Unnatural Selection

Evaluating a Movie Lover's Chances of Survival at a Topsy-Turvy Sundance

 PARK CITY, UTAH—For the movie lover—as opposed to the buyer, the seller, the sponsor, the flack, the star, or the stargazer—Sundance is surely the most alienating of film festivals. Never mind altitude sickness and brainfreeze: Cognitive dissonance becomes a default state when million-dollar checks are being waved at movies you wouldn't recommend to your worst enemy, when one of the painfully few highlights of your desperate obstacle course is a zombie B-flick from the guys responsible for The Beach, when no post-show Q&A can approach the urgency of the real burning question along Main Street (Is that J.Lo?), and when festival director Geoffrey Gilmore complains to The New York Times about the contaminating presence of celebrity entourages while rolling out the red carpet for first-time filmmakers Salma Hayek and Matt Dillon (the former revisiting her telenovela roots in The Maldonado Miracle, the latter committing what can only be described as an act of third-world plunder in the Cambodia-set City of Ghosts).

It's no longer news that celebrity is the currency of choice at Sundance, and yet the Times reported on this year's star throng as if observing an alien phenomenon, having apparently forgotten visitations a mere 12 months ago from Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Robin Williams. If distributors approach the festival with a casino mentality (fitting that one of the first films to be snapped up was The Cooler, an old-Vegas anti-noir about a fortune-reversing loser), stars see it more as a restorative spa, a place to exfoliate a tired image and sink into chicly deglamorized roles, like "check-out clerk," or "independent filmmaker."

In at least one regard, Sundance seemed to be acknowledging the beast it has become. The trailers that preceded the feature presentations were morbid nature-themed riffs on futility, frustration, and failure, and although jokey and smug-indie in tone (Isn't this hard, and aren't we cool?), they resonated more than perhaps intended. One of the trailers still haunts me more than most of the actual films. Title card: "Pursuing the Dream." Salmon swimming upstream. Cut to fish vanishing into the maw of a hungry bear. Chomp. Let me guess: The indie filmmaker is the fish, the big bad film industry the bear. But where does Sundance sit on this particular food chain? (Another trailer, this one headlined "Making the Deal," shows a polar bear inching slowly over ice, slumping to a halt with what looks like a death spasm. And then—credit roll: an impressively long list of official sponsors, proving that some festivals are better at making deals than others. Is that what they mean by natural selection?)

Snow-globe trotters Phoenix and Danes in It's All About Love
photo: Per Arnesen
Snow-globe trotters Phoenix and Danes in It's All About Love

In all fairness, the festival always has much to offer for those willing and able to resist the spotlight: The documentaries remain a safe haven (see Rob Nelson's report). World Cinema is more hit than miss (highlights included Chinese director Zhang Yuan's unremitting relationship hellride I Love You and Karim Aïnouz's feverish biopic of Brazilian cabaret genderfucker Madame Sata). And it was gratifying to see Sundance find room for the lyrical agitprop of Travis Wilkerson's Butte, Montana, history An Injury to One (even if it was consigned to the experimental "Frontier" section, emaciated almost to the point of non-existence).

But this year, the heavyweight premieres and the Dramatic Competition, where the buzz trails invariably begin and end, blurred into a ruinously overgrazed wasteland. (As usual, pinning blame is a fool's game: The programmers are presumably doing their best with what's out there, but "what's out there" is on some level an anticipation of programming tastes.) While the median range hovered just below mediocre, the grinding predictability only added to the unsettling impression that underneath it all, something had been perfected, or at any rate, mechanized—now you know why the affiliated development workshop is called the Sundance lab.

Film festivals are highly abnormal environments, and their reality-straining conditions of sleep deficiency and sensory overstimulation are further confounded at Park City by a steady slippage of standards—everyone wants so badly to find something to talk about, to write about, to buy. (Insofar as one's capacity to like is a measure of one's desire for security, Sundance ovations are analogous to presidential approval ratings.) The catalog copy, seemingly produced by a mood-enhanced random word generator, eggs on the indiscriminate embrace. How to choose between the "numinous experience that continues to linger in deep places of the heart" and the "outstanding accomplishment that reminds us why we love film"? It's no wonder that Sundance fosters paranoid mistrust: The L.A. Times reported that, based on the disappointing box office of last year's crowd favorite Tadpole, buyers were no longer trusting audience reactions. Can the critic even trust his own crankiness? After all, are one's frustration, sadness, and anger at least in part a reaction to the context of overreaction?

At least the prizes made sense. It can't have been hard for the jury (which included David O. Russell and Steve Buscemi) to agree on the Dramatic Competition's one unambiguous high point: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's supple, superbly acted Harvey Pekar biopic, American Splendor. The directors, whose backgrounds lie exclusively in documentaries, fold in interviews with the real-life Pekars while Harvey himself grumpily narrates. Paul Giamatti's uncanny impersonation of the Cleveland file clerk, comic-book cult hero, and miserablist chronicler of the everyday dovetails beautifully with Hope Davis, balancing astringency and compassion as Joyce Brabner (Mrs. Pekar), and the droll perfection of James Urbaniak's Robert Crumb. Although the deconstructionist toggling between acted and real gets gimmicky fast (and that live-action/comic-strip trick is at least as old as that a-ha video), the deserving Grand Prize winner by and large upholds the comix-cinema standards of Crumb and Ghost World. In ugly contrast, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's Party Monster, another pomo-bio attempt by nonfiction directors, is an insipid account of New York club kid Michael Alig's delusionary downward spiral—the film smashes the fourth wall only to have the roof collapse, crushing (among other things) the comeback hopes of a madly mincing Macaulay Culkin.

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