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The Dance is Over, Strike up the Band

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 29, 1998 at 2:0AM

The Dance is Over, Strike up the Band
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The Dance is Over, Strike up the Band

by Mike Jones




"Sundance offers the annual independent feature competition as a means
to increase the public interest in independent film as a whole." But
with public awareness of independent film at new peaks, this
mission-statement of the Sundance Film Festival could use a revision.
Love it or hate it, for all that's written about the film industry's
gala debutante party, the Park City festival is a clouded window onto
this year's trends of independent film, and is the first spoke in the
fastest growing film exhibition network in the country -- a web of
regional film festivals sprouting from Tacoma, Washington to Athens,
Georgia.


So though it seems redundant to increase public interest in indie film,
Park City can be used to redefine each person's definition of
independent film -- how is independent film solely or partly
personal, universal, financial, dangerous, or even litigious. Did you
find that your favorite indie film of last year was actually the
favorite of many, or few, or just yourself? Any way you cut it, if you
attended Park City, there was probably something for you.


Sundance's opening night film didn't set the tone for the days to
follow. Peter Howitt's "Sliding Doors", starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a
woman literally torn down two different life-paths, took on a rhythm
that didn't demonstrate the best qualities of this year's programming.
Just when it was thought that this year's festival wouldn't be able to
lift its head above the rising media scrutiny of the "Kurt and Courtney"
blow-out, "Slam" premiered to instant acclaim and the festival took to
fire. Marc Levin's doc-style narrative of a confined man's expression
through slam-poetry became the hottest ticket in town, hitting a nerve
with most everyone that saw it. The deeply personal, electrifying riffs
from the film's lead actor, Saul Williams, drew people in to his
universal plight in a way only slam-poetry can -- through performance,
volume, and anger. The film suffered through its admittedly
verite-style camera work, bringing some in the audience a critical step
away from that passion by allowing the camera to be an imposing third
character. But most were able to forgive it -- and even embraced it.
The favorite film of the majority had been found and the energy drove it
all the way to the Grand Jury Prize on the closing night.


Another strong film out of the gate, Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66" drew
raves in its early screenings, but went on to polarize audiences as the
days grew. Many found it hard to separate Gallo from the film,
considering it mostly a vanity project. One audience member remarked
"If he wanted to look at himself for two hours he should have set a
comfy chair in front of a mirror." It was even intimated that the jury
had difficulty with it, which might account for the film's empty pockets
on awards night. Gallo and Alison Bagnall's script was directed and
shot with burning attention to style and mood. Following a man's
release from prison and his quirky methods of dealing with his demons,
"Buffalo 66" captured its audience with an oddly combined, touching nod
to Italian neorealism and early Godard, and yet gained some immediate
detractors when it didn't allow some of its key players to tell their
own story -- Angelica Houston and Christina Ricci were at times reduced
to caricatures.


"Next Stop Wonderland", "Jerry and Tom", "High Art", and "First Love,
Last Rites
" also showed the better qualities of this year's crop of
indies. All allowed their characters to move and insinuate, instead of
talk and deliver. Directors trusted actors to speak with body language
and innuendo, a risk that could have left audiences with stumbling ideas
of vague connections between characters and scenes. Darren Aronofsky's
cerebral dream-scape of "Pi", James Herbert's adolescent wanderings of
"Scars", and Lance Mungia's Slamdance entry "Six String Samurai" became
some people's cherished jewels among the rough.


The documentaries had hardly any likeness in technique or foundation.
The first-person methods of "Frat House", "Decline of Western
Civilization, Part III
", and Slamdance's "20 Dates" were as different
from each other as they were from the removed chronicles of "Frank Lloyd
Wright
" and "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart". This same first-person
perspective that fueled Andrew Gurland and Todd Phillips' ride through
the American steroid-nightmare of the college frat house was wholly
absent from Barbara Kopple's "Wild Man Blues". Kopple, known for her
thorough, harsh examinations of the individual versus organization,
would have done well to treat "Wild Man's" subject, Woody Allen, with
the same seemingly passive, open lens she effectively used in "Harlan
County, U.S.A.
" and "American Dream". Yet the film gives little insight
to any of Allen's more complex directions, and instead rests as a
concert film as it follows Allen and his New Orleans jazz band across
Europe.


Now that this year's mold has been cast, much of the festival landscape
of the next 12 months is starting to form; either because, or in spite
of, Park City. Independent film is often times a cinema for the young;
made by and for people between 16 to 29. From many of the films listed
above, it seems that this is still sadly the case, but at least, the
techniques are maturing. Talking heads have been replaced by "Pi's"
mathematical solitude; hit-and-miss styles based on time and money
constraints have given way to "Buffalo 66's" cool composition and
temperament; the single-minded vision of the writer/director rises in
writer/director/star Jimmy Smallhorne's unflinching "2 by 4", but
gracefully falls with the collaborative electricity between Chris Erye
and Sherman Alexie in their "Smoke Signals". Independent film finds
yet another definition. . . by missing the pigeon hole.


RELATED ARTICLES:


Tom Cunha profiles the dramatic Grand Jury winner "Slam".


Anthony Kaufman's Interview with Directing Award winner Darren Aronofsky and Sean
Gullette of "Pi"


Animal House Redux - Mike Jones interviews doc Grand Jury winner "Frat House's"
Todd Phillips


Top Prizes Announced as 1998 Sundance Film Festival Draws to a
Close


"Kurt and Courtney" Makes Long Awaited Park City Debut