some interest overseas," she reports, "and the timing [of the screenings] couldn't have been more perfect, since this is the first year that Sundance has allowed films to be projected digitally." This technological innovation allowed Walker and the New York-based Backroads financers at Offline Entertainment Group (Slam) to save a small fortune by exhibiting a high-definition video transfer rather than a pricey 35mm print. And yet Walker is proud to have shot the film in 35, a decision that she views as political vis-a-vis the movie's predominantly female crew.

"With me and the women I've worked with in the past," she says, "it's always been a case of, 'Well, let's go the cheaper route'--whether on 16mm or video. And it occurred to me: Why shouldn't we shoot in 35, if we can find the money? Any man who had the money to shoot 35 wouldn't think twice about it."  

Walker admits that the brief Backroads shoot last summer on a remote island in Lake Huron was "hell," although her talent for producing modestly budgeted films on short schedules has been widely recognized, recently by a Mark Silverman Fellowship Award from the Sundance Institute in '99. She is also a current nominee for a prestigious Independent Spirit Award, which honors an up-and-coming producer, and will be given in March just prior to the Oscars. The new attention hasn't changed her long-standing agenda, however. "Independent film production certainly isn't rewarding financially," says Walker, "and it's really hard work, so I prefer to make films that work on a business level but also have some meaning politically."


AT THE OTHER extreme, Richfield-based filmmaker Tim "Vandy" VandeSteeg, lacking an invite to Sundance, brought his emphatically lowbrow golf farce Mulligan to a privately rented Park City hotel conference room equipped with video projection and free seating for several dozen. Billing his 85-minute, 35mm comedy as "Clerks with clubs," the 29-year-old, MCTC-schooled VandeSteeg got the word out in Utah through rampant postering and the pressing of palms--one of which belonged to the Clerks man himself, Kevin Smith, who reportedly did a double take when informed of Mulligan's 30-odd sponsors. Chief among these is Subway Restaurants, whose president and cofounder Fred DeLuca was persuaded by VandeSteeg's $3,000 trailer to kick in an unspecified amount--somewhere in the "mid-six figures," according to The Hollywood Reporter--in order to finance the film's shoot last summer on a golf course in the Lutsen-Tofte area of our fair state. (Small wonder that Subway's cold cuts enjoy a cameo in the film.)

Swinging for Caddyshack territory, Mulligan follows four overgrown frat-boy types through their on-the-course adventures with a pair of special agents and a tight-clothed "golf cart girl," its "jokes" including a slew of half-conscious jabs at women, black people, Asian people, and queer people. Otherwise par for the course, the film is truly uninteresting and torturously unfunny--but not so the filmmaker or the story of his success. Named for the golf term that refers to a do-over stroke, Mulligan represents VandeSteeg's own second chance after a hit-and-run collision set him back 80 grand and "sidelined" him with injuries for two years, during which time he managed to secure his incredible Subway grant.

Now, in the midst of seeking distribution for his debut feature (the profits from which, hypothetically, would serve to stuff more sandwiches), the Minnesota writer-director whom a Subway VP accurately described in publicity materials as "young" and "aggressive" has been pumped up even further by a Park City reception that included congratulations from Jason Priestley, interviews on E! and the Independent Film Channel, and a call from the producers of Roseanne's daytime talk show. "Minnesota," muses the goateed VandeSteeg. "Pretty soon, you're not going to be able to say it's just the Coen Brothers. I'm gonna do it!"

Be that as it may, another pair of Minnesota filmmakers were plenty happy to jump on Vandy's Park City bandwagon in the meantime. Little Canada-based identical twins Roger and Rodney Johnson (who served as crew members on Mulligan) screened an S-VHS tape of the latter's Welcome to Alaska before showings of VandeSteeg's epic, and even found an appreciative audience in one of the closet-sized "theaters" at the déclassé No Dance Film Festival on Main Street. Co-produced by Vandy, directed by Rodney, and co-written by Roger, the 50-minute, semiautobiographical comedy stars the lanky Roger as a man obsessed--like Roger was in real life--with completing a collection of photos that reveal him standing before the welcome signs in all 50 states.

As the film opens, only the Alaska sign remains unphotographed. But, as bad luck would have it, the governor of the state is planning to have it dismantled as part of a "highway beautification project," and the klutzy protagonist, who's further waylaid by a fanatic Sasquatch scout, remains a few cards shy of a full deck. Handsomely photographed on location, highly good-natured, and impossible to dislike, this comedic Blair Witch bears out its makers' modest wishes. Says Rodney: "We want people to leave with a smile on their face."


Further information about Backroads can be found at
For more on Mulligan and Welcome to Alaska, see and

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