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Gloss vs. grit at Sundance

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000

Forget about Slamdance, No Dance, Jamdance and Park City’s numerous other spinoffs; there were already two de facto film festivals within this year‘s Sundance showcase itself. Depending on which one you fell into, you either saw a steady stream of slickly accomplished, multiplex-ready product (fueling the ever-constant grumbling that Sundance has lost its way) or were lucky enough to sit in front of screens filled with the stories of folk who exist beyond mainstream peripheral vision, and who are rarely caught by the camera. Though few directors on either side of the gloss-vs.-grit divide took many aesthetic risks, the latter at least had the courage of progressive political conviction -- their films drew power from the fact that they had such convictions at all. These were the movies that graced the unwieldy festival with heart, pumped it with an air of excitement.

Going into Sundance 2000, a lot of sales hooks were served up for media consumption: more women directors than in any previous festival (one official placed the figure at 40 percent); more people of color; an especially strong slate of shorts and documentaries. This was all true -- and impressive -- but the real treat was in seeing that alongside the oppressively banal professionalism of so many young filmmakers was a warp of social consciousness that wove deeply through foreign films and shorts, through documentaries and a handful of American dramatic features.

One of the most formally daring features was French director Claire Denis’ hypnotically beautiful Beau Travail (Good Work), which will be released later this year by New Yorker Films. Denis‘ trademark is her ability to capture the secrets and inner lives of her characters -- especially men -- with a poetic and tough-minded incisiveness unlike that of anyone currently making movies. Beau Travail, set in an Africa snagged on the forces of colonization and capitalism, tracks a multiracialmultiethnic outfit in the French Foreign Legion as they’re put through their paces. From this all-male warrior world, the director mines an unsentimental tenderness, letting us watch as men of varying strains of beauty transform rigorous training rituals into breathtaking dances of machismo.

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France was also well represented by Laurent Cantet‘s taut, smart Human Resources, a bit of straightforward filmmaking about class, the human cost of unchecked corporatization, and the downside of realizing family dreams. When the once-idealistic young hero, Franck (who’s returned to his hometown from Paris to work in the local factory), tearfully yells at his father that the old man long ago infected him with shame for who he is and where he comes from, the film rips your heart out.

Among American dramatic films, one of the hottest tickets was Mary Harron‘s American Psycho (Lions Gate Films), which sharply divided viewers into love-it or hate-it camps. Ultimately, it wasn’t the over-the-top violence or the unnerving mix of comedy and horror that made the film flatline, but its too-obvious irony and one-joke premise. A game Christian Bale as the film‘s psychotic center nearly makes it worth seeing, but only nearly. (The sight of the oft-naked Bale seemed to stir warm memories of the actor’s boyhood in the verbose recovering pedophile who sat behind me at the screening.) Likewise, Patrik-Ian Polk‘s Punks had a lot of buzz at the festival’s start, but quickly fumbled it. Billed as a gay Waiting To Exhale (and if that sounds redundant, that‘s because it is), the film tells the story of a group of gay African-American friends living and loving in West Hollywood. It’s a bad film -- poorly written, ineptly directed, transparent in its thievery -- but a politically important one. It achieves its goal of placing black gay men in a mainstream romantic-comedy setting, and near the end frames a display of affection between black men that hasn‘t been seen since Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied. Still, it was one of the festival‘s biggest disappointments.

Similarly, Gurinder Chadha (who directed 1994’s Bhaji on the Beach from a script she co-wrote) won points a for the melting-pot politics at the center of her new film, What‘s Cooking?, which looks at Thanksgiving Day in the households of four raciallyethnically diverse L.A. families that live in the same middle-class neighborhood. But while Alfre Woodard and Mercedes Ruehl are luminous in their roles as put-upon matriarchs, and a lesbian subplot is affectingly portrayed by Julianna Margulies and Kyra Sedgwick, the film indulges too many stereotypes (hectoring Jews; a big, black mama whose love is oppressive) to be as coolly progressive as it thinks it is.

White hetero hipsters in love were out in full cinematic force. Thanks for that dubious achievement belongs to, among others: Brad Anderson (who first appeared at Sundance with The Darien Gap in 1996, then made a big splash there in ’98 with Next Stop, Wonderland), who premiered Happy Accidents, starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D‘Onofrio; Michael Almereyda, who has updated Hamlet with Ethan Hawke in the lead; Love and Sex, from writer-director Valerie Breiman, with actors Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau adding real sparks to what is essentially a Sex and the City episode dragged onto the big screen; and writer-director Lisa Krueger, whose Committed (a Miramax film), starring Heather Graham and Luke Wilson, was the biggest letdown in the group, with an unfocused script and a story -- married woman refuses to be dumped by her no-good man -- that strained for inspiration. After her highly original Sundance debut, Manny & Lo (1996), Krueger’s new film felt like a big step backward.

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