By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 29, 2010 at 4:11AM
The opening scene of "The Scenesters," a narrative feature playing at the Slamdance Film Festival, plays as a mock trailer for the embodiment of American indie cliches. Comprised of pull quotes from fake sites like "mumblecore.com" and glimpses of a meandering plot in which nothing happens, this mildly funny introduction serves as the indie world's answer to the Hollywood satire of "Tropic Thunder."
While uneven in parts, the movie remains unequivocally amusing as it continues to mock the vanity of aspiring filmmakers, turning it into a more specific metaphor for the purpose of Slamdance itself. Whereas the Sundance Film Festival continues to service its own internal cliches, straining under the redundant pressure of contrived road movies and meet-cute romanticism, Slamdance was created with the intention of pushing past such boundaries. There's room for debate about whether or not it always succeeds at this goal, since most of the movies at the festival failed to gain admittance to Sundance and the program tends to be a mixed bag due to the inclusion of ultra-low budget features with better ideas than production values. Nevertheless, this year's Slamdance lineup poses a provocative juxtaposition to Sundance's typical Amerindie routine, since many of the successful movies come from outside the United States.
Slamdance's special screenings section is particularly strong: Two British films, both dark glimpses of criminal activity, display unique approaches to familiar material. "Tony," Gerard Johnson's relentlessly gritty depiction of a solitary serial killer (Peter Ferdinando) whose attempts to socialize in various capacities always lead his would-be acquaintances to their grisly ends. With a quiet, utterly haunting pace, Johnson focuses on the unsettling nuances of the titular killer's isolated universe. A kind of "Frownland" for the torture porn set, it features beautiful imagery of Tony's urban surroundings, cleverly juxtaposed with the drab interiors of the grim apartment where he lives. Despite its basic plot, "Tony" feels less like a horror movie than a highly nuanced study of extreme social alienation, but the grim aura is nevertheless quite palpable.
"Down Terrace," the other British entry, takes the opposite tactic, using fast-moving comedic dialogue and an ensemble cast of dopey gangsters to revel in the quirks of well-established characters. Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, the story revolves around the misdirected plight of a young slacker named Karl (co-writer Robin Hill), fresh out of jail and constantly at odds with his father, Bill (Robert Hill). Although the comparison might sound crass, the basic set-up recalls the man-child comedy of "Step Brothers" in the sense that it involves an immature adult male dealing with parental pressure to force him into grown-up land. Violence, death and physical threats abound in "Down Terrace," but the entertainment value comes from the characters' virtual ambivalence toward these dangerous aspects of their world. Behind the ever-present threat of gunplay, these people are essentially neurotic time bombs on the brink of psychological eruption.
If "Down Terrace" breaks the mold of the crime genre, than the Irish feature "One Hundred Mornings" restores selfsame confidence in the viability of the post-apocalyptic survival story. Like "The Road," it takes place in the aftermath of undefined catastrophe that leaves survivors sprinkled throughout the countryside. As a result, it retains a downbeat, minimalist setting that often veers into theatrical territory. Two young couples hide in a cabin, their supplies slowly depleting as tension between them grows. Directed with a gentle, observational touch by Conor Horgan, it draws you in with the lure of futuristic mystery and then probes the dangers of becoming ostracized from civilization.
With these low budget features, Slamdance succeeds at demonstrating the capacity for strong cinematic storytelling with an economy of means -- the alleged intent of Sundance's recently launched "NEXT" section. Would it be completely impractical to propose an alliance between the two festivals wherein Sundance absorbs some of these more promising compact productions? Innovation deserves attention, no matter which brand ends up sustaining it.
To wit: Steven Soderbergh -- whose "sex, lies and videotape" put Sundance on the map years ago -- took his new Spalding Gray documentary, "And Everything is Going Fine," to Slamdance this year. The project, essentially a series of clips from the performer's monologues and interviews, feels less like a movie than a mildly intriguing collage of career highlights. But its title, cribbed from one of Gray's popular onstage routines, reflects a certain type of false confidence that often plagues the film community.
Festivals mobilize to provide a sense of community, but the clash between Sundance and Slamdance works in opposition to that notion. Slamdance hosted a filmmaker summit this year to discuss the future of the practice. Sundance held several panels where similar dialogue took place. The events took place literally a few hundred feet away from each other on Main Street. Everything is not going fine for filmmakers in today's uncharted terrain, which suggests that Slamdance's original opposition to Sundance might require an update. The time has come to consider integration, lest the parody at the start of "The Scenesters" simply becomes a lackluster market standard, leaving quality products with nowhere to go.