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February 10, 1999 2:00 AM
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The Muted Sounds of Sundance '99's Dramatic Competition

The Muted Sounds of Sundance '99's Dramatic Competition

By Anthony Kaufman




The snowy hills were alive with the sound of, at the very least, music,
at this year's Sundance film festival where buzz on the Dramatic
Competition features was at times overshadowed by rumors of Guns & Roses
reunions and the next Lyle Lovett appearance. Sundance '99 was not a
stellar year for American independent movies; as the last dispatches
from Park City arrive this week, you will see very few mentions of
breakthroughs and breakouts:


In his Sundance wrap up, Daily Variety's Emanuel Levy called Tony Bui's
triple award winner (grand jury, cinematography, and audience award)
"Three Seasons" "luminously shot, intensely poetic," while The New York
Times's make 'em or break 'em critic Janet Maslin could only serve up
"more visually exquisite than dramatically subtle" about the October
Films
release. In The New Yorker, David Denby's only discovery was Eric
Mendelsohn ("Judy Berlin"), "a possibly major talent," and the L.A.
Times's Kenneth Turan bypassed discussion of the films altogether to
rant instead on how the Dramatic Competition is "a self-perpetuating
string of earnest, well-meaning films that are as sensitive, artistic
and precious as anyone could want but have absolutely no chance of
pleasing audiences outside of a festival's rarefied atmosphere." If
every Sundance festival is compared with the last, spectators, critics
and journalists have been left wondering, "Where is Vincent Gallo when
you actually need him?"


While last year's "Buffalo 66" at least stirred up some aesthetic
controversy, what did 1999 have to provoke? If acquisitions are a sign
of esteem (and let's hope they're not), Mark Illsley's "Happy, Texas"
was the most popular film at Sundance (with its much publicized Miramax
sell) -- a film so mainstream, that many would agree that it never
belonged in the Competition in the first place. Why not the Premiere
section where such high-profile films have their place? Much talk
circled around the fact that "Texas" took a valuable competition spot
away from some film less fortunate than to have name actors like Steve
Zahn and William H. Macy and screwball sequences involving car chases,
bank robberies and pre-pubescent beauty pageants.


While no other Competition film was as silly as "Happy, Texas," there
were a few that were just as conventional: "Guinevere" from
writer-director Audrey Wells (writer- "The Truth about Cats & Dogs")
which stars Sarah Polley as a rich girl who falls in love with a
drunken, hack-photographer (Stephen Rea) in this unremarkable, but
likely-to-be commercial Miramax release; Gavin O'Connor's "Tumbleweeds"
(acquired by Fine Line) a moving -- though almost cliched -- story of a
single mother (the superb Janet McTeer) and her daughter, who flee
broken relationships to eventually find fulfillment in themselves; and
"The Autumn Heart," Steven Mahler's traditionally-lensed melodrama about
three sisters and their long lost brother.


While not as commercial, the heart-felt coming-of-age flicks were
aplenty this year in the Dramatic Competition, all having mixed results
with the biggest stand-out being Eric Mendelsohn's aforementioned "Judy
Berlin" where it is the post-grads that do the growing up, rather than
the adolescents. Mendelsohn, who deservedly won the Directing Award,
carefully constructs his film frame, by black and white frame; each shot
so deliberate, it gives full meaning to the term "directing." But like
the other growing pains pictures (Tod Williams' "The Adventures of
Sebastian Cole
," Frank Whaley's "Joe the King," Lisanne Skyler's
"Getting to Know You," and Toni Kalem's "A Slipping-Down Life," whose
quirky adaptation of an Anne Tyler novel would be my second pick for a
directing prize) audiences were divided. Many of these films suffer from
narrative weakness at the expense of vivid characters -- protagonists
perhaps so close to the writer-director's own experiences that a
necessary objectivity was lost. Though three of these four films
haven't been picked up yet, their sensitive telling still deems them
worthy of distribution. That directorial earnestness did not go
unnoticed in Park City; each film had dedicated fans applauding at
films' ends.


Fans were few and far between for the most bold and intellectual film in
the Competition, Scott King's tale of WWII cryptographers, "Treasure
Island
," though it did grab some audience-goers-- and jurors too-- who
were desperate for vision and originality; it was awarded a special
award for Distinctive Vision in Filmmaking. Rumor also had it that the
40's inspired pulp posters and promo-faux-newspapers designed by King
were a hot find at the festival. If the film confounded viewers, they at
least could admire the promotional materials. Even that could not be
said for another audacious hopeful, Dan Clark's digitally shot campy
thriller "The Item," which had horrible word-of-mouth all around.
Emanuel Levy called it "a midnight movie that had no reason to be in
competition."


Ironically, though, far and away the most potent film I saw at Sundance
was, in fact, in the midnight section: "The Blair Witch Project."
Perhaps programmers mixed up "The Item" and "Blair Witch," because if
any independent film deserved a competing pole position, it was Eduardo
Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's co-directing debut, which was picked up
early in the festival by Artisan (who will likely do for "Blair Witch"
what they did for their 1998 Sundance pick-up, Darren Aronofsky's
"Pi"). Shot on consumer video and black and white 16mm, with no name
actors, no production values -- only an increasingly unnerving narrative
and an innovative directing method -- Sanchez and Myrick pulled off what
so many of this year's glossy, competition films didn't: a simple and
engaging film from first frame to last. If many of this year's
high-striving Dramatic Competition entries left critics and audience
members flat, the no-budget "Blair Witch" gives hope that truly
independent film still has the power to provoke and enliven us.

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