PARK CITY 2002: Expanding Boundaries; Sundance 2002 Proves Biz-Heavy, But to What End?
by Ray Pride
(indieWIRE/ 01.22.02) -- As Sundance 2002 came to a close, what should have been a world of buzz was more like an indifferent hum. That is, unless you were one of the anointed filmmakers whose wet-from-the-lab or fresh-from-the-deck work got bought up in the becalmed non-frenzy of acquisitions. Shrugs accompany rumors -- "Did you hear so-and-so got bought?" -- as if the news were not thrilling, but merely confirmation that the indie industry persists, despite ever-unwieldy economic models for recoupment. The streets of Park City seemed slowed, nearly vacant at times, with no Tokyo subway-style shoving matches at shuttle stops.
A fusillade of buys from the semi-studios were good for headlines, with distributors' release schedules being filled with finished, viable titles. A key killer of many small companies has historically been a too-quick or too-rash entry into development and production ventures. But with Sundance 2002 treated as the ultimate trade fair -- or candy store -- all that's left after the signing of contracts is to plot publicity and draw up P&A budgets.
There was still no critical consensus before Saturday's award ceremony. Take Gus van Sant's "Gerry," a gorgeous, experimental Matt Damon-and-Casey Affleck-lost-in-the-desert headscratcher. Empty formalism or transcendent experience? Ask the person on either side of you, and you'll get contrary opinions. While Gary Winick's witty novella of a romantic comedy, "Tadpole," was picked up by Miramax for $5 million, some critics groused it was too small, too direct. My response: too bad. It's sharp work. The witty mix of animation and familiar coming-of-age concerns made Peter Care's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" notable, and the hypnotic, near-wordless "Paradox Lake," which worked to depict the inner states of autism, impressed with its poetic knack with video-originated imagery.
There were also sumptuous and thoughtful movies about loss among the offerings, such Christine Jeff's tactile, lyrical "Rain," a mood-drenched look at adulthood from an adolescent girl's fearless point of view; Zhang Yang's powerful "Quitting," a portrait of a fallen Chinese matinee idol's recovery from years of depression and drug abuse; Jill Sprecher's quiet, confident "13 Conversations about One Thing," which investigates the potential terrors and errors that lie in wait in the quest for happiness; and Andre Turpin's jaunty yet unsettling "Soft Shell Man," which suggests that charm may be as self-destructive as angst.
John Malkovich's dour, accomplished South American-set drama "The Dancer Upstairs" showed a concern for history that goes beyond one's own experience. The downbeat Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle "Love Liza" was probably the most grief-stricken of the usual run of sorrowful fictions. "Design," a striking debut film by Chicago director Davidson Cole, takes a character to the end of his rope and beyond. With a daringly dismal palette, the film's ambitions suggest a working-class Kieslowski, a Kieslowski without God.
There were the occasional dogs, like the half-a-joke "Bark" or the inexplicably awful "Secretary," which distorts short story writer Mary Gaitskill's work into an amateurish farrago of incoherent psychology. But there were also movies where the personal became political, or where the most specific of experience suggested the universal. That was true particularly with the documentaries, including "Blue Vinyl," a comic investigation of the damage caused by petrochemical production; "Sister Helen," a portrait of an acerbic nun who runs a tough-love private home for recovering alcoholics; Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's sweet and playful one-man-show, "Derrida," in which the French philosopher illuminates his way of thinking by challenging the filmmakers as the film is being made; and John Walter's splendid "How to Draw a Bunny," a life of late artist Ray Johnson, a perennial recluse and "New York's most famous unknown artist."
What was this year's Sundance like on the street, outside of the market? The most inspiring moments I witnessed were random run-ins, hearing filmmakers of all levels of experience and achievement express renewed ambition since the events of September 11.
Eavesdropping was also productive. As a spy in the House of Docs, I heard clear-headed elucidation of filmmaking philosophy and had impassioned discussions about the future of many of the formats being exhibited in Park City. Traditional format PBS-style production was still part of the mix, but digital video's still-undefined promise inflamed these filmmakers in the best possible way. At a gathering the day before the Sundance Channel announced plans to roll out an all-documentary station later this year, Robert Redford talked about his great hopes after what he referred to as "the shock of the fall." He sounded as hopeful, as young, and as idealistic as ever. At a later panel, spirited arguments were made about "salable" models of documentary-making versus more idiosyncratic ways of preserving individual experience and perspective. "We're already marginal," an audience member piped up at. "Why shouldn't we be adventurous?"
After Sept. 11 at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, American attendees were mostly concerned with borders: How do we get back to the States? While this session's Sundance is more about boundaries, and what we can do to expand them: How can we get work seen? How can we be better filmmakers and better people? And can we be happy after all that has happened? Four months ago, William Goldman's notorious line "Nobody knows anything" seemed to best characterize the attitude of the film community. At Sundance 2002, the murky vision of what may come seemed to be as hopeful as the classic toast: "To more life, in a time without boundaries.