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Running a gauntlet of celebrities, slackers and spin-meisters, our intrepid film writer finds a few movies worth watching when they come to the Triangle.

40 films in 10 days 

Running a gauntlet of celebrities, slackers and spin-meisters, our intrepid film writer finds a few movies worth watching when they come to the Triangle.

If you believe that the proposed overthrow of Saddam Hussein is little more than a calculated oil grab, then a visit to Park City, Utah, in January proves how necessary cheap fuel is. Never in my life have I seen such a gleaming, massive staging of super-sized SUVs: Escalades, Excursions, Hummers, Suburbans, Denalis and Yukons rumble through the resort town in a remarkable, breast-beating display of affluence and consumption.

Add to that a brain-frying force field of radio waves produced by tens of thousands of cell phones and a noxious, drifting cloud of cigarette smoke and you have a teeming Superfund site surrounded by brown, tree-pocked mountains, all of which are paved over with ski trails.

Welcome to the 2003 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, where the hulking SUV of Commerce hurtles toward the quivering deer of Art.

Over the course of 10 days, roughly 200 features, documentaries and shorts are screened for thousands of cinephiles, industry players and tourists. It's the biggest movie show in America, and accordingly, all major media outlets are here in breathless search of the new, the hip and, above all, the profitable. But for those dedicated to films as an art form, as a vehicle for meaningful expression, it can be a disorienting and disillusioning experience. Despite the hundreds of films clamoring for attention, only a few will emerge from the festival as "winners," either officially or in terms of certifiable buzz.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is what the festival is finally about, and platoons of publicists, studios and celebrity talent are anxious to influence the outcomes. However, the reality, as I discovered, is that many of the films in dramatic competition are profoundly mediocre. Still, by the end of the 10-day media mosh-pit, several underdog films had succeeded in getting attention for themselves.

With so many potentially life-changing films playing simultaneously, it was well-nigh impossible to know where to begin. So I just plunged in, sampling the work of the world's filmmakers who had managed to get their work into this celebrated showcase. As it turned out, there were many decent films and a surprising number of awful ones. But after taking in nearly 40 films in 10 days, I found just one truly exceptional fiction film, and I was blown away by two films from a very strong documentary program.

Traditionally, January is a slow month for ski resorts, but for 19 years, Park City's economy has received a boost from the nation's independent film industry. And each year, the festival also becomes a major party and star-gazing destination for those inhabitants of nearby Salt Lake City who're looking to toss off the wet, gray blanket of the conservative, Mormon-dominated community.The celebrities did not disappoint; they were out in full force. Dylan, Emmylou and Beck were there. So was Al Gore. Then there were the movie stars: Al Pacino, Ben Affleck, Salma Hayek, Matt Damon, Dustin Hoffman and Jennifer Lopez, to name only a few of the luminaries who thrilled tourists and annoyed the festival's organizers with their chaos-inducing public appearances.

If the megastars are out of reach to most Sundance attendees, celebrity B-listers are more accessible, being anonymous enough to mingle among the hoi-polloi: Aidan Quinn, Tim Blake Nelson, Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, Zooey Deschanel.

But even semi-celebrities could send people into an embarrassing frenzy, such as the night I met two friends for dinner at a casual diner called Burgie's. As the hostess showed us to our as-yet unbused booth, she breathlessly told us that Anna Paquin, the child co-star of Jane Campion's The Piano, had just vacated it.

"Don't wash it," we shouted.

Late in the festival, I met with Vin Farrell, a young producer from New York, who helped explain industry activity at the festival. He acknowledges that a major Sundance priority is getting admitted to the private parties that take place each night, an experience that's left him a little jaded.

"It's like high school," Farrell says. "You drive around, looking for all the cool parties. But when you get there, the upperclassmen don't let you in." Farrell comes to Sundance to reinforce industry relationships with the long-term goal of finding financing for his projects, but he doesn't try to conduct business at the festival. No one's got time for that, so he concentrates on seeing movies, skiing and keeping in touch.

No Park City conversation is complete without the ritual exchange of critical opinions, and my meeting with Farrell is no exception. For him, the hot ticket is Raising Victor Vargas, a film about Dominican teenagers in New York. "The best film of the festival, hands-down," Farrell said.

The locals are delighted to play host every year, and not just for the economic stimulation. "Park City needs the culture," one longtime resident told me. This woman was one of the many quite friendly local residents who look forward to this event, year after year, and she also reminisced about last year's Winter Olympics. "We spent years getting ready for it," she recalled. "Then they told us that we had to redo our security, because of Sept. 11." After the years of preparations, she said, the Olympics were over in a flash.Relics of the Olympics are still visible, notably a sculpture that greets visitors to the city, as well as several ski jumps that can be seen on one of the nearby mountains.

I was on a tight budget, so I end up staying in a little room three miles out of town, off the highway leading back to Salt Lake City. My meals were strictly planned encounters with homemade sandwiches and water fountains, and my requisite daily dose of The New York Times was satisfied free of charge at the festival headquarters.

Thanks to its service-oriented economy, Park City is about as tourist-friendly as possible. Ski lifts are doorstep to doorstep affairs, ascending from parking lots to mountaintops. One is even accessible from Main Street, the city's commercial center.

Park City's bus system is efficient and free of charge; the fare boxes are for leaving tips for the drivers. The city bus system even extended to my little outpost, but only between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. There was never a problem in the morning, but most nights I would get out of my last screening well after midnight. This meant I would have to hitchhike, which fortunately happens to be an irregular pastime of mine, ever since I was 18 years old.

After a first nervous night hitching into the darkness on the cold deserted outskirts of town, I grew to look forward to these brief encounters with total strangers, a ritual closing of another hermetic day taking in (and sometimes suffering through) the products of independent cinema. It was only a five-minute drive from the edge of town to my condo, just long enough for quick introductions and a single impression. (I never had to walk all the way home--someone always stopped within 10 minutes.)

One night, I was picked up by a Ute/Pueblo man and his wife, who were returning from the Native forum (Native issues have long been a part of the Sundance programming). He told me that he had danced during the opening ceremonies of last year's Winter Olympics, and he handed me a business card to prove it.

Another night, two intoxicated men in their twenties picked me up and educated me on business junketeering experiences I've been missing in North Carolina. It emerged that one had recently visited Raleigh and Durham, to see a friend working "in sales." It was a weekend he remembered fondly. "Raleigh was great. We got wasted every night, riding around in limos, that kind of thing," he said.

"Y'all go to th' Dollhouse?" I joshed.

"Nah, but we went to a Cobras game."

"Cobras? You mean the Hurricanes?"

"Nah, the arena football team."

"Oh."

"Afterwards, we hung out with the Snake Charmers--their cheerleaders. They're better than NFL cheerleaders."

We were approaching my condo, so I didn't ask him to explain how the Snake Charmers are better than NFL cheerleaders.

Before Sundance became the totemic institution that it is today, it was a modest affair called the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, located in Salt Lake City. But in 1985, the festival began an association with Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute that led to a formal name change in 1991. It was this marriage between underdog filmmaking and one of Hollywood's more enduring stars that gave the festival its visibility, and contributes to the tension between art and commerce that continues to this day.In some respects, the homey atmosphere of the festival's early days persists. The films play in the local theaters and other spaces, including the local high school auditorium, the public library and in a local hotel ballroom. Connected by the free bus line, there's ample opportunity to meet other festival-goers and exchange opinions. On one bus, I met Greg Dean Schmitz, an Internet film journalist, critic and proprietor of a Web site that I frequently use. His favorite of the festival, thus far? "All the Real Girls," he replied, a romance filmed in the North Carolina mountains. (See last week's Indy.)

The city bus grapevine is an appealingly democratic aspect of Sundance. On the other hand, the festival is a pretty posh event. Individual tickets cost $10, but getting them requires standing in long lines, with uncertain outcomes. Passes for the general public are available in advance, but they're quite expensive, with an all-access pass costing $2,500 and much less useful ones costing several hundred dollars.

Aside from having media or filmmaker credentials, the only economical way to attend is to volunteer. Indeed, Sundance is something of a mecca for film students, adventurers and slackers, with hundreds of 20- and 30-somethings flocking from around the globe to provide volunteer support for the festival.

These were an appealing, unpretentious lot, full of youthful enthusiasm and a love for movies that was uncomplicated by excessive attention to industry machinations. Two volunteers who were utterly unconnected to the New York avant-garde scene nonetheless enthused over Matthew Barney's Cremaster III, a fanciful and nearly impenetrable three-hour art film.

In all, the volunteer experience appears to be a vibrant one, with much beer consumed, many phone numbers exchanged and a fair amount of hooking up. Hanging with volunteers, I also discovered that it takes some dedication to get drunk in Utah. By state law, beer has only a 3.2 percent alcohol concentration, unless you pay extra for the full-strength brew in liquor stores or restaurants. Many find marijuana--a substance just as available and illegal in Utah as anywhere else--a more efficient entrée to intoxication.

Midway through the week, reviewer Dave Kehr of the Times found an opportunity to take a catty swipe at the festival in a review of a (non-Sundance) film about celebrated avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren. "As the Sundance Film Festival continues to unwind in Utah," he wrote, "[this film] arrives as an especially timely reminder that the phrase 'independent film' used to refer to something other than dysfunctional family dramas featuring television stars on seasonal hiatus." Kehr overstates the case, but Sundance films, in particular the ones that have been nurtured in their highly competitive writing labs, do tend toward a myopic domestic realism. Some critics, particularly those who attend international festivals, feel that Sundance encourages and rewards its own kind of conformity, producing too much kitchen sink hysteria and too many P.C. excursions into identity politics.

Those attending public screenings at Sundance get to submit ballots afterward in which they rate the quality of the film. Much like the test screenings that Hollywood studios conduct, films that are upbeat and life-affirming tend to benefit from this process. Likewise, films that succeed with Sundance audiences tend to adhere to the narrative and aesthetic biases of the Sundance training grounds.

However, a successful simulation of the Sundance aesthetic doesn't necessarily confer subsequent profitability and critical success out on the national theater circuit. Last year's Audience Award winner was Real Women Have Curves, a feel-good celebration of Latina women that apparently struck last year's audiences as a bold blow against constricting body images. But by the time the film theaters nationally, late last year, the film seemed more like the clunky, didactic after-school special that it essentially is.

With the unhappy memory of Real Women Have Curves fresh in my mind, I had my internal "Sundance hype" detector turned up to maximum sensitivity. I felt the detector going off with increasing frequency throughout the week, as I began hearing about films like The Station Agent and Whale Rider. No matter how much praise I heard for the former film, I stayed away from it because I was put off by what seemed to be a saccharine story about a lonesome dwarf.

However, I did finally see Whale Rider, a New Zealand film that emerged midway through the week as the front-runner for the World Audience prize. However, I found this story of a Maori girl who defies sexist convention and becomes the first female chief of her tribe to be trite, boring and sentimental, despite a nice flourish at the finish. It seemed to me that Sundance-haters like Dave Kehr could have made this film up as a parody of the festival's preoccupation with gender and native issues. Indeed, the Whale Rider press kit reveals that the film's plot was a contemporary concoction, custom-tooled for modern sensibilities.

Most everyone I spoke with in Park City seemed to be thrilled by the quality of the films, but longtime festival organizers and indie film boosters were less happy about this year's spike in star power. Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's director, was characterized by The New York Times as being "a little disgusted" by the attention-getting antics of superstars swooping into town with huge entourages and a fleet of SUVs.Of equal concern for those devoted to independent film, Sundance is now used as a launching pad for major studio releases, which generally screen out of competition. This year, such films included a heist film called Confidence, with Dustin Hoffman, an Al Pacino vehicle called People I Know, an Oliver Stone documentary about Fidel Castro called Comandante and the festival's opener, Levity, with Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter, Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst. The stars of these films were in attendance during the festival, and the Times reported that Lion's Gate spent $100,000 promoting the Hoffman film at Sundance.

There is very little associating these films with the seat-of-the-pants work of the struggling filmmakers that Sundance is supposed to nurture. However, the stars are certainly good for generating media interest, and one industry insider suggested that the trade-off might be worth it. "For every Matt Dillon film, we get to see a Raising Victor Vargas," he said, referring respectively to Dillon's vanity project, City of Ghosts, and the ecstatically received Peter Sollett film.

However, others are not so sanguine. Dale Pollock, the dean of the film school of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, sees the festival becoming a bit of a victim of its own success. "Sundance used to be much more intimate," said Pollock, who took in 22 films in six days in his efforts to keep up with indie film developments, and moderated a panel discussion to boot. "It was an incredibly filmmaker-friendly event, but now you can't talk to the filmmakers after the screenings [due to security]."

However, it was reassuring to observe Sundance audiences' ability to resist expensive marketing efforts. Although certain films come into the festival with must-see cachet, thanks to well-known stars and directors, all the promotional hype in the world can't save them if they flop inside the screening rooms. In this sense, there is a Darwinian benefit to a high-profile festival like Sundance.

Some films didn't do well with this winnowing process: For example, there was very little public discussion of the star-laden and, according to Variety's Todd McCarthy, insufferable, Levity, despite the fact that it was chosen to be screened at the Opening Night gala in Salt Lake City.

Another victim at Sundance was The Singing Detective, with Robert Downey Jr., a film that was greatly anticipated by fans of the late Dennis Potter, a fervently admired British television writer and producer. Pollock, who has in the past worked with Keith Gordon, the film's director, was among those who were disappointed. "Robert Downey gave a great performance, but they didn't give us a clue as to what the film was about," he said.

What you hear on the street is a good indicator of the audience preferences. So, few were surprised when The Station Agent and Whale Rider got the Domestic and World Audience awards, respectively. Still, there were other dramatic films that floated out of the festival on a cushion of buzz, including The Cooler, a William C. Macy film, and Pieces of April, a family comedy with television star Katie Holmes. Also claiming fervent admirers right up to the end of the festival were David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls and Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas.

Then there was a certain late-closing film called The Hebrew Hammer, which won no awards. I was frankly curious, as more and more people described it as a side-splittingly funny imagining of a Jewish action hero. Although at least one industry insider maintained that it was "awful," it seems as if The Hebrew Hammer might be headed for cult notoriety.

Although I was skeptical of some of the audience hits at Sundance, I did find a few favorites of my own, many of which should be coming to the Triangle during the next year. There was Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko's authentic-feeling comedy about drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll and Mom, starring Frances McDormand and Christian Bale. There were also sweet, nostalgic and well-received romances like All the Real Girls and Raising Victor Vargas. Also of interest were Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, adapted from his play and shown out of competition, and Trainspotting director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, a post-biological catastrophe film. I also admired Soldier's Girl, a true story of a Tennessee GI who falls in love with a pre-op transsexual and dies a horrible death at the hands of homophobic comrades. Though it has the limitations of a made-for-television movie, which it is, Soldier's Girl is subtle, ironic, passionately acted and quite moving. It also evokes the complex working-class gay world of R.W. Fassbinder's films. Look for it on Showtime, or perhaps at the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Another film of interest was the fascinating but flawed Buffalo Soldiers, a Joaquin Phoenix vehicle that's been gathering dust on Miramax's shelves for over a year, but will be released this spring. Miramax bought this vicious and violent comedy about life on a U.S. military base in Germany at the 2001 Toronto film festival. To be precise, they bought it on Sept. 10. The following day, it became unreleaseable, due to the film's depiction of American soldiers as a bunch of drugs-and-weapons-dealing junkies.

And, to judge by an incident at the public premiere, the film may still be a difficult sell. One morning over coffee, the film's screenwriter, Eric Weiss, confirmed the rumor that a bottle was thrown at director Gregor Jordan. The bottle missed its target, and hit Anna Paquin instead.

Although I saw a number of good fiction films, only American Splendor struck me as being both urgent and unique, and the festival jury felt the same, awarding the film the Jury Grand Prize of the dramatic competition.American Splendor falls roughly in the same corner of the universe that produced Crumb and Ghost World. It traces the life of Harvey Pekar, a neurotic Melvillean character who toiled for decades as a professional file clerk before becoming an underground star with his series of comic books titled American Splendor, many co-authored with his wife. Although it may seem like a minor subject for a film, co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini consistently manage to engage the audience with a deft blend of documentary and staged footage. The film is narrated by the real Harvey Pekar, who also puts in an appearance.

Harvey (Paul Giamatti) and Joyce, his wife (Hope Davis) are often hilarious in their mutual codependency, but they beat back depression and the despair brought on by fruitless lives before emerging from the film as heroic underdogs. Their success of their artistic enterprise, however, isn't measured in dollars. It's in their ability to find sense and pleasure in their lives and the ways in which they bring comfort to others. In short, they're role models for struggling artists everywhere, filmmakers and otherwise.

And here, I found, was the great benefit of the Sundance Film Festival, for it brought well-deserved attention to a film that carried no particular promotional advantages into the event. And American Splendor needs every advantage it can get, for at press time, the film was still searching for theatrical distribution. So, too, was The Station Agent, the audience hit that I stubbornly refused to see.

Movies get made for love and for money. And, since there is no money in documentaries, the only thing getting them made is love. This probably explains why the docs side of the Sundance Film Festival was so consistently exceptional. There were a number of plausible candidates for the top jury prize, but few were surprised when the award went to Capturing the Friedmans, directed by Andrew Jarecki (the man who invented MovieFone, the ticket reservation system that is a ubiquitous feature of movie-going in New York and L.A.). Jarecki's film is a bizarre and frightening study of a Long Island family that is torn apart by the sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s. What gives the film its unique perspective is that the Friedman family had a penchant for filming and videotaping intimate moments of their lives, so we in the audience are "there" as witnesses to the collapse of a once-happy family.

For some, the most emotionally wrenching film in the festival was Steve James' Stevie. During his college days in the early 1980s, James had been a Big Brother to a disturbed boy named Stevie. James, best known for Hoop Dreams, locates the now-grown Stevie and finds him in even worse trouble. It's a tough film to watch, largely because of the virtually unrelieved images of ignorant, impoverished and brutalized people, and it contains one scene that left me and others weeping helplessly.

Although James could be criticized for exploiting his subjects, he gives the last word to a mildly retarded woman who says at the film's inevitably sad end, "Look on the bright side. At least you got a film out of all this." A perceptive friend observed that this ending is a precise echo of the last bitter line of Storytelling, Todd Solondz's underrated film from last year.

The parade of exceptional docs continued with a Spanish effort called Balseros. Made over a period of years, this film charts the complex progress of a group of Cuban boat people as they navigate aquatic, bureaucratic and cultural difficulties on their way to American residency. From Brazil came Bus 174, a painstakingly detailed study of a hijacking incident that occurred in Rio a few years ago. With two fatalities, the incident was minor as hijackings go, but the filmmakers use the episode as the basis for a scorching indictment of Brazil's government and society. Vietnam-era America is the focus in Weather Underground, an informative documentary about an already nearly forgotten student radical group of the 1970s. The Purified is well-done, but it's mostly of interest to cinephiles as it documents a weekend of discussions with the four Danish filmmakers who concocted the notorious aesthetic rules that are known as Dogme 95.

I missed a number of docs that also generated public discussion. One festival volunteer told me that Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, a film about an important (and recently deceased) music engineer was quite good. And Tupac: Resurrection, a film about the late rapper, was the surprise favorite doc for New York producer Vin Farrell.

Other well-received films include ones about a civil rights martyr (The Murder of Emmett Till), and a civil rights hero (Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin). In The Same River Twice, a one-time hippie revisits his flower-children comrades, who have all moved on into the 21st century. Elsewhere, What I Want My Words to Do to You received a Freedom of Expression prize for its depiction of playwright Eve Ensler's writing workshop at a women's prison (whose inmates include two former members of the Weather Underground). Women in crisis were also the subject of Love and Diane, one of the more highly touted documentaries currently making the rounds of festivals.

Happily, Triangle residents most likely will have an opportunity to see a number of these films when the Full Frame doc fest gears up in April. (At press time, the festival was still putting together its programming, but expect an announcement soon.)Festival director Robin Yigit Smith attended Sundance, keeping a sharp eye on the competition. She was impressed by the extraordinary crowds that the documentaries were drawing. "Anytime you have to get there two and a half hours early to get a seat, that's really fabulous," she said. "They've been real champions of getting documentary films into theaters and getting audiences to talk about them afterwards. That's really impressive to see."

The modest marvel of American Splendor is impressive also in that it manages to blur the lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking. Part of the reason documentaries seem so much more urgent than most of the dramatic films on display is that they engage with real political and social issues. American Splendor suggests new possibilities for an engaged and entertaining dramatic cinema.There was a time when film festivals promised political and intellectual fireworks to go along with the aesthetic ones. The glory days of the film festival was surely the 1960s, in Cannes, when such luminaries as Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Antonioni, Pasolini and Bertolucci held forth, not just on movies, but on the political struggles of the day. Although it's perhaps unfair to hold today's indie filmmakers to that standard, the newspaper headlines during the festival were filled with an impending war in the Middle East.

Somehow, in this ski resort town that was choked with hype and SUVs, that reality didn't exist. EndBlock

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