The Austin Chronicle

Down and Dirty

Pasty people vs. pretty people, low budget vs. big budget, Peter Biskind vs. Robert Redford: The 2004 Sundance Film Festival

By Marjorie Baumgarten, January 30, 2004, Screens

Paris Hilton was there. So was Ashton Kutcher. Ditto DMZ, Al Gore, Ray Romano, Patty Hearst, and Michael Jackson. Surely, the thing these A-list celebrities all share in common is their love for independent film. Why else would they make the trek to the frosty climes of Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival, the 20th to be hosted by Robert Redford?

I know all these people were in town not because of anything I saw with my own eyes. I read and heard about their comings and goings in newspapers and "pass it on" conversations, same as most everyone else. The fact of the matter is that there now seems to be two festivals convening around Sundance: the traditional one for the pasty-faced movie lovers and filmmakers, who approach the journey as though on a spiritual trip to mecca; and the newer component for the always tanned celebutantes who arrive ready to blast off at Party Central, and maybe see a movie or two in between spa treatments, soirees, and photo sessions. The beautiful people leave each event loaded with goodie bags stuffed with all manner of stylin' items. The only bags the former group acquires are the ones under their eyes.

Sundance has always played host to these various factions, but in 2004 the disconnect between the two groups seemed more obvious than ever. I have no numbers to quantify this, but this year's 10-day festival seemed to attract a greater number of non-Sundance-affiliated marketers and their products and parties than ever before. These events, of course, are in addition to the Sundance-sanctioned parties hosted by the institute, official sponsors, and private parties at individuals' condos.

To be fair, most of the celebrities were in town to see, promote, or sell one of the movies in the festival. Kutcher was there to promote his new movie The Butterfly Effect, which despite a drubbing from most reviewers, earned a spot in the Premieres section of the festival, one week before the movie was to open nationally. And, yes, Ashton's entourage included Demi, but they were not as lucky as some other celebrity couples – i.e., Courteney Cox and David Arquette – who each had starring roles in separate festival movies (November and Never Die Alone, respectively). Jackson, reportedly, was holed up in a condo screening for potential distributors a non-Sundance film he had financed and appears in for 15 minutes.

This year, Redford maintained a relatively low profile, following his highly accessible presence the previous year. Perhaps he was more comfortable wearing his filmmaker's hat this go-around, since he had two films screening in the festival. One was a work in progress called The Clearing, in which he co-stars with Willem Dafoe; the other was a movie he produced: the well-received The Motorcycle Diaries, which stars Y Tu Mamá También's Gael García Bernal as a young Che Guevara traveling as a student across South America and experiencing the dawn of his political awakening. (At the close of the festival, Redford flew to Cuba to show the film to Che's widow and also received a personal invitation to show the work to Fidel Castro.) Another reason for Redford's limited presence this year was the strategically timed release of Peter Biskind's tell-all book Down and Dirty Pictures, which takes the Sundance Institute and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein to task for causing irreparable damage to the independent-film playing field. Although Biskind's book was on the lips and at the condos of almost everyone attending Sundance, the hardback was never spotted out in public.

When the 2004 festival drew to a close, however, the unsung indies had their day in the sun. With few exceptions, the award-winning films were made by emerging or first-time filmmakers. The narrative film winners feature actors unknown to the public at large, and the documentaries are notable for their social commentary. Primer, the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner, is a micro-budgeted film about the process of scientific invention whose sometimes mystifying developments are perhaps foreshadowed by the filmmakers' daring elimination of exposition. The documentary Grand Jury winner is DIG!, an off-stage examination of the lives of the Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhols leader Courtney Taylor; while the Documentary Directing award went to Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me, a popular account of the director's experiences while spending a month eating nothing but McDonald's food; and the documentary cinematography award went to Ferne Pearlstein of Imelda, a startlingly intimate portrait of the former first lady of the Philippines, which was directed by former UT film professor Ramona S. Diaz and edited by longtime Austin editor Leah Marino.

Anti-corporate sentiments were in evidence in many of the festival offerings: The World Cinema Audience Award for documentary went to a two-and-a-half-hour treatise called The Corporation, a creative Canadian film by the makers of Manufacturing Consent that deconstructs the origins and functioning of the corporate entity. Another notable film showing out of competition was The Yes Men by Dan Ollman and American Movie's Chris Smith and Sarah Price, which documents the entertaining escapades of a couple of prankster activists opposed to the WTO. But also much in evidence were documentaries about people of conscience: There was Citizen King, about the complex challenges facing Dr. Martin Luther King, Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, about the audacious U.S. congresswoman who ran for president; Deadline, a dialogue about capital punishment that focuses on former Illinois governor James Ryan's amazing turnabout on the issue; and Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which looks at the fervor once possessed by America's home-grown terrorists of the Sixties.

The winner of the Special Jury prize for Dramatic Directing went to Debra Granik's Down to the Bone, whose star Vera Farmiga also received a Special Jury award for acting. This searing film observes the harsh details of the life of a working-class wife and mother who is desperately trying to kick cocaine. Farmiga's understated yet devastating portrait bears such truth that viewers will leave the theatres also craving. Another Special Jury prize for "passion of subject" went to Rodney Evans, whose haunting film Brother to Brother merges the concerns of a gay, black filmmaker in the present day with the lives of various members of the Harlem Renaissance. It's a work whose ambition sometimes overwhelms its execution, but is nevertheless a film of great beauty and conscience. Jonathan Caouette's film Tarnation, which was made with iMovie for $218.32, is another amazing film that uses photos, video diaries, answering-machine messages, snatches of pop culture, theatrical performances, and re-enactments to tell the story of and exorcise the disturbing legacy of the filmmaker's Houston family background, one scarred by mental illness, rape, drugs, and symbiotic maternal attachments.

Austin filmmaking was well-represented at both the Sundance and the concurrent Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative festival that is celebrating its 10th year of existence. In addition to the aforementioned Imelda, Waking Life animation genius Bob Sabiston had two films screening at Sundance. His short film "Grasshopper" features a speaker's philosophical utterances, presented in a style similar to the talking heads of Waking Life. Sabiston also had a film showing within a film: a completely animated segment of Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions, in which von Trier provides Leth with various rules or "obstructions" for making little movies, one of which requires that the film be completely animated. Professing their dislike of animation, Sabiston's charming segment (some of which was shot in Austin) appears to be the only experiment with which both Leth and von Trier appear somewhat satisfied. One additional Austinite who played a large role at Sundance was small-gauge enthusiast Spencer Parsons, who served on the festival's Short Film Jury.

Austin filmmaker Scott Calonico pulled off a major coup by having short films appear at both Sundance and Slamdance: "LSD a Go Go," the Sundance selection, is a cut-and-paste exposé of the government's experiments with LSD, and "The Creepees Vs. Robot Monster Number Two," the Slamdance choice, is a gonzoid thriller. Up the hill at Slamdance, Austin filmmakers were also screening films in great numbers. The feature film Dear Pillow, written and directed by Bryan Poyser, produced by Jacob Vaughan, and starring Rusty Kelley, Gary Chason, Viviane Vives, and John Erler, wowed audiences with its unique blend of professional technique and pornographic themes. Kat Candler (cicadas) was represented at Slamdance with her short film "Roberta Wells," and the indefatigable Zellner brothers – Nathan and David – received a Spirit of Slamdance award for their short film "The Virile Man."

In the end, none of the 35 or so movies I saw at the two festivals rocked my world completely, although most were technically competent and many more were quite interesting. Whether this tells us anything about this year's festival selections or, rather, my personal state of mind, is open to debate. Many of these films will screen locally in the months to come, and readers will have their own opportunities to evaluate them. At least they'll find the climate better. end story

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