“This is what Sundance is about,” an agent who had just snagged a multipicture deal with Miramax for first-time film-
maker Chris Cherot (whose prophetically named movie, Hav Plenty, was playing in competition at the festival) told the Los Angeles Times last week. “A guy who made a movie for no money is now an extremely rich young man.” Silly me, for thinking Sundance was about showcasing films that expand our vision of what it means to live in this world. Silly festival jury, too, for it gave the grand prize to a film about a poor black man redeemed by poetry. The movie was picked up by Trimark for a cool 2.5 million, which is nice for director Marc Levin. Still, it’s a measure of the flabby centrism into which Hollywood is nudging independent film that one of the jury members, who also happens to be one of cinema’s great auteurs, failed to find a distributor for his haunting adaptation of the Russell Banks novel Affliction. Paul Schrader’s quiet, powerfully affecting movie stars Nick Nolte, who else, as a gaping wound of a man putting the finishing touches to his own self-destruction as he struggles to live down a scarred childhood. With elegantly tailored supporting performances by James Coburn as Nolte’s roaring drunk of a father, Willem Dafoe (restrained and wearing perfectly presentable teeth) as the younger brother who survived through Nolte’s protection, and Sissy Spacek as the woman who loves him but can’t save him from his clueless flailings, Affliction is an exquisitely crafted and strikingly self-effacing homage to Banks’ novel. The movie offers about as much uplift as an undertaker’s face, which is why it attracted nary a nibble from distributors, most of whom began the festival by nosing around the more feel-good fare, notably the hot-ticket The Misadventures of Margaret. Based, one can only suppose loosely, on a well-received novel by Cathleen Schine, this hopelessly coy mash note to ’30s screwball comedy, featuring a vaporish Parker Posey flapping her hands as a restless writer in search of experience, has the uplift — and the authenticity — of a Wonderbra.

Word got around about Margaret, and distributors backed away and went in search of other upbeat fare. Even Miramax, for all its boasted preference for films with an edge, ended up with a lineup as comfortable as an old shoe, the nearest thing to controversy on its slate being A Price Above Rubies, a ruinously callow film by the hugely talented Boaz Yakin (whose first feature was the wonderfully delicate and complicated Fresh). The perverse casting of Renée Zellweger as a young Hasidic matron trying to leave the fold and British actor Christopher Eccleston as her ruthless brother-in-law is less troubling than the director’s unwillingness to try to understand the Hasidic community on its own terms. Pandering to pro forma audience liberalism with a bland message about liberty, tolerance and multiculturalism, Yakin writes off his Orthodox Jews as rigid zealots or hypocrites, while the escapee and her rescuers come off as goodness incarnate.

Would that some savvy distributor had seen fit to plunk down bucks for British director Carine Adler’s Under the Skin, a rough-hewn but dreamily absorbing drama starring Samantha Morton as a young woman losing her grip after the death of her mother (played, in a nice cameo, by Rita Tushingham). Prefaced by the festival’s finest short, Gasman, a near-perfect 15-minute piece by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay in which a little girl out for a walk with her dad discovers that she has a family she never knew about, Under the Skin is a women’s film with balls, and therefore less likely to get a commercial release than another English movie clearly angling for a Full Monty landslide — Nick Hurran’s Girls’ Night, which has Brenda Blethyn and Julie Walters madly overcompensating for a hackneyed tale of a cancer-stricken working-class woman out for a last good time with her oversexed pal in Las Vegas.

On the documentary front, Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland’s Frat House proved as stomach-churning as you’d expect from an anthropological dig into Greek mores, except that the filmmakers neglect to ask any searching questions about their subjects until the last five minutes of the movie. Wild Man Blues, in which Barbara Kopple (who made the Academy Award–winning American Dream, about the Hormel meat-packing strike) keeps company with Woody Allen on his Euro pean jazz tour, has its own awful fascination. Propped up by his sister, Letty Aronson, and Soon-Yi Previn (amiable, controlling and more than a little dull), Allen is as woefully neurotic and compulsive as you’d expect, funnier than he’s been in a movie in years, and a master manipulator of virtually everyone around him, including at times the director. She gets her own back: In a rivetingly horrible final scene at lunch with his aged parents, Allen sets up the hapless pair to behave badly and, when they oblige, whines about being trapped in the “lunch from hell.” The canny Kopple lets him have his head, then gives his mother the last word. Rumor has it that Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) was offered the movie but turned it down, not only because Allen would not agree to full autonomy for the director, but because, said Zwigoff, the band made lousy music.

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