PARK CITY 2002: Less Biz, Less B.S.; Slamdance Returns for it's Eighth Year
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 01.19.02) -- With a quality selection but still harder to get to than ever, the Slamdance Film Festival returned to Park City's converted Silvermine for its eighth year of eclectic film programming. Slamdance's new home may be a scant 1.5 miles from the epicenter of Sundance brouhaha, but its mindset and atmosphere remain several galaxies removed. Gone are the rollicking, enthusiastic screening intros by Geoff Gilmore and the gushy prattling of so many filmmakers who find Sundance acceptance a justification for taking themselves way too seriously. The air doesn't just seem fresher and easier to breathe up on Slamdance's high perch, it really is. The festival slogan, "By filmmakers, for filmmakers," is not a superficial mantra, but a true ideology that has steadfastly maintained by festival co-founders Peter Baxter, Dan Mirvish and Paul Rachman.
Spend some time around the Silvermine and you'll find lots of homey, warts-and-all charm -- Rachman struggling with a sagging screen masking; Mirvish spray-painting a makeshift, pressboard wall -- and very, very little hype. There's hardly another festival where the staff and filmmakers are of such a similar mindset -- they want to make you aware of their films, but they don't try to force them on you -- Slamdance is about discovering films for yourself. Not yet a teenager, it has already produced a series of real finds, like Christopher Nolan's "Following," Monteith McCollum's "Hybrid" and Larry Fessenden's "Wendigo." 2002 was no exception, with a scattering of films of that caliber.
Yet Slamdance remains enigmatic, something more rumored than known among the thousands who flock to Park City each January. Moving from its longtime Main Street residence at the Treasure Mountain Inn has made the fest locationally challenged, with a paid shuttle and a free city bus (that only runs twice per hour) the most visible ways of getting there. That means that all the mogul and acquisition types -- the ones who can barely be bothered to contend with Sundance's plentiful transportation -- nary put in an appearance. That helps keep the festival pure in a way -- the slogan could be changed to read "By filmmakers, for filmmakers only" -- but makes for a semi-dubious atmosphere in which to sell your film.
But good festivals are more than sales, and Slamdance has proved time and time again that it deserves more attention, particularly from the media. It fosters a real sense of loyalty and community among its filmmakers, and has now reached out to become a global operation, promoting low-budget indie filmmaking overseas. It also stands among the most selective and democratic of festivals, with a main competition offering a mere dozen features -- combining American indies, documentaries and foreign imports -- selected from nearly 2500 submissions.
Among this year's highlights:
There wasn't much on any of Park City's screens this year that could rival the aesthetic pleasure of a ride through snow-capped mountains on the local municipal bus line or an hour spent watching the flurried blur of chefs in the open kitchen at Main Street's Zoom restaurant, but Mark Moskowitz's "Stone Reader" (which picked up Slamdance's Special Grand Jury Honor and Audience Award for best overall feature) was one such diversion. It's an epic non-fiction inquiry into fiction itself, into the pressures of genius and the slippery ease with which an artist can disappear amidst the landscape of his own work. That happens twice in "Stone Reader," as Moskowitz himself vanishes into the scythe-like mystery of his film, becoming as much the subject of his quest as the long-forgotten author, Dow Mossman, he ostensibly seeks.
Not as deep or compelling, but still a lovely film on a similar subject, Lucia Small's "My Father, the Genius" (which won the juried awards for documentary and editing) is a deeply probing account of scarred emotional wounds in which the filmmaker investigates her architect father, a genius according to himself and very few others. But Small makes a strong case for her father's talent, while at the same time (like in "Hybrid") unearthing his utter failings as a supportive parent and husband.
Also strong among the docs is Josh Koury's 57-minute student-thesis project "Standing By Yourself," which brings a home-movie rawness to its depiction of delinquency and rage among three upstate New York teens (one of whom is the director's brother), all trying on maturity for size and finding it a mostly ill-fit. This film -- which with some better organization has the potential to be expanded into a very compelling feature -- exhibits some of the power of Larry Clark's teen pics and Matthieu Kassovitz's "Hate."
The competition narratives at Slamdance didn't present discoveries on the order of those aforementioned docs, but former Slumdance Experience co-founder Brian Flemming's "Nothing So Strange," which concerns the aftermath of the assassination of Bill Gates, was more than just a clever premise for a movie. It's a "mockumentary" of the first order, with a verisimilitude that rivals Christopher Guest's films. It's also a major investigation of group dynamics, a perfect subject for a culture where special interests rule the roost.
But Slamdance 2002 was best represented by some exceptional shorts, so much so that the jury had to invent several new awards to recognize all of them. Lisa Yu's claymation "Vessel Wrestling" (winner of the prize for experimental short) is easily the most delirious intersection of food, fluids and orifices since the last David Cronenberg movie. Atsuko Kubota's "Better Life" (best animated short) makes use of a three-dimensional computer-animation technique that resembles a cruder version of the 2-D rotoscoping in "Waking Life," a film to which it bears not only a titular resemblance, but a similar fascination with poetry of the mundane. And Boris Hars-Tschachotin's "Lurch" (best narrative short) is a sort-of live-action cartoon that twists 20 minutes of "Twilight Zone" silliness into a wonderfully sensual exploration of space: sharp diagonals shooting across the screen; interesting actions framed away in corners so remote you have to crane your neck to have a proper look; and a scratching fountain pen making its way across a palpably musty manifest.