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.

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.

While American Movie was the only documentary with obvious theatrical potential, Rory Kennedy's American Hollow and Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan's On the Ropes had the political insight sorely lacking in the fiction features. Erroll Morris's Mr. Death screened as a work in progress, but looks very promising.

Still, the only work at the 1999 Sundance that might make history is not a film, but a 10-part television series airing on PBS next fall. Jennifer Fox's American Love Story is a '90s version of the groundbreaking '70s series American Family. The subject is the Wilson-Sims family: African American dad Bill Wilson; white mom Karen Sims; and their two daughters, 20-year-old Cicily and 12-year-old Chaney. Because the no-frills cinematography and leisurely paced editing are specific to series TV, the piece played badly projected in four-hour blocks on the big screen. Still, it was clear that there's never been a more intimate study of the everyday significance of race and racism in American life.

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