Slippery Slopes

Sundance Takes a Tumble

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world," complained Hamlet, that textbook example of unresolved oedipal conflict and bipolar disorder. Hamlet's sentiments could have been those of many participants in the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where the mood was more often depressed than manic and founding father Robert Redford vanished at the climactic moment.

For the first time in the near 20-year history of the festival, Redford neither appeared in person nor sent a message to be read aloud during the closing-night awards ceremony. Nor did anyone offer, as in years past, a reason for his absence. There was no "Bob's very sorry not to be with you, but he's in postproduction with The Horse Whisperer 2." Redford was simply a no-show.

Earlier in the festival (which, as usual, was held for 10 days in January in the ski town of Park City, Utah), Redford acknowledged that Sundance had evolved into a market and that was fine with him if it benefited filmmakers. Still, his absence from the awards ceremony was a bit of a slap in the face. Perhaps he didn't want to be the figurehead of a marketplace, particularly one where bad films had all but driven out good.

Sundance acting mainstay Tim Roth goes behind the scenes with The War Zone.
Nat Bocking
Sundance acting mainstay Tim Roth goes behind the scenes with The War Zone.

This year, there was no longer any doubt that Sundance had fallen victim to the mainstreaming of American independent film it had helped facilitate. In the years since sex, lies and videotape and Reservoir Dogs brought voyeurism and violence to Redford's granola festival, Sundance has come to rival Cannes as a place to launch a film or a film career. Its original corps of idealistic filmmakers, producers, and distributors has been overrun by Hollywood industry types looking to make big bucks from young, cool talent. (The talent hasn't been exclusively homegrown; Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty had their U.S. premieres at Sundance.) The desires and needs of the Hollywood folk and their formulas for box office success began to influence the young, cool filmmakers who dreaded slinking home from Sundance without a distribution deal, a prize, or good reviews from the trade papers (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which apply a single standard of commercial viability to all films). The result has been a plethora of cookie-cutter indies that have neither the courage of oppositional aesthetics and politics nor the slickness audiences expect from Hollywood products.

On the bright side, this was the best-organized Sundance in memory. The shuttle buses connecting the various screening venues ran every 10 minutes; the 1300-seat Eccles theater, which opened last year, alleviated much of the overcrowding. True, about half a dozen films were torn up by projectors, and during one screening at the dingy Holiday Village triplex, part of a ventilation duct fell on three audience members, who were carted off to the emergency room (their injuries were judged to be minor). The screening continued without further interruption.

If you weren't waylaid by the hype around the undistinguished American indies in the dramatic competition, there were terrific films to be found. In the World Cinema showcase were Fernando Perez's magical-realist Life Is To Whistle, about three Cubans living moment-to-moment at the end of the Castro era; Radu Mihaileanu's Train of Life, a Holocaust comedy that has the desperation and intelligence the other Holocaust comedy, Life Is Beautiful, sorely lacks; Gaspar Noé's horrific, black-humored I Stand Alone, a minimalist psychodrama about an unemployed Parisian butcher hitting bottom; and Hirokazu Kore-eda's tender and wry After Life, which offers an original twist on a favorite Sundance subject— the discovery of meaning and the fixing of memory in the act of filmmaking itself.

Shown out of competition were two punchy entertainment movies geared to the 15-to-30-year-old audience. James Merendino's SLC Punk! is a nostalgia piece about Reagan-era dropouts growing up in straitlaced Salt Lake City. The film uses past-tense narration in a truly original manner, and it's buoyed by a soundtrack of punk-rock classics. More polished, but no less inventive, Go is Doug Liman's blasting mood-shifter of a movie, a sex, drugs, and raves follow-up to his cultural reference­drenched debut indie, Swingers. Financed by Columbia Pictures, Go was budgeted at about 30 times the amount it cost to make Swingers, and Liman knew exactly what to do with the money— use it for the most amusing car chases since The French Connection. With a loop-the-loop time structure reminiscent of Pulp Fiction (although it lacks Tarantino's religious investment in movies as a medium of resurrection), Go weaves three separate stories into an unbroken narrative in the manner of Robert Altman. Multiple-stories-rolled-into-one-film was a major trend at Sundance this year. (Cookie's Fortune, Altman's new film, opened the festival and was widely praised as a throwback to the old Altman— whoever that might have been.)

In addition to the obviously commercial SLC Punk!, Go, and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's ingenious, fabulously scary faux documentary, The Blair Witch Project, there were a few fragile American films by promising directors. Cauleen Smith's Drylongso (Ordinary) is about a college photography student who memorializes the men who die young in her Oakland neighborhood. The film has an acute sense of place and the characters seem all the more true in that their actions and responses are so unpredictable. Lisanne Skylar's Getting To Know You adapts several Joyce Carol Oates stories into an off-kilter coming-of-age film. Ambitious in form, it is richly photographed by Jim Denault and has a bunch of subtle, unmannered performances, most notably by Heather Matarazzo and newcomer Michael Weston.

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