Search and Rescue Operations

Losing the Plot at Sundance

PARK CITY, UTAHIn Gus Van Sant's Gerry, two guys on a nature hike get lost, wander about, prattle on and on, search for something, anything, turn desperate, get even more lost, and basically go mad. You might think of it as the emblematic film at Sundance this year. Despite the nonstop ka-chings of distribution deals being struck in condos around Park City, this year's 10-day movie marathon took shape as an anti-narrative of futile questing. An almost sheepish affair, the 2002 Sundance Film Festival seemed to exist in the shadows—of the still raw horrors that interrupted the industry's most recent congregation, at Toronto in September; of last year's unexpectedly robust lineup (which included In the Bedroom, Donnie Darko, Memento, and Christopher Munch's still distributor-less The Sleepy Time Gal); and of, well, Shadows. The 1959 John Cassavetes urtext screened as part of the "Sundance Collection," offering a potent reminder of American independent film's explosive beginnings while underscoring the infinite regression that has since taken hold.

Perhaps the most widely despised film of the festival, Gerry at its best communicates the sinus-clearing giddiness of a fresh start—a road to nowhere that, perversely enough, leads the director out of a creative cul-de-sac. It's hard at first to get past the gimmickry: Van Sant, whose most notable résumé entry of the last few years is his facsimile of Psycho, decides here to plunder more far-flung treasures. The roll call of shoutouts in the press notes—to Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, and Jacques Tati—might have given pause to the throngs who packed the 1270-capacity Eccles Theater for the world premiere of "the new Matt Damon movie." Damon and Casey Affleck are the stars of Gerry, but this is no star vehicle—they barely speak, and when they do, improvise willfully inane dialogue. Using impeccably composed and choreographed long takes (only about 100 shots over 100 minutes), Van Sant and his cinematographer, Harris Savides, reduce the actors to sacrificial lambs, thoroughly roughhoused by the forces of nature. We see them trudging up craggy inclines, flailing against ferocious gales, squinting through heat waves, stranded atop boulders, dwarfed by sand dunes and salt flats. (The film was shot in the wilds of Argentina and Death Valley.) The director fashions absurdist sight gags from the lopsided matchup between man and the elements, then inches the movie into a realm of confrontational abstraction, simultaneously evoking an overwhelming thereness and a quasi-Warholian nothingness. (Van Sant, it's worth noting, invoked Warhol in attempting to justify the Hitchcock carbon copy.) Beautiful as it is, Gerry is less an object of contemplation than a pitiless black hole.

"It's a metaphor for life," a satisfied patron behind me concluded. But the majority of the audience, it seemed, had been too busy fidgeting or making for the exits to venture any theories. Hell hath no fury like a Sundance crowd challenged. Variety's reviewer, not just bored but actively hostile, condemned the movie to a purgatory in "high art venues in France and elsewhere." Thanks to ThinkFilm, the new company headed by former Lions Gate execs Mark Urman and Jeff Sackman, "elsewhere" will include at least some American cities. (Maybe they can market it as the new Matt Damon movie.)

At least 15 films were picked up at Sundance this year (all fiction features; an overview of the festival's documentary entries, many of which are headed for television in the coming months, will appear next week). The hubbub of activity notwithstanding, many remarked that the prevailing mood wasn't so much predatory as vaguely desperate. Recession-denying buyers may have believed they were spending their way to economic health, some presumably still wincing over Memento (which was passed on by numerous companies and has since raked in $25 million) and intent this year on sniffing out the next jackpot. For old times' sake, there was even one obscenely inflationary bidding war: Gary Winick's digital-video comedy Tadpole (made for well under half a million bucks) reportedly attracted matching $5 million overtures from Miramax, Fine Line, and Fox Searchlight, eventually going to Harvey Weinstein (who, conveniently away from New York while Talk was being muzzled, was trumpeting a return to his indie roots).

Needless to say, the cost-benefit methods applied by mini-major acquisition types leave a lot of deserving films on the wrong side of the bottom line. (It's practically a rule of thumb that the worse the movies are in any given year, the more money is thrown about.) The most impressive feature by far in the dramatic competition was still without a distributor at the end of the festival; it was also shut out of the prizes. The Slaughter Rule, a debut effort by writer-director twins Alex and Andrew Smith, is a rich and complicated tale of compassion in a cold climate. Ryan Gosling, following his breakthrough role as a Jewish neo-Nazi in last year's Sundance hit The Believer, plays a Montana teenager who is cut from his football team within a few days of his estranged father's death. David Morse's wounded, garrulous loner, who coaches a six-man squad he calls the Renegades, elbows his way into the kid's life, filling a void but also stirring up new anxieties.

Suffused with the cruel beauty of winter light (and accompanied by the mournful twangs of a No Depression score), The Slaughter Rule derives its metaphoric density from the brutality and intimacy of contact sport. Staging a clash of outsized emotions against a mythopoeic backdrop of endless flatlands, the Smiths root their story in credibly detailed psychology and sociology: the ritualistic bonds and oedipal conflicts between sons and father figures; the ruinous toll of violence as a way of life, in particular the coiled rage native to small-town stasis; the comforts and awkwardness of physical proximity in relation to the homophobic safeguards that confound male friendships. The film's shambling melancholy and burnished realist textures recall the grunge and grain of '70s American cinema, but in its solemn scrutiny of landscape and human faces and form, it's also (like a few passages in Gerry) faintly reminiscent of Claire Denis's Beau Travail. (The Slaughter Rule's magisterial Scope cinematography is by erstwhile Van Sant collaborator Eric Edwards.) Gosling crackles with the economical intensity of a young Tim Roth, while Morse's portrait of impacted masculinity is a career peak—a remarkably fine-tuned study of a broken man concealing the open sores of regret, defeat, and fear behind a mask of brute willpower.

Mostly proficient and uninspiring, the other fiction features reinforced Sundance's long-standing gender divide: between sensitive, ostensibly feminist women's pictures and slick, phallocentric bloodbaths. Joe Carnahan's Narc was the most ostentatious example of the latter, an extra-pulp bad cop/worse cop number with Jason Patric and an enjoyably nuts Ray Liotta (who, from some angles, appears to have thickened into Orson Welles). Justin Lin's splashy teen flick Better Luck Tomorrow (which boasted "the best-looking cast," per festival codirector Geoffrey Gilmore at one screening) manages a few sly digs at the stereotype of overachieving Asian kids before devolving into incoherent black-comic provocation.

This most demographic-conscious of festivals has been known to tout the number of women directors in its lineups; this edition saw the equal opportunities decisively extending to hard currency. Rebecca Miller's triptych Personal Velocity was a worthy enough Grand Jury Prize winner—convincingly acted (by Kyra Sedgwick, Fairuza Balk, and especially Parker Posey) and evocatively shot (on DV, by the estimable Ellen Kuras, who collected a record third cinematography award). Based on her own short stories, Miller's screenplay has a clear-eyed, tough-minded composure, though the film occasionally drowns in an abundance of expository voice-over. (United Artists will distribute.) Patricia Cardoso's Audience Award winner, Real Women Have Curves, imparts the old-hat feel-good empowerment of its title with easygoing ebullience and a disarming performance by 17-year-old newcomer America Ferrera. Karen Moncrieff's modest and for the most part becomingly awkward Blue Car (which screened in the noncompetitive American Spectrum section but was amply compensated with a Miramax deal) shades in its Lolita template with more tact and acumen than the dubious self-expression-as-therapy setup would lead you to expect. Again, the actors are superb: debutante Agnes Brucker, as a soulfully pouty budding poet, and David Strathairn as her privately tormented English teacher.

Tadpole's idea of innovation is to reverse the Lolita scenario, milking yuks from the forbidden attraction between a 15-year-old boy and his stepmother. Yet another bright young first-timer, Aaron Stanford, plays the precociously urbane kid (he's half-French—hence the title—and prone to quoting Voltaire). Winick and his screenwriters, Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, blatantly triangulate Woody, Whit, and Wes (even ripping off Rushmore's twee-baroque score). The results are pertly diverting but there's no excuse for the disfiguring videography: Tadpole has the consistency of a soufflé but looks like a mud pie.

The wacky sex comedy is, of course, an established Sundance titillation. Self-consciously outré as it is, Steven Shainberg's Secretary (based on a Mary Gaitskill short story) burrows into the psychology of sexual submission and domination instead of merely co-opting their surface traits as punchlines. As a masochistic typist, Maggie Gyllenhaal playfully fleshes out her character's quirks into three sympathetic dimensions, and as her red-Sharpie-wielding boss, James Spader (who might be revisiting his sex, lies and videotape persona, more than a decade down the line) gives full rein to his eccentric comic genius, previously hinted at in Crash and Supernova.

The biggest crowd crushes, as usual, were occasioned by the spectacle of Hollywood dignitaries slumming in nominally deglamorized roles. In The Good Girl, Miguel Arteta and Mike White's follow-up to Chuck & Buck, Jennifer Aniston's unhappily married checkout clerk escapes her humdrum existence by plunging into an affair with a morose young coworker who calls himself Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal, brother of Maggie, essentially reprising his title role in Donnie Darko). The filmmakers chronicle her bittersweet awakening with a snide bemusement passing for empathy. One Hour Photo, the writing-directing debut of talented music-video maker Mark Romanek, taps into the inherent creepiness of star Robin Williams, spookily tranquilized here as a sadsack photo-lab employee who becomes obsessed with a seemingly perfect family. But the arresting visuals are wedded to a rote stalker plot and garnished with some prosaic ideas about the metaphysics of photography. Festival founder Robert Redford, off shooting Spy Gamelast year, was in evidence at many of the high-profile premieres, which is to say, the ones attended by fellow celebrities. (Speaking of priorities: Was it just a coincidence that press screenings this year were held at two tiny new venues called the Garage and the Alley, and that most of the foreign films unspooled at the Black Box?)

Fame, of course, has long been Sundance's prized commodity, rags-to-riches uplift its overarching narrative. The power dynamics between the famous and the almost famous provided queasy subtexts for a number of films. Pete Jones's Stolen Summer was presumably allowed into the festival only for being the train-wreck end product of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Miramax-sponsored screenwriting contest-cum-reality TV series, Project Greenlight. The plot beggars belief: Catholic cherub, in cutely misguided attempt to convert neighborhood Jews, befriends leukemia-stricken rabbi's son. Sanctimonious and offensively ham-handed in dealing with childhood loss and disillusionment, Stolen Summer might as well be called Pray It Forward. Ludi Boeken's deliciously titled Britney Baby—One More Time positions Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the subjects of the documentary American Movie (itself a kind of self-fulfilling fame game), as the "stars" of a road movie "based on a true story," playing documentarians who attempt to pass off a male Britney Spears impersonator (Robert Stephens, playing himself) as the genuine article. The conceptual frisson sustains the movie briefly, but the writing and directing are so flat-footed you expect Jay and Silent Bob to show up any minute. (Doesn't help that Stephens looks more like Tina Yothers.)

The reality TV craze is skewered in Run Ronnie Run!, the first feature from the great minds behind HBO's Mr. Show, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. Plucked from his local Tas-tee Liquor by Hollywood fop Terry Twillstein (Odenkirk), ne'er-do-well Ronnie (Cross) becomes the star of a Cops-like show in which he gets arrested every week on national television. It's not the satire, such as it is, that counts but the film's whiplash speed and supreme indifference in pushing through a revolving door of modes and alienation effects, and—no kidding—its epistemological investigation into the very nature of comedy. (Designated pull-quote for New Line publicity: Run Ronnie Run! is this year's Pootie Tang!) The musical highlights are especially unclassifiable: a Mandy Patinkin showstopper, a relatively unironic deployment of Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," a supercatchy love theme by Cross and Odenkirk's lubricious slow-jam duo Three Times One Minus One that rhymes "dirty magazines" with "tangerines" with "Ben Vereen," and comes with a fully realized, beautifully literal-minded music video. It may not be a metaphor for life, but Run Ronnie Run! was, in a sense, this scattered festival's other defining work: a post-everything meta-farce.

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