Playing It Safe at Sundance

Park City, Utah--

I'd attended the Sundance Film Festival twice before, but this was the year I finally got up close and personal with "the Bob." Well, sort of. Near the start of this 10-day movie party, we of the press were invited to take a one-hour bus ride from the festival hub in Park City to the Sundance Institute: home of the annual filmmakers' workshops that keep this hype-making enterprise connected to the actual process of creative artistry, and playground of the Hollywood icon--aka Robert Redford--who started the whole thing. Following a half-hour delay ("Maybe he's still in the shower; I heard he just came off the slopes," opined one stone-faced Sundance employee), the Bob and his entourage eventually stride through a picaresque maze of snow and babbling brooks to the cabin-like building where about 200 media-types have gathered to do their jobs. The star sits at a desk in front of a roaring fire, facing over a dozen TV cameras set up in the back of the room. Every other person is sporting a Sundance hat, bag, jacket, or sweatshirt; the newer ones read "Sundance Channel," in reference to the Bob's recently launched cable station.

"We don't cater to commerciality," he says amid the constant hum of tape machines and flashbulbs. "We're here to support the filmmakers, increase diversity, and further legitimize independent film in general." Obviously, he was responding to valid criticisms of the studio-heavy repertoire last year, and to the inauguration this year of a second Sundance offshoot. The new Slumdance Film Festival set up shop in an old dormitory on Park City's Main Street, and distributed its free, no-budget film product via shopping carts filled with videocassettes. Meanwhile, the Slamdance fest grew enough in its third year to boast the ironic world premiere of Schizopolis, a new feature by Steven Soderbergh, whose sex, lies, and videotape projected Sundance's commercial future back in 1989. So it's become standard for Redford to invoke the festival's "intimacy," even as its scale and popularity continue to bloat beyond the capacity of the city--or the Sundance staff, or the estimated 100,000 attendees--to fully handle it.

Just as Sundance represents the industry in microcosm (too many worthy art-films for too few art-houses), Redford's jam-packed press conference mirrored the festival as a whole, with its facade of leisurely glamour failing to conceal the reality of horrendous overpopulation. As Harlan Jacobson put it in USA Today, "The only thing that now differentiates Sundance from Cannes in the hierarchy of festivals, besides the weather, is the absence of hookers." As distinct from whores?

For better or worse, the films themselves seemed to manifest this lewd and chaotic vibe, as at least a dozen of the 30-odd movies I saw were specifically about sexual obsession, anxiety, or perversion. To name a few: The Australian comedy Love Serenade is about two sisters who sleep with the same scumbag deejay; the Amerindie farce His & Hers features a woman who half-accidentally chops off her hubby's pinky finger and then, realizing the phallic symbolism, refuses to give it back; and the Canadian shocker Kissed deals with a young woman's desire for, ahem, dead bodies.

These prurient indies typify the ambiguous mix of art and commerce that's always been central to Sundance fare. And inevitably, the films' artistic worth hinges on the subjective question of whether their subject matter is intended to make a point or a buck. The answer is both, probably. If woman-centered weepers and phallus-waving pulp fictions have previously defined Sundance for how artfully they stood to capitalize on the zeitgeist, this year's sex extravaganza might owe equally to millennial fear and desire ("Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999," someone once said), and to the simple fact that fucking hasn't been used as a box-office come-on for quite a while--or at least not the way that, say, ultraviolence has.

In any case, some thematic similarities were too exact to be merely uncanny. Both Mark Waters's Tennessee Williams-esque The House of Yes and the hysterically trashy noir This World, Then the Fireworks feature siblings who get an erotic charge out of reliving violent events from their childhood; and Kevin Smith's loathsome Chasing Amy, the Kids-like melodrama All Over Me, and the charming slackers-and-dykes hybrid Slaves to the Underground all flaunt love triangles involving a geeky guy and two girls, one of whom--whoa!--sings in a band.

Leave it to a documentary to tell a story that's never been told, while at the same time out-provoking most fiction. Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist plays out its grisly topic for both substance and sensationalism (much of it is nearly unwatchable), portraying the titular performance artist as a revolutionary for manipulating pain to his own ends. Elsewhere, no two narrative features (ever made?) were as libidinous in plot or apocalyptic in style as Gregg Araki's Nowhere and David Lynch's Lost Highway. Where the former takes Araki's Macintosh editing and candy-colored mise-en-scène to a new level of intensity (while offering further proof that, as the protagonist notes, "our generation's gonna witness the end of everything"), Lynch's masterfully debauched film noir might well be this decade's Vertigo, creating a paranoid dreamscape that's indelibly weird even by the director's standards. Ultimately, Lost Highway is a far worthier trip than Nowhere, but it's encouraging in both cases that mini-major distributors (October Films and Fine Line Features) are backing movies that use their sizable budgets to rock the art-house in brand-new ways--bidding to operate as full-blown experiences rather than filmed stories.  

Still, the main indie studios--October, Sony, Miramax, and Fine Line--were relatively timid this year, a fact which many commentators hastily took as a sign of the festival films' lack of commercial potential. ("Sundance so far has been off: No film really shines," read the Strib's wire service article last Saturday.) But the restraint probably had more to do with the studios' fear of recreating their costly feeding frenzy of '96--epitomized by the ludicrous $10 million that Castle Rock Entertainment paid for the bomb The Spitfire Grill, and the public temper tantrum that Miramax's Harvey Weinstein threw after discovering that he'd been outbid for Shine. In fact, notwithstanding the success of Shine, Big Night, and Welcome to the Dollhouse, plenty of distributors were left last year with movies that had either grossly underperformed or struggled in vain to find available screens. Although Weinstein did plunk down $2 million for this year's The House of Yes after its first Sundance showing, and Fox Searchlight picked up the uncompromising crowdpleaser Star Maps halfway through the week, many of the 1997 movies were acquired as a result of pre-festival screenings on the coasts--a new trend that inevitably benefits the purchaser, since a potentially hot film would naturally draw less at lower altitudes, without audience approval.

Such pre-fest purchases may serve as an early indication of where the hype lies, although Sundance is so widely perceived as a powerful springboard that most indie auteurs have their eyes fixed on festival popularity before shooting a single frame. (It's clear that the Sundance Institute's prestigious Directors' Lab functions largely as an off-site factory for soon-to-be Sundance movies.) Thus, as the majority of indies protect their investments by including what Redford calls "commercially identifiable attributes" (i.e. guns and grunge, sex and lies, slackers and dykes), the festival doesn't just reflect trends; it shapes them. So there were several downbeat tales of urban adolescent angst this year, a la Kids (All Over Me, Blackrock, Hurricane). But the ultimate evidence of Sundance's hyper-self-consciousness was the mega-buzzed tearjerker The Myth of Fingerprints, a pedantic melodrama about a guy with sexual hang-ups (Noah Wyle) who comes home for the holidays to discover some familiar examples of WASP repression--namely those out of sex, lies, and videotape and the Bob's own Ordinary People. As it turns out, The Myth of Fingerprints is the perfect title for a movie that exposes the myth of an indie's freedom to carry its own unique identity.

As regards festival hype, the funny thing is that it's never absolute; in fact, you can sometimes feel it change direction during the course of a single showing. And in the case of Fingerprints, the irony was that this exercise in manipulation might have seemed to its producers like a sure thing, although the audience, God bless 'em, wanted something fresher. By the time of the film's squatting-room-only screening on the seventh day, where you could have cut the buzz with a butter knife, the expectation of greatness segued decisively into fidgety disappointment and faint applause. This would not be the Sundance movie everyone was looking for, and there wasn't enough time to cultivate word-of-mouth on another film.

In a longer festival, a consensus might have formed around Eye of God, an impressively solemn portrait of a small-town marriage that contained some audience-friendly melodrama and a heartbreaking turn by Martha Plimpton. But as it was, the only American films to win unanimous acclaim were Miguel Arteta's Star Maps, an engrossing and deeply felt comedy about a teen boy's flirtations with Hollywood and a Mexican immigrant prostitution ring; and the revelatory Documentary Competition-winner Girls Like Us, a real-world corollary to recent girl cinema (and the strongest of seven Sundance docs produced by the impeccably smart, Twin Cities-based ITVS).

Myself, I was thrilled to discover Strays, an often hilarious and oddly sincere investigation of mean-streets machismo by writer-director-star Vin Diesel. But only a selective cult agreed with festival associate Robert Hawk's cheeky observation that this sensitive tough guy was "the Lawrence Olivier of the independent film scene of the '90s." Capped by Diesel's soul-baring rendition of the Tin Man's "If I Only Had a Heart" (!), Strays was apparently too perverse for most viewers. (The film remains unpurchased at press time.) Thus, seemingly by default, the Kids-lite Hurricane and New Line's romantic Love Jones split the Audience Award, while it was left to the Dramatic Competition jurors to make good on Redford's press conference claims by choosing a blatantly uncommercial movie. Which they did: The winner was Sunday, a determinedly glum and pretentious portrait of a middle-aged Queens man's broken dreams, a film so unrepresentative of the festival's identity as a whole that its selection smacks of revisionist history in the making. It's hard to imagine that Sunday will have the slightest chance at vindicating the art-house or directing the course of future festival submissions--but neither does it matter. The important thing is that, at least for now, the Sundance Kid has his happy ending.

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