PARK CITY, UTAH—“I wanted to go skiing!” whines one petulant yuppie to her traveling companion—and no, these aren’t the people sitting directly behind me, but the buff couple bobbing helplessly on-screen in the cruddy-looking digital chop of Open Water as real-life sharks (no mechanical jaws here) suddenly explode upward in the foreground.
It had to happen sooner or later, Sundance’s trashy embrace of the Fear Factor, the stunt film—not exactly a festival-wide phenomenon but a bizarre trendlet marking this year’s fiction crop, informing the woozy allotment of high-altitude buzz (and for Open Water, a ridiculous $2.1 million payday). Unknown actors cast as a higher form of chum weren’t the only ones prepared to go to reality-show extremes: Courageous Christian Bale reportedly shed 63 pounds for director Brad Anderson’s slickly gruesome The Machinist, triggering a triple gasp from the festival audience, first at Bale’s bug-eyed skeleton dangling like a distended Tex Avery cartoon, then at the star himself, bounding onstage for a Q&A having bulked up enormously for the upcoming Batman sequel, finally at the lingering unworthiness of such metabolic commitments to begin with.
Attendees and press members flitted nervously on packed shuttle buses, seeking meatier nourishment or, barring that, any recognizable human being. But this would prove to be the season of the thin man. How else to explain the almost painful lack of critical consensus, as the rough-and-ready Sundance aesthetic—historically a platform for naturalism (intended or otherwise)—was hijacked so completely into fringy alienation? Choose your freak and love him, the programmers implied: Napoleon Dynamite is geek chic plunged to unbearable depths of affectedness, its central character seemingly trapped in an early-’80s time warp of “hilarious” headbands and exasperated mannerisms. The Woodsman would have us relate to the cringe-worthy obsessions of a child molester (unflinchingly played by Kevin Bacon, easing into his career’s stride), while Christopher Münch’s Harry and Max unpacks all the dirt one could possibly hope for from a scenario involving boy-band celebrity brothers reconciling their privately incestuous relationship—quite the heavy lifting just to mine the standard emotional truths.
All the while, the festival’s pre-feature trailers—featuring muppets as stalwart indie filmmakers—unwittingly captured the prevailing mood: cute, synthetic, alien, inconsequential. Call it what Memento hath wrought: a constant revision of the moment, of history, of personal apocalypse. November replays three versions of the same dreary corner-store murder, with only Courteney Cox’s glacial cheekbones for purchase (not much). Far more valid in the same vein is Shane Carruth’s mesmerizing debut, Primer, worthy winner of the otherwise tepid Dramatic Competition and a surprise to those who underestimated the thoughtful jury (which included Lynch lenser Frederick Elmes and Ivy Leaguer Maggie Gyllenhaal). A Pynchon-esque—and occasionally mystifying—sci-fi thriller about garage-based tech heads building a time machine and sinking into power games, Primer legitimately produces the weird-science paranoia falsely attributed to fest legend Pi, and yields even more density upon reflection, if never total coherence or an intimacy to offset its dazzling conception.
But who wanted intimacy when that meant the mawkish, overhyped Garden State, greeted here like the second coming of Hal Ashby but closer in tone to an us-versus-them John Hughes teen tract? (I adore indie rockers the Shins as much as the next guy but would never bring myself to the shameless pimping offered by Natalie Portman’s hipster muse: “They’ll change your life!”) Go ahead and add writer-director-nebbish Zach Braff to the long list of post-Graduate neurotics dealing with buried family trauma in the only way they know how: Simon & Garfunkel cooing on the soundtrack, a warm nuzzle in the embrace of a supportive listener who also happens to be a hot chick.
Love in decline was no more substantive, a shedding of plastic masks to reveal equally unpersuasive pain, as best emblemized by the adenoidal Marie and Bruce, a crucible of open aggression that gets tired fast—this despite Julianne Moore’s spitting out any number of insincere “darling”s. John Curran’s curdled We Don’t Live Here Anymore treads similar ground, charting the hyperverbal dalliances of a pair of campus-based married couples who have far too few papers to grade; only Book of Love, from director Alan Brown’s neatly parabolic script, has the good sense to omit its pivotal scene of guilty admission, leaving the messy cleanup to an especially brave acting troika led by Simon Baker, unraveling spectacularly on a candy-colored trip to Disney World.
When Walter Salles’s ultimately magnificent The Motorcycle Diaries, a woolly proto-Beat take on young Che Guevara’s impending self-radicalization, ended tremulously with the merest hint of the revolutionary to come (Gael García Bernal is finely uncertain raising Che’s nascent salute at the leper colony), the festival seemed to momentarily break free of its overriding solipsism—if only to capture a fleeting solidarity from 50 years ago. Silly, I thought, to look elsewhere in the program for such epic pan-humanism, an anomaly in what has become a launching pad for carefully calibrated quirk. Bertolucci had his North American premiere of the Hendrix-saturated The Dreamers, nailing the willful naïveté paraded by so many lesser films, even if his cineaste’s nostalgia feels like the preoccupations of an outmoded engagement. Still, his title is perfect for the week that was: Rarely were we treated to the here and now, to the inclusive “we”—and still the sharks circled.
“Sundance Docs: Board youth, iMacs, Big Macs and big mouths—who in Tarnation is next” by Rob Nelson