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Kiddie Porn

Jackson & Ricci in Black Snake Moan

We’ve all heard about the healing power of blues music, but until the 2007 Sundance Film Festival came along, who knew that a slide guitar and some swing notes were all it took to cure everything from nymphomania to childhood sexual abuse? In Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, whose out-of-competition premiere screening was one of the festival’s hottest tickets, a gaunt and almost unrecognizable Christina Ricci stars as a proverbial piece of poor white trash who, the moment her boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) ships off to war, finds she can’t suppress the itch between her legs and starts spreading those twiggy appendages for anyone with a pulse. Enter a bitter, just-divorced musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who finds a beaten and battered Ricci by the side of the road and decides to rid her body of its sinful desires — a rehab that basically involves chaining her to a living-room radiator and serenading her with some soulful R&B.

Few detested Hustle & Flow, with its white-boy fetishization of pimp culture, more than I did, and if I wouldn’t deem Black Snake Moan much more evolved (at least where its attitude toward women is concerned), it does offer ample proof of Brewer’s facility with the camera, his understanding of Southern culture and — once you cut through all the bondage and anal penetration — a sweet-natured temperament that’s at odds with his evident yen to earn brownie points from the misogyny crowd. The 35-year-old Brewer is actually a surprisingly old-fashioned guy: Just as Hustle & Flow seemed like a revisionist take on the classic Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show musicals, Black Snake Moan is, at its core, a fairly straightforward variation on George Bernard Shaw — Pigsfeetmalion, if you will. One day, when he outgrows his terminal adolescence, Brewer might be the perfect filmmaker to take on Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.

Better him, in any event, than Deborah Kampmeier, whose competition film Hounddog had already earned the scorn of the Christian right (and reportedly generated death threats for its maker) before it ever arrived at the festival, mostly owing to a fleeting rape scene involving the 12-year-old child star Dakota Fanning. As is almost always the case, that controversy turned out to be more noteworthy than the movie itself — an unrelentingly unpleasant Southern gothic about a barefoot backwoods urchin (Fanning, who acts with poise and dignity given the circumstances) whose habit of dancing suggestively in her skivvies to the titular Elvis Presley single sparks the desire of an acne-riddled milkman and ultimately leads to the now-notorious act of defiling. She too is then rehabilitated by a gentle black man, who teaches her to sing the real blues and explains to her that anyone can be a “nigger” regardless of their skin color. Thank you, Sundance.

For kiddie porn of a different sort, there was James C. Strouse’s Grace Is Gone, which amounts to 89 minutes of emotional foreplay leading up to a one-minute “money shot” of two little girls (ages 8 and 12) breaking down into tears at the news that their soldier mother has been killed in the Iraq war. Fade to black. Cue credits. There’s scarcely a dry eye in the house, except for mine. Starring John Cusack, with paunch and bad posture, as the widower who can’t bring himself to tell his daughters the truth — and so takes them on a road trip to a Disneyland-like theme park instead — Grace Is Gone was, after Hounddog, one of the most talked-about films in Sundance’s dramatic competition, with its champions (which included several prominent critics) proclaiming it a sensitive, nonpartisan allegory about Americans’ unwillingness to acknowledge the full horror of Iraq. What I saw, however, was a cowardly film less interested in grappling with our red-white-and-blue optimism than in using its angel-faced stars to manufacture a cheap, tear-jerking payoff. No matter: Grace Is Gone left Sundance with the Audience Award, the Jury Prize for best screenplay and a seven-figure distribution deal under its belt. The lucky buyer? None other than Harvey Weinstein, who doubtless already has dreams of Oscars dancing in his head.

If Strouse and Kampmeier helped to map out a trend among this year’s 16 dramatic competition titles, it was the usage of children in various states of physical and emotional trauma as a means of titillating the audience. In some of the films, like David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels and Alfredo de Villa’s Adrift in Manhattan, the death of a child merely functions as a plot point; but in the risible Joshua, director George Ratliff gives the old devil-child horror story a putrid new twist by suggesting that its murderous moppet (dark-haired and dark-eyed as usual) may actually be a homosexual trying to come out: He kills so as to eliminate the competition for the affection of his gay uncle!

If Ratliff’s film was nothing more than a shameless Omen/The Bad Seed knockoff (as some have suggested), I still wouldn’t think it had any business being in the main competitive section of a festival supposedly devoted to showcasing innovative new work in independent cinema. But as it’s imperative to remember when discussing Sundance, the festival is ultimately at the mercy of the films that are being made — it can only try to show the best of what’s out there. And if one is to take Sundance 2007 as a barometer of today’s American indie-film landscape, the news is not encouraging. Even the better films in Park City this year registered less as purely personal visions than as calculated attempts to cash in on the success of earlier indie favorites. In the category of Wes Anderson facsimiles, for example, Jeffrey Blitz’s charming Rocket Science is as seamless as a Canal Street Rolex, while J.J. Lask’s On the Road With Judas deserves special mention for stealing its best moves from a movie — Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep — that was in Sundance only last year! Elsewhere in the competition, movies like Mitchell Lichtenstein’s outrageous Teeth and Adam Bhala Lough’s searing urban drama Weapons used easy shock value to solicit the interest of audiences and distributors — Teeth with its story of a young woman with a bad case of vagina dentata, Weapons with its already YouTubed opening scene of a young black man getting half his face blown off with a shotgun. I liked things about all of those movies, but there’s not a one of them that wouldn’t have been better if its makers had thought more from the heart than from the bank account.

So it was refreshing and altogether karmic that this year’s Sundance Dramatic Jury (which included film critic Elvis Mitchell stepping in for a mysteriously indisposed Mos Def) awarded its grand prize to the competition film that had the least “buzz” attending it throughout the festival. Many critics and reporters didn’t even get around to seeing writer-director Christopher Zalla’s Padre Nuestro, a gripping morality play about a Mexican illegal who comes to America in search of his long lost father only to have his identity stolen by a fellow immigrant. From there, the film crosscuts between the exploits of the two men, as the one tries to survive on the mean streets of New York City while the other deals with the moral consequences of ingratiating himself into a family that isn’t his own. Part thriller, part Greek tragedy, the Spanish-language Padre Nuestro stars a cast of unknowns in an often bleak portrait of America’s have-nots. A major festival prize notwithstanding, the film will unquestionably have a tough time making it in the commercial marketplace, but it is one of the only movies I saw at Sundance this year that held to the original mandates of the indie-film movement — to tell stories that Hollywood itself would not tell, and to give voices to those who are too often silenced.


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