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NewCityNet Sundances With Wolves

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  It was probably the tenth time I was asked if I had a film in competition at Sundance, I started answering, "Do I really need a shave that badly?" there were circles of desperation and anxiety in the cool mountain air that had nothing to do with the movies, good or bad. The 1998 Sundance Film Festival was filled with good films, but out of the dark everybody became somebody, or anybody you talked to just had to be somebody important. Networking flopsweat tinged the air.

The hills, gleaming under brilliant sun in high-elevation air, were alive with neediness. Walk down the street and all too often it was just another US magazine ratfuck -- look, it's JFK Jr. I didn't know he had a film here; Neve Campbell's hair is healthy; Gwyneth.

So much activity to so many ends, like preproduction for a movie that never gets made. Moving in and out of crowds, you catch the arcane ways people annotate their program books, photocopied pages, computer printouts, Palm Pilots. Cartographers whose charts sprawl in all directions, across space toward dream space, and especially toward several of the many parties each night.

Then you see a good movie and you remember what it should be about. Art. Cinema. Not Art of the Deal. Of the thirty-five or so films I saw this year, there were only a couple of timeless clinkers, notably the year's only Parker Posey vehicle, "The Misadventures of Margaret," an unfunny comedy of pluperfect leadenness that kept me in the room only for its perky, poppy score by St. Etienne. When the writer-director spoke after one screening, he said that those who liked his film should see movies "nobody" sees like by directors such as Gregory LaCava and Preston Sturges. One national magazine critic yowled afterwards, "I wanted to run up there and say, 'You fucking see LaCava! You fucking watch Sturges! Because you obviously haven't' !"

Snap judgments are right as often as not, but festival fever affects critics as much as Miramax acquisition executives -- $6 million here, $6 million there, you'd think there were as many masterpieces as clever promo items stuffed in the press mailboxes each morning. (Knit wool hats bearing names of bad movies were popular.) Filing fizzy deadline copy day after day for eleven frantic days, journalists seek buzz, concoct spurious themes, divvy inside scoop; a week's distance offers valuable perspective.

Documentaries continue to fascinate, with the festival's first loud noise coming from Nick Broomfield's "Kurt and Courtney," a contentious doc about the short life and death of Kurt Cobain, withdrawn after legal threats by Courtney Love and shown a few midnights later at the upstart Slamdunk Festival (of which another filmmaker moaned, "I'm just here to give my film a proper burial before it goes to video.") Barbara Kopple's "Wild Man Blues," a behind-the-scenes look at Woody Allen's recent European jazz tour, was deliciously prickly, the funniest Woody Allen movie in years, as it depicts the filmmaker as a spoiled, pissy, unpleasant, exceedingly funny man who gets as many kicks out of taunting now-wife Soon-Yi Previn as he does from playing indifferent Dixieland jazz.

Vincent Gallo's gorgeous, grating, idiosyncratic written-directed-starring "Buffalo 66," the story of a just-released con's first visit home, was one of the more compelling pieces of filmmaking, and it also boasts one of Christina Ricci's mesmerizing performances as a plush sexpot from the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. (The other is in the scabrous, deeply un-P.C. sex comedy "The Opposite of Sex.") There were other vehicles for talented actors: Hope Davis, wry and thorny as an unlucky-in-love Bostonian in "Next Stop, Wonderland"; Gwyneth Paltrow, twinkling madly in "Sliding Doors"; Ally Sheedy, drawn and compelling as a heroin-addicted Manhattan photographer in Lisa Chodolenko's memorably astringent "High Art"; Samantha Morton's emotionally naked performance as a woman who mourns her mother's sudden death through bursts of promiscuous self-destruction in "Under the Skin." And Lynne Ramsay's "Gasman," a fifteen-minute Scottish short about a small girl's discovery of her father's secret second family, may well be perfect.

Hitmen pop up in Saul Rubinek's well-acted "Jerry and Tom," as well as Paddy Breathnach's playful Irish petty-crime comedy "I Went Down," an intelligent, little-talked-about entry which will get its due later this year. Then there are the movies that seek and find their own voices, such as the multiple-award-winning "Slam," a crudely shot drama about crime and poetry on the streets of D.C., ringing with behavioral authenticity even as its drama thuds and its look scalds the eyes; Michael DiJiacomo's "Animals," a richly-imagined Garden of Eden shaggy-dog story starring Tim Roth; and Darren Aronofsky's "'," a virtually indescribable black-and-white thriller about a migraine-stricken mathematician trying to tame the Kabbalah and the stock market with one unified theory.

You will hear more about Paul Schrader's best film yet, the concentrated, lacerating "Affliction," wherein the macho sins of father James Coburn distort and eventually destroy the life of son Nick Nolte; Bill Condon's "Monsters and Gods," a tender elegy for dreams lost with Ian McKellen magnificent as retired "Frankenstein" director James Whale in his last days in Hollywood; and Takeshi Kitano's serene, bloody, tender, lyrical "Fireworks." Little is said, guns are fired, kites are flown, flowers are painted, regret is dispersed. The world in "Fireworks" exists in small, delicate moments. Like the best movies. Like life.


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