I Found My Fill on BlackBerry Hill

At Sundance, a renewed 'Focus on Film' amid celebrity worship and the frantic search for the next big thing

I Found My Fill on BlackBerry Hill
Illustration By Jason Stout

At the Sundance Film Festival, the admonition to turn off all cell phones used to issue from the hard-working theatre volunteers before every screening. The reminder has now been upgraded to include BlackBerrys and other PDAs. It's not as though industryites determined to text-message their way through every screening heed the gentle reminder. However, during this year's festival, I noticed a use for our PDAs and cell phones that the marketers have yet to capitalize on. The devices perform as handy flashlights in darkened theatres for finding seats after the movie has started or finding the keys that slip from your pocket onto the floor while slouched in said seat. I even sat next to someone who elected to read his entire program book by the light of his cell phone during the course of a movie.

Maybe the situation isn't as stark at the public screenings. I wouldn't know. Due to some rule changes that inserted a few more hoops to jump though in order for a journalist to attend a public screening or check out a screener from the video library, I took the path of least resistance and stuck with the separate screenings for industry and press.

It's always a bit disingenuous to attempt a summary of the entire Sundance slate. Even with a screening schedule that averages about five movies a day, only a fraction of the offerings will have been viewed by the end of the festival. By inclination, I focused on primarily American indies, although the number of international films and attendant competition categories has increased in the past couple of years. Yet, even a lot of the American films I saw already had distribution in place before entering the festival or acquired it soon after their initial screenings. This didn't prevent buyers from bemoaning the fact that there was no obvious breakout film like last year's Little Miss Sunshine in this year's pack. It's the specter cast by the financial success in the commercial marketplace of a low-budget indie like Little Miss Sunshine or Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989 that keeps the myth of Sundance alive: the idea that there's a shard of gold ore just waiting to be discovered in the slopes of Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Buyers and journalists throng with the optimism of wildcatters to be the first to discover the next big thing. And the Sundance leadership does little to quell these unrealistic expectations. As soon as the Academy Award nominations were announced midway through the festival, a press release was sent out to journalists reminding them that the Best Picture nominees Little Miss Sunshine and An Inconvenient Truth and Best Actor nominee Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson all had their premieres at Sundance 2006. So much for the notion of independents bucking the mainstream.

One trend the Sundance leadership did urge all attendees to buck is the ever-growing rise of events and lounges hosted by nonsponsors and their minions. Toward that end, large pins with the words "Focus on Film" were handed out at registration. Whether that effort did anything to keep heads from turning when Sienna Miller and Diddy walk by is doubtful, but the pins served as a reminder that it is indeed possible to experience a festival relatively free of the excessive marketing hoopla and celebrity posses that have come to the forefront in recent years.

Again this year Austin filmmaking was well-represented at Sundance. Laura Dunn's documentary The Unforeseen (which will also screen at South by Southwest in March; see p.53 for more) recounts Austin's struggle to protect Barton Springs by tracing the history of the SOS Ordinance and the conflict between developers and environmentalists as represented by Gary Bradley and Bill Bunch. The film receives extra boosts from the always remarkable cinematography of Lee Daniel and the imprimatur of its executive producers, Robert Redford and Terrence Malick. Unsurprisingly, the film was picked up by the Sundance Channel.

Teeth, the amusing horror film about vagina dentate that was filmed in the Austin area, was well-received at the festival. Locals may remember the film for the occasional neighborhood scuffles the film experienced while shooting after some area residents who had only seen the "safer" pages of the script caught wind of the film's central notion and expressed their displeasure. The film's crucial effects work was also performed by the Austin-based effects studio TexFX.

The Austin-based filmmaking brothers Nathan and David Zellner were honored for the third year in a row by having one of their short films, "Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane," selected to screen at Sundance. With success like this, it's no wonder the team hasn't yet made the leap to feature-length filmmaking. Showing up the hill at the Slamdance Film Festival (where, for the first time since the counter-festival's existence, I did not put in an appearance) was Burnt Orange's caveman comedy, Homo Erectus.

Former Austin resident George Ratliff (Plutonium Circus, Hell House) screened his Joshua in competition. Smart and creepy, the film tells the story of the effects of a Damien-like child on his family. The film was just one of many I saw that placed the relationships between parents and children front and center. Whether this represents a growth from the twentysomething solipsism of the usual indie offerings or our national obsession with baby bumps and the accoutrements of modern parenting, I do not know.

Grace Is Gone received a lot of attention for its topical story of a father who has extreme difficulty telling his children the truth after his wife is killed in a military operation in Iraq. John Cusack plays the awkward father of two young girls with whom he's unprepared to cope. Another topical film, La Misma Luna, deals with the topic of illegal immigration between Mexico and the United States, as it tells its story of the attempts of a young boy and his mother to reunite despite the national borderlines that separate them. One of the more popular documentaries was called My Kid Could Paint That, which examines the phenomenon of 4-year-old abstract artist Marla Olmstead. Is the child a prodigy or a pawn? A victim of a hoax by her parents or the internal debates of the art world? The answers are deftly left for the audience to suss out for themselves.

The films about parenting that most intrigued me, however, were the ones that were more ambiguous about the entire endeavor. In Never Forever, a blond-haired Vera Farmiga (who also co-stars in Joshua) plays the wife of an infertile Korean-American man, who uses surreptitious means to become impregnated in an attempt to save her marriage. Screenwriter Mike White (School of Rock, Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) turned successfully to directing with Year of the Dog, a movie starring Molly Shannon as a woman who fills the void in her life with dogs instead of children. "Even retarded crippled people get married," she wails in desperation. On the other hand, Keri Russell in Adrienne Shelley's posthumous Waitress plays a woman who is married and pregnant but wishes to be neither. The actress-turned-director's first feature film is quite likable and makes the viewer mournful for the films Shelley will never get to make.

Some films by Sundance regulars also stood out. Zoe Cassavetes' Broken English stars Parker Posey as a woman who is alternately anxiety-stricken and blasé about her opportunities for finding love. Cassavetes wears her influences on her sleeve, and the film concludes with a direct quote from Richard Linklater's Before Sunset. Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold (Blue Vinyl) returned to the festival with Everything's Cool, a well-researched investigation into the Bush administration's efforts to undermine the scientific pronouncements about global warming. Recently, it's become a topic that is making headlines more than ever. My favorite film of the festival was Chris Smith's The Pool. Heretofore known as a documentary filmmaker of the Sundance hits American Movie and American Job, the director turns to narrative filmmaking with The Pool. Set in India, the film focuses on two poor but working young boys. Using sparse conversations and subtle environmental cues, the film makes clear the gaps between rich and poor, educated and illiterate. The film reveals a world of understanding yet keeps its denouement close to the vest until its final seconds. The Pool is the kind of film that represents the pinnacle of the Sundance experience. end story

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Sundance Film Festival, Zellner Brothers, Laura Dunn, The Unforeseen, The Pool, George Ratliff

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