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Notes from the Sundance Film Festival

By Marjorie Baumgarten, January 25, 2002, Screens

Mom thought it would be better if I didn't go to Sundance this year. She feared for my safety. The annual festival, which is the most important and prestigious presentation of American independent film, is held in the mountain resort town of Park City, Utah, and necessitates a flight into Salt Lake City, about a half-hour away. Both cities are host sites for next month's Winter Olympics, an international stage not unknown in recent decades for terrorist actions. Even though our Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has personally inspected the security in Utah and declared it to be the finest anywhere, and the dates of Sundance were pushed ahead a week in order to put more distance between the pasty-faced film throngs and the dapple-cheeked snow-games enthusiasts, Mom was nevertheless worried.

But the value of going to Sundance is too important to give up. At the festival, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the American independent film horizon for the upcoming year. Some of the fortunate movies screened here -- like last year's In the Bedroom and Memento -- will trickle into American theatres throughout the year. Others may never be heard from again or could experience more limited exposure on the festival circuit, though these films may not be any more or less worthy of distribution than their brethren. Taken together, the Sundance collection of films forms a snapshot, a panoramic view of the year past and the year ahead.

So what's the view from the mountain top? Taken as a whole, 2002 looks to be a good year. Solidly good, but not great. Most everything I saw was decent and interesting, many with unusual film characters and subject matter -- some great in spots but too long or uneven, others poignant and provocative in their urgency and good intentions but marred by their technical or storytelling limitations. In all, I counted having seen 35 feature narratives and documentaries, and close to that many shorts. There are about a dozen more films I regret having missed -- most notable among them Gus Van Sant Jr.'s Gerry, an experimental film about two friends lost in the wilderness, starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon, that seemed to completely divide audiences into supporters and naysayers; and Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, which won the Documentary Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award.

Yet, even though the general attitude among filmgoers was that Sundance 2002 offered a good, but not great, lineup, there seemed to be a pervasive feeling of good will and generous spirit toward this year's festival slate. And to judge by the activity of the acquisitions executives, 2002 is going to be a very good year. The number of films acquired for distribution is higher than it has been in quite some time. Acquisitions activity has been markedly low over the past couple of years, and going into this year's festival all predictions were for that trend to continue. Why were more films picked up this year? It will take until the end of the year to determine with any assurance if this year's distribution deals turned out to be wise business and/or artistic decisions.

Other factors certainly affecting the unexpected sales rush were the trickle-down consequences of two unrelated events that left the distribution companies' "reserves" more depleted than usual or comfortable: the threatened guild strikes that never materialized in Hollywood yet ran roughshod over every business' scheduling, planning, and budgeting; and the abbreviated market activity during the Toronto International Film Festival -- the major festival of the fall -- due to the events of September 11 occurring at the fest's midway point, instantly curtailing "business as usual" in Toronto as elsewhere. Then again, buyers might have felt considerably chastened by last year's experience with Memento, which languished without a deal at last year's Sundance yet went on to be the highest-grossing independent release of 2001.

It's also possible that the increased number of star-level actors now appearing in independent films causes buyers to throw down their money with an added degree of assurance: For example, Mariah Carey and Mira Sorvino star in Wisegirls, a movie about New York waitresses; Jennifer Aniston stars in The Good Girl, a film purchased by Fox Searchlight and helmed by Chuck & Buck's Miguel Arteta; Sigourney Weaver, Bebe Neuwirth, and John Ritter star in Tadpole, a romantic comedy about a prep-school boy in love with his stepmother, which won helmer Gary Winick the Directing Award and was picked up by Miramax; and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates star in Love Liza, an impressive dramedy about a man who falls into gasoline huffing, which won big brother Gordy Hoffman the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The star wattage was certainly also responsible for the inclusion of Texas, a document of the London rehearsals and Austin performances at Stubb's of Russell Crowe's band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Crowe was graciously on hand for intros and a post-screening Q&A following the sold-out midnight screening.

Another thing that many of the movies shared was their depiction of the lives of unconventional movie characters and cultures little seen in the movies. The Audience Award winner, Real Women Have Curves by Patricia Cardoso, is the story of one Latina high school graduate who is determined to break out of the traditional female life cycle of marriage and sweatshops. Stars America Ferrrara and Lupe Ontiveros also received Special Jury Awards for Acting. Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich, is back with Human Nature, directed by newcomer Michel Gondry and starring Patricia Arquette as a woman whose hormone imbalance causes her to grow body hair all over and Tim Robbins as a scientist who is trying to teach table manners to mice. Paradox Lake sets a mystery story afoot among autistic children; Secretary, starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a fascinatingly comical pas de deux of sexual control and submission; and By Hook or by Crook, directed by and starring San Francisco legends Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, is a tale of androgynous lesbians (one has a beard) who live way outside society's norms.

Documentaries took us from Wyoming in The Laramie Project, which examines the murder of Matthew Shepard, to Texas in The Two Towns of Jasper, which explores the murder of James Byrd Jr. Both movies, with varying success, use these hate crimes as tools for discovering greater truths about the towns in which they occurred and, thereby, us as a nation. Other documentary favorites of mine include Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold's Blue Vinyl, an amusing and terrifying study of the long-term health and environmental effects of vinyl chloride, and The Kid Stays in the Picture, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen (On the Ropes), who use the same amount of swagger in their filmmaking technique as Hollywood mogul Robert Evans does in the telling of his life story.

Even though Park City felt somewhat subdued this year as the result of travel and party budgets being slashed, the recession seemed to have little effect on the various alternafests. The granddaddy, Slamdance, relocated its headquarters last year to an old silver mine situated a little further up the mountain, giving it a funkier vibe and much more space. A highlight of the Slamdance screenings was Brian Flemming's Nothing So Strange, a provocative mockumentary about a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the fictive assassination of Bill Gates. It's a movie that beautifully blurs the lines between truth and fiction.

I also ran across a number of folks from Austin throughout the week, and what was interesting about that was the diversity of the individuals' functions and interests. Producers, filmmakers, volunteers, festival scouts, journalists, and unaffiliated movie lovers -- all were represented. And yes, Mom, as I was coming off the airplane at Austin-Bergstrom on my return, I even met an Austin resident who was in Park City all week, not to see movies, but instead to check on Olympic security issues for his employer -- the U.S. government. Austin was indeed well-represented in Park City. end story

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