Forget about Slamdance, No Dance, Jamdance and Park City’s numerous other spinoffs; there were already two de facto film festivals within this year‘s Sundance showcase itself. Depending on which one you fell into, you either saw a steady stream of slickly accomplished, multiplex-ready product (fueling the ever-constant grumbling that Sundance has lost its way) or were lucky enough to sit in front of screens filled with the stories of folk who exist beyond mainstream peripheral vision, and who are rarely caught by the camera. Though few directors on either side of the gloss-vs.-grit divide took many aesthetic risks, the latter at least had the courage of progressive political conviction — their films drew power from the fact that they had such convictions at all. These were the movies that graced the unwieldy festival with heart, pumped it with an air of excitement.
Going into Sundance 2000, a lot of sales hooks were served up for media consumption: more women directors than in any previous festival (one official placed the figure at 40 percent); more people of color; an especially strong slate of shorts and documentaries. This was all true — and impressive — but the real treat was in seeing that alongside the oppressively banal professionalism of so many young filmmakers was a warp of social consciousness that wove deeply through foreign films and shorts, through documentaries and a handful of American dramatic features.
One of the most formally daring features was French director Claire Denis’ hypnotically beautiful Beau Travail (Good Work), which will be released later this year by New Yorker Films. Denis‘ trademark is her ability to capture the secrets and inner lives of her characters — especially men — with a poetic and tough-minded incisiveness unlike that of anyone currently making movies. Beau Travail, set in an Africa snagged on the forces of colonization and capitalism, tracks a multiracialmultiethnic outfit in the French Foreign Legion as they’re put through their paces. From this all-male warrior world, the director mines an unsentimental tenderness, letting us watch as men of varying strains of beauty transform rigorous training rituals into breathtaking dances of machismo.
France was also well represented by Laurent Cantet‘s taut, smart Human Resources, a bit of straightforward filmmaking about class, the human cost of unchecked corporatization, and the downside of realizing family dreams. When the once-idealistic young hero, Franck (who’s returned to his hometown from Paris to work in the local factory), tearfully yells at his father that the old man long ago infected him with shame for who he is and where he comes from, the film rips your heart out.
Among American dramatic films, one of the hottest tickets was Mary Harron‘s American Psycho (Lions Gate Films), which sharply divided viewers into love-it or hate-it camps. Ultimately, it wasn’t the over-the-top violence or the unnerving mix of comedy and horror that made the film flatline, but its too-obvious irony and one-joke premise. A game Christian Bale as the film‘s psychotic center nearly makes it worth seeing, but only nearly. (The sight of the oft-naked Bale seemed to stir warm memories of the actor’s boyhood in the verbose recovering pedophile who sat behind me at the screening.) Likewise, Patrik-Ian Polk‘s Punks had a lot of buzz at the festival’s start, but quickly fumbled it. Billed as a gay Waiting To Exhale (and if that sounds redundant, that‘s because it is), the film tells the story of a group of gay African-American friends living and loving in West Hollywood. It’s a bad film — poorly written, ineptly directed, transparent in its thievery — but a politically important one. It achieves its goal of placing black gay men in a mainstream romantic-comedy setting, and near the end frames a display of affection between black men that hasn‘t been seen since Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied. Still, it was one of the festival‘s biggest disappointments.
Similarly, Gurinder Chadha (who directed 1994’s Bhaji on the Beach from a script she co-wrote) won points a for the melting-pot politics at the center of her new film, What‘s Cooking?, which looks at Thanksgiving Day in the households of four raciallyethnically diverse L.A. families that live in the same middle-class neighborhood. But while Alfre Woodard and Mercedes Ruehl are luminous in their roles as put-upon matriarchs, and a lesbian subplot is affectingly portrayed by Julianna Margulies and Kyra Sedgwick, the film indulges too many stereotypes (hectoring Jews; a big, black mama whose love is oppressive) to be as coolly progressive as it thinks it is.
White hetero hipsters in love were out in full cinematic force. Thanks for that dubious achievement belongs to, among others: Brad Anderson (who first appeared at Sundance with The Darien Gap in 1996, then made a big splash there in ’98 with Next Stop, Wonderland), who premiered Happy Accidents, starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D‘Onofrio; Michael Almereyda, who has updated Hamlet with Ethan Hawke in the lead; Love and Sex, from writer-director Valerie Breiman, with actors Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau adding real sparks to what is essentially a Sex and the City episode dragged onto the big screen; and writer-director Lisa Krueger, whose Committed (a Miramax film), starring Heather Graham and Luke Wilson, was the biggest letdown in the group, with an unfocused script and a story — married woman refuses to be dumped by her no-good man — that strained for inspiration. After her highly original Sundance debut, Manny & Lo (1996), Krueger’s new film felt like a big step backward.
Hardcore fans of truly indie work were rewarded with Miguel (Star Maps) Arteta‘s wickedly funny Chuck & Buck, a queer story of desire that’s unlike any you‘ve ever seen (the script was written by Mike White), in which a mildly retarded man sets out to reclaim his first and only true love — a now-hetero music-biz executive who’s about to be married. Writer-director Karyn Kusama set off a well-earned bidding frenzy with her first feature, Girlfight, the tale of an angry young Latina who takes up boxing as an outlet for her rage and slowly falls in love with one of the guys who trains in her gym. Though a few who saw the film scoffed that it‘s merely a variation on Rocky, the grit and detail captured by Kusama (as well as the intense performance by newcomer Michelle Rodriguez) make the film absolutely riveting. Other standouts were Jim McKay’s Our Song, a freeform love poem to the inner lives of inner-city girls; Zeinabu Irene Davis‘ Compensation, which perfectly straddled the line between experimentation and accessibility in its depiction of black love across the centuries; Rodrigo Garcia’s intimate, lyrical Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, a female-driven, reined-in Magnolia that‘s filled with top performances by Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman and Kathy Baker.
The true gems of the festival were in the shorts and documentaries, where race, class, history and sexuality bounced off one another to breathtaking (and frequently tear-jerking) effect. Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker’s Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, Daniel McCabe and Paul Stekler‘s George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann‘s Long Night’s Journey Into Day, and Tod S. Lending‘s wrenching Legacy all put their cameras right up against the issues in ways that get to the heart of bigotry and its lingering effects while grappling with its causes. Stylistically, they range from the polished, well-funded sleekness of Scottsboro, in which the 1931 trial of nine young black men accused of raping two white women is examined in painstaking detail, to the raw and stark Legacy, which tracks a black family three generations deep on welfare as it makes the wrenching journey to self-sufficiency. On the flip side, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato pile unnecessary camp and kitsch onto their subject in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (weird, distorting camera angles; heavy-handed music), yet Ms. Bakker emerges as a very cool, resilient, politically ahead-of-her-time heroine brought down less by her own greed than by the machinations of Jerry Falwell and his power-hungry Christian soldiers.
My personal favorites were Laurie Collyer’s documentary Nuyorican Dream and Peter Sollett‘s short Five Feet High and Rising. Coming fast on the heels of ”The Year of the Latino,“ these two films couldn’t be more different in achieving the same goals: restoring complexity and humanity to the latest fetishized subculture. Nuyorican Dream follows five years in the life of the Torres clan, a poor New York Puerto Rican family that battles drugs, the prison industry, and a host of illnesses and social obstacles on a daily basis. Collyer has a compassionate eye as she captures minute details and then places them in a crucial larger political context. She makes clear the connection between white supremacy and poverty, between institutionalized racism and the endurance of the ghetto. At the screening I attended, audience members wept openly at some of the more painful passages. Sollett‘s beautiful Five Feet moved me deeply with its simplicity and sly subversion. Where so many recent films use the urban milieu and its inhabitants as a metaphor for the savagery of the modern world, Sollett flips that approach on its head. He tracks two days in the life of Victor (15-year-old newcomer Victor Rasuk, a natural talent), a sweet, budding heartthrob with a crush on a neighborhood beauty. The kids in the film swear profusely, step gingerly into the ring of sexual awareness, and swagger with patented New York attitude. But Sollett catches an aching vulnerability beneath all the posturing. There’s no forced agenda, yet the film was one of the most genuinely political I saw; it simply captured everyday life. And Sollett emerged as a director I can‘t wait to see more from.