Alive and Kicking

Sundance 2001 Bodes Well for the Future of Independent Films

Richard Linklater's animated <i>Waking Life</i> received a standing ovation at its Sundance premiere. The film's press kit, pictured here, is a coloring book.
Richard Linklater's animated Waking Life received a standing ovation at its Sundance premiere. The film's press kit, pictured here, is a coloring book.

Pulling up to the Austin airport at the crack of dawn to leave for the Sundance Film Festival, I had little more on my mind than visions of the marathon of independent films that awaited my arrival in the mountains of Park City, Utah. I was not prepared for the virtual Republican convention that stalled my path through the airport security check. It turns out it was also the day before our former governor's presidential inaugural, and it seemed all Austin was D.C.-bound that morning, ball gowns and tuxedos in tow. There I was, a scruffy, caffeine-fueled film hound surrounded by a sea of backslapping Republican revelers. Keeping in mind the swearing-in to come, I muttered a few choice swear words of my own and continued my journey westward. Once again, I was traveling against the tide.

When the films at the annual Sundance Film Festival are at their best, that is what they do too -- travel against the tide. Founded by Robert Redford (who was a no-show for the first time because, like many of the other celebrities who flock regularly to this event, he was tied up by a frenzied shooting schedule prompted by the industry's current workaholic production pace in anticipation of the imminent union strikes), the festival is dedicated to the celebration of independent film. But what makes a film independent is something that has always been open to debate. Is it a film made outside the studio system, funded by outside investors? Or is it a film of independent spirit, made without regard to commercial demands or dominant ideology? Is it a film made with nonunion labor or by nonprofessionals, or can it have established talent in front of and behind the lens? The questions and definitions multiply as do the number of films that may or may not fall into the category of "independent."

Years ago, there were a comparative handful of American films that were made outside of Hollywood yet found their way into some sort of theatrical distribution deal. Now, the numbers have become ridiculous. The amount of "independent" films being made in recent years can charitably be described as a glut. And as technology becomes ever more accessible, we have reached the point where there is a filmmaker waiting to be born at every computer desktop. For those with dollar signs in their eyes, all that's needed is one phenomenal cost-to-profit success like The Blair Witch Project to blind them to the realities of the likelihood of lost investment money and modest or break-even returns.

So just when a heavy cynicism about the future of independent film has overtaken the industry and most of its observers, the Sundance Film Festival came along during the early weeks of 2001 and, almost unexpectedly, brightened the downcast mood shared by its most dour participants. This year's attendees generally agreed that 2001 was a good year for independent films. There was no one film that was the buzz film of the fest, the one that everyone had to see in order to feel their trip was a success. No heated bidding wars among distributors. In fact, very few films sold at all during the festival, although deals are sure to follow in the coming days and weeks. And the handful that did sell went for prices far less exorbitant than those shelled out during years past. Perhaps the recent box-office smash-ups of high-ticket Sundance favorites like Happy, Texas and The Spitfire Grill have made buyers more cautious about the reliability of the Sundance buzz. Or maybe it was time to recognize that all the thin mountain air just makes people lightheaded and their brushes with celebrity and "itness" create a global contact high.

Whatever the reasons, festival attendees scurried to and from screenings and parties talking excitedly about the movies they had seen without singling out any one as the absolute "must-see." This bodes well for the future of independent film. Of the 30 or so films I saw, most could be recommended as "worth seeing," and I regret none of my choices. That a body of good, diverse, and interesting works might become the legacy of the 2001 festival instead of a one- or two-movie bandwagon is good for us all.

One of the great things about Sundance in the last half of January is that, by making the trip to Park City, Utah, I always feel I can see the horizon of American independent filmmaking for the coming year. Attendees go looking for trends, mavericks, breakout hits, things we'll only have the opportunity to see in a festival setting, and so on. But attending Sundance also helps us to peek into the future. Many (but not all) the films will eventually surface in our local (and generally arthouse) theatres. Some, like last year's co-winner of the Grand Jury Dramatic award You Can Count on Me, may take nearly a full year to arrive. And in a year like 2000, in which everyone complained about the dismal quality of films coming from Hollywood and elsewhere, it's good to know that something like You Can Count on Me is waiting in the wings.

At the risk of the inevitable charges of hometown boosterism, I must say that the most exciting movies I saw at Sundance were two by Richard Linklater. That's right, two. A longtime darling of the Sundance programmers, Linklater has premiered several of his movies there and was also invited to serve as a juror two years ago. It is unusual for a filmmaker to debut two feature films in one festival -- and that both films are so strong (although neither was in competition) that they herald the next decade of filmmaking -- is a feat that brooks no equal.

Waking Life is an animated feature written and directed by Linklater and produced by Tommy Pallotta. The movie was filmed in live action and then animated by a few dozen local artists using a proprietary software program called interpolated rotoscoping, which was invented by Bob Sabiston. (For an idea of what the technique looks like, check out those EarthLink commercials currently running on TV, because they look suspiciously similar to Sabiston's work.) The film stars Dazed and Confused actor Wiley Wiggins, who wanders somewhat Slacker-style through the film, flowing from one conversation to another while trying to figure out whether he's in a dream state or reality. Scores of semi-familiar faces (drawn from Austin haunts and other Linklater movies) make appearances throughout as they reiterate Linklater's ongoing concern with big ontological questions. It is a film about ideas and conversations and uses a visual technique that perfectly underscores what the whole enterprise is about. Most of all, it is a film about searching -- searching for new explanations, tools, synaptic wiring, and methodology while building on the discoveries of the past. After the premiere screening of Waking Life, the audience rose to its feet in a jubilant standing ovation.

The other film, Tape, is an adaptation of a three-person play by Stephen Belber. Shot and projected on HD video, the film takes place on one set and stars Ethan Hawke (in his best and most impressive performance to date), Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard. The story is a gnarled pas de trois between three former high school friends who revisit an ethically questionable episode from their past. Once again, the film highlights Linklater's attraction to conversational pieces but moreover what intrigues about the film is his explorative camerawork and editing. The filmmaker virtually becomes another character in this drama. The 2001 festival also marks a decade since Linklater screened Slacker at Sundance in 1991. These two new Linklater films are certain to become (just as Slacker did for the Nineties) touchstones for the next generation of aspiring filmmakers seeking to discover the possibilities of cinema.

Other films? Perhaps best exemplifying the idea that 2001 was a strong year for independent filmmaking is the Grand Jury prizewinner, The Believer. A searing drama written and directed by Henry Bean, it tells the story of a Jewish-born skinhead whose youthful struggles with religious doctrine have followed a serpentine logic that have led to his anti-Semitic and racially motivated ideology of violence. It is a most provocative film with a lacerating performance by Ryan Gosling, and many viewers voiced fears over the practical consequences of extolling such a volatile film. In the Bedroom, directed by Todd Field, stars Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei in a moving portrait of a family in crisis, made all the more stirring by its quietly contained rage and superlative performances. Neo-noir entry The Deep End is adapted from the same source material as Max Ophuls' suspenseful and emotionally intricate 1949 melodrama The Reckless Moment. Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture) do a beautiful job of updating the material, and Tilda Swinton's unswerving performance as the mother hen protecting her roost is mesmerizing. A simplified description of Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers would be to call it a distaff version of In the Company of Men, although Stockard Channing's knockout performance belongs in a category all its own.

Films with gay themes have long been staples at Sundance. However, this year was marked by the absence of sensitive coming-out dramas and documentaries and the full-fledged arrival of way-out-and-deal-with-it scenarios. Audience Award-winner Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written, directed by, and starring John Cameron Mitchell (who also won the Dramatic Directing Award), is an entertaining and intelligent reworking of the successful Off-Broadway musical. Trembling Before G-d by Sandi Simcha DeBowski is a fascinating documentary about the seemingly irresoluble predicament of homosexuals who also happen to be devout Orthodox Jews. Grand Jury Documentary Award winner Southern Comfort by Kate Davis records the thoughts and community that surround Robert Eads, a fascinating female-to-male transsexual who is dying of ovarian cancer in rural Georgia. Co-winner of the Audience Documentary Award was Tom Shepard's Scout's Honor, which investigates the antigay policies of the Boy Scouts. In Bob Gosse's Julie Johnson, Lili Taylor plays a Hoboken housewife who, while getting her GED, also gets a crush on her best friend, played by Courtney Love.

Documentaries are always among the strongest selections at Sundance. Stacy Peralta won the Documentary Directing Award (in addition to tying with Scout's Honor for the Audience Documentary Award) for his sizzling history of skateboard culture. Using an impressive stash of old 8mm and 16mm footage, Peralta traces the sport's evolution from the old Santa Monica surfing piers into the forefront of popular culture. Penelope Spheeris returns with We Sold Our Souls for Rock & Roll, a perceptive portrait of the madness that is Ozzfest. American Movie's Chris Smith also returns with Home Movie, an entertaining examination of odd characters and their even odder domiciles.

Many more films could be cited, and hopefully, as the year progresses, we'll have the chance to talk about them in greater depth as they steadily trickle in and out of our local movie houses. I've returned from the Utah mountaintop with a glimpse of the horizon. And I'm here to say that the future looks bright. end story

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