Slamdance Stays True To Its Roots
by Scott Foundas
With a wonderful, crudely animated festival trailer that was mistakenly threaded-up backwards before the opening-night film; one screening room that featured a large sofa and several armchairs interspersed among the regular seating; and another screening room decked out in bumblebee yellow-and-black air-conditioning tubing strewn along the walls. The ninth-annual Slamdance Film Festival was, well, more Slamdance than ever. The fest returned to its ancestral home of the Treasure Mountain Inn, right smack in the middle of Sundance territory on Park City's Main Street. And while the aesthetics of the TMI (as it's affectionately known) were arguably less captivating than those of the Silvermine (Slamdance's headquarters for the past two years), the more central location produced a big boom in festival attendance right from the get-go. (According to Slamdance president Peter Baxter, opening-day ticket sales were up more than 100 percent from 2002.)
If there were signs this year that Park City itself was beginning to lose some of its homey, off-the-map charm -- Sundance has become so trendy as to attract hordes of hipsters with no film tickets and no lodging who crowd the narrow, icy streets as though it were Mardi Gras, while (egad!) there is now a Starbucks on Main Street -- Slamdance has done a marvelous job of maintaining its outsider, rebel image. Despite amassing the major-festival respectability (with its year-round international outreach programs and the discovery of such films as Christopher Nolan's "Following" and Mark Moskowitz's "Stone Reader") that would seemingly dull one's revolutionary fervor, the Slamdancers have held to their course, like Park City's own kinder, gentler Weathermen Underground. (So, how fitting that Slamdance 2003 should open with the world premiere of Kenneth Bowser's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," one of two equally entertaining -- if superficial -- documentaries in Park City this year about the renegade artists who instigated the New American Cinema of the early 1970s.)
Programmed entirely by filmmakers (and, in the words of festival co-founder at large Dan Mirvish, "a few lapsed filmmakers"), with a competition limited exclusively to films by first-time directors, Slamdance is rivaled by very few other festivals in terms of its commitment to panning for new talent. It's a tenacity that's hardly limited to the weeklong Utah engagement: with its "On the Road" and "Best Of Slamdance" events -- including visits to China and Poland in 2002 -- and a regular screening series at Manhattan's Pioneer Theater, Slamdance has evolved into a 365-day affair.
The 2003 Slamdance lineup was as eccentric and anarchic as ever, evidenced by the likes of Sean Meredith's "In Smog and Thunder," which imagines a civil war between Northern and Southern California, and Curtis and Paul Hannum's "The Real Old Testament," which re-imagines the Book of Genesis as an installment of MTV's "The Real World." There was also Bob Odenkirk's fitfully amusing "Melvin Goes to Dinner," which at the very least is a significant advance for its director following "Run Ronnie Run!" (a Sundance premiere last year). And there were bits and pieces of other movies -- like the atmospheric Virginia setting of Zev Berman's "Briar Patch" and Bernd Heinl's extraordinary shooting of Allan Mindel's "Milwaukee, Minnesota" (the fest's closing-night film) -- that lingered in memory.
But as has become something of a Slamdance regularity (you can practically set your watch by it), it was the annual documentary competition that offered many of the festival's most compelling visions. Both "End of the Century" (about the life and career of The Ramones) and "Long Gone" (which examines the lives of contemporary boxcar riders, to the tune of an original Tom Waits song score) could benefit from another round in the editing room, but even in their current forms, they are both deeply resonant works.
As it nears its first decade-long anniversary, Slamdance has identifiably carved out its own niche amidst the teeming Park City tumult. Yet, some degree of acrimony (be it real or just perceived) seems to remain between the festival and its surname's forebearer. (This year, rumors abounded that the Sundance press office had officially deemed Slamdance an "ambush" festival.) But it's certainly not for lack of trying: in 2003 alone, the Slamdance staff cordially invited their Sundance counterparts to a competitive sledding tournament, while legend has it that (gasp!) the two festivals have occasionally borrowed each other's projection equipment. As Baxter sees it, "If we all somehow were working together, it would be beneficial for all the filmmakers here. The analogy is In-N-Out Burger versus McDonald's; why shouldn't there be an In-N-Out Burger?" Indeed, why not?