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Buzz (Not Buzz) 

The Talk of Sundance

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
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The buzz at Sundance this year — and it was deafening — was no buzz. "I’m waiting to be blown away" and "Nothing stellar" were the most frequent answers to the question "What have you seen that’s good?" No film arrived at Park City with the must-see imprimatur, and few earned that distinction once the festival began. But it wasn’t just art-house fiends who felt the chill of disappointment; bottom-line industry types also had their buy-small-sell-big dreams dashed hard. This year’s Sundance managed to bum out the full spectrum of attendees.

The opening-night films set the tone for the days to come. Robert Altman’s star-studded Cookie’s Fortune (which, like many festival films, came equipped with a distributor) generated far less interest than the party that followed, and was noticeably never mentioned again during the festival. Nancy Savoca’s disappointing The 24 Hour Woman, starring Rosie Perez, attempted to blend the comedic trials of a working wife and mother with a media satire, resulting in a mush of clichés that were, as one festival volunteer noted with a shudder, "unwatchable."

"We went back and forth for a long time about whether or not we should even come to Sundance. Our film is experimental. It’s not a feel-good film, and we do expect walkouts. Sundance really isn’t the place for that kind of film. Not anymore."

—Adrienne Gruben, producer of Treasure Island

Gaspar Noe’s hypernihilistic I Stand Alone, which caused a huge stir at Cannes last year, provoked the expected walkouts, but, while brilliantly crafted, it is too nakedly calculated to "shock the bourgeoisie" and "implicate its audience" (yawn) to make a real impact. (Still, it had the pale, bespectacled guy next to me giggling when the lead character beat his pregnant wife.) Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a Western starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, uses cannibalism to critique Manifest Destiny, but even if you slept through history class, it’s a blast. Running on over-the-top energy, gore and style, it offered the most pure-fun at the festival.

"It’s no accident that the film is set in California in 1847. Having lived in Cal-ifornia in the ’90s, I think the metaphor still works."

—Antonia Bird, after the premiere screening of Ravenous

There was a celeb-packed house for The Minus Man, a psychological study of a serial killer written and directed by Hampton Fancher (co-writer of Blade Runner) — and a colossal bore, wasting the talents of Mercedes Ruehl, Janeane Garofalo and current Hollywood It-boy, Owen Wilson. Eric Mendelsohn’s melancholic comedy Judy Berlin, though a little slow, is a deftly written, superbly acted ensemble piece about some Long Island neighbors trying to get through a single day while wrestling with their dreams and disappointments. Throughout the week, I heard buyer after buyer say how much he or she loved it, but would have to pass because he or she had no idea how to sell the film. Mike Figgis’ The Loss of Sexual Innocence, an unintentional art-house parody, looked great but was torture to sit through. The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, from writer-director Tod Williams, is a smart teen coming-of-age film that, mercifully, has no one from Party of Five or Dawson’s Creek in it. The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s extremely low-budget flick, dazzled its audiences as a thinking-man’s horror film, and became one of the first high-profile purchases.

The breakout film of the festival, finally, was Mark Illsey’s Happy, Texas, a comedy about two hetero guys who escape prison, make their way to a small Texas town and are mistaken for a pair of gay beauty-pageant organizers. The film, a highly polished pastiche of a zillion other films, hawks castrated outrageousness while standing firmly on the side of convention. At the premiere screening, the buyer-packed audience gave the film a thunderous ovation, prompting one Hollywood insider to sigh, "This is the single most depressing moment at the festival. They’re applauding because this film validates their own bad taste. This is precisely what they came up here for." Miramax bought the film’s rights for a rumored $10 million, though its spokespeople put the sum at $2.5 million.

"Every buyer here is panicked at this point. There’s really been nothing to buy, and everyone’s under pressure to bring something home. But there’ll be a breakout film. There always is."

—Rachel Rosen, programmer with the San Francisco Film

Festival, just hours before the

premiere of Happy, Texas

"He’s Forrest Gump. He’s in the right place at the right time. He’s so dumb, and he’s soooo lucky."

—A Hollywood insider assessing

one of the producers of Happy, Texas

"Numbingly competent."

—Rosen, on this year’s films

The days of formally innovative queer films with challenging content (Swoon, Poison, High Art) seem to be a thing of the past, with feel-good, love-me-do faggotry filling up Sundance screens (Trick). The sole nondocumentary film helmed by a Negro was Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso, the story of a young Oakland woman who tirelessly photographs the young Negro men in her neighborhood in order to document their endangered existence. One of her subjects turns out to be a young woman who dons men’s clothing and swaggers so she can walk the streets in safety. Though the film is a tad didactic, its strong premise floats it above dryness.

The real action at Sundance ’99 was in the documentaries. The Hughes Brothers’ American Pimp was one of the hottest tickets of the festival; the first night it screened, a near riot broke out, with hundreds of folks shoving and yelling to get in. It was pandemonium that allowed Ben Affleck and his Bahston homeboys to bogart their way to the front of the line, while Hollywood hotshots seethed after being told to line up against the wall and calm down or they wouldn’t get in. One woman exclaimed, "Oh, this is fabulous! This has gotta be better than the movie!" It was. Technically flawless, the film showed the Hugheses to be so enamored of the pimp mystique that there wasn’t an iota of critical thought to be found. The result is an infuriating endorsement of exploitation.

The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons, on the other hand, was a slow-to-start but ultimately riveting look at how personal grief gave way to California’s three-strikes legislation. An exposé of the state’s prison industry, conservative politics and deeply entrenched racism, Michael J. Moore’s doc is both cogent and viscerally affecting. But the best documentary — the best Sundance film, period — was Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow, which tracks a year in the life of an Appalachian family. Kennedy (daughter of Robert F.) refuses to shy away from stereotypes about her subjects, and instead celebrates their humanity. When a skinny, full-of-rage but basically sweet 17-year-old boy is dumped for the millionth time by the girl he loves madly and sobs to his mother, "Mommy, it hurts so much," the film strikes a chord of soulfulness that nothing else came close to.

"Sundance is no longer a place where cinephiles meet to discover new voices and to celebrate the art of filmmaking. It’s a marketplace. There are still wonderful things to be found, but they’re dismissively assessed by industry types as ‘typical festival stuff,’ and that’s said with a sneer. People come up here now to buy cheaply what they’re already familiar with. It’s like, if you own a restaurant and cook a certain food in a certain way, then you go to another restaurant and get the same type of food prepared in the very same way, but you swear it’s a wonderful new dish because it reaffirms what you already know."

—Kevin Hardesty, director of

development for Alphaville, which brought us A Simple Plan

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