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The 1997 Sundance Film Festival

Lost Highway

A decade-long honeymoon is over for the Sundance Film Festival. After a dizzying climb to the top echelon of world film festivals, the event came under withering criticism this year. Post-mortem articles cloaked in outrage appeared around the world. Most critics rightly scorned sub-standard screening facilities, but others took aim at this year’s film crop and the changing essence of the Festival itself.

The Sundance Institute, created in 1981, and the Film Festival, in 1985, were designed to “enhance the artistic vitality of American film.” This mission statement often meant supporting films in the Cassavetes’ tradition, films made with minimal financial resources that were driven by character, suspicious of glamor in its Hollywood guise and fundamentally “local” in the sense of being nailed to a specifically American place and time. Sundance initially thrived as a small but plucky newcomer on the festival circuit, known for thoughtful panel discussions and an easy-going atmosphere. And with Robert Redford’s industry clout, the Festival was able to lure enough L.A.-based personalities and media to ensure a respectable profile.

In 1989, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape won the Audience Award, garnered an invitation to the Competition of the Cannes Film Festival and became the flagship “American Independent” film of an aggressive small distributor called Miramax Films. Sundance winners from then on came to define the burgeoning independent movement. A growing field of new distribution entities (or old ones, refocussed) found innovative ways to market these new films and filmmakers and make them profitable. A (largely) urban American public became willing to watch American films without “big names” or with “difficult” subjects. Sundance was at the locus of these changing attitudes, able to both push to the forefront work that defined new aesthetic sensibilities – perhaps most famously with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – and to champion a progressive political agenda (in Utah, one of the nation’s most conservative states, no less!). Increasingly, Sundance became the make-or-break festival for indie credibility and financial success. Money follows money, so the Hollywood agencies began attending in droves, hungry to sign new talent. Sundance soon began to look less like a friendly artists’ gathering point and more like a deranged ’70s game show.

But something even more insidious started happening as well. Young filmmakers with essentially mainstream sensibilities, instead of entering the Hollywood world through the usual commercial routes, chose instead to make independently produced, distribution-friendly films to premiere at Sundance and thus have their reputations forged in the blaze of a bidding war.

So a crop of films, beginning with Rob Weiss’ Amongst Friends, began emerging from Sundance. And, even though they took hard critical knocks, the prevailing commercial winds ensured major financial rewards for their creators.

This tide of rising expectations and curatorial cross-purposes culminated last year in the shockingly large sale of Care of the Spitfire Grill to Castle Rock Entertainment, the infamous Barking Frog brawl over who got to acquire Shine, and substantial advances for a host of less-than-riveting films. Festival news was dominated by deals and celebrity sightings. Last year also saw the rise of a bitter protest fest called Slamdance. Sundance was, Slamdance suggested, a de facto market, and it was their prerogative to set up screenings in that environment. Amazingly, they were proven right, as Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers – under the guidance, ironically, of Soderbergh, Sundance’s former poster boy – broke out of Slamdance and into worldwide distribution and success at Cannes. Amidst all of this change, few press dared admit that commercial considerations had pre-empted the critics’ role as primary opinion maker at Sundance.

Skip ahead to January ’97. Park City, once labeled by Spalding Gray as a “ticky tacky resort town,” has gone high market. Glitzy restaurants and high-end ski boutiques flourish on the town’s only built-up thoroughfare. Main Street is also home to the Festival’s crowded headquarters and, about eight minutes walk up a hill, its largest screening venue, The Egyptian, a run-down frontier-style cinema palace. Frighteningly, The Egyptian is probably the only venue at the Festival with proper projection and sound reproduction. Other venues include the Library Center, a school auditorium that mercifully padded its rock-hard wooden seats this year but did little to improve its barely stereo sound.

The Library Center, however, is a dream screening spot compared to the Holiday Village Cinema, a triplex with improper masking and paper-thin walls which ensure a preview of next door’s film for those on the sides. Worse still is The Yarrow, a hotel whose convention rooms were converted into cinemas with no rake, projectors inside the rooms, egregious sound quality and immense sound bleeding between rooms. These are the venues that were lambasted in the press this year and with good reason. It is for exactly these fundamental capital costs that a festival raises money.

In these theaters one sees Sundance’s core: the Dramatic and Documentary Competitions and their two-year-old sidebar, American Spectrum. These are also the main houses for the Festival’s overly large but well-selected program of non-American films which, sadly, are generally ignored by attendees.

So, imagine the scene this year: hordes of acquisition executives, agents and publicists flood into town, slurp up restaurant reservations by the truckload and establish pole position at the screening venues. What will sell for $10 million? Where is the next Oscar multiple nominee? And then, as Dr. Seuss might say, the strangest thing happened. The films began to unspool. And they were good. Many of them very good. But they were unusual, often roughly made, some very quiet and not at all flashy. They looked like the films that made Sundance’s reputation in the first place.

The agents looked confused. “This is no Shine.” “There is no Geoffrey Rush to sign.” The acquisitions folk looked glum. Nothing to buy. Sure, a modest deal here for The House of Yes, a decent bit of coin for Star Maps. But no frenzy. No fights. And the media – some understood that they were seeing a Sundance going back to its roots. But, for many others, reading their coverage, I sensed a discomfort with a festival of “art films.” I saw the words “esoteric” and “difficult” a few too many times.

Too bad. Sundance delivered, on the whole, an extremely accomplished crop of films this year, most of which share a sensibility both fresh and old-fashioned. These are films about people and the small betrayals and rapprochements that are the cornerstones of everyday life. And they told their stories in complete, simple sentences. Sundance ’97 punctuated the end of a kind of “cinema of artifice,” embodied by films like From Dusk Til Dawn – a big comic book – or its Harlequin version, Spitfire Grill.

If one filmmaker embodies this profound respect for character-driven storytelling, it is Victor Nunez. His Flash Of Green won the first Sundance Festival and his Ruby In Paradise the seventh. His newest film, Ulee’s Gold, the Centerpiece Premiere of the Festival, features an austere, powerful performance from Peter Fonda as a Tupelo beekeeper trying to raise two granddaughters in the face of his daughter-in-law’s drug addiction and son’s imprisonment. Although conventionally shot to the point of looking a little flat, the film proceeds with a quiet dignity and gentle rhythm.

Another visually flat but emotionally rich premiere was Chasing Amy from Kevin Smith. Because of the critical drubbing his Mallrats received and the new film’s subject matter -the politically dubious story of a lesbian falling for an enamored Jersey guy – Smith’s new film was dreaded in many circles. What a delightful surprise then that the film proved to be so honest and moving without losing its Clerks-like sarcastic edge.

Issues of sexuality also serve as a springboard in Gregg Araki’s strong new film, Nowhere. By far his most complete and accomplished film, it is also almost completely without a linear narrative. The film follows a teenager (James Duvall) through futuristic parties, cafes, a drug-soaked game of kick-the-can, alien attacks and finally into a devastatingly sad (and caustically funny) paean to love gone wrong. Although displaying the same sharp-edged design and camera as The Doom Generation, Nowhere has a much more meditative approach. Equally personal and dystopic is David Lynch’s Lost Highway, a beautifully modulated meditation on, well, something. Pregnant with possible interpretations, I choose to read its body shifting and surveillance-heavy aesthetic as a meeting of the Twin Peaks elastic time structure and Hard Copy.

Less audacious premieres also provided some satisfying moments. Joe Mantello’s charming but strangely dated adaptation of Terence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! had a sweet edge, even if the film felt more like a summing up of a past era in gay culture than something fresh. So too with Hugo Pool, invested with a kookiness reminiscent of director Robert Downey’s early films (Putney Swope) but leaden when trying for something hip and modern.

Perhaps the best film in the Premieres, if not in the entire Festival, was Errol Morris’ astonishing new documentary, Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control. A simple concept, perfectly executed, its genius creeps up on the viewer unexpectedly. The film is ostensibly structured as a portrait of four men – a lion tamer, a topiarist, a robotics engineer and the curator of mole rat exhibitions – whose work exists where man and nature meet. They are introduced individually, as talking heads and with footage of them at work. Then Morris gradually begins dropping the on-camera interviews and allows the voiceover of one subject to gradually bleed into footage of another. Soon their quests come together, philosophical implications multiply, and we end up ruminating on fundamental issues concerning man’s place on earth.

I actually did not hear anyone attending Sundance admit that Grand Jury Prize winner Sunday was their favorite or least favorite film. Some people liked it, some didn’t, but no one felt strongly enough to argue its case. The film quietly unfolds as a creepy encounter between an unemployed, balding middle-aged former accountant living in a Queens shelter and a possibly sociopathic woman who mistakes him for a famous film director. Reminiscent of Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was… – also a surprise Sundance winner a few years ago – the film contains an admirable attention to character as well as an awkward theatricality that hobbles its most dramatic moments. The film, nonetheless, represents much of what was good about this year’s better Dramatic Competition (and Premiere) entries: an attention to local detail, and an honesty in intent and execution.

Pundits suggested that the jury was hung between three other films, all of which shared elements with Sunday. Most controversial was Neil LaBute’s In The Company Of Men – winner of the Filmmakers Trophy – the toughest film to emerge from the United States in years. An elegant treatise on contemporary male power, it concerns two businessmen away from their home office on a six-week job. Fed up with the women in their lives – both have recently been abandoned – they decide on a fiendish plan: together they will find the most vulnerable girl possible, date her, profess true love and then simultaneously drop her. As their plan progresses – the victim turns out to be a shy deaf girl – changes in their professional and larger social worlds create a frightening battle of wills between them.

Much more visually accomplished — Company has a washed-out, stilted look which is often tough to take — is Bart Freundlich’s The Myth Of Fingerprints. Structured around a dysfunctional family gathering at Thanksgiving in Maine, it features especially fine performances from Julianne Moore, Hope Davis and Blythe Danner. Curiously, the film is structured around a “big revelation” — the father’s betrayal of one of his sons — but the film seems actually to be more about the day-to-day little betrayals that so often define “normal” family life.

Morgan J. Freeman’s Hurricane, winner of the Directing Award and the Audience Award (the latter shared with unexceptional feel-good Black poet film, love jones), took some critical hits. An L.A.-based writer beside me at its screening found herself shouting “Polonius!” when an eavesdropping character is shot by accident; others found its lower-middle-class Manhattan-teen milieu too close to Larry Clark’s Kids for comfort. Nonetheless, Freeman sustains an impressively naturalistic mood. Hurricane is essentially a love-amidst-the-ruins tale grafted onto a crime-doesn’t-pay fable with two amazing young actors — Brandon Sexton III and Isidra Vega. Revisiting these films, one can see how a jury may have reacted badly — one misogynist, one too bourgeois, one derivative — no matter how unfair these assessments.

Puzzlingly, there were also a group of other impressive films which didn’t make it to the winner’s circle either. Chief among these is Ira Sachs’ The Delta. Widely celebrated at its Toronto Festival premiere and, just recently, at its Rotterdam/Berlin tour, the film’s leisurely pace and subtle button-pushing may have made the film a tough one for keyed-up Sundancers to focus on. Structured around a brief affair between a privileged young white guy and a gay Vietnamese immigrant, it finds a new way to talk about class, race and sexuality using a beautiful, poetic visual language. So too with Alex Sichel’s mature, effusive All Over Me.

Starring Toni Collette from Muriel’s Wedding, Jill Sprecher’s Clockwatchers had horrifying advance billing as a kooky comedy about temp workers. Thankfully, it is nothing of the kind. While indeed often extremely funny, it is also sad, poignant, full of terrific performances and it establishes an innovative visual style and rhythm from frame one. Sprecher displays an impressive control of her film’s pace: formidably attenuated scenes of the temps trying to stave off boredom segue into controlled explosive moments of pathos without losing the audience’s attention. Going All The Way by Mark Pellington also takes risks with pace, editing and design. (Therese Deprez won a special jury citation for the latter.) A dark, obsessive tale of two men just returned from the Korean War, it features one incredibly disturbing moment of sexual humiliation at its core which deconstructs any nostalgia the film’s attention to detail might engender.

Three other films in the Competition fail (for this writer) on some profound level, but are still impressive enough to merit comment. Mark Waters’ The House of Yes features a crackling performance from Parker Posey — for which she was justly cited by the jury — and a wonderfully obscene conceit at its center: an incestuous relationship based upon re-enacting the Kennedy assassination. Otherwise the crazy bourgeois family drama feels claustrophobic for all the wrong reasons: overtly theatrical, it has too much chatter, exaggerated characterizations and a narrative circle closed tight to the point of strangulation. Co-star Tori Spelling is great though. Arresting Gena should have been a home run. A nuanced script explores the obsessive devotion of teenage girls and the societal pressures that pull them apart. Its locale feels genuine and the work seems to come from an honest emotional place. But the finished film drags terribly; perhaps it is the overly low-key lead performances, or the uniform shadowed cinematography or a director trying too hard to distance herself from emotionally complex material.

Tongues were wagging about Eye of God, a slickly made, elegantly paced tale of an ex-con who weds the woman who wrote to him in prison, finds God, and then kills her for getting an abortion. From its hokey condescension to its Oklahoma characters to its cross-cutting between a brutal slaying and a surgical abortion, I found this film manipulative and disturbed. A beautifully juggled time structure — which acts as a kind of unfolding mystery — serves only to mask how shallow the facades of the film’s characters are, even with strong work from veterans Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson.

Less worthy of consideration were dumb-guy comedies George B. and Colin Fitz, the unfunny New Age spoof Santa Fe and the musclehead romance Strays. I also found Black & White & Red All Over formidably didactic and Slaves to the Underground a disappointing, self-congratulatory foray into the Seattle subculture.

The Documentary Competition has long been the poor, ignored sister of the Dramatic. This is partly acquisitions-driven — docs don’t sell for big cash — but also the result of a conscious Sundance programming strategy. The Documentary Competition is used as a platform for progressive political issues; aesthetic considerations seem to play a smaller role in the selection process than one might think. On the other hand, there are so few cinematically satisfying documentaries being made these days that the job would be hard with any criteria. Nonetheless, there were some important new films this year. Arthur Dong’s Licensed To Kill, an often gruesome search by a gay man for the souls of those who wish to kill gay men, is powerful and resonant. Rene Tajima-Pena’s My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha is a rollicking, personal look at the history of Asian-American culture told with a lot of humor and insight. Kirby Dick’s Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is an unforgettable portrait of the deceased performance artist which takes us into his unusual but loving world.

The Grand Jury Prize went to Girls Like Us, a slip of a film which follows a handful of teenage girls for five years as they mature and find their own voices in the world. To be honest, this type of filmmaking feels a little bit dated, and I far prefer the Canadian version of this film, Talk 16.

The Audience Award went to Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer’s End, a biography of the gay writer famous for his AIDS-themed essays and fiction. His courage in the face of his lovers’ death and, eventually, his own slow demise is incredible; the intimacy of the piece, including his own video footage of vacations and life around the house, is unforgettably moving. And yet the film feels part of a canon of films, including Silverlake Life and Love! Valour! Compassion!, that we desperately hope can draw to a close.

American Spectrum solves a lot of problems for Sundance, some political, some aesthetic. It allows a forum for films which, for some reason, do not merit a Competition berth. Some of them are head-scratchers: the dreadful Satanic cult film, Black Circle Boys, juvenile comedies such as I Love You…Don’t Touch Me! and bad costume noir like This World, Then The Fireworks. Others have much to offer. Miguel Arteta’s Star Maps was one of the Festival’s real discoveries. This story of a Mexican-American kid and his exploitation, willing or otherwise, is as complex and nuanced as anything in Competition, even with some fairly erratic performances on screen.

Sundance’s popular Midnight section spewed forth one monster controversy: Frank Grow’s Love God. For this writer, it was one of the most invigorating experiences in recent memory: a parade of monster grotesquerie, love between the clinically insane and endless pharmaceuticals — all filtered through a vile but alluring production design and epileptic visual style. Others just got a headache.

The World Cinema and Frontier sections premiered terrific films like Stella Does Tricks and Finished but perhaps these sections should be limited so that energy could be better directed to ensuring successful screenings of the core Competition and Premiere films at the Festival. Sundance has become too important to the country’s cinematic culture — especially now that its programmers have re-established the festival’s core values — to let the physical experience of the festival continue as it has.

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