The Big Sale
By Ray Pride
FEBRUARY 7, 2000: The weather is mercurial. Last night at 3am after the party for the Sex Pistols doc, "The Filth And the Fury," the air was spring-like. Five hours later, there's a foot of fresh powder. In a few hours, it could be sunny again, the ditches along the roads gargling with runoff.
I need to get down the hill to the festival headquarters. Free food. Too much Dr. Pepper. The serendipity of chance run-ins. Through the streets, ghosts cast long, pale shadows against the melting snow: middle-aged journalists, pale as the sky, trudging to file copy about today's buzz that will be yesterday's news in tomorrow's Journals of Record.
Films are being bought in unusual quantity, with rumors of unusual demands in deals, mostly concerning television rights, sitcom spin-offs, character rights. After "Blair Witch," everyone's a little George Lucas. Many of the documentaries are PBS-financed, and will be on television soon. ("The Eyes of Tammy Faye," the wildest one I've seen here, will surely at least wind up on cable.)
Shorts filmmakers fly under the radar of most journalists banking interviews, transcribing the words of the most articulate (writer-directors) and the most inarticulate (sweet-faced young actor-actress things). I'm hoping to spend much of tomorrow watching a variety of them. I've already previewed a few on tape, and there seems more potential there for new voices than what I'm seeing in features. The most interesting people I've met at parties or in passing are the smart young development people who want to find a director with a voice, whether in a feature of the shortest of shorts, who they can take back to their bosses and get them hired for The Big Show.
But Sundance is a Big Show of its own, baptizing a few films as the Real Gen, but in an alternative universe that does not include the moviehouses of the greater U. S. of A. Themes run very similar in the Amerindie stuff here. Films get cheers, bravos and sales, but then drop dead when they open in the real world a few months from now. There's a fine line between melancholy and self-pity, and few can dance along it. How many ways can a filmmaker shoot the dark, bereft nights of the soul, mourning a lost love or a dead lover? This theme is all-too-present. How could I have been better? What have I done wrong?
At least in "Waking the Dead," Keith Gordon took his $8 million, carved out rehearsal time, made his two actors seem to know the candle flame of love before the fire of loss and regret almost consumes one of the characters.
Jon Shear's "Urbania" is one of the few go-for-broke American entries I've managed to see, an attempt to mingle much-repeated urban legends with one man's own fierce compulsion to create his own violent, vengeance-ridden urban legend. Dan Futterman plays Charlie as an amiable man who's suffered a nasty setback. He's become super-attuned to the churn and chatter of urban sprawl and con games: His alert eyes dance from one part of the frame to another as he tears through a long, dark night of the soul. Charlie's bitter, funny and often cruel, and Shear's visual style, transferred from Super 16 to video to 35mm with a process similar to that used for "Phantom Menace," is assured throughout. Yet the story doesn't deliver on its earlier promise, settling into a quieter, almost self-pitying mode, shifting into a simplistic solution, but I marveled at much of its comic and visual daring.
I've also been shoving people in the direction of "Luna Papa," a ragged, raucous comedy from Tajikistan. Director Bakhtiar Kudojnazorov contrasts East and West, past and future, in a loud, music-drenched Kusturica-like mosaic of myth and deprivation. It's filled with the flora and fauna of that part of Asia Minor: The camera rushes alongside wild horses in full stride, then tilts up to capture a plane that shoots just overhead. The topography, shot in locations throughout central Asia, is real, yet with the diversity of dream. Chulpan Khamatova (as the innocent 17-year-old Mamlakat, pregnant with the tale's narrator) is wondrous, a wide-eyed observer, a little like Mira Sorvino, except she acts. Moritz Bleibtreu, late of "Run Lola Run," plays Nusreddin, Mamlakat's brother who's shell-shocked from his time in the war in Afghanistan. (At some moments he seems there for the German co-production moneys.) It's a mad, mad, mad, mad Republic, you think as the music bounces you out of the theater.
I revisited Claire Denis' "Beau Travail," an almost abstract examination of French Foreign Legionnaires in contemporary Africa. Its point is simple, despite the plaintive cry after the showing by the woman behind me, "Someone tell me what that was about. It was beautiful, but what the fuck was that?" It's a narrative reduced almost entirely to gesture, with men enacting anachronistic rituals, showing their futility in the modern world. "Oh," she said. "Did you have to see it twice to get that?"
There was simpler joy in Julien Temple's "The Filth and The Fury." Each showing opens with several festival trailers, saluting the dozens of festival sponsors. This particular bit of musical rage was presented by Blockbuster, and it was the first film I've heard catcalls at. When the Fine Line Features logo appeared, which says "A Time Warner Company" at the bottom of the screen, someone belts out basso, "AOL!" The laughter is swallowed as the Sex Pistols bio begins.
After the show, John Lydon bowed to the cheers of the crowd, saying, "Every fucking word up there is honest!" But despite the language--more "fucks" and "you cunts" than you can shake a copy of Billboard at, that era seems more than quaint. In 1977, the Sex Pistols were a threat to the British Empire, and today Temple's film is but a little gem in the crown of the proposed AOLTimeWarnerWarnerEMIMusic conglom. But Lydon made an excellent point: "A lot of the freedom you have right now is because of what we did back there. Now I want to go and get filthy drunk. So peace, peace-off, may the road rise." And he was gone, trailing cheers and his VH-1 camera crew.
After the peculiar black comedy of "Chuck & Buck," nothing seems to have divided critical consensus. Get four people together and you're lucky if two have seen the same film. Past the midpoint of a festival, exhaustion is often a theme, but it seems that getting to bed early and getting a solid night's sleep has kept many on even keel. The conversations veer quickly from film to Utah's Byzantine liquor laws and square footage of New York City apartments and whether airports back east will be snowed in.
I feel like I am on the floor of McCormick Place during any old trade show. Entertainment Weekly and indieWIRE and the various Times that are here try to pump up the place as a platform for art, a plateau for craft, but the proof is in the pictures. The L.A. Times wrote on Tuesday about all the dot-communists who are here--"To each according to his greed"--who figure to revolutionize the distribution of films; to substitute the conglomerate control for their less centralized control. There was a keen quote from Artisan Entertainment's Amir Malin when he was asked whether he had checked out any of the computer-screen bedecked storefronts from these upstarts. "This isn't an Internet conference for us," cut and dried, thank you, ma'am.
Writers who must file copy each day, conscious of when it will be seen in print or online, talk about their doldrums, cooped in their condos, wondering what conversations are going on, what calumnies and defamation they're missing in order to pass the rest on to the world at large--or only this minor microcosm.
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