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Amazed and Confused at Sundance

Troubled Buyers and True Believers

Contrary to rumors, American independent film is not dead, although if most distributors had their way, it would be. As one astonishing film after another hit the screens at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the gap between audience enthusiasm and distributor disgruntlement grew so wide that it became a prime topic of conversation.

Case in point: Lizzie Francke, director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, and I were enthusing about Richard Linklater's Waking Life, a digitally animated feature that had left us with the heady feeling skiers get after spending a day on Snowbird (where the air is even thinner than it is in Park City). "What did you think?" Lizzie inquired of a young woman representing a well-heeled indie distribution company. "It hurt my eyes," she replied. I presume she was referring to the undulating motion of the rotoscoped animation (the result of drawing over a live-action image). "What a pity," I mused, "that there are so few stoners still working in distribution." She looked at me as if she wasn't sure whether to be insulted or not, and then opined that it might find a cult audience and that if a small company like Cowboy picked it up, they could play it at the Screening Room for a week or two.

Given that the core audience for this tender, witty, supple movie includes everyone who's rented Linklater's Slacker, we're already talking more than cult. Add to them assorted animation freaks and all those committed to the digital cutting edge, and you've got not quite a Yellow Submarine-sized hit, perhaps, but something big enough to turn a nice profit. Taking the century-old model of film as dream, Linklater sends Wiley Wiggins (the kid from Dazed and Confused) wandering through a surreal landscape in which he encounters a series of motormouths who use him as a sounding board for the personal cosmologies they've seemingly harbored since their undergraduate years (everything from Bazin's theory of film to quantum physics). By turns earnest and whimsical, insightful and puerile, these monologues would have worn thin were they not combined with such a sophisticated cartoon image. Waking Life is a collaborative tour de force involving Linklater, animation supervisor Bob Sabiston, and some 30 artists, each of whom brings a distinctive drawing style to bear on a single character.

By the end of the festival, Linklater was reportedly considering several distribution offers—not exactly the bidding war that might have erupted in years past around a breakthrough film by a proven director operating at the top of his game. But since Waking Lifedoesn't fit into any of the familiar indie genres to which prefab marketing campaigns can be applied, it's going to take some ingenuity and intelligence to get it out into the world.

Just as remarkable and almost as resistant to easy classification were two debut features, Todd Field's In the Bedroom and Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. The somber, nearly flawless In the Bedroom is a tale of class resentment, jealousy, murder, and revenge that has the inevitability and deliberate pace of a Greek tragedy. In a move that suggests Harvey Weinstein has not entirely lost his taste for great movies, Miramax bought In the Bedroomhalfway through the festival. Miramax also made a play for Donnie Darko, but rumor has it that Kelly's agents balked at a deal that did not allow the fledgling auteur to have final cut.

My personal Sundance favorite, Donnie Darko is set in 1988 and, like Todd Haynes's Safe, is informed by the toxic combination of Reaganite politics and New Age philosophy. The mercurial Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the borderline-schizophrenic teenage hero whose delusions revolve around a malevolent monster rabbit named Frank (shades of Blue Velvet). Opening with the line "I'm going to vote for Dukakis," Donnie Darko is a sci-fi time-warp narrative—it also could be read as a deathbed fantasy of rescue and redemption—that eerily mirrors our current Bushwhacked back-to-the-future scenario. (The 25-year-old filmmaker wrote the script in 1997, just after graduating from USC film school.) Leavening despair with manic humor, Donnie Darko draws on the sacred texts of Spielberg and Zemeckis, but is both darker and more openly fragile than any of those films. It's also a heartbreaking portrait of the kind of suicidal adolescent who internalizes the institutionalized violence that most of us take for granted.

As usual, films about troubled teens abounded. In Manic, Jordan Melamed's raw and admirably unsentimental DV feature, Don Cheadle plays a psychiatrist in charge of a group of juveniles, some of whom have been in and out of mental institutions for years. Henry Bean's The Believer, which won the grand prize for best fiction feature, stars Ryan Gosling as a neo-Nazi skinhead terrorist who is in fact a bar mitzvahed Jew. Based on a true story, the film packs some emotionally and intellectually tough material into an overly conventional, exploitative thriller plot. As an exposé of neo-Nazi activity, it's barely credible, but its brilliant depiction of Orthodox Judaism as a practice and philosophy is unprecedented in a Hollywood-style fiction film. It remains to be seen if The Believerproves as anxiety-provoking outside the heartland. (In an additional twist, Gosling, whose performance holds the film together, is in real life a devout Mormon.)

The Believerwas not the only Sundance film about conflicted Jewish identity. Sandi Simcha Dubowski's documentary Trembling Before G-ddeals with gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who, because of the prohibition against homosexual activity, are forced into a torturous position of choosing between soul and sexuality. The film is filled with vivid testimony and anecdotal material, but it lacks a coherent analytical framework and insufficiently explores nonfundamentalist interpretations of Torah law.

What was new at Sundance was the emphasis on the relationships between parents and children, particularly on the conflicts of motherhood. Sissy Spacek's and Tom Wilkinson's performances in In the Bedroomas a bereft middle-aged couple won a special jury award. No less powerful was Tilda Swinton's portrayal of a mother who covers up a killing to protect her gay son in Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End, a pointless remake of Max Ophüls's insinuating oedipal melodrama, The Reckless Moment. Jacqueline Bisset shows hitherto untapped acting chops in Christopher Munch's haunting The Sleepy Time Gal, a film that manages to seem both emotionally naked and aesthetically restrained. Kerry Washington shines as a professional shoplifter who tries to win her mother's love with designer labels in Lift, DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter's surprisingly staid follow-up to their radical debut feature, Black & White & Red All Over. And Mark Lewis's eccentric documentary The Natural History of the Chicken not only makes the case against factory farming but movingly depicts a mother hen's courage in defending her young.

Among the many other notable films were Christopher Nolan's Borgesian thriller Memento, which won the screenwriting award; Jonathan Glazer's British gangster picture Sexy Beast, which combines a cool but sensuous style and a humanist approach that's closer to Melville than Tarantino; Daniel Minahan's Series 7, a dead-on parody of reality TV that's as merciless as it should be; and Randy Redroad's The Doe Boy, a richly photographed, understated Native American coming-of-age film that adroitly blends realism and allegory. All in all, there were so many fabulous films that little time was left for parties and gossip. But we did hear a rumor that the festival is shopping for a new venue. Let it be someplace warm for a change?

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