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.

Sundance juries have made a habit of spreading the wealth, and this year's committee went out of its way to reward the more marginal films. Joey Curtis's Quattro Noza, a drag-racing doomed romance best when it resolves into an abstract, high-velocity DV smear, won Derek Cianfrance a cinematography prize. The two oddest competition entries: A. Dean Bell's What Alice Found (a through-the-looking-glass adventure, as the title implies, but in the decidedly un-Carrollian world of motor-home brothels) and David Gordon Green's follow-up to the rejected-by-Sundance George Washington, All the Real Girls (a tenacious puppy-love story sodden with dopey poeticism, in theaters Valentine's Day). The jury rewarded both with special prizes for, um, Emotional Truth.

A shoo-in for the Moral Duplicity special prize, Matthew Ryan Hoge's The United States of Leland turns the murder of a retarded child into an occasion for a Sartre-for-idiots meditation on "all the sadness" in the world—the victim is stabbed, but might just as well have been suffocated with the plastic bag from American Beauty. Another wayward teen, the protagonist of Michael Burke's The Mudge Boy, finds comfort in stuffing his pet chicken's head in his mouth; he eventually graduates to more conventional oral taboos. At the very least, this sensitive, solemnly quirky paean to difference takes cocksucking puns to a new level.

Not to be outdone, Catherine Hardwicke's bad-girl cry for attention, Thirteen (co-written by an actual 13-year-old, for veracity's sake) strikes its sensationalist-jailbait poses with a confidence soon indistinguishable from shamelessness. Continuing last year's self-mutilation trendlet (Secretary, Blue Car), Hardwicke's debut (which won her the directing prize) has a grip on the nuances of teenage emotional cruelty (shades of Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love) but shifts to unmodulated histrionics as the huffing, snorting, emphatically underaged protagonists (emphatically underaged Evan Rachel Wood and co-writer Nikki Reed) get down and dirrrty. In any case, watch the blame-Christina think pieces fly.

Dysfunction themes give Sundance its nominal edge, but the festival's preferred mode is affirmational. The audience award winner, Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent brings together a reclusive dwarf, a bereft painter, and a loquacious hot-dog vendor in a sleepy New Jersey town. The scenario is fatally cute, but the bullshit-free ensemble work—from Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, and especially four-foot-five Peter Dinklage—defuses the land mines. Another crowd uplifter, Peter Hedges's Pieces of April makes no effort to avert cliché as it reprises mid-'90s Slamdance hit The Daytrippers in broad sitcom strokes. Suburban brood headed by bitchy, domineering, and—a detail to file away for third-act pathos—cancer-stricken mom (Clarkson again) pile into a car and head for Manhattan, where semi-estranged daughter Katie Holmes (as in Thirteen, the white girl's rebellious accessory is a non-white guy) prepares Thanksgiving dinner aided by the demographically diverse residents of her Lower East Side tenement. Cue family reunion, standing ovation, bidding war.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned L.A. Times piece, buyers appeared to be largely in sync with audiences. (The Station Agent and Pieces of April fetched the highest prices of the festival.) The logic underlying that article: "Sundance patrons simply are not representative of the real world. They tend to like complicated, dark and often twisted tales of dysfunctional families." But a quick review of what Sundance patrons tend not to like suggests a limited tolerance for formula-flouting. Of 2001's bumper crop, Donnie Darko, The Sleepy Time Gal, and Intimacy all fell flat with audiences. Last year's premiere of Gus Van Sant's Gerry was accompanied by a surreal stream of walkouts.

To my knowledge, only one film incited physical violence this year (after-parties don't count): An aggrieved patriot threw a plastic water bottle at Australian director Gregor Jordan, whose Buffalo Soldiers (which Miramax bought in Toronto, on Sept 10, 2001) imagines a U.S. army base near Stuttgart circa 1989 as an iniquitous frat house. (The projectile narrowly missed co-star Anna Paquin.) Given that Jordan's movie is merely a softer-than-Wilder satire of bored peacetime mischief, you couldn't help but wonder if the dissatisfied customer was a Miramax plant.

But almost no film received a frostier reception than It's All About Love, Thomas Vinterberg's long-awaited follow-up to his Dogme '95 breakout, The Celebration. Though he reunites with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, there's nothing remotely raw or spartan about Vinterberg's enameled waking dream, in which the stabs of beauty are as arbitrary and unnerving as the anxiety pangs. Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes don fitful Polish accents as a separated couple pondering a reconciliation, but It's All About Love is also about a quasi-Raelian mob with figure-skating interests, gravity-deprived Ugandans floating off into the stratosphere, Sean Penn flying the friendless skies in perpetuity after OD-ing on an aviophobia drug, a literal manifestation of a snow globe. Set in 2020 New York, it's a tale of celebrity clones and obscurely motivated capitalist blood sport that ends high in the mountains—how's that for Sundance synergy? At the Q&A, a viewer, perhaps annoyed by the false advertising of the title, demanded to know what the movie really was about. Vinterberg declined to say.

Could it be that It's All About Love and Danny Boyle's robust gorefest 28 Days Later distanced themselves from the pack simply because they entertain the possibility that we are doomed to destroy ourselves? For the disoriented moviegoer lost in Sundance's topsy-turvy ecosystem (extra-freaky this year, with the bizarrely balmy, snow-melting weather), both films—one patently artificial, the other overrun with zombies—served as unlikely conduits to the jumpy real world outside.

In 28 Days Later (also shot by the ever inventive Mantle, on DV), the population of Britain is decimated, off-screen, by a plague dubbed "Rage" that causes the infected to turn homicidally rabid within seconds. First-time screenwriter, novelist Alex Garland, pulls off a canny mash-up of epidemic/post-apocalyptic classics, notably Day of the Triffids and any number of Romero flicks from The Crazies to Day of the Dead. Boyle gives the attack sequences a savage immediacy (have the undead ever moved this fast?), but it's the deathly quiet that lodges in the mind—a depopulated London, complete with provisional memorial of missing-person flyers (the scenes were shot before 9-11). Funny how a little perspective makes you forget the petty woes of your Sundance trek. A bit of graffiti in 28 Days Later, scrawled in blood on the wall of a church: "The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh."


Related Articles:

"Brats and Boomers Dominate Sundance Docs" by Rob Nelson

"Risky Business at Sundance 2003" by Anthony Kaufman

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