The Margins Inside: Frontiers and Midnights
by Anthony Kaufman
Frankly, I've heard enough about what got bought, of how much Miramax paid
more than last year, of business and publicity, of Harvey and Courtney and
Kurt. I'm a little tired of hearing about the price for this and the prize
for that. Somewhere in all the money and marketing, there is still an art.
There is a love for film. There is a desire to push the limits of the
medium and find something new. Nowhere is this more true than Sundance's
Frontier section -- films with no stars, no genres, no prizes and often, no
The few forgotten pages in the Sundance catalogue read, "Frontier films
challenge, provoke, or simply invigorate the cinematic status quo." Now
perhaps I'm wrong or simply cynical, but shouldn't most independent films
challenge, provoke, and invigorate? Shouldn't this be the epithet for the
16 Competition films just as much as the mere 5 films included in the
marginalized Frontier section?
Not one film in Frontier had a publicist. This is not surprise considering
most of these films couldn't afford one. I got the feeling that Sundance
should be like a trial where if one doesn't have a publicist, one shall be
appointed to you by the court. With big name publicity agencies like
D.D.A., Kahn & Jacobs, and Clein & White, and Miramax and Fine Line's own
departments pushing films in the faces of journalists and audiences, there
is little the lone, avant-garde filmmaker can do to compete.
One of the few films that was able to do so was Max Makowski's "The Pigeon
Egg Strategy" which somehow miraculously created a buzz around itself as
well as a cult following. After the screening I attended, two people in the
audience claimed it was their second viewing and challenged any other film
at the festival to claim repeat visits. The film won "the unofficial
Holiday Village Grand Jury Prize," as declared by the house manager of the
Holiday Village movie theater. Around the buses and sidewalks of the
festival, "Pigeon Egg" remained a whispered curiosity of many. On a posted
schedule of the festival, one coffee house included only screenings of
How did this little, absurdist film, "filmed in 15 days, with American
actors, by a Brazilian director, using a Chinese crew, and an English
script that was written in Germany" accomplish such a cult status. Perhaps
it is in its minimalist poster quoted above or it's other tag-line, "It's
all fun and games until someone loses an eye" (or a 'u'). Or in his desire
"to play with film rules," challenging everything from establishing shots
and narrative convention, telling the story in the last ten minutes as
opposed to the first ten. Whatever it was, "Pigeon Egg" was one of the most
well-attended Frontier films, making the young director, "flattered to be
in Frontier," but wondering if he should "grow a goatee and wear a beret."
But Makowski's shouldn't mock his accomplishment; his willingness to risk
should be lauded and embraced. Whether the creation of the Frontier section
does enough to support this kind of risky filmmaking still remains in
"All the Frontier films are out of place at Sundance," says painter,
photographer, film and video director James Herbert, director of "Scars".
For him, Sundance is clearly more suspect of ground-breaking cinema; his
film is soon playing in the main program at the Rotterdam Film Festival and
not some "avant-garde" sidebar. Herbert calls "Rotterdam his last chance."
And without a publicist, he worries the same thing will happen to him as at
Sundance, "I was unable to make contacts with anybody," he says, "I'm not a
party guy, so that didn't work for me either."
Like Makowski's film, Herbert's film belongs to a tradition outside the
boundaries of mainstream cinema. His portrayal of a young couple, totally
nude through the duration of the movie, is rooted in the metaphor of
innocence lost. "Suspend all need for narrative," warns Herbert to his
audience, but his beautifully shot black and white painting, slow by most
spectator's standards, takes the visual and psychological dimensions of
cinema to a deeper place.
Although Herbert came to Sundance not "expecting any distribution," he did
hope to make some international connections. One filmgoer from the Czech
Republic loved the film and asked him if he had anything playing in Europe.
Most of the Frontier filmmakers seem better suited to a European audience
and will be heading to European festivals soon, but Herbert contends that
Sundance audiences were very responsive to the film and citing an example
like Aronofsky's "Pi" [or even Gallo's "Buffalo 66"] is "hopeful that
experimental narratives could soon make their way into the main program."
The other three films crossing Frontiers were "A Chrysanthemum Burst in
Cincosquinas", the densely symbolic tale of a man searching for meaning in
turn-of-the-century Argentina, directed by Daniel Burman, a twenty-four
year-old Jewish Latin American and self described member of a "generation
of skeptics," Sharon Lockhart's minimalist modern dance of Japanese high
school girls in "Goshogaoka" and Rob Tregenza's third feature film which
probes the nature of internal and external relationships, "Inside/Out".
Jeffrey Poe, who represents Sharon Lockhart's "Goshogaoka", and J.K.
Eareckson, producer of "Inside/Out" were somewhat irreverent towards the
demands of Sundance. "All our money goes into our movies," says Eareckson
regarding publicity, "We're lucky if we have a poster." And Poe, speaking
of the "Hollywood people sniffing around" finds it both "fascinating and
boring." Both "Goshogaoka" and "Inside/Out" received similar responses at
this year's Sundance: a handful of people walking out after the "first few
minutes" and others staying and saying, "it's a masterpiece."
When considering the Frontier films, the claim of "independent film" at
Sundance becomes quite the irony. With sensibilities and styles that are
incredibly challenging, that alienate a large percentage of the populace in
favor of an unrelenting artistic vision and are often the sole,
self-indulgent product of a single person, these films and filmmakers see
through what Tregenza calls "the illusion of independent film" and carve
out an entirely new territory for themselves.
On the Sundance Channel's website, Rob Tregenza offers these final remarks
on the subject, "I hope festivals as important as Sundance will turn their
attention to the absence of thought and the descent of reason into babble,
which is the spirit of this age, and work and play, and let cinema continue
to challenge the minds and moods of the audience and not simply feed the
[Since there are no publicists to contact, for more info on the films in
Frontiers, check out their websites @
Although the love of the medium is just as strong in Sundance's Midnight
screenings as in Frontiers, the form is practically a polar opposite. Where
the Frontier section lavishes over its medium, the Midnight films indulge
in genre: science fiction, crime, comedy. They owe their wackiness to
midnight cult classicism as found in "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and
"Eraserhead", rather than museum installations and experimental visions.
Yet like the Frontier films, "Park City at Midnight" provides movies for a
particular audience and not for a distributor or a marketer. Although they
can be funny or mainstream, by the very fact of their programming, they
remain somewhat outside the festival, relegated to a time when most big
name attendees were stuffing hors d'oeuvres in their mouths.
"It presents a unique challenge," says Tara Veneruso of Next Wave Films,
which provided finishing funds for "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane," a
movie that promises crime and mayhem, "The first screening was Wednesday at
Midnight when all the parties were going on and the second screening was at
10pm on Saturday which is during the awards ceremony." It's scheduling like
this that doesn't make it easy on the midnight films. But with a title like
"Blood, Guts. . ." Park City inhabitants and those thirsty for some good
old indie violence packed the house -- although all distributors were
rumored to be absent from the audience.
As anyone knows who has been to Sundance, screenings are bound to go late
"which is fine if your movie is screening at 8:30 am," says John Hamburg,
director of the wacky, safe-cracking comedy "Safe Men," but "the movie
started 45 minutes late, at 12:45 in the morning." "Blood, Guts" had a
similar problem, running 40 minutes late. "It's painful. It's hard to stay
up that late," says Veneruso, "I'm so amazed that people can stay up until
2 in the morning and actually be coherent enough to watch a movie."
Hamburg's answer to his bleary eyed crowd was to make a game of it, "I
instructed the audience to pretend they were watching "USA Up All Night",
and it kind of made the audiences bond with each other." It's a unique film
that can work in the midnight slot. With "Safe Men"'s hilarious timing
between Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn and Harvey Fierstein as a man who sells
exploding pants, audiences were into it. According to Hamburg, "The vibe
was really cool. People were psyched. It was sort of surreal that it was so
late at night. They just kind of imagined themselves flipping channels and
stumbled upon this movie."
One of the more popular midnight movies was "Orgazmo" directed and written
by "South Park"'s Trey Parker. "'Orgazmo' is the perfect midnight movie
because it's hilarious, subversive, bizarre and the plot is a bit
fantastic," said Sarah Jacobson, director of "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin
Anymore" after the screening. Its story about a Mormon turned porno
superhero, says Jacobson, "is definitely the plot of a midnight movie."
With lines like, "Can we get the Ass-Fuck twins out here now?" "Orgazmo"
remained a favorites of the night owl crowd.
It seems not a single filmmaker shunned the time slot. For them, midnight
was the honored moment where cults are born and insomniacs dream. Faithful
audiences stayed the evenings out, witnessing everything from ice scream
fetishism in Louis C.K.'s "Tomorrow Night" to hockey-themed bar mitzvahs in
"Safe Men". Wackiness is the rule, camp is the model. And where Frontier
films treaded the edges of experimental cinema, Midnight films live in the
late hours of crime, sex, sci-fi and outlandish comedy. John Waters would
"Cube" director, Vincenzo Natali tried the best he could to get his film
into the midnight screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, but they
wouldn't let him. Now relieved to be in its rightful place with "an
audience that would appreciate it," Natali says, "It's great. The audiences
are really, really nice." Natali, like the other midnighters, wants his
film to be an enjoyable experience, not an industry sellout. Although
Natali's "Cube" is in the fortunate position of already having Trimark as
its distributor, his sentiment embodies the spirit of the late night film,
"What was so great about it was that it wasn't made up of industry people
at all. It was just real people and they really got into it. And they're
very vocal. And they want to have fun and it's great."
This is the beauty of the midnight films. They remain separate from the
main program and the competitive nervosa it instills. They are here to have
fun and their time slot enables it all the more. Cult filmmakers in the
making, their motivation is just as much for the love of film and its
audience as that of the money. Sometimes it's nice to know that there are
those outside the margins; it breaths freedom into an industry that is
often on the verge of suffocation.