Park City Lights 

Dotcom death, the digital bourgeoisie, and a Linklater masterpiece at an unusually strong Sundance

Dotcom death, the digital bourgeoisie, and a Linklater masterpiece at an unusually strong Sundance

Park City, Utah— In My First Mister, an ingratiating melodrama that opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was nearly forgotten by the next afternoon, Leelee Sobieski plays a multiply pierced Goth-punk chick who strikes up a close companionship with a bland, politically conservative, socially skittish, and terminally ill clothing salesman (Albert Brooks). If the movie reads as an allegorical exploration of the taming of the “indie,” Brooks’ middle-aged Caucasian geek seems a clear stand-in for Sundance programming director-cum-boutique-movie-gatekeeper Geoffrey Gilmore. To wit: The film’s Gilmore surrogate succeeds in getting Sobieski’s clichéd rebel to take the “silverware” out of her face, wear a “Republican” dress, and generally prepare to enter the marketplace. Yes, it’s a happy ending: By the final scene, the former goth-punk chick has taken to wearing pearls.

Now, perhaps you think this meta-reading is a stretch as extreme as the one given to the heroine’s tight leather pants. But bear in mind that these days, producers of low- and medium-budget American films (let’s not call them “indies,” OK?) naturally make movies with Mr. Gilmore in mind, and festival programmers just as naturally select opening-night attractions based on how well those movies represent their ideals. (Is it any wonder that Gilmore’s typically effusive program note hails My First Mister as “sincere and real...full of emotion, revelation, intimacy, and range”?) Of course, Hollywood’s canny co-optation of the “specialty film” market embodied by this festival has been in development for years—to the point where even junior Sundance program blurbmeisters have come to avoid using the term independent in describing what are essentially cheap studio movies. Which isn’t to say that the catalog “reviews” have improved this year: A special Sundance award belongs to the festival scribe who dared to call Wet Hot American Summer (starring Janeane Garofalo) “the first great summer-camp film of the new millennium.”

Still, the 2001 Sundance odyssey did register some notable alterations in the alt-film flight path. For one thing, the demented dotcom deluge that brought Silicon Valley’s vapor fortunes to Park City is clearly over. In fact, last year’s Trend was satirized this year by the scathingly funny doc Startup.com (co-produced by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker), in which a rivetingly pathetic pair of twentysomething Web hustlers scratch and claw their way toward an IPO but get what’s coming to them instead. In the wake of all those failed ’Net outfits that fell off the digital bandwagon, the new deal du jour involves the creative combination of established players under exclusive contracts. Thus, Lot 47 Films (The War Zone) announced plans to distribute product from the all-digital Blow Up Pictures (Chuck & Buck). And Lions Gate Films (Shadow of the Vampire) acquired the first five works from InDigEnt (that’s Independent Digital Entertainment, you know), an Independent Film Channel collaborative shrewdly premised on giving established artists such as Richard Linklater both final cut and a financial stake in their low-budget digital dream projects.

Given this seismic shift away from case-by-case acquisition and toward visionary conglomeratization, it’s no surprise that former “producer’s rep” and “indie guru” John Pierson has ceded the Sundance scenester throne to überlawyer John Sloss. It was Sloss who, at the InDigEnt launch party, wittily summarized the new company’s desire that “the [digital] aesthetic would not be defined only by those people who have no money.” (Brilliant the films may be, but this giddy prediction of a capitalist avant-garde has the faint odor of cinematic Gingrichism.) Seemingly working the other side of the tracks, the upstart Civilian Capital touted giving power to the people through an online brokerage firm (www.civiliantrading.com) that will allow Joe and Jane Public to buy shares of a new movie by their favorite director. So, anyone care to invest in, say, an Abel Ferrara remake of The Family Man? Or a shot-by-shot, Gus Van Sant-directed remake of Psycho? (Come to think of it, an endeavor that preposterous might be more appropriate to junk bonds.) The Civilian concept, one has to say, is fairly brilliant: Why not give the average moviegoer more control over content—or at least the sense of having more control? Of course, the ubiquitous Sloss is a key player in Civilian too—while even the company advises that this sort of trade is appropriate only for those “civilians” who can afford to lose.

Oh, by the way—did I mention that the movies were great this year? Coincidental to the restructuring of the industry, films about personal transformation—three of them featuring transgendered heroes—made an indelible impression at Sundance. The Grand Jury Prize winner for best documentary was Kate Davis’ Southern Comfort, an unforgettable portrait of a tight-knit group of transsexuals living in the trailer-park community of Toccoa, Ga. That one of the men, the camera-loving cowboy Robert Eads, is fighting terminal ovarian cancer after more than a dozen doctors have refused to treat him gives the film its pathos and its politics. That a pair of assholes in the row behind me insisted on inappropriately chortling throughout the movie’s more poignant passages reminded me this isn’t merely a feel-good, preaching-to-the-converted “celebration of the human spirit,” as the saying goes. In the end, Southern Comfort may not convince stupid people that transsexuals have a right to health care, but it certainly does the documentary’s duty of illuminating a marginalized subculture and advocating for its survival.

What Trent Harris’ Beaver Trilogy does isn’t so clear, but clearly there’s never been anything like it. Shot in three parts over the course of 18 years, this flamboyant Warholian hybrid begins with a half-hour video documentary (circa 1979) of a fearless small-time impersonator and natural-born ham from Beaver, Utah, named Groovin’ Gary, who dares to dress up as Olivia Newton-John and perform one of her lesser hits before a gape-mouthed audience at the local talent show. This vintage slice of camp realism would be bizarre enough by itself, but then Harris reenacts the doc twice—first as a black-and-white fictionalization with a pre-Fast Times Sean Penn in the lead role, and then again (in color) with the mid-’80s-era Crispin Glover. Each time Harris adds layers of impersonation as well as crucial snippets of context that seem to implicate the filmmaker in the subtle ridicule of his innocent protagonist.

The sight of the young Penn in a wig shrieking, “Please don’t keep me waiting!” is now permanently etched in memory, although, as a cross-dressing tour de force, the performance is nothing compared with John Cameron Mitchell’s turn as the titular diva in the truly exhilarating glam-rock musical dramedy Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This well-deserved Audience Award-winner (adapted from Mitchell’s own off-Broadway musical) might sound like one of those prefab, post-Rocky Horror midnight movies. But writer-director-actor Mitchell, parading each of his three hats like a lavender-colored taffeta pillbox, fully earns his place at the cult mantle, allowing a series of high-volume, vintage Bowie-style rave-ups to advance the drama.

Besides this gender-swapping triptych, there were plenty of other thematic trends at Sundance this year, and for whatever reason, violent revenge factored heavily in the dramatic competition category. Alas, the big prizewinner, Henry Bean’s The Believer, came off as a minor variation on American History X (problematically substituting self-loathing Jewishness in place of white-suburban angst), and the noir thriller The Deep End adapts the same book that inspired Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment while totally missing the trenchant class critique that made the earlier film a masterpiece. But two other eye-for-an-eye dramas will go down in Sundance history as classics. Christopher Nolan’s Memento might well be the most narratively tangled film noir ever made. And even more impressive from a purely dramatic standpoint was In the Bedroom, which aptly brings a snail’s pace and a surgeon’s precision to bear on the tale of the interminable grief suffered by the upper-middle-class parents (Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson) of a murdered high-school senior (Nick Stahl). Even amid the harrowing circumstances of the third act, In the Bedroom manages to chronicle the bottomless courage required by real love.

Given this bent, it’s perhaps not surprising that actor-turned-director Todd Field courageously resisted distribution offers that stipulated the cutting of his carefully measured, 134-minute movie—although the eventual news that Miramax Films (hardly known for its hands-off policies) picked up In the Bedroom for a million bucks suggests the possibility that Field’s devotion may be put to the test yet again. Clearly, final cut is a commodity more valued by filmmakers of integrity than any on-set perk, which is why the aforementioned InDigEnt can be in business with such filmmakers even at a relatively low price. And the dividends are paid in onscreen daring, at least judging from InDigEnt’s two Sundance features. Bruce Wagner’s Women in Film writes a love letter to three fine actors (Beverly D’Angelo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Portia de Rossi) in the form of uncommonly articulate monologues and unconventionally flattering digital videography. And Richard Linklater’s Tape, like his subUrbia, cleanly adapts the work of a playwright (Stephen Belber, in this case) for the purposes of showcasing his own gift for camera placement as well as the genius of a dedicated ensemble (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Robert Sean Leonard) working in close quarters.

And yet Tape was a mere trifle compared with Linklater’s other Sundance feature, the uniquely animated Waking Life—which, regardless of its questionable commercial potential, is a triumph of interwoven form and content, a sneaky and perhaps even revolutionary smuggling of philosophical ideas into the commercial cinema, and the first bona fide alt-film blockbuster since Pulp Fiction. Like a Hollywood action movie, Waking Life means to alter your consciousness, but without taking it away. (Not even Walt Disney could have dreamed up this fantasia.) Starting with a live-action feature, Linklater’s team of Austin-based animators drew in digital crayon over every frame of the original film, liberally embellishing and abstracting the actors and scenery along the way. Through this radically innovative process, Linklater delivers a techno-psychedelic Slacker whose passive protagonist (played by Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins, under heavy coloring) keeps waking from one dream within another within another.

With its ultra-flared colors and pulsing figures, the movie (projected digitally at Sundance in the most convincing such presentation I’ve ever seen) is beautiful enough to make you weep. And in terms of the screenplay, while graduate students in philosophy may well balk, the rest of us have 97 minutes of what the movie itself calls “holy moments.” What would cine-theorist André Bazin, whose reality-based “ontology of film” is referenced by the characters at length, make of Linklater’s emphatically anti-realist head trip? And who in his right mind would want to see “the first great summer camp film of the new millennium” after a life-changing experience like this? Sure enough, after screening Waking Life, I was spoiled for other films: This waking dream of a movie makes regular cinema look—ho hum—like real life.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Minneapolis City Pages.

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