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How Neatly Spreads His Claws 

The 18th annual Sundance Film Festival

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
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“Go for it,” said the crocodile, “if I can do it, you can too.”

Onstage before a packed audience, the crocodile swiveled its leathery head, basking in the hot television light of adoration. The crowd erupted in applause; moments earlier, when the crocodile had slithered behind the lectern, the audience had jumped to its collective feet and surged toward the stage like supplicants. Like prey. (Sometimes, you can just feel when quarry wants to be eaten.) It was nearly midnight, two days from the close of the Sundance Film Festival, and Robert Evans, former Paramount kingpin turned spectacular Hollywood flameout, had pulled off another coup: He had let an audience of industry insiders canonize him on the basis of his greed, his megalomania and his failure. Saint Robert had become both a martyr and a desecration of the church built by Saint Bob, and given the exuberant bad taste of both the life and the film on display, it’s no wonder neither Robert Redford nor festival co-directors Geoffrey Gilmore and Nicole Guillemet were anywhere to be seen.

An opus of narcissism and turgid expressionism, The Kid Stays in the Picture is an easy-viewing version of Evans’ 1994 memoir of the same title. Narrated by Evans with the sandpaper purr that made the audio version of the book an industry cult, the film recounts the producer’s Hollywood rise and fall, from studio glory in the ’60s and ’70s to the endless boogie night of the past two decades. The Kid’s directors and producers are Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter co-producing, all willing accomplices in Evans’ ongoing self-resurrection. The film looks good and moves fast, mostly by way of digitally manipulated photographs, archival footage and judiciously chosen clips — including a Mike Nichols short in which Evans pitches an upcoming slate to the Paramount board — tied together by passages from the book. The adroit visual manipulations recall avant-garde animation, but what counts here is the narration, a boiling hot pot of Mickey Spillane pulp and Jacqueline Susann purple in which every woman is a “broad” and Roman Polanski is invariably billed as “the Polack.” It gets better. Evans on hiring the director of Knife in the Water and Repulsion for Rosemary’s Baby: “I saw brilliance in his little films.”

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Evans’ mythomania is contagious. When the producer makes a mad dash from a sanitarium, he calls his limo driver for help, and the filmmakers cue the image of Dustin Hoffman running naked in Marathon Man, one of Evans’ late successes. Too funny to be objectionable, this quagmire of ego, entertainment and bullshit (which USA Films plans to distribute) played to a welcoming audience that had come to Sundance seeking . . . what, exactly? To judge by the reception of The Kid Stays in the Picture, which held a mirror up to players who loved what they saw reflected back — themselves, mainly — it wasn’t the soul of Cassavetes that had them in thrall. It was the deal, the money, the fame — which is what Sundance has always been about one way or another, whether the power brokers are wearing Armani or faded Levi’s. If nothing else, the seemingly unlikely alliance between Robert Evans and Robert Redford proved, yet again, that the dream of independent cinema is finally inseparable from that of Hollywood. The thing is, some 40 years after Shadows and after nearly two decades of indie film — of struggling to define what it was and why it mattered — it no longer makes a difference where one dream leaves off and the other begins. No one cares; audiences just want good movies.

And so they, and we, came to Park City looking for the next In the Bedroom, The Deep End or Sexy Beast; the newest Memento, the latest Hedwig and the Angry Inch. These five, along with wild card Donnie Darko, had made last year’s festival one of the most critically venerated in Sundance history, and one of the most lucrative. This year, however, distributors kept busy buying films that will, for the most part, fade quickly once they hit commercial screens. Reports of a record number of deals couldn’t shake the slack, mood-dampening vibe that had descended by midfestival, after it became clear that, no matter how fine some of the work, in terms of expectations and returns, it was back to business as usual. Which doesn’t mean it was lousy; it was just Sundance. To that end, there were disappointments if not surprises, as when Victor Nunez, having graced Sundances past with Ruby in Paradise and Ulee’s Gold, took a wrong turn this year with the meandering Coastlines, about three friends who, after a short separation, reunite to stir things up, though not onscreen. Vaporous and slow-moving, the film reveals Nunez’s gift for capturing life as it’s lived in its everyday details even as it underscores the writer-director’s problems with pacing, and the difficulties he sometimes has in giving that life a strong pulse.

Because he exceeded expectation, perennial Sundance rogue Nick Broomfield provided one of the festival’s rare surprises by making, after years of hit-and-misses like Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Kurt and Courtney, an extraordinary documentary, Biggie and Tupac. (The film was misnamed LA Story in the program catalog.) At once a meditation on rap culture and an investigation of the exploitation of that culture, the film traces the lives and violent deaths of former friends Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (Biggie Smalls), an exploration that ranges from Los Angeles to New York, from the insistent calls for justice by Wallace’s mother to the unnerving threats, veiled and unveiled, by Suge Knight. Unexpectedly moving and tough-minded, at times even wildly, carelessly brave, this is the film that Broomfield has been working toward since he started down the documentary path. If the director makes it through the year alive — and given some of the revelations he secures, principally from friends of Wallace/Smalls who, out of love for the dead rapper and his mother, prove incredibly candid — Broomfield will have made not just the best film of his career, but one of the gutsier documentaries in memory. All he needs now is a distributor fearless enough to put the film out in the world.

Other noteworthy Sundance documentaries, none of which have theatrical distribution, include Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman’s Derrida, which affords an intimate glimpse of its formidable subject; Sister Helen, Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa’s straightforward but affecting portrait of a boozer turned Benedictine sister who runs a halfway house for drunks and addicts (produced for Cinemax, the film will air on cable next year); and Kristi Jacobson’s wrenching American Standoff, about a Teamsters’ strike. Bill Weber and David Weissman’s The Cockettes, a look at (mostly) gay hippies who sang and danced their way to infamy in San Francisco during the early ’70s, is overpopulated by talking heads but is so winning and good-natured, it nearly trumps complaint. It’s typical for documentaries to go begging for distributors, before or after Sundance; this year, despite the buying blitz, even some of the better fiction films were left similarly bereft. One that deserves a wider audience is Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, a charmingly idiosyncratic love story, written by Erin Cressida Wilson and based on a Mary Gaitskill novella, about a female masochist and the male sadist for whom she types, then kneels. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who appeared with her brother Jake in Donnie Darko, plays the woman who discovers the pleasures of discipline, while James Spader, as the man on top, makes real a lawyer whose façade melts like so much tenderly dripped hot wax.

Secretary, which won a special-jury prize for “originality,” will probably get picked up, but it’s unlikely to find the larger audiences secured by films such as In the Bedroom, Memento or even Hedwig. Its humor is too dark, and its subject and sexual politics, even post-Lewinsky, are too outré. A similar lack of big-screen viability, and perhaps even potential, characterized a number of the higher-profile films, including Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, which was picked up by UA, now run by former October Films heretic Bingham Ray. Beautifully shot on digital by Ellen Kuras and based on Miller’s short-story collection of the same name, the film divides into three separate narratives about women under the influence of both men and their own conflicting desires. There’s hard-bitten Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), an abused working-class wife who flees her abuser but not her true self; Greta (Parker Posey, genuinely great and without the twitches), an ambitious, fidelity-challenged book editor; and Paula (Fairuza Balk), a little girl lost, then found. Despite one casting indiscretion (Sedgwick’s eyes can go black with hate, but her aristocratic beauty seems off-key, too untouched by pain or suffering) and a final story that drifts when it should veer hard, Personal Velocity winds up so blissfully unsentimental about women, sex and love that it’s almost a shock the director isn’t French.

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