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But none of the American films had the intensity and dark beauty of Tim Roth's The War Zone, an austere adaptation of Alexander Stuart's novel about a seemingly loving family destroyed by father-daughter incest. In an assured directorial debut, Roth eschews the obvious close-up, handheld-camera perspective on dysfunctional families. Instead, he uses extremely wide-angle compositions with very little camera movement. The effect is to give us a necessary distance from what might otherwise be exploitative material. It also allows Roth to define what's happening among the family members simply by showing how they position themselves in their living room in relation to one another. Roth gets strong performances from all the actors: Ray Winstone as the father, Tilda Swinton as the mother, and two novices, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe, as their teenage children. Belmont, in particular, is extraordinary. The film builds toward a brutal sexual encounter that virtually guarantees it an NC-17 rating. What makes the sex scene so disturbing is that it might turn you on. Forbidden games have a way of doing that. And Roth deliberately gives the audience the time it takes to feel guiltily complicit.
Another smart and sophisticated British film, Christopher Nolan's Following, screened
at Slamdance, the self-consciously déclassé festival that tries to challenge Sundance on its own stomping ground Park City's Main Street and which becomes less threatening every year. Following (which was, full disclosure, executive produced by one of my Sundance housemates, Next Wave Film's Peter Broderick) is a shifty, paranoid neo-noir, shot in gleaming black and white. In addition to Slamdance, the Sundance spawn included minifests Souldance (Black films), No Dance (movies made on digital video), and Van Dance (a guy offering to show you the trailer for his movie in a van parked on Main Street).
Chris Smith's American Movie, the documentary grand prize winner, and Tony Bui's Three Seasons, the fiction grand prize winner, are both deeply flawed but emblematic Sundance films that made audiences leap to their feet and cheer. (In an unprecedented sweep, Three Seasons also won the Audience Award and the Cinematography Award.)
Three Seasons is more interesting for its behind-the-scene story than for what happens on the screen. Bui, who was born in Vietnam but has lived in the U.S. from the age of two, wanted to make a film set in contemporary Saigon, with Vietnamese actors speaking in their own language. Not an easy sell. He developed the script in the Sundance Lab, where he also found his producers Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente of Open City Films. Financing was obtained from October, still the most adventurous large American indie distributor. The production was difficult; the Vietnamese censors questioned everything, including the use of the color red.
Expertly photographed by Lisa Rinzler, the film is full of swoony close-ups, picturesque landscapes, and cityscapes shot in slow motion so that they look pretty, too. The narrative (another multiple-story mélange) is stunningly vacuous and hackneyed. There's a simple peasant girl who brings a moment of grace to a reclusive poet, a street urchin who eventually finds another street urchin to love, a hardworking cyclo driver who rescues a beautiful prostitute. And there's the peripatetic Harvey Keitel playing a former American soldier now searching for the daughter he fathered during the war (who's also a prostitute). It might as well have been The World of Suzie Wong, subtitles notwithstanding.
A few years ago, Bui made a powerful short film about two Asian American brothers, jail time, and basketball dreams. Three Seasons has none of the cultural specificity or personal perspective of that film. It does, however, bear the unmistakable handprint of the Sundance Lab, where projects go through a process that's not dissimilar to development at a Hollywood studio. True, the labs encourage "difference," but not at the expense of "universal meaning," which is code for saying that you must manipulate the audience's emotions in a way that's familiar to them from 100 years of Hollywood movies. The result is a bunch of deracinated, sentimental films trying too hard to be audience-friendly. It's notable that almost all the films that put the Sundance Film Festival on the map in the last decade from sex, lies to Poison to Slacker came from the outside. They had nothing to do with the labs.
A lively, sharply edited, and smartly photographed documentary, Smith's American Movie focuses on the ultimate Sundance subject, the passion to make independent films. Smith followed fellow Wisconsinite Mark Borchardt for two years while Borchardt simultaneously tried to finance his magnum opus, Northwestern, and finish his four-years-in-the-making horror short, Coven. Borchardt is a horror buff who fetishizes the films that scared him when he was a kid. He scrutinizes George Romero the way Scorsese scrutinized Mario Bava, the difference being that Scorsese scrutinized other filmmakers as well.
Watching American Movie and watching Smith, Borchardt, and two of Borchardt's loyal buddies who are also featured in the film at the postscreening discussions, I was reminded of Warhol and his entourage of superstars and creatures, a similarity accentuated by Smith's quiet, passive persona. There's an imbalance of power between Smith and his subjects that is never dealt with in the movie. In effect, what Smith has done is to take away Borchardt's cherished project, Northwestern, and make a version of it himself. American Movie is Northwestern, but packaged in a way that Borchardt, probably, is incapable of doing. Smith might have righted the balance of power somewhat by occasionally handing Borchardt the camera, but the thought seems not to have occurred to him.
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