Indecent exposures – Festivals: Sundance – 2002 Sundance Film Festival

Indecent exposures – Festivals: Sundance – 2002 Sundance Film Festival – Brief Article

Gavin Smith

It’s no revelation that the rhetoric surrounding indie film has become virtually meaningless in the last ten years or so. All the same, the seemingly infinite permutations in the co-opting of the word “independent” can still occasionally produce a frisson—or an incredulous giggle fit. The ne plus ultra of this Orwellian twisting of language came at the end of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, which climaxed in the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater with an adoring audience’s standing ovation for Robert Evans, the producer of Chinatown and head of Paramount from 1967 to 1974. The occasion was the world premiere of The Kid Stays in the Picture, a mildly diverting vanity film executive-produced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. But, with all due respect to Evans, whose tenure at Paramount was glorious indeed, is it just me, or is there something surreal–no, grotesque, no, make that indecent–about Sundance celebrating this quintessential Seventies Hollywood operator as the apotheosis of the independent spirit? (Particularly when you remember the filmmakers’ onstage admission that they more or less surrendered creative control to their subject.) As songwriter Tom Lehrer said when Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize: after this, who needs satire?

And yet, to state the obvious: there’s no inherent virtue in independence. Authentically independent films–some good, the majority bad or indifferent–continue to be made in droves. All three varieties were to be found in this year’s festival, which offered the weakest lineup in all the years I’ve been attending, incidentally. From the dramatic competition, the only real find was the largely overlooked Paradox Lake (see p. 24). A genuine original, it explores the interaction of an autistic girl and an adult counselor at an upstate New York summer camp. Within a loose narrative framework, director Przemyslaw Shemie Reut creates an impressionistic hybrid in which fiction and actuality overlap, while experimental form and montage heighten the film’s beguiling sense of mysterious interiority. And just as he refrains from idealizing autism, Reut and screenwriter Wieslaw Saniewski take care to foreground the motivations of the camp’s counselors–their shortcomings and the tensions between them–ensuring that their film achieves a complexity beyond its ostensible “issue.”

The Grand Jury Prize went to Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, a triptych of “portraits,” each focusing on pivotal experiences in the lives of three women–a working-class mother with resentment to spare (played not-quite-convincingly by Kyra Sedgwick) who abandons her abusive husband and begins a new life, an insecure New York book editor (Parker Posey) who has second thoughts about marriage after her career takes off, and a confused young woman (Fairuza Balk) taking a time out from her life who picks up a troubled hitchhiker. Miller’s first film, Angela, demonstrated a strong visual sense and feel for mood (albeit influenced by the work of photographer Sally Mann), but this belated follow-up is incoherently shot and uses a dreadful, folkish score that tramples on the film’s occasional subtleties. Derived from Miller’s recently published short story collection, each segment is a self-conscious exercise in baggage, backstory, and unfinished emotional business between daughters and parents. The film experiments to no particular effect with freeze-frames to heighten key moments and attempts to unify the material with a temporal structuring device (a recurring radio news report that surfaces in each narrative), but its reliance on a third-person voiceover for its most acute insights (“She felt the ambition drain out of her like pus from a lanced boil”) lends things a vaguely illustrative air that is reinforced by its diffuse digital video look. Still, there’s real bite in the middle story, which is set in a world Miller seems to know well, and Parker Posey’s graceful, vivid performance carries the day.

And what of Tadpole, this year’s crowd-pleasing festival success story? Writer-director Gary Winick (one of the prime movers behind InDigEnt, the Independent Film Channel’s low-budget digital feature venture) makes superior use of the DV format and the film is winning, but it’s modest, inconsequential stuff. And with its Upper West Side Manhattan milieu, this well-observed comedy of manners about a precocious private school student’s amorous designs on his research scientist stepmother is several shades of Wes Anderson. Winick’s handling of his cast is smooth: as the film’s embodiment of earnest, passionate youth, newcomer Aaron Stanford makes a strong impression, and, as his object of desire, Sigourney Weaver delicately sketches the middle-aged regret tucked away inside her character’s poised self-possession. All the same, the movie is stolen by Bebe Neuwirth in a delicious turn as Weaver’s insouciant, cradle-snatching best friend.

Two more ambitious, though much more uneven, takes on desire and its defiantly improbable pathways were served up in Secretary and Pumpkin. The former, a psychosexual comedy adapted from a Mary Gaitskill short story by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Steven Shainberg, explores the escalation of a sado-masochistic relationship between a timid, compulsive self-mutilator (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her employer, a buttoned-down control-freak lawyer (James Spader). The film’s overly expressionistic art direction, subtly stylized performances, and final act gearshift involving a fairy-tale test of commitment, are less suggestive of a satire about workplace exploitation than a not-entirely-successful allegory of sexual politics and male-female relationships. Restrained, agreeably monotonous, but at times forced, the film nevertheless sets up an irresistible pas de deux between Gyllenhaal’s awkward, out-of-it introvert and Spader’s in-a-trance, ultra-intense neurotic. For some time Spader has been quietly cultivating one of the most fascinating deadpan affects in American movies–and in Shainberg’s film he seems poised to overtake even Christopher Walken in the understated outlandishness department. Pumpkin, a post-Farrelly Brothers satire of prejudice set in a caricatured world of smug privilege, is also a gansgressive love story: college sorority girl Carolyn (Christina Ricci) becomes a mentor to Pumpkin (Hank Harris), a mildly retarded boy training for the “Challenged Games” competition. Gradually recognizing his “beautiful soul,” she falls for him, breaks with her perfect tennis-star boyfriend, and gradually becomes a social outcast. Writer Adam Larson Broder and co-director Tony R. Abrams contrive a world in which the couple are the only authentic people–everybody else is either a hypocrite, in denial, or a substance abuser. Although the film’s multi-genre pastiche becomes increasingly labored, it develops a curiously melodramatic, almost Sirkian, edge and an improbable emotional potency–a la All That Heaven Allows, everyone conspires to keep the young lovers apart, with near-tragic results. But the film’s genre-surfing mode is grating, and the constant shifting between parody and earnestness is ultimately wearing.

A similarly confused tone afflicts Justin Lin’s stylishly nihilistic Better Luck Tomorrow, which depicts the anti-social activities of a clique of disaffected middle-class Asian-American high school students. Set in a suburban California of gated communities and status-conscious conformity, the film captures the sociopath-wannabe blankness of its characters. But as their behavior escalates from smalltime scams to theft to drug dealing and beyond, Lin can’t decide whether he’s framing the action as an amoral satire in which crime pays or as a troubling study of moral disconnection. As in Kids, parents remain out of sight, their convenient absence permitting the characters–or is it Lin?–to sustain their junior-league Goodfellas fantasies; yet, via a fleeting brush with a car full of real gang-bangers, Lin supplies a telling reminder of authentic social estrangement. Ultimately the film’s moral short-circuiting, its inability to find a coherent perspective, may be as persuasive as its sociological detail-perhaps for better, mostly for worse. But at least the contradictions in Lin’s film juice it up.

Another fired multiple-character episodic narrative about alienation, interconnection, and the human condition, writer-director Peter Mattei’s Love in the Time of Money was saddled with a title that strained for significance beyond its reach. Conceived as a dotcom-era NYC La Ronde, it’s a by-rote succession of entirely predictable acting-class encounters across class and age boundaries shot in notably hard-edged DV. Too bad somebody didn’t come up with some ideas–or a film, for that matter–to go with that snappy title.

Biggest disappointments of the festival? Inevitably, they were all in the Premieres Section, where expectations run high. Three superior music video directors, Mark Romanek, Peter Care, and Michel Gondry, each stumbled in their attempts to cross over to features. From the discreet, controlled images in its opening moments, One Hour Photo immediately confirmed writer-director Romanek’s visual genius. But the director’s prodigious gifts are squandered on a script that shortchanges its intriguing premise: creepy, repressed photo lab technician Robin Williams leads a pathetic, vicarious existence through a perfect yuppie family’s snapshots–until the husband spoils everything by having an affair, at which point the film becomes another stalker flick. (It’s too bad Romanek seems to have swept his unclassifiable first film, Static, under the carpet. Made back in 1985, before independent film was fashionable, it showed potential he has yet to deliver on.) Surprisingly tentative in visual terms, Cares The Dangerous lives of Altar Boys is a standard issue coming-of-age story save for its animation sequences, in which the film’s Catholic schoolboy protagonists fantasize themselves as superheroes fighting the malevolent forces of darkness embodied by Jodie Fosters disciplinarian Catholic school nun (is there any other kind in movies?). And then there’s Human Nature, a satirical take on nature vs. culture in which a scientist (Tim Robbins) tries to socialize a man raised in the wild (Rhys Ifans), assisted and then sabotaged by his fiancee (Patricia Arquette), who has a severe body hair problem. This flat, labored goof, which I’m not sure sounds funny even on paper, was the result of the combined efforts of Gondry, director of some of the loopiest, most fabulously imaginative music videos ever made, and Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich. Come on lads, if David Fincher and Spike Jonze can do it, so can you.

Then there was Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl, from a script by the estimable Mike White: its story of a discontented supermarket cashier (Jennifer Aniston) tom between her slobbish housepainter husband (John C. Reilly) and a passionate but unstable teenage co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets off to a flying start, in part thanks to sharp supporting performances from Zooey Deschanel and White himself. But what begins as an edgy comedy with authentic insights slowly turns completely routine. Whatever else you could say about Arteta and White’s previous collaboration, Chuck & Buck, at least it took real risks.

Most discouraging of all, indie veteran Victor Nunez, whose last two films, Ruby in Paradise and Ulee’s Gold, epitomized Sundance at its best, returned with Coastlines, an uneasy, pedestrian attempt to marry a crime story with a relationship drama in his signature unforced, unsentimental manner. The film explores the triangular relationship between a young Florida cop, his wife, and their best friend, just released from prison and reluctantly drawn back into dealings with local gangsters. Nunez is trying to get at feelings of longing, exclusion, and subtle class friction generated by this trio’s dynamic, and though things remain grounded in everyday reality, the film never ignites because the director’s heart is not in the less-than-compelling crime plot mechanics. In fact, they prevent him from giving his characters the space to develop dimension and complexity. (It doesn’t help that Timothy Olyphant is miscast as the ex-con–he’s too remote and inexpressive.)

Nunez couldn’t be further from everything that a self-regarding, self-pitying Hollywood fat cat like Robert Evans stands for, and he’s too gifted an artist and has too much integrity not to survive a minor artistic failure. And though the concept of “independent film” has in many ways become an albatross around the Sundance Film Festival’s neck, as long as people like Nunez continue to make films in their own way, successful or unsuccessful, the movie industry, from which the festival can no longer separate itself, can’t completely eradicate what it is to be a true independent.

Gavin Smith is the editor of FILM COMMENT.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group