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Vanishing Acts 

Fragmented identities abound at Sundance 2005

Thursday, Feb 3 2005
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At this year’s Sundance Film Festival — far from the madding crowd that bid their hearts out for Hustle & Flow, an alarmingly popular piece of nonsense about a sensitive Memphis pimp that won the Dramatic Audience Award and sold to Paramount for a cool $9 million — nestled a modest little German movie that seemed to be attracting mostly women. The Forest for the Trees, which began life as the graduation film of 28-year-old Maren Ade, who looks misleadingly like Hayley Mills, is an intense character drama about a mousy young provincial (wonderfully played by Eva Löbau) who moves to a big city for her first teaching job. Hungry for professional success and ravenous for friendship, Melanie gets in deeper and deeper over her head, abandoning all pretense of dignity as she struggles in vain to keep her sullen students under control, impress her colleagues and wangle her way into instant closeness with a neighbor. What the film lacks in technical polish — endearingly, the top of Melanie’s head kept disappearing out of frame — is more than made up for by Ade’s disquieting insights into the dissolution of an already fragile self. We’ve all had teachers and would-be friends as inadequate and desperate to fit in as Melanie, but harder to admit (and this is what gives Forest for the Trees its unsettling power) is that there but for the grace of circumstance go we.

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To read Scott Foundas' article on why Sundance is for independents, click here. For better and worse, dissolving selves seemed to be the order of the day in just about every category of films screening at Sundance. Seldom have I seen such superlative acting applied to such vacuous material as in playwright Craig Lucas’ self-important directing debut, The Dying Gaul, in which Peter Sarsgaard excels, as far as is possible, as a gay screenwriter locked in a toxic triangle with a bisexual studio executive (Campbell Scott) and his trophy wife (Patricia Clarkson). “It’s about betrayal,” Lucas announced redundantly through a thick wad of chewing gum at the post-screening Q&A, then — being a man exquisitely sensitive to betrayal — proceeded to whinge on about having been “driven out of the theater” by a New York Times critic who called the stage version of The Dying Gaul a “minor tantrum of a play.” In truth, it’s a major tantrum of a movie, and scarcely worthy of the outstanding performances that kept me in my seat long after I should have fled the festival’s cavernous new Racquet Club venue.

Maren Ade's Forest for the Trees

Less slick and much more fun was the scattershot Hollywood spoof Ellie Parker, a dramatic-competition entry by Scott Coffey that evolved from a 20-minute Sundance short which screened at the festival in 2001, before its star and co-producer Naomi Watts had made her name. Playing slyly off the intensity that has made her the go-to girl for falling-apart roles, Watts shows off an engagingly self-mocking side as a young actress with more determination than talent, striving to make the leap from soaps and commercials into serious film. Though it relies perilously on movie-within-a-movie bits of business we’ve all seen many times before, Ellie Parker bounces along on Coffey’s deadpan capture of the no-exit, Hollywood Hills periphery of the movie industry. I suspect that the same people who were irritated by Ellie Parker’s self-conscious disorder were also turned off by the festival’s opening-night premiere, Don Roos’ Happy Endings, a Los Angeles ensemble dramedy boasting terrific performances from Lisa Kudrow and Maggie Gyllenhaal as two women adrift on lost opportunities and screwed-up values. Several critics grumbled that the movie was sloppy and uncontrolled, and I agree that the liberal use of intertitles was misguided, even lazy. But if you liked Roos’ The Opposite of Sex, you’ll probably like Happy Endings’ clear-eyed yet tender — and very funny — inquiry into our rootless, sexually amorphous, morally vague culture of impermanence. Noah Baumbach’s new film, The Squid and the Whale, won dramatic directing and screenwriting awards and was rapturously received — especially, I suspect, by children of ugly divorces. To me, this nakedly autobiographical riff on his parents’ unraveling marriage from the director of the entertaining 1995 release Kicking and Screaming felt less like an artistic project than payback time for the director’s narcissistic academic father (well played by Jeff Daniels) and, to a lesser degree, his writer mother (Laura Linney). The pair may have richly deserved their children’s impotent rage over being placed in the middle of all the fighting, but when the only innocent party in a movie à clef is very likely a stand-in for the director, one smells a rather fragrant rat. Also returning to Sundance, and bearing far pleasanter surprises, was Rebecca Miller, whose previous films, Angela and Personal Velocity, struck me as longer on freewheeling impressionism than they were on something to say. With The Ballad of Jack and Rose Miller has finally found herself a strong subject, a powerful leading man (in her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays a dying hippie environmentalist coming to grips with the consequences of his scarily overprotective relationship to his daughter) and, in Ellen Kuras, a cinematographer, to keep faith with Miller’s own lyrical bent. In the end, though, it’s the presence of little starter films like Forest for the Trees — which, gratifyingly, ended up winning a Special Jury Prize from the newly created World Cinema dramatic jury — that keeps Sundance from being totally dominated by the new financiers, their noses aquiver for indies (like Hustle & Flow) that stand to make studio-sized profits. That, and a vibrant slate of foreign documentaries (brought together for the first time this year in a new World Documentary competition), of which I saw two, both devastating social critiques that left me in tears. While Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s The 3 Rooms of Melancholia casts a poetically despairing eye on child casualties of the war in Chechnya, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian doc by Peter Raymont, follows the titular Canadian career soldier on a trip back to Rwanda 10 years after he commanded the ruinously undermanned and unsupported U.N. force trying in vain to keep the Tutsis from being slaughtered in the thousands by their Hutu compatriots. Raymont doesn’t gloss over General Dallaire’s psychological collapse under the impossible demands of his job, but if ever there was a self worth putting back together, it’s that of this honorable man, who stuck to his post while everyone abandoned him and those he was assigned to protect. As the movie shows, there are still special interests (notably among Rwanda’s former colonizers, the Belgians, who pulled their soldiers out of the U.N. force with disgraceful haste when the trouble started) trying to blacken Dallaire’s name. So it was especially thrilling that Shake Hands With the Devil won the festival’s World Cinema Documentary Award, though by that time the modest hero had gone home to carry on working for the people he may never stop feeling he failed.
Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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