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Nashville Scene Solar Flare

Another Sundance festival rolls around, with all its compromises, contradictions--oh, and movies

By Rob Nelson and Jim Ridley

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  PARK CITY, Utah--As I peruse the Sundance Film Festival guidebook, at the start of another Redford-endorsed schmooze-fest, a couple things come immediately to mind. First, there's no way anyone could possibly witness all 108 features and 76 shorts on the menu. Second, the festival programmers' huckstering "reviews" offer no help whatsoever in deciding which titles to skip--although these blurbs are hardly the most egregious of sales pitches at Sundance.

As both "indies" and indies seem to require the casting of known commodities these days--just like studio films--a good portion of the roster this year came girded with celebs. Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey may be MIA in 2000, thank God, but fellow youth-properties Heather Graham, Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny, Courtney Love, Omar Epps, Ethan Hawke, Ben Affleck, and Dominique (Lolita) Swain each had a movie to stump for this year. And if you're not part of the publicity, apparently you're part of the problem: One coast-based flack whose "talent" I turned down for interviews actually sniffed at me--twice.

But let me not sound crabby. For this was still a very solid Sundance. Granted, to some, looking good on the festival shuttle bus might seem as important as looking good on celluloid. Yet to this critic's eye, neither the meat market nor the acquisitions racket could hold a keylight to the coolness on screen.

For one thing, this proved definitively to be The Year of the Woman: In the inimitable words of Variety, there were more than 25 "femme-helmed" features on view at Sundance. Mary Harron delivered her exceedingly droll American Psycho, a black-comic portrait of an '80s-era corporate bloodsucker. Shirley Cheechoo brought her native drama Backroads, which manages to tell a tale of racism and domestic abuse with both considerable humor and a critical eye. Barbara Kopple sent My Generation, her longwinded but suitably despairing investigation of Woodstock then and now (which doubled as an ironic allegory of Sundance's own ever-increasing commercialism). Sofia Coppola enjoyed the U.S. premiere of her weird and indelibly haunting adaptation of The Virgin Suicides. And Gurinder Chadha served the opening-night entree What's Cooking?, a comedy-drama about Jewish, Latino, Vietnamese, and African American families in L.A. on Thanksgiving.

At the same time, a good many movies were male-directed laments for how hard it is to be a white guy these days--such as Stanley Tucci's snail-paced Joe Gould's Secret, the Mametian Big Kahuna, the American Beauty-like Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, and the aptly named Panic. Still, the overall diversity on hand extended to a stronger-than-average selection of world cinema, including Claire Denis' typically dense and subtle Beau Travail, a dissection of military male-bonding loosely modeled on Melville's Billy Budd. Equally noteworthy were a pair of Iranian-influenced portraits of tireless children, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less and Khyentse Norbu's The Cup--the latter being the first-ever Bhutanese film to reach the world stage.

And then there was Slamdance, which, in its sixth season of passing off Sundance's table scraps as tofu, proudly served the scraps unadorned this year. A clever comedy, the opening-night selection R2PC: Road to Park City nonetheless registered as yet another mock-documentary lampoon of a struggling artist whose desperation is indistinguishable from the film's. One can hardly blame the Slamdance programmers for taking a well-crafted, self-reflexive diversion where they could get it. But the fact that the filmmaking protagonist's stated goal is to make it into Sundance rather than Slamdance does little to reinvigorate the latter's dwindling reputation as an aesthetic alternative.

Indeed, the main-stage fest has become an irresistible opportunity for all sorts of supporting players to piggyback on its cachet, as evidenced again recently by Newsday critic John Anderson's Sundancing, a paperback collecting mostly candid and often hilarious quotes from various festival habitués (and, yes, celebrities). The most unintentionally timely of these comes from former Sundance juror and current New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell, who playfully admits his susceptibility to perks: "All my socialist thoughts went right out the window. Let me eat cake!" This just as he's commencing what is arguably the most powerful film critic's gig in the nation.

Meanwhile, former Times reviewer Janet Maslin extended her own celebrity by serving on the festival's dramatic competition jury (along with director Kevin Smith and producer Lawrence Bender). That must have posed a special challenge to Maslin, since the New York critical establishment she represents seems to draw a big distinction between "East Coast indies" and "West Coast indies" (as distinguished by Village Voice critic Amy Taubin in Sundancing). Though the taxonomy seems essentially meaningless to those of us between the coasts, both camps were well represented at Sundance.

The most notable West Coast entry was Miguel Arteta's Chuck & Buck, and not only because it was purchased early in the fest by the Blair Witch sorcerers at Artisan Entertainment. Like Arteta's underrated Star Maps, his latest work transgressively mixes the tender and the tawdry, telling the homoerotic tale of a socially retarded man (brilliantly played by American Pie co-creator Chris Weitz, of all people) who harbors a deep, dark obsession with his childhood best friend (Mike White, also the screenwriter). Shot on the cheap in digital video, the film suggests that the drab appearance of this newfangled format might currently be best-suited to tales involving off-color sexual revelations (cf. The Celebration, julien donkey-boy).

From where I sat, the standout East Coast indie in competition was Jim McKay's mellifluous Our Song, which mitigated its strong similarity to his Girls Town by being an even better and more courageous movie--and that's no faint praise. Shot verité-style in 16mm, and following another trio of working-class high-school girls through their everyday lives, it's as convincing as any doc-like drama ever made, owing in large part to the nonprofessional actors with whom the director collaborated. McKay's opening "film by" credit is a list of several dozen members of the cast and crew--a startling antidote to the egocentric insularity that permeates so much of Sundance.

Alas, the jury's main award was split between two other movies, Girlfight and You Can Count on Me, evincing once again the wishy-washy benevolence that allows as many films as possible to market themselves as "an award-winner at the Sundance Film Festival" while diluting the distinction. (The documentary jury this year bestowed its honors on no fewer than six films.) It's hard not to interpret the dual award as conciliatory, since the two recipients couldn't represent the two poles of Sundance more completely.

The upwardly mobile Girlfight is an extremely efficient distaff Rocky set among Latino teens in the Brooklyn projects--which is to say that its jury prize constitutes a nod toward both diversity and what is often referred to as "the universal human spirit." (The film is also the artistic standout among the handful of unabashed crowd-pleasers that sold for big bucks during the festival.) You Can Count on Me, conversely, is a subdued, unpredictable, intricately constructed, and thoroughly accessible comedy-drama about small-town, middle-class white people--and, as it happens, the most thrilling piece of film I saw at Sundance. At the risk of sounding like a cinephilic pervert, I'll confess that this carefully measured movie reminded me like no other of how much I thrive on narrative foreplay when the lights go down--that feeling of knowing I'm in the hands of a filmmaker who will give me what I need just a little at a time, teasing out the essence of every interaction while building steadily toward...well, you get the idea.

Speaking of the intimate relationship, which is at the center of this film about a brother (Mark Ruffalo) and sister (Laura Linney), her son (Rory Culkin), and her boss (Matthew Broderick), You Can Count on Me came to Sundance with its distributor, the Shooting Gallery, already attached. As if the festival's contradictions weren't acute enough, this upstart indie company will be remembered for having given me the most rewarding two hours I had during the 10-day festival.

Finally, on the subject of the precarious state of indie distribution, I'm reminded that the most stingingly funny scene I saw at Sundance was in Michael Almereyda's contemporary Hamlet, in which Ethan Hawke's indie-filmmaking protagonist delivers his "to be or not to be" speech whilst traipsing through the aisles of Blockbuster Video. Here at home, I'm afraid, now is the winter of our discontent. --Rob Nelson

Golden delicious

You've heard this said before to hype movies, but in this case it's true: The circumstances surrounding the making of The Apple, an engrossing Iranian film showing next Tuesday and Wednesday at Sarratt, are as extraordinary as the movie itself. In 1997, Samira Makhmalbaf, the daughter of filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, saw a newscast about twin 12-year-old girls in Tehran whose 65-year-old father and blind mother had kept them locked in their house all their lives.

Within 11 days, with her father's help, the younger Makhmalbaf shot an entire feature about the story. More amazing still, she persuaded the girls, Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi; the father and mother; and various neighbors to play themselves. This despite the fact that the 17-year-old director was only five years older than her twin subjects. To tell the story, the Makhmalbafs devised situations, and the Naderis "responded" to them on camera.

The result isn't exactly documentary; in fact, the director has been criticized in Iranian papers for placing the Naderis in prankish situations, like a neighbor boy bonking the blind mother with a dangling apple. But it isn't some gauzy reality-vs.-illusion debate, either. It's more like the uncertainty principle extended to daily life: How does the world change when we poke a camera into it, and is it possible even to call the results of such an intrusive process the truth? This question is central to the great movies coming out of Iran in recent years.

Yet The Apple offers such an unobtrusive portrait of its Tehran community, from the lack of privacy to the bartering of ice cream, that it never seems contrived for the camera. To megaplexed Western eyes, its long takes and still-life street scenes may seem slow and uneventful--at first, anyway. Once you tap into The Apple's gentle humor and its wealth of provocative themes and ideas, though, you might find one viewing will only pique your curiosity. --Jim Ridley

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