Courtesy ZIV Pictures
When the snow settled and the dust cleared and the closing bell rang on the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, a movie with no stars and barely a peep of advance hype — in short, the kind of movie that was once a Sundance staple — walked off with the dramatic competition’s Grand Jury Prize. And what’s more, it deserved to. Written, directed by and co-starring Shane Carruth, a mathematician turned self-taught filmmaker, Primer is a dense and dazzling science-fiction mindbender unassumingly dressed up in a tech geek’s plain white shirt, pocket protector and safety goggles. Shot in and around Dallas on 16mm, it’s the story of a quartet of computer programmer/engineer friends who, in their spare time, tinker around as garage inventors, trying to develop the device that will make them rich and famous. They do finally come up with something — the catch being that they don’t really know what it is. And for most of the movie, neither do we, as Carruth’s characters prattle on in a techie jargon that suggests what it might be like to find oneself at the epicenter of a Star Trek convention without ever having seen a single episode of the show.
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Besides, what the machine does isn’t nearly as important as whether or not it can sell. For as much as Primer is a sci-fi piece, it is even more a portrait of an entire generation for whom questions of value have permanently supplanted questions of meaning. And though Primer may well result in a flood of handsome offers for its creator, this is not a movie made (like an ever-increasing number of its Sundance brethren) with one eye on acquisitions executives and the other on a possible three-picture deal with Miramax. It is, rather, like the physics-defying device at the center of its hall-of-mirrors narrative, a thing wholly and gloriously unto itself, nimbly wriggling away from each successive effort to pin it down.
Meanwhile, over at Slamdance, Big City Dick: Richard Peterson’s First Movie, the festival’s Audience Award for overall best film . . . But I may be getting a bit ahead of myself. What exactly, you may be asking, is Slamdance?
Indeed, the specifics concerning Park City’s original alterna-fest — now in its 10th year — still seem unclear to many, at least if one is to use conversations overheard on countless Park City bus rides as one’s barometer. Is Slamdance some officially sanctioned Sundance spinoff? Or is it, perchance, merely a refuge for films and filmmakers deemed unworthy of Sundance’s official branding?
To make a not-so-long story even shorter, what began as a sideshow — an event organized by four famously disgruntled directors determined to show their work in Park City, at any cost — has, year by year, edged ever closer to the main event.
Which is to say that, not unlike the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, Slamdance is the fly in Sundance’s ointment that has stood the test of time. Over the last decade, Slamdance hasn’t just carved out its own identity as a funkier, more relaxed (that is, devoid of hordes of press and celebrity onlookers) affair than its more famous neighbor; it has produced its own impressive roster of filmmaking alumni that includes Christopher Nolan (Memento), Mark Forster (Monster’s Ball) and the directors behind no fewer than four of the 16 dramatic features in competition at Sundance this year. It has also evolved into a year-round, global operation that has witnessed the birth of a Polish version of the festival, as well as a regular series of “On the Road” screenings that bring winning Park City films to other cities across the country and the world.
As usual, the first stop on this year’s tour will be Hollywood’s American Cinematheque, where the two-night “Best of Slamdance” series kicks off February 5, with a double-feature screening of Slamdance Poland winner It Touches Me, followed by Homework, which won this year’s Jury Award for best narrative feature. But make even surer to mark your calendars for the following Thursday, February 12, when Big City Dick fills the screen at the Egyptian. The culmination of 10 years’ work undertaken by three Seattle-based filmmakers (working both independently and together), the film offers an epic immersion into the highly eccentric life and work of Richard Peterson, a bear of a music- and career-obsessed, possibly autistic keyboardist and trumpeter who has produced several albums’ worth of his own unmistakable brand of lounge music. (He also had one of his songs covered by the Stone Temple Pilots, and earned the respect of “personality buddies” Johnny Mathis and Jeff Bridges — the latter will host a screening of this film during the upcoming Santa Barbara Film Festival.) What makes this film so special, however, is the way it takes a man whose strange, self-empowering odyssey might have made for a piece of trite inspirationalism on the order of Radio or Shine and instead engages him on his own terms, resulting in a hilarious and touching tribute to the American entrepreneurial spirit.