Braving the Elements
Feats of endurance at Sundance '98.
By Rob Nelson and Noel Murray
FEBRUARY 2, 1998:
I'm havin' a rough Sundance. People here are creepy. --actor-writer-director Vincent Gallo
Can't say I disagree with the above comment, made by Gallo after a screening of his outrageously entertaining Buffalo 66, a sort of comedic version of Taxi Driver. Stories about Gallo--the bizarre-looking indie actor from Palookaville and The Funeral--became legend among the "creepy" players at Sundance. He nearly perished, supposedly, while driving himself to the wintry Park City across patches of black ice. When the sound went dead five minutes before the end of one Buffalo screening, he told the theater manager to go fuck herself (in a crowded lobby, yet). During a Q&A, he referred to director Gus Van Sant as "a twisted queen from Portland." God only knows what he did in private.
The party line on Gallo riveting actor, talented filmmaker, miserable human being. But in a way, you can't completely blame the guy for wanting to scare up some cheap publicity for his low-budget picture. With more than 120 films unspooling in a half-dozen theaters over 10 days, it can be hard to make yourself heard--especially when some of the films' acquisition fees are hyped at such volume that the movies themselves seem beside the point. Even in screening and sandwich-shop lines, the industry mentality is standard Just about every interaction here amounts to some sort of power play.
Embodying this mind-set in more ways than one, director Nick Broomfield's largely unseen, notoriously muckraking doc Kurt and Courtney drew a line in the snow. Reportedly premised around the notion that Courtney Love exerted so much control over Kurt Cobain's life that she drove him to his grave, the film was pulled from the festival in deference to Love's threatened lawsuits over music rights. Then, just when it seemed the movie had been buried along with its subject, K&C had a single non-fest screening at midnight for a select audience of 150 cool people, myself not included. Once again, the power trip.
Conveniently, in terms of hype, you can't get more underground than a withheld film about a dead grunge rocker. And yet indieness is still in the eye of the beholder. On the morning after the opening-night showing of Sliding Doors--a Miramax/Paramount melodrama that might as well be subtitled "Gwyneth Paltrow and Her Two Haircuts"--the local daily's front-page headline read, "Sundance premieres with heavy-hitting film." Really? By what standard? To some of us, what hit hardest was this soaper's unconscious celebration of a woman's right not to choose.
Worse still, the condescendingly male-directed women's picture turned out to be a Sundance sub-genre. The Bostonian love story Next Stop, Wonderland had its charms, but, like Sliding Doors, it put a woefully undefined debutante (Hope Davis) at the mercy of Romantic Fate. (Early in the fest, in a move that many saw as mere muscle-flexing, Miramax shelled out $7 million for Wonderland.) Seeming to reflect on this trend, the weird Miss Monday concerned a sexist screenwriter who breaks into a bulimic woman's house for "research." The ends justify the means: The man finishes his script.
But hey, don't get me wrong: This was the strongest selection of Sundance films I've seen in four years. And by erecting a new 1,300-seat theater on the edge of town, festival organizers at least succeeded in making it more possible to see this stuff. Even some of the jam-packed, high-profile premieres qualified as independent in spirit. The Coen Brothers' slapstick noir parody The Big Lebowski seems their funniest, gentlest, and most visionary work to date (granted, I've never been a fan until now). Brazilian director Walter Salles' Central Station wrung well-earned tears from the story of a middle-aged woman who takes a young orphan on an epic search for his father. And Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals earned the festival's Audience Award without compromising its intimate portrait of life on the reservation, as told through a son's gradual forgiveness of his alcoholic father.
Speaking of abuse passed down and laid bare, auteur-of-machismo Paul Schrader merged with novelist Russell Banks to devastating effect in Affliction--which, like The Sweet Hereafter, uses a winter accident to reveal the subtler chill in family relationships. The film's pervasive tone of grief is powerful enough, but the scene in which Nick Nolte's booze-swilling sheriff tears an aching tooth out of his head with pliers is as vivid an image of tough-guy masochism as anything in the Schrader-penned Raging Bull.
Elsewhere, two great docs likewise tackled the topic of drunken men. Penelope Spheeris' aptly depressing The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III revisits punkdom by following homeless and alcoholic L.A. kids, one of whom confesses that when the first Decline came out, he was "just an abortion that didn't get paid for." Where these fans of Naked Aggression form a doomed community around their sense of being oppressed, the brotherhood explored in Frat House is based on the consolidation of power through sadism and misogyny. One could think of it as a real-life prequel to In the Company of Men, a film that captures the ugliest sort of malehood in the making.
Narrating in voiceover, codirector Todd Phillips describes Frat House (which deservedly took the jury prize for Best Documentary) as "a study of the lengths men go in order to belong." And insofar as the film shows its own maker surrendering to the nightmarish hazing process in trade for access--at various points he is hit in the face, forced to press his face in vomit, and shoved into a dog cage--it also proves the lengths to which fledgling directors will go to get their movies made. (The running gag in Frat House is that you may have to go through hell--or rather Hell Night--if you want to be a filmmaker.)
Directorial obsession and self-sacrifice were plainly visible in the fest's other major prizewinners. The winner of the Filmmakers' Trophy, Darren Aronofsky's intense, brilliantly photographed Pi, is an obvious labor of love that strongly resembles David Lynch's Eraserhead--both in its starkly experimental black-and-white dreamscape and in its surreal portrait of a loner mathematician (Sean Gullette) with a serious headache. And Marc Levin's Dramatic Competition-winner Slam brings a startlingly immediate, Kids-like mix of verit and fiction to bear on the metaphoric tale of a young black convict (Saul Williams) who uses his rap and poetry-slam skills to reinvent himself.
But even though both Pi and Slam managed to get picked up by smaller distributors, the question remains: How much of Sundance's repertoire will appear in these parts before the year is out? No doubt, we'll be seeing plenty of innocuously diverting fare such as The Castle, a year-old Aussie farce for which Miramax paid $6 million, apparently fearing they'd miss out on the next Full Monty. But what about the gutsy Affliction--which, despite Nolte, Schrader, and some well-earned critical raves, is still without a distributor? Or a modestly crafted character study like Meg Richman's Under Heaven--which, despite being loosely based on Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, will probably have to struggle to find a screen? Such films will probably be lost in the crop of easily marketed Tarantino ripoffs like Montana and the execrable Jerry and Tom.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Sundance '98 was Robert Redford's announcement that his Sundance Cinemas--a chain of arthouse theaters committed to showing world cinema and films without distributors--will begin to appear before year's end in Austin, Philadelphia, and Chicago, with other cities to follow. But is it horribly naive to trust in Redford's claim that the movies at Sundance Cinemas will "not be subject to the same requirements as films shown in most cinemas currently existing in America"? Very possibly. Indeed, no one who braves the elements of art and industry at Sundance--seeing, as I did, some 32 films in 10 days--is without an overabundance of blind faith.
You want to talk guilty pleasures? When I was in high school, I used to hurry home every afternoon to see Jem, the cheesy toy-commercial-cum-cartoon-show about an international pop star and her band The Holograms. In college, I once watched an eight-hour marathon of Fifteen, Nickelodeon's middle-school soaper in which one of the leads was a troubled rocker. Even today, my index finger rises off the remote if I pass California Dreamin', USA High, or any other music-themed program targeted at preteen girls.
I mention this so that you'll know where my head was at while I was watching SpiceWorld, the film debut of that British marketing phenomenon known as the Spice Girls. I'm predisposed to enjoy awkward pop musicals in which cartoonish characters romp through interviews, photo shoots, and recording sessions. Even at their silliest (or especially at their silliest), they speak to my inner teenager, still standing in front of my bedroom mirror, lip-synching to Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Despite my peculiar tastes, though, I gotta admit that SpiceWorld was a chore to watch. The "story" is a typical Hard Day's Night affair--to make it to their first big concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the five Spices have to run the gauntlet of paparazzi and scandal-mongers for a week. There are fantasy sequences: The Spice Girls imagine themselves as middle-aged mothers, as super-spies, and as John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. There are cameos too--Elton John and Bob Geldof wander through as themselves, while Elvis Costello (in a comment on fleeting fame) plays a bartender.
All this buzz of activity is predicated on the idea that the audience knows and cares about the Spice Girls and their manufactured personae--Scary (the loud one), Sporty (the jock), Ginger (the sexpot), Posh (the snob), and Baby (the cutie-pie). Dialogue is parceled out equally between the quintet, but it's so generic that in one scene in which the girls switch identities, the inattentive viewer will have a difficult time separating who's goofing on whom (or why). Any sense of who these girls really are or what they care about is bulled over by the self-serving nonsense in the movie's plot--like an "origin" story that purports the band members developed their sound as childhood chums, or the villainous tabloid publisher who schemes to break up the group so that he can print a headline other than "Spice Girls Hit Number One Again."
Ironically, the Spice Girls themselves almost save the movie from its rampant self-promotion--they couldn't be any more adorable if they were plush beanbag toys. Can they act? Heck, that's all they've ever been doing. Does anyone really believe that they are who they pretend to be? They may not be much musically, but they're spirited performers who genuinely seem to enjoy themselves, even if their self-awareness ends at the edge of the stage.
Between the buoyancy of the leads and the ineptly staged, choppily edited cinematic framework, what's left are the intangibles, the tidbits of pop fantasia that delight connoisseurs like myself: things like the customized double-decker bus that transports our heroines around London, or the moment when Mark McKinney pitches a Spice Girls movie to Richard E. Grant, whose reply of "I think it stinks!" actually produces a McKinney spit take! These are the details that warm the hearts of us pop-culture fanatics. So awful. So glorious.
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