The hottest ticket at the Sundance Film Festival was The Motorcycle Diaries, a dramatic feature about the ride through South America that awoke young Che Guevara to his destiny. The film, directed by indie darling Walter Salles (Central Station) from a script by Jose Rivera, sold to Focus Features for a cool $4 million — so much for distributors trumpeting that bidding frenzies are a thing of the past. I found this worthy, doggedly sequential road movie as emotionally flat and vacuously pretty as its star, Gael García Bernal, so magnetic in Y Tu Mamá También, yet so vaporous here that he’s completely eclipsed by Rodrigo de la Serna, who plays Guevara’s frisky, oversexed traveling companion. Several critic friends felt as I did, but the copious weeping all around me during the packed screening, plus an industry acquaintance who tottered out of the theater too choked up to speak, showed me just how far I was swimming against the audience tide.
None of this changed my assessment of the movie, but it did get me thinking about the chasm that so often yawns between critical and public judgment. For those of us who spend our days sequestered in press screening rooms, festivals can be a salutary lesson in soaking up popular opinion. One of the great things about Sundance is that it compels all but the snobbiest of reviewers to rub shoulders with ordinary Joes, whether at screenings or on the mobbed shuttle buses that ferry people between theaters. It’s here that critics are reminded that the moviegoing public is a congenitally generous species. Most people go to a movie wanting to embrace it, and this is a quality to respect even when we jaundiced reviewers beg to differ.
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Of course, it’s true that festival audiences (and Sundance audiences in particular, most of whom pay through the nose to get to Park City and wait cheerfully on line, or online, for tickets that grow scarcer as festival attendance balloons from year to year) are preternaturally accepting of whatever they see. Less attractively, they’re also famously elastic in their embrace of celebrity, however minor. Though you couldn’t pass through the press or sales offices without seeing copies of Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind’s gossipy new tome about the failure of Sundance and the excesses of Harvey, tucked under the arm of every second journalist or industry type, I doubt whether anyone else gave a damn that Robert Redford is trashed therein as a passive-aggressive control freak incapable of delegating or making decisions. At a screening of The Clearing, a watery little number about a marriage thrown into crisis in which Redford turns in a wan performance as an abducted car-rental mogul, the star got a riotous reception from the audience. With or without cosmetic uplift, Redford will always be Redford.
But even that un-photogenic garden gnome Wallace Shawn, who showed up to introduce Marie and Bruce, a nastily effective chamber piece (directed by Tom Cairns and adapted by Shawn from an old play of his) starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick as a warring Manhattan couple, had the audience rising from their seats, digital cameras cocked. And when Patty Hearst made a surprise (though hardly unscripted) appearance for the Q&A after the documentary Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, in which she comes off as an empty-headed flibbertigibbet, she was greeted with rapture. Her giggly, rambling answers to questions from the floor left me wondering what the audience — never mind her buddy John Waters — saw in this relentless publicity hound.
The film’s director, Robert Stone, introduced Hearst with notable lack of enthusiasm, giving the distinct impression that her presence was not his idea, but some publicist’s notion of creative marketing. Juiced by unprecedented testimony from two former SLA members, Neverland is a fascinating document of the loony-Left folly that resulted in the deaths of several innocent people and made a mockery of ’60s progressive ideals. Still, it was shocking to hear the otherwise astute Stone grandly observe, in answer to a question about the broader implications for the progressive movement, that the SLA “got the car keys of the Left and drove it off a cliff. After that it was over.”
That would be news to the heartening number of filmmakers with politically engaged entries in the festival. Sundance has always been exceptionally strong on documentaries, and this year was no exception. In The Corporation, Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar (who co-directed Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) and Jennifer Abbott mount a visually arresting and very funny vivisection of corporations as dysfunctional personalities, with idiot testimony from unsuspecting fat cats and their spinmeisters, as well as the usual op-eds from Michael Moore and Mr. Chomsky. The film doesn’t tell you much that you don’t already know, but it tells you with such puckish specificity, you end up knowing more than you think you do, especially about the way the drive for corporate profit is killing the environment worldwide. Attention was paid: The Corporation won a newly minted audience award in the World Cinema Documentary section.
Less accomplished, but no less riveting, is Heir to an Execution, a re-examination of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s espionage trial by their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol. Meeropol’s inexperience and sentimentality envelop almost every frame, and her editors might have been more abstemious with the shots of her wiping away tears. But the film, which bravely confronts the likelihood that the Rosenbergs did indeed do a little spying for the Soviets, is full of moving accounts by their two sons of what it was like to grow up with absent parents so passionate — or, from a parental standpoint, so foolish — in their political commitments that they refused to save themselves even for the sake of their kids.
In The Fight, seasoned filmmaker Barak Goodman offers a dissection of the 1938 fight between Joe Louis and German boxer Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight championship, potent in terms of its implications for racial attitudes in both the United States and Hitler’s Germany. Goodman gives his subject the solid but staid old PBS treatment; however, like Meeropol’s film, The Fight is emblematic of the fact that where aesthetic failure can destroy even the most substantive stories in a fictional film, in documentary, a great story is hard to kill.
On the other hand, the most superior aesthetic can’t save a flimsy premise. For me one of the festival’s disappointments was I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a ravishingly executed genre piece from British director Mike Hodges with a suitably moody Clive Owen as a former thug dragged out of hermetic retirement when his brother commits suicide after being raped by Malcolm McDowell. (Who wouldn’t?) The story is slight and the screenplay trite, trotting out well-trodden bromides about rape as an act of power rather than sex. In this rote tale of immutable evil, it’s hard to recognize the wicked, brooding talent that made the extraordinary Get Carter and Croupier.
And so some of the hottest inside tips at Sundance left me cold. One inspired audience tip, though, led me to Nina’s Tragedies, a delightfully meandering crowd-pleaser by Israeli director Savi Gabizon, about a troubled Tel Aviv boy observing the trials of the gorgeous young aunt with whom he’s hopelessly in love. Wry and tonally sophisticated, the movie maintains a relaxed balance between the lyrical and the downright goofy in its evocation of infatuation’s hopeless ecstasy, and the lunatic passions of family life.
At Sundance, if you follow the industry buzz, you’re likely
to agree with Biskind that the festival has failed in its mission to foster truly independent film, whatever that is. Follow your nose and hit the shuttles, and you’ll have yourself a merry little festival as you discover that even if indie film has been co-opted and commercialized by the Harveys of this world, wily filmmakers with vision, persistence (and, yes, mothers with credit cards)
will make the movies they want to make. And this year, the vote favored one of them: The Grand Jury Prize went not to The Motorcycle Diaries but to Primer, a sci-fi mood piece made