Movies From the Mount

Sundance Film Festival

Buffalo 66

Independent films are all the rage these days. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece, be they filmmakers, actors, producers, buyers, distributors, agents, journalists, or garden-variety culture trendies. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Sundance Film Festival, where for 10 days every January these intersecting interests converge high up in the Wasatch Mountains in the tiny resort town of Park City, Utah (home of the next Winter Olympics). Sundancing may not yet qualify as an Olympic event, and I'm certain none of the players has ever been whacked on the knees by an arch-rival, nevertheless the gathering has emerged as a unique sporting arena. The last few years have seen this festival, whose reputation is grounded in its commitment to the independent filmmaker, come to resemble more of a marketplace and horse-trading bazaar. Buying, selling, snatching a piece of the next big thing - all these interests have come to predominate and stoke the already frenzied mood. The Sundance organizers this year seemed determined to counteract this tendency. Putting the "festival" back into the festival seemed to be this year's overriding goal, and to accomplish this, many key aspects of the event were re-strategized and revamped.

To begin with, the total number of films in the festival was cut to 103 from 127 last year. (Actually, of the 103 movies playing in the Sundance fest, only 32 are in competition - 16 narrative features and 16 documentaries; all the other films are grouped within various sidebar screenings.) That reduction came in spite of the fact that the total number of fiction film submissions increased to 750 this year, up from 1997's high of 600 and 500 in 1996. The decrease in films was coupled with an increased number of screenings per day in an attempt to alleviate festivalgoers' sensation of constantly racing around and yet always missing something. Toward that end, the shuttle bus transportation system that ferries filmgoers back and forth between venues was also amped up, and the festival headquarters were relocated from the picturesque but insufferably congested Main Street. Perhaps the year's most radical difference involved the addition of a new 1,300-seat auditorium (attached to the local high school) that, size-wise, is unprecedented for Park City in its ability to house large numbers of people and also responsible for keeping at least 1,000 extra bodies off the streets and shuttles at any given moment and indoors within a brand new theatre watching movies. These improvements, and many others more subtle, seemed generally to meet with festivalgoers' approval. The kinder, gentler, more spread-out and relaxed Sundance at least diminished the perpetual feeling of being packed in like sardines on ice.

While everyone comes hoping to find the indie world's next big talent, the commercial impasse experienced by so many of last year's pickups is hard to forget. A great number of the films purchased at the 1997 festival failed to perform or even break even at the box office, which may have encouraged distributors this year to be more circumspect and prompted everyone else to wonder where the next Sundance breakout sensation like sex, lies and videotape, Reservoir Dogs, and Clerks was going to come from. Some of the underwhelming performers picked up at last year's Sundance include The House of Yes, Dream With the Fishes, Star Maps, Going All the Way, and Box of Moonlight. Of course, it's probably unrealistic to expect a Cinderella finish for the majority of these low-budget pictures. To some degree, the over-inflated expectations may be tied to all the recent mergers of indie distribution companies with deep-pocketed majors whose very involvement ups the ante. Last year's experiences, however, didn't seem to quash the 1998 buying impulse even if it was more restrained and subdued, and the addition of a few new well-financed distribution companies lent a little more heat to the fire.

Although coming-of-age films about people in their twenties and thirties still hold a venerable spot in the Sundance catalogue, it seemed this year's collection of films sought broader horizons and more universal concerns. Finding love and one's place in the world have become tired dramatic themes in need of some unconventional twists to sustain audience interest. Some movies that developed some of these avenues include Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, a gay romance by Tommy O'Haver that uses wildly imaginative photography to tell its story; Buffalo 66, a gritty and often comic drama about one man's emotional alienation, which also marks the assured directing debut of actor Vincent Gallo; Lisa Cholodenko's High Art (the festival's screenwriting award winner) in which ambition, art, and addiction combine to create a sinuous lesbian love story among Allie Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, and a once-glamorous Fassbinder actress; Too Tired to Die, Wonsuk Chin's exotic Lower Manhattan tale of a man woken from his torpor by a visit from Mira Sorvino's Grim Reaper; and First Love, Last Rites by Jesse Peretz, a story about young summer lovers that captures the delicate innocence of knowing everything about how to make love but nothing of how to sustain it.

Smoke Signals

The hottest ticket in town was for something that ultimately wound up as the dramatic grand jury prize winner: Slam, a story about a black street poet who is incarcerated on a petty drug charge and changes his life in prison, directed by Marc Levin, an award-winning documentary filmmaker making his first narrative feature. Another buzz movie was Darren Aronofsky's [[pi]], a paranoid original about a math genius who is obsessed with applying number theory to the inscrutabilities of the stock market and Jewish mysticism and finds himself pursued by a Wall Street "power" firm and a cabal of Orthodox Jewish thugs. Despite backing itself into some hermetic and repetitious corners, this impressive black-and-white thriller about mathematics and theology won the jury's directing award for first-timer Aronofsky.

Curiously, mathematics also figured prominently in at least two other Sundance movies: The Cube and Conceiving Ada. The Cube by Vincenzo Natali is a sci-fi/horror film in which unwilling strangers are forced to make their way through a morbidly booby-trapped maze of rooms that are distinguished only by their differences in color and the presence of different numerical markings. In Conceiving Ada, Lynn Hershman Leeson fuses past and present in this fantastic time travel story that imagines the life of Lady Ada Lovelace (played by the amazing Tilda Swinton), a figure from history who was not only Lord Byron's daughter but also a math genius and the inventor of computer language (well before the actual invention of computers).

Some other movies which stood out as original pieces of storytelling were the audience award winner Smoke Signals, directed by Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre and written for the screen by novelist Sherman Alexie. This film about a young man's journey to receive his estranged father's body for burial was also honored with the dramatic filmmaker's trophy chosen by all the attending filmmakers. One is a spare and well-performed drama directed by Tony Barbieri that focuses on the details of how the lives of two best friends have become pointlessly sidetracked. Paul Schrader's Affliction is another film based on a respected novelist's work, Russell Banks (whose novel also provides the source material for The Sweet Hereafter, currently playing in theatres). Schrader wrote the screen adaptation for this existential drama about hereditary male violence which stars Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, and Mary Beth Hurt. The powerfully disturbing film, which also screened at the Telluride Film Festival in September, still languishes without distribution.

Prison experiences informed not only Sundance's narrative prize winner Slam but also one of the films that tied for the documentary grand jury prize, The Farm, a study by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus that focuses on six inmates in a maximum security prison. The other documentary that tied for the top prize is Frat House, a searing, first-hand look at fraternity hazing rituals by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland. Traditionally, the documentary features are some of the strongest offerings at this annual fest. With acclaimed documentary filmmakers in competition, such as Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, her Nineties follow-up to her previous accounts of punk nihilism), Ken Burns (Frank Lloyd Wright), and two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (Wild Man Blues, a road diary of Woody Allen and his band's European tour), it was hard to imagine there being any attention paid to works by less prominent filmmakers. Yet the quality of the work shone through. Especially striking this year was the number of nonfiction film devoted to studies of other filmmakers and artists. In addition to Frank Lloyd Wright and Wild Man Blues, these films include Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart; Divine Trash, a look at the early career of John Waters; Melvin Van Peebles' Classified X, in which the groundbreaking black director dissects Hollywood racism; and George Hickenlooper's short film Monte Hellman: American Auteur. In the narrative category there was another film, Gods and Monsters, about the Hollywood director James Whale. Directed by Bill Condon and starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave, this stunning and evocative film about the life of the famed but closeted director of the original Frankenstein movies is both a wonderfully constructed human drama and an archeological excavation into the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Actor Sam Rockwell, who with three films playing in the festival was hailed as "this year's Parker Posey," earning the ubiquitous indie actor nod. His work in Lawn Dogs, a teen trauma tale by John Duigan, was actually completed a couple of years ago. In both his other fest films he's delightfully cast as a goofball misfit. In actor Saul Rubinek's directing debut Jerry and Tom, Rockwell is surrounded by a great cast that includes Joe Mantegna, Maury Chaykin, Charles Durning, Ted Danson, William H. Macy, and Peter Riegert in an entertaining piece about mob hitmen whose front is a used-car dealership. I'm not sure the world is exactly clamoring for another movie that comically humanizes the shadowy world of hitmen, but if we are, this one fits the bill. Rockwell also co-stars with Steve Zahn in John Hamburg's Safe Men, a comedy about two untalented singers who are mistaken for safecrackers and fall even more ineptly into the world of the local Jewish mob headed by Michael Lerner and his nemesis Harvey Fierstein. Safe Men was relegated to the midnight sidebar, which was also home to another movie set in a used-car dealership: Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane. Joe Carnahan's Blood, Guts was made for rock-bottom prices and has a style so energetic and crisp that it almost obscures the film's somewhat derivative script.

Orgazmo, the work of Trey Parker and team (the folks behind Comedy Central's animated South Park show and the blasphemously funny short film "The Spirit of Christmas") was another midnight pick. The live-action comedy tells the twisted story of a Mormon who moonlights as a porn film star so that he can raise enough money for his church wedding, and his sidekick who's developed a ray gun that stuns its victims into a helplessly intense orgasmic state. Although Orgazmo was picked up last fall by October Films at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film's road to release recently hit a momentary snag when the MPAA, upon first viewing, slapped it with an NC-17 rating. The filmmakers, however, are contractually obligated to October to bring Orgazmo in with an R rating, so developments remain to be seen. Yet, Orgazmo was hardly the only film Parker and company were exhibiting in Park City. Their demented live-action film Cannibal: The Musical was also screening at Slamdance.

Begun four years ago as a home in the margins for Sundance rejects, Slamdance really came into its own this year. With a strong lineup and increased media coverage, Slamdance is now in the ironic position of receiving 1,300 entries for a total of 13 competition screening slots. With its makeshift screening room in a local hotel, the screenings have lower admission prices and are more informal than their Sundance counterparts (offering floor cushions for viewers and enthusiastic encouragement for their showcased filmmakers) and has fast become a center for younger filmmakers and audiences. Apart from Cannibal: The Musical, some other Slamdance highlights included the other out-of competition features, the Canadian youth film The Kitchen Party, Bob Byington's Texas-made feature Olympia, the notorious art world film Cremaster 5, and competition features such as the stylish Road Warrior meets El Mariachi paean Six-String Samurai; the grand jury award winner Surrender Dorothy; the audience award winner 20 Dates; the documentary winner Goreville, U.S.A., about a town that has an ordinance requiring each head of a household to own a firearm; the terrorist spoof Central Standard Time; and the haunting tale of a transgendered prostitute, Phantom Pain.

Last year, another counter-festival, Slumdance, sprang up to challenge the alternativity of Slamdance. Even more informal, it puckishly turned an abandoned cookie factory into a tent city of DIY filmmaking, replete with crash pad, soup kitchen, parties, and film and video screenings. Slumdance didn't return this year, but that only cleared the way for the rise of more alterna-fests. Slamdunk was the biggest and managed to recruit an impressive lineup of talent and films. Yet other more spontaneous, and often more theoretical than actual, fests popped up with wild abandon this year: No Dance; Son of Sam Dance; rented hotel room screenings; and an impromptu, movable outdoor fest that projected movies onto a makeshift sheet hoisted over a street curb.

Slamdunk received its biggest boost when it played host to a packed and star-studded midnight screening of Kurt and Courtney, Nick Broomfield's now-infamous film about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love that was pulled from the Sundance lineup at the 11th hour under legal pressure. The Kurt and Courtney flap was by far the biggest item for speculative gossip at this year's fest. The hard facts of the legal matter are difficult to pin down with certainty. But what is clear is that Broomfield's film has garnered far more attention and publicity than it would have if it had screened as scheduled.

Thus the movies, gossip, trend-spotting, and celeb sightings (though mine are generally all near-misses, like the evening I watched an ambulance pull up outside the restaurant in which I was eating only to discover the next day that the EMS had been called to help save Paul Schrader, who was choking on a piece of lamb at the tony restaurant next door) are now all a part of Sundance 1998. What remains are the movies, many of them hopefully coming soon to a theatre near you.

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