Notes from Sundance 2008
"This town has no business having a film festival," my friend Jessica said to me the other day. A Sundance virgin, she was struggling to comprehend why what seems to be New York's entire film industry and a good part of LA's too should decide to decamp to Park City, Utah every January. It's cold, inconvenient and by general consensus the facilities are inadequate. A town of less than 8,000 suddenly swells to accommodate more than 50,000 on the opening weekend of the festival - and somehow we all find a place to sleep even if the chamber of commerce cautions there are less than 25,000 available beds.
That statistic echoes in my head when I arrive to find the condo I'm sharing with three strangers does indeed sleep four, but only if you don't mind sharing a double bed. I'd sleep on the floor - except the room is so small I can't see any. It turns out the Gods are smiling: another pal has lucked into a bigger place than he bargained for and can accommodate a freeloader.
What you realize after a while is that these are the very reasons Sundance is here: the message Park City sends out is that this is a long way from the comforts of Hollywood. All the celebs, the swag bags and the gifting boutiques don't change that. And the truth is, if they showed these movies in downtown LA instead, probably none of us would make the effort.
Of course, not everyone is so forgiving. The great non-fiction filmmaker Errol Morris declined an invitation to come this year. "I'd rather spend a week in a meat locker," he said.
Land of the Brave
This year's slate seems intent on distilling whatever it is that makes America, America. Check out the titles: An American Solider; American Son; American Teen; Anywhere, USA; IOUSA; Made in America. Another film, an insightful documentary about steroids called Bigger, Stronger, Faster, is subtitled, "The Side Effects of Being American". This obsessive need to identify the American Condition is surely a sign that this great country has lost its bearings. Will the real America please stand up?
The British Invasion
Count short films, there were more than 20 British films in the selection this year - a record. Funnily enough, none of them announced their Britishness in their names. On the contrary, the opening night film, playwright Martin McDonagh's first feature, was called In Bruges, and that's what it was about. That and a suicidal hitman (Colin Farrell); his history buff partner (Brendan Gleason); drug pushing girlfriend (Clemence Poesy); a racist dwarf movie star (Peter Dinklage); and a thuggish gangster (Ralph Fiennes). Bruges looked lovely: this may be the best publicity Belgium has enjoyed in years.
Of the other British films I saw, the less said about Incendiary the better. The Broken is an original variation on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (though the irritating filmmaking failed to capitalize on the premise). Marc Evans' documentary In Prison My Whole Life is an ambitiously big-picture take on racial injustice in the US, and very powerful in places, but marred by awkward shifts into first person filmmaking.
Finally, A Complete History of My Sexual Failures is an impressively candid and often uproariously funny account of director Chris Waitt's numerous sexual and social problems. Waitt attempts to interview all his (surprisingly numerous) ex-girlfriends, but when most of them refuse to have anything more to do with him he is sidetracked into online dating, counseling, and a Viagra overdose. Surely a Judd Apatow big budget Hollywood remake can only be a matter of time.
BEST OF THE FEST
2. Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Frank and funny first person examination of the mixed messages America sends out about steroids. Arnie, Sly and Hulk Hogan all feature prominently.
4. The Wackness
A typical Sundance subject - teen drug pusher bonds with his client/shrink - gets stylish, witty treatment from Jonathan Levine.
6. Time Crimes
7. In Bruges
Flip, funny Tarantino-esque thriller with Brendan Gleason, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes as a really nasty piece of work.
8. Megane (Glasses)Reminiscent of early Takeshi Kitano, this Japanese charmer is a blessed out celebration of doing nothing.
9. The Great Buck Howard
10. A Complete History of My Sexual Failures
Outrageous and very funny first-person documentary (though I use the term loosely). Do not go out with this man!
My most memorable encounter at this year's Sundance took place at Salt Lake City airport, just as I was leaving.
Killing time, I happened to bump into the novelist Chuck Palahniuk, best known as the author of Fight Club I had interviewed Palahniuk a few years ago over the phone, but I recognized him immediately - not least because I'd seen Choke the night before, and Palahniuk had a cameo in it (uncredited, but unmistakable).
The second movie adaptation of his work, Choke is written and directed by Colin Gregg - another face you would recognize, probably from TV's The West Wing, though he also wrote the screenplay What Lies Beneath. It stars Sundance favourite Sam Rockwell as Victor, a confirmed sex addict struggling on the fourth step of his recovery problem, and much troubled by his demented mom (Angelica Huston), who is dying slowly, but who has a bombshell to reveal about his parentage. Then there's Kelly Macdonald as a doctor who wants Victor to impregnate her in the hospital chapel.
The movie is wildly funny in parts, wildly uneven, and pretty risqué by mainstream standards. Palahniuk fans should be happy; it's very much in the spirit of his work and largely to the letter. Even so, a lot of it worked better on the page than on screen. So I wanted to know if he had any plans to write an original screenplay? Absolutely not, unfortunately. He's more interested in theater, he said (in fact his next novel, Snuff, was originally going to be a play, but he didn't think it was working in that form). Movies are too reliant on words, he said. In theatre, you really feel the power of gesture, something you can sense without having to think about.
Of course this is something movies can do too - Palahniuk talked about the eloquence of a gesture Liza Minnelli makes three times at different stages in Bob Fosse's film Cabaret. But as I thought about the two dozen plus movies I'd seen at Park City over the last six days, I realized there was something in what he said. Almost all the dramatic features were over-plotted and over-written. They told stories we've seen again and again, and piled on elaborations to disguise their lack of originality. The three or four movies that really stood out - Ballast; Sugar; Megane - all did the opposite: they pared down the dialogue, kept the plot off to the side, and invested everything in looks, gestures, space and atmosphere.
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