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Nashville Scene The Unseen Cinema

Good films did show at Sundance '99--but will we ever get to see them?

By Rob Nelson

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  For me, the most resonant image of this year's Sundance Film Festival, which concluded last Saturday in Park City, Utah, was that of a news photographer taking a picture of me, the critic, waving my press badge in the air and looking altogether desperate for a seat at the Happy, Texas press screening--which was packed not with journalists but with studio acquisitions people. That Happy, Texas turned out to be the sort of pleasantly innocuous Full Monty-meets-Some Like It Hot-type farce one might be thrilled to discover on late-night cable isn't the point here. The point is that at Sundance '99, the last great American film festival of the 20th century, the press is now beside the point--even at press screenings.

Happy, Texas--in which Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam play a dumb-and-dumber pair of escaped cons who pass themselves off as gay directors of an all-girl kindergarten musical in Hicksville--is an "independent film" that epitomizes the same review-proof mentality behind such aggressively fluffy Hollywood hits as Patch Adams and The Waterboy. And to wit: Miramax secured the film for an amount that ranged in trade-paper reports from $2.5 million to upwards of $9 million. This Happy event was one of many examples of movies on the Sundance roster that either were snapped up early by mini-major distributors or came to Park City with their deals already struck--thus rendering the festival akin to a mere preview of coming attractions, and putting advocacy-minded criticism another step closer to extinction.

Even festival guru Robert Redford had to admit publicly this year that Sundance has become a "market." No shit, Bob. Yet it remains essential, and not just because Park City has perhaps the only pizza joint in the country where you can get a two-slices-and-soda lunch special for $4.60 and overhear the following question spoken into a cell phone: "Did you get word to Altman?"

It seemed to me an obvious irony that, three days into a 10-day independent film festival, the most exciting thing I'd seen was Antonia Bird's riveting Ravenous, a big-studio thriller due out in six weeks. But then two brilliant, bona fide indies came along to restore the reputation of the old Sundance as a place where worthy work can move from the fringes onto national arthouse schedules. Chris Smith's hilarious documentary American Movie and Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's shiver-inducing horror flick The Blair Witch Project are the real deal: scrappy, engrossing low-budget films that suggest just how much a young artist can do with a cheap camera and a skeleton crew.

As it happens, both of these movies measure the costs and rewards of independent filmmaking. Shot mostly in Hi-8 video, The Blair Witch Project is a mockumentary that follows three student filmmakers deep into the woods of Maryland, where they hope to capture the mystery of the fabled Blair Witch. What they discover instead is both ambiguous and truly terrifying. The Blair Witch Project's violently elliptical editing brings the viewer back again and again to sudden darkness and the threat of horrible death, as the starving and sleep-deprived protagonists sit in their tent hearing faint cackles and howls until daylight brings another bad, bloody omen. After the screening, a few real filmmakers were heard quibbling over the fact that the characters' battery packs seemed never to run dry, but the majority of us were left stunned and shaking, in awe of this project's ability to deliver authentic horror through the most elemental means.

Suffice to say Blair Witch is the sort of bare-bones shocker that American Movie's protagonist would do anything to create. Ironically subtitled The Making of "Midwestern," Smith's film chronicles the failed efforts of Menominee Falls, Wis., horror director Mark Borchardt to get his feature-length dream project in the can. "Kick fuckin' ass--I got a Mastercard!" exclaims the poor Borchardt at the start of this gruelingly funny portrait of the artist as a young loser; from there, American Movie goes on to depict two painful years in the life of a longhaired Ed Wood. Using his mom as both camera operator and black-hooded extra, borrowing money from his ancient, trailer park-residing uncle in trade for bathtub washing sessions and shots of peppermint schnapps, Borchardt is nothing if not dedicated to his craft.

One of the things that gives this real comedy its dramatic charge is our constant awareness of Smith's great expectations relative to his working-class subject: Clearly, not all indie directors are created equal, despite Smith's typically genuine post-screening claim that Borchardt is "the ideal independent filmmaker--his only goal is to capture his own vision, not necessarily to get connected or make money or move to L.A." On the other hand, while Smith and his co-executive producer Michael Stipe saw their film sell to Sony Pictures Classics for a cool million bucks, American Movie did succeed at giving its subject a leg up: Borchardt's 40-minute "Coven" was rewarded with a midnight showing at Sundance.

American Movie's press kit appropriately included a $1 "Jack o' Lantern" lotto ticket, although it's Smith who hit the jackpot at Sundance: Besides his big distribution deal, the twentysomething Milwaukee filmmaker received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary. Less deservedly, the young writer-director Tony Bui took both the jury's prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic category for his visually gorgeous but dramatically inert and derivative Three Seasons, a multi-tale portrait of modern life in Vietnam. Whether this October Films property will be better able than such past winners as Slam and Sunday to parlay Sundance award distinction into box-office grosses remains to be seen. (I'd guess not, as festival prizes have generally meant next to nothing in commercial terms, and the only other clearly marketable element of Three Seasons is Harvey Keitel's unmemorable role as a grief-stricken American war vet.)

Albeit unique in its acclaim, Three Seasons was unexceptional in another sense: Even more than in past years, young, first-time directors making highly mannered, technically fluid, and essentially boring features became a trend at Sundance. Such well-trumpeted melodramas as Audrey Wells' Guinevere, Lisanne Skyler's Getting to Know You, and Toni Kalem's A Slipping-Down Life appeared far more contrived than felt. There were some notable exceptions--good films that managed to land distribution: Hampton Fancher's effectively Bressonian serial-killer thriller The Minus Man (due in the spring from upstart distributor the Shooting Gallery) and Gavin O'Connor's familiar but transcendent mother-daughter portrait Tumbleweeds (acquired by Fine Line Features late in the fest). But the strongest films in dramatic competition, Eric Mandelbaum's intriguingly obtuse Roberta and Eric Mendelsohn's playfully surreal Judy Berlin, drew minimal buzz and therefore might scarcely be heard from again.

I could surely go on about how these last two movies dare to forgo celebrity cameos and conventional dramatic clarity in favor of instilling longer-lasting impressions in a much smaller audience--but that thumbnail description is probably sufficient to make the point. Besides, more than ever before, this year's festival has put me in touch with the depressing thought that anything a critic might write about the likes of Roberta or Judy Berlin is apt to have no bearing whatsoever on whether they'll make it to these parts, or when. Having become just like any other big industry trade show, Sundance is obviously less about art than about the art of the deal.

So, aside from watching a parade of celebrities in designer parkas, how might the consumer draw a hand in this game? Another indie year has passed and Robert Redford's previously announced plan for a fringe-focused national chain of Sundance Cinemas remains an ideal rather than a reality. Meanwhile, the festival's well-attended panel discussion of "Low-Budget Films and the Distribution Crisis" served mainly as a reminder of how consolidated the base of power is even in the indie milieu. Will executives at Landmark Theatres and Blockbuster Video really take the time to look at your low-budget film that has no distributor? Probably not--although, in the spirit of grassroots indie optimism, it bears mentioning that a tape of Mark Borchardt's horror masterpiece can be purchased for $15 at http://www.americanmovie.com.

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