PARK CITY 2002: Sundance Stylists Flashback to Sixties for Inspiration
by David Geffner
(indieWIRE/ 01.17.02) -- If you asked anyone at last year's Sundance Film Festival (2001) what was the most technically innovative film, the answer, unequivocally, was Richard Linklater's Monet-like melding of live action DV and computer animation, "Waking Life." As Sundance 2002 winds down, no such cinematic landmarks have been carved in the snow. But that doesn't mean this year's indie crop hasn't stretched the envelope. Well, recycling may be a better description.
Multiple split-screens ("The Laramie Project," "On_Line," "Narc"), soft-focus vignetting and giddy whip-pan transitions ("Tadpole"), freeze-frames, still photos, and 360-degree pans ("Better Luck Tomorrow"), and an entire film shot in Super 8mm ("That's My Face") are all old school touches first seen on American screens back in that most technically groovy of film decades, the sixties. Those same free-ranging tricks are back in vogue at Sundance 2002, popping up in the Premiere and Competition programs.
Opening night was a clear signpost. Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," a faux-documentary weeper recounting the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, used a split screen motif -- actors playing Laramie townsfolk gabbing on one side, elegiac images of the cow-town in the other -- from the opening frames. Often compressing the imagery into four or five separate panels, Kaufman's visuals instantly summoned up the ghost of Michael Wadleigh's 1969 docu-epic "Woodstock."
Likewise for Justin Lin's fast lane trip with Asian-American high schoolers in the Competition feature "Better Luck Tomorrow." The movie liberally uses freeze-frames, wide-gap jump cuts, and rapid still photos dealt out with expositional voice-over, prompting one audience member to remark: "Jean-Luc Godard on crank." Lin described his peppy visual style as a way of defining identity. "The teenagers in my film keep trying on new identities until something fits. I tried to reflect their disorientation in the tone and camerawork."
This year's digital films seem caught in a stylistic time warp as well. Gary Winick's "Tadpole," just scooped up by Miramax for the highest price ever for a digital movie, uses soft focus vignetting, color-pushed whip-pan transitions and a lift from Albert Lamorisse's fabled short film "The Red Balloon" to convey his tale of familial love. The film's visual debt to sixties French impressionists like Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman" and Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" help give the movie a soft, rosy glow.
The sixties influence is even more pronounced in Thomas Allen Harris' personal documentary "That's My Face (e minha cara)." Shot entirely in Super 8mm, Harris' journey to Salvador Da Bahia, Brazil to uncover his African identity, parallels his grandfather's journey as a Super 8mm filmmaker during the civil rights era. Harris digitized all of his grandfather's footage (shot off a television screen in the sixties) onto an AVID, then cut the film electronically before blowing it up to 35mm. By digitally manipulating his Super 8mm footage, Harris has added freeze-frames and overlapping dissolves for an effective blend of old and new school artistry. "I come from a fine arts background," Harris observes, "and I need to push the form visually. What's so ironic is that my grandfather switched over to video in the seventies but it all deteriorated. The Super 8mm films were the only images that survived."
For Jed Weintrob, a Harvard chum of Sundance alumnus Darren Aronofsky, his American Spectrum entry "On_Line" was as technically complex as indie filmmaking gets. Packed with fractured split-screens and super-saturated digital coloring, "On_Line" was literally shot on-line. "A big challenge," Weintrob explained, "was how do you make a film about people having sex in front of a computer visually interesting? I used films from the sixties, like 'The Thomas Crown Affair' where they split the screen into multiple parts, as a guide to replicate the open windows on a monitor, and the fractured parts of these characters. Without the digital technology, we could never have used all the split-screens; it would've been insanely expensive on film."
Weintrob ran more than 100 feet of cable between neighboring New York apartments so that he could shoot live off the Internet with up to six separate Sony PD-150 PAL DV Cams and/or mini webcams. "It was a completely masochistic way to make a film," Weintrob laughs, "but it was necessary for both the actors and the audience to feel what it was like to really be communicating on-line."
Communicating ideas is what Sundance is all about. And while the class of 2002 produced no clear visual jaw-droppers, the return to experimental storytelling motifs has been widespread and impressive. Whether it's Robin Williams wandering through a sterile wide-angle Sav-Mart in Mark Romanek's stunningly creepy "One-Hour Photo," or Rebecca Miller's love for still photography and narration to advance her three stories about women in the intellectually spry "Personal Velocity," or the sixties inspired title sequence for Finn Taylor's "Cherish" (which looks straight out of an old Monkees episode), Sundance 2002 stylists have got a groovy kind of thing goin' on.
[David Geffner is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles who writes about alternative film.]