A Full Dance Card
Festival Files from Park City
Back in Austin after eight days in the land of mountains and Mormons at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, it's hard to distill the experience into any one verity. The combination of dozens of movies and the oxygen-poor altitude create memories that seem more impressionistic than precise.
Scanning through reports in the popular press, it would be possible to think that Sundance was nothing more than a grand celebrity swagathon. This freebie aspect of the fest asserted itself this year to a greater extent than ever before, with more of an attempt to concentrate the corporate gifters into a defined area of Park City called the Village at the Lift. Clothing, the latest electronic toys, beauty treatments and products: The free loot lured the A-listers, while earnest filmmakers in the streets held on to their scrappy "everything for their art" dreams. (Meanwhile, journalists found themselves more and more in the curious position of being invited to events and parties "to cover but not participate." And, for the most part, the largely pale and frumpy members of the fourth estate did not find themselves the targets of corporate gifting.) In its third decade, this festival of independent filmmaking has grown large enough to encompass both extremes: the crass and commercial to the fiercely independent and codependent. The same can't be said of Park City's infrastructure. The standstill traffic snarls of the festival's opening weekend threw some long-timers into a frustrated tailspin of missed screenings and botched plans.
The stars are there in such numbers because, in addition to the satchels of freebies, they come to support their movies. With increasing frequency, these celebrity actors are appearing in indie films. The reasons are various, everything from slumming and establishing street cred to loftier dramatic ambitions of working with good scripts and filmmakers who think outside the Hollywood box. Of course, this raises many questions about the definitions of independent filmmaking. When a film like Ellie Parker, starring the Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts, or the much-anticipated coming-of-age movie Thumbsucker, starring Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Keanu Reeves, Benjamin Bratt, Vince Vaughn, and a young unknown named Lou Pucci, are in competition against films starring complete unknowns, one has to wonder if the playing field is really level for all comers.
One aspect of the playing field at this mecca of American independent cinema was democratized this year: The world narrative and documentary cinema sections were for the first time eligible for jury awards. I confess to seeing too few of the international films, and most of the ones I did see were screening in sidebars other than the competition. The strategy will surely help bring attention to some worthy international films, but by and large, films screened in noncompetition sidebars (American Spectrum, Special Screenings, Park City at Midnight, and so on) have a tendency to suffer from identity problems, as if the festival's decision not to include them in competition indicates some kind of pre-emptive failure on the part of the movie. We unfairly judge the movies by the company they keep. A couple of the foreign films I did manage to catch and recommend are Maren Ade's German entry, The Forest for the Trees, an intimate and unpredictable little drama about a woman who's always a tad out of step with those around her, and Matando Cabos, a Mexican picture by Alejandro Lozano that's a pleasantly comic blend of Tarantinoisms moderated by the affable ineptitude of the story's gangsters.
Speaking of ineptitude, that was literally the key word when it came to this year's festival trailers. Made by JibJab Media, the team that made that enormously popular bipartisan pre-election cartoon "This Land" (to the tune of "This Land Is Your Land"), the Sundance trailers mocked indie spirit and were the subject of much derision. The trailers would begin as the letters of the word "Independent" gradually disappear from the screen and leave only the letters "In ... ep ... t" remaining. Then simple scenarios go on to show the results of "not working for the man" as catastrophic. A highway line painter decides to draw trapezoids instead of straight lines while a car careens of a cliff, and in another a Christie Love look-alike decides to go into demolition and irresponsibly blows things up. Not an auspicious beginning for any movie.
Whether by chance or design, regionalism was a force to be reckoned with in this year's lineup. Significantly, out of the 16 films in the narrative competition, two were set in North Carolina (Loggerheads and Junebug), two in Memphis (the jury award-winner Forty Shades of Blue and the highest-dollar sale of the festival, Hustle & Flow), one in Seattle (Police Beat), and another in Butte, Mont. (Who Killed Cock Robin?).
Austin experienced an abundance of representation at the 2005 festival and not just among the filmmakers (see Spencer Parsons' "Into Thin Air: The Already Under Way Adventures of Austinites at the Dances Sun and Slam, and What They Might Mean for the Local Scene," Jan. 21). Former Austinite Ben McKenzie (currently featured on TV in The OC) created a strong presence in the aforementioned Junebug ensemble as a married-too-young husband. The documentary competition featured the movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a riveting portrait of the manic-depressive songwriter who established his musical genius while stomping through Austin in the Eighties (many local figures can be seen offering their unique perspectives on the Johnston phenomenon). Murderball, another documentary competition feature, provides a chair-side immersion into the rough-and-tumble world of quadriplegic rugby. These athletes compete in the Paralympics and inspire through a combination of candor and gutsiness. The film received the Audience Award. One of the film's key players is Austinite Mark Zupan, captain of Team USA. Yet another competition documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox, points its lens at a Lubbock teen who labors passionately to bring about sex education in the public schools. Knox is now a sophomore at UT-Austin.
Two Austin brother teams had movies at Sundance. The Zellner brothers David and Nathan somehow managed the coup of having one short film playing at Sundance while another short of theirs played at Slamdance, the upstart counter-festival up the hill (where other films by Austinites screened, with Courtney Davis' "Milton Is a Shitbag" winning the Global Anarchy Award for Best Anarchy Short). Jay and Mark Duplass recently departed Austin for New York, but you could still see the remnants of Texas registration tags on the car windshield in their film The Puffy Chair, a movie about commitment and maturation among 30-year-olds. Kyle Henry's Room in the Frontier section and John Bryant's short film "Oh My God" also screened, although I did not get a chance to view them.
The documentary Reel Paradise by Hoop Dreams director Steve James features the experiences of the John and Janet Pierson family during a year spent operating the world's most remote movie theatre in Fiji before their recent relocation to Austin, where John Pierson has become a member of the UT film department faculty. Any expectations of a Swiss Family Pierson are immediately dashed as James instead focuses his study on the intricacies and explosiveness of family dynamics, the complications of parenting, and the ongoing Fijian push-pull between colonialism and island naturalism. Luke Savisky, one of Austin's most unique image-makers, also presented his full-immersion projector installations to hungry audiences. Lacking a better word than "experimental" to describe Savisky's shows, it was great to see this kind of work being included within Sundance's indie spectrum.
Pierson also participated in one of the festival's new additions: Film Church. Here, the invited speaker (Pierson on one day, critic Elvis Mitchell the day before) was given the podium to rant, sermonize, and give voice to the sacred and the profane as it pertains to film. Although Pierson railed at the industry that has decided to make Sundance a "one-stop shopping" excursion, Pierson's equanimity about the business of festivals was evident. More rambunctious was Mitchell's sermon, in which he devised a new 10 Commandments of Independent Film (even though he offered only six or maybe eight). If one of the commandments hadn't been Mitchell's abolition of the word "edge," its use might be appropriate in describing his talk. Attendance was relatively slight at Sundance's new Film Church, but let's hope this outlet for passion and discussion continues up on Robert Redford's mount. Can I hear an amen?