Buried in the avalanche of advance blurbage that clogged my fax machine for weeks before this year’s Sundance Film Festival, lay an apparently guileless announcement by the ultracool fashion house Diesel — which co-sponsored the festival‘s meet-and-greet space for nonfiction filmmakers — to the effect that “Diesel strives to capture the essence and reality of global youth culture in fashion just as documentary cinema aims to record the authentic human experience with rare intimacy in film.” Now there’s a parallel not worth thinking about: I suppose this breezily cynical gobbledygook is the festival‘s cross to bear in return for the dough that enables it to showcase some terrific documentaries by recorders of the authentic human experience who have about as much in common with the Diesel credo on art and commerce as they do with the Harvey Weinsteins and camera-ready celebrities who crowd the pricey watering holes of Park City.
For sheer unmarketable esoterica, it would be hard to beat the subject matter of Southern Comfort, Kate Davis’ study of a transgendered community that makes its home in a Georgian trailer backwater. Not that movies about gender-bending don‘t sell — John Cameron Mitchell’s highly entertaining transvestite rock fantasy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was a New Line property long before it came to the festival and ended up winning the Audience and the Directing awards. Yet even had she wanted to, Davis could not have turned her prime subject — a friendly, whiskered female-to-male transsexual complete with hunting rifle — into anything resembling exotica. Wisely, she doesn‘t reduce him to “just folks” either, in the anxious way of liberal heterosexuals striving for inclusivity. In this tactful, unsensationalizing slice of verite, Robert Ead speaks for himself, and what a voice he has — wise, tolerant, amused, forgiving of the 20 doctors who refused to treat the horribly ironic ovarian cancer that is killing him, and reveling in his cobbled-together family of a transsexual “son,” the biological grandson whose father calls Robert “Mom,” and his own new love, a diffident, sexy, male-to-female transsexual named Lola Cola. By the end of Southern Comfort (which carried off the festival’s documentary prize), the strange has become not only familiar but very dear, and abstract questions of gender identity all but disappear into the lives — at once particular and universal — of a self-sustaining community whose end-of-story you‘re dying to know.
Much the same can be said of Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s haunting Trembling Before G-d, which makes the case for gay Orthodox Jews marooned between their faith and the equally powerful need to be true to their sexual selves. Luckily for DuBowski they‘re a preternaturally chatty and witty bunch, whose isolation from their roots (it would take an open-minded rabbi indeed to embrace someone claiming membership in a group called the Orthodykes) is evoked by the director’s astute visual composition. Surprisingly, the establishment they‘re up against includes some pockets of, if not acceptance, then certainly sympathy: One straight Orthodox youth, clearly at a loss after a tirade from a gay lapsed Jew who has lost contact with his censorious family, breaks his baffled silence to offer his fallen brother a slice of cake. In the end, given the uncompromising proscription of homosexuality in the Jewish texts, one has to agree with the voluble black sheep who, in sorrow and anger, concludes it may not be possible to be gay and Orthodox, and with the compassionate Israeli therapist who tells his gay religious clients that they will struggle with an intractable contradiction for the rest of their lives.
A different order of Jewish dilemma, though Lord knows no less colorful, propels the most interesting film I saw in dramatic competition. (As distinct from the most accomplished: Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which won for best screenplay, cleverly suspends its audience in the timeless anxiety of its protagonist, a man whose short-term memory loss compels him to relive his recent experience over and over.) The Believer, a richly eccentric drama based on the short, sharp life of a New York Jewish teenager who converted himself into a Jew-baiting skinhead, is written and directed by Henry Bean (who wrote Internal Affairs) and features a performance by the enchantingly named young Canadian actor Ryan Gosling that will surely have the agents circling like vultures. With its broad hints at parental dysfunction and its carefully positioned comic relief, the movie struck me at first as glib, until it flowered into a complex probing of Jewish philosophy, and of the unpalatable idea that evil simply exists, without reason. In the manner of its mouthy antihero, who loves and hates the doctrine that gives him his fierce intellect, I was arguing with the film, which took the Grand Jury Prize, for days.
Which, sadly, is more than I can say for two disappointing movies by directors I admire. One was Christopher Munch‘s The Sleepy Time Gal, a loosely autobiographical story starring Jacqueline Bisset as a sick woman drowning in regret for mistakes made and opportunities missed. As always, Munch’s romantic visual flair is superb, but his dialogue, which sounds as if it were lifted wholesale from a psychotherapist‘s case notes, mashes the movie’s emotional complexities into the kind of psychobabble you would never expect from the director of the sublime The Hours and Times (1991), Munch‘s exquisitely imagined weekend encounter between John Lennon and Brian Epstein. Intimacy, adapted from English writer Hanif Kureishi’s novella by French director Patrice Chereau, who made 1988‘s gorgeously elliptical Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, is a dank excursion into urban English alienation that, punctuated at all too regular intervals by quantities of graphic and gloomy sex, contrives to be at once overwrought and undercooked. What Kureishi, who wrote My Beautiful Laundrette and remains one of England’s scabrously entertaining writers, thought of this glum little number was perhaps indicated by his apparent absence from the festival.
In its deliciously warped way, Bruce Wagner‘s Women in Film, which played in the American Spectrum category for wilder fare, was the most transgressively feminist film at the festival, and also one of the funniest and saddest. Adapted from a chapter of Wagner’s novel I‘m Losing You, this elegant gabfest is structured by a three-handed video diary, a torrent of invective spat out by three angry women — a bitter independent producer (Beverly D’Angelo, absent from the festival to give birth to Al Pacino‘s twins, and that’s all the gossip you‘re getting from me) who’s trying to get a remake of Pasolini‘s Teorema off the ground; a logorrheic actress-masseuse (played by Ally McBeal’s Portia de Rossi, clearly enjoying the opportunity to act with more than her hair) who siphons off her clients‘ “energy” for her own spec scripts; and a casting director (the always impeccable Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who’s struggling to get back in gear after the birth of her blind baby and the collapse of her marriage. Wagner, a rare breed of social critic who understands the difference between satire and contempt, is a divine writer of inner conversation, that mad brew of propaganda, yearning and naked pain that makes us all so pitiable, and finally, in his view, so gallant. This proudly unreleasable (outside of cable) movie is infinitely superior to the similarly themed The Business of Strangers, which was being warily sniffed over by distributors as I left the festival. Directed by newcomer Patrick Stettner under the wings of Suture directors Scott McGehee and David Seigel (whose own, highly regarded dramatic competition entry, The Deep End, I foolishly passed up to see Intimacy, and whose icy paw prints are all over the clinical lines of Stettner‘s movie), this schematic and ultimately puerile debut can’t be saved even by the wonderful Stockard Channing as a high-flying, middle-aged businesswoman accustomed to controlling self and others, who meets her match in the form of a manipulative young technician (Julia Stiles).
In the three years since I last attended Sundance, the median age of filmmakers and audiences appears to have dipped to 12, and sinking. While this made for a high frat-vibe quotient at the ballooning number of festival parties, it also generated a welcome current of exuberantly fresh, unpolished moviemaking. Though I made it through no more than 30 minutes of The American Astronaut, a space fantasy that seemed in more ways than one to have been made on another planet, I enjoyed DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter‘s Lift, a bubbly, if psychologically attenuated, piece about black professional shoplifters. Henry Barrial’s faux-documentary Some Body, completed with finishing funds from the indispensable Next Wave Films, rises above its belabored subject — a young woman mistaking sex for love — thanks to the brio of its lead actress, Stephanie Bennett, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Barrial. And though it was made by someone well past his youth, Kirby Dick‘s Chain Camera was one of the unsung finds of the festival. Dick (whose last released documentary, in 1997, was Sick, a bio of performance artist Bob Flanagan) passed out video cameras to students at a high school “two miles east of Hollywood” with the brief to record their daily lives. The result is a hilarious, unnerving and remarkably intimate inside portrait of adolescent life that lends vigorous new meaning to the term “teen movie.” So long as Sundance can clear space for films like this, who cares what Diesel is trying to sell us?