The most ambitious and hyped makeover at Sundance this year was lavished on the section that needed it most. The experimental Frontier sidebar, until now little more than an afterthought category where films are usually sent to be ignored, has been beefed up and rebranded New Frontier. With more movies, panels, workshops, multimedia installations, microcinema presentations -- and, let's not forget, sponsorship opportunities -- it practically constituted a film festival unto itself.
The handful of feature films that remain the most visible part of the section were the usual mixed bag. There remains a problem of definition, since Frontier has evolved over the years into a catch-all section for films that may not be experimental in any meaningful sense but presumably pose too much of a challenge for general viewers. (The best movie from Sundance's class of 2006, Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" -- a small, subtle, personal film that might have benefited from a higher-profile competition slot -- premiered in Frontier.)
The most egregious New Frontier entry, Anthony Hopkins' "Slipstream" can only be seen as a sad emblem of the festival's celebrity infatuation (from which this section is usually immune). In this poor man's "Inland Empire," the veteran actor and first-time filmmaker condenses a lifetime's worth of mental doodles into one flatulent anti-industry tirade. Sir Anthony himsef takes on the role of screenwriter Felix Bonhoffer, our guide to a not-so-surreal dreamscape dominated by shrill meta-improv and movie-biz misbehavior. Capably shot by Dante Spinotti, "Slipstream" is jazzed up with a surfeit of twitchy editing and acted without a safety net by an inexplicably eager cast (Christian Slater, Jeffrey Tambor, Camryn Manheim, and John Turturro as a boorish executive named Harvey). The promise in the program note that the audience will start "questioning the limits of the human brain" proves all too accurate.
Digging into its protagonist's unconscious somewhat more persuasively, Nina Menkes' "Phantom Love" is a dreamy map of female desire, gorgeously shot in high-contrast black and white by Chris Soos. The film is a coherent and evocative interior portrait, even if the surrealist imagery flirts with cliche. A slightly more experimental version of a Tsai Ming-liang film, South Korean director Roh Gyeong-tae's "The Last Dining Table," sounds a koan of alienation through a series of meticulously staged and initially unrelated tableaux.
In a smart move, New Frontier welcomed film-savvy art world stars like Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe into the fold. Co-directed with Philippe Parreno, Gordon's "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait," which observes soccer star Zinedine Zidane throughout a match, is an intriguing experiment in real time and perspective, albeit one that has obvious limitations as a 90-minute movie. A high point of the section, the artist spotlight on Huyghe compiles most of his major work from the last 10 years, from "The Third Memory," a "Rashomon"-ic riff on "Dog Day Afternoon," to the recent "A Journey That Wasn't," the lovely end result of an elaborate, multi-staged piece that involved an Antarctic expedition and a Central Park performance.
As for the installations and presentations, the heavily promoted New Frontier on Main -- the former Digital Center, tucked away in a basement of a mall on Main Street -- turns out to be a less than ideal exhibition space. The room is rudely dominated by the booths and demos devoted to section sponsors HP, Adobe, Sony, etc.; the work, consigned to backrooms and hidden corners, seems secondary. Less gallery than trade show, the setting might have been intended as a statement on the intersection of art and technology. Unfortunately it feels more like a concession to the realities of art and sponsorship.
Once you actually find the installations, there's plenty of interesting work: Eric Dyer's hypnotic, zoetrope-derived "Copenhagen Cycles"; Lincoln Schatz's regenerative video mirror "Cluster," which incorporates footage of its observers; R. Luke Dubois's video loop "Play," which condenses the faces of every Playboy centerfold from 1953 to 2005 into under a minute, a chronological flipbook of beauty ideals.
Operating on much the same principle, Dubois's "Academy," which screens daily in the microcinema, uses an algorithmic compression method to whiz through every Best Picture Oscar winner from "Wings" to "Chicago" in 75 minutes: a crash course in film history as well as a vivid demonstration of evolving cinematographic and editing trends. Also in the microcinema: Sundance alum Travis Wilkerson's multimedia performance, "Soapbox Agitation #1," and "Lunchfilm," a collection of shorts by avant-garde heavyweights (James Benning, Sharon Lockhart, James Fotopoulos) that originated from a nifty concept by Sundance programmer Mike Plante: he buys a filmmaker lunch and they owe him a film, made for the cost of the meal.
On Monday Lynn Hershman Leeson's "Strange Culture" -- probably the best and certainly the most urgent film in the Frontier section -- became the first movie to become available to the virtual community of Second Life, three days after its actual premiere. Part of this year's wave of rule-breaking nonfiction (which also includes Jason Kohn's "Manda Bala," Jessica Yu's "Protagonist," and Robinson Devor's masterful "Zoo," all in the Documentary Competition), "Strange Culture" is a veteran artist's thoughtful, indignant response to Patriot Act America.
Hershman Leeson, who was last here with "Teknolust," chronicles the ongoing case of art professor and activist Steve Kurtz, a cofounder of the Critical Art Ensemble, who was plunged into what he calls "maximum disaster" on May 11, 2004. He woke to find his wife of 27 years, Hope, dead in bed beside him. When the medics arrived and found what they deemed suspicious materials -- the Kurtzes were working on a project about genetically modified food -- they alerted the FBI, which wasted no time leaping to the conclusion of bioterrorism.
It's a tricky story to document in many ways. Kurtz appears in the film but is legally prevented from speaking about certain aspects of his case. And the outcome is still in doubt: he is awaiting trial and could face jail time. (For more information, see caedefensefund.org.) But these restrictions and uncertainties proved perversely freeing for Hershman Leeson, whose films have sometimes suffered from a certain airlessness. Here, taking a cue from Kurtz's multifaceted work, she brainstorms up a fluid, imaginative, almost off-the-cuff hybrid, using actors (Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton) to play the Kurtzes and encouraging them to discuss their characters, their art and the situation.
Completed just as President Bush bulldozed through the Military Commissions Act, which redefined habeas corpus for so-called enemy combatants, the film nails the mood of post-9/11 America: the paranoia, fear, and willful ignorance that the government has fostered and exploited. "Strange Culture" may have been the first film to reach Second Life avatars but one can only hope it has some impact in the real world.
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