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Sundance Wrap-Up: The Mathematics of Sundance; or, Size Doesn’t Matter

Sundance Wrap-Up: The Mathematics of Sundance; or, Size Doesn't Matter

(originally published at FilmCatcher.com, 1/28/08)

The Mathematics of Sundance; or, Size Doesn’t Matter: Inverse Proportionality in Park City, Utah
By Anthony Kaufman

Someday, statisticians will study the “Sundance inverse-proportional-law,” which can be applied in two, equally, but converse rules: 1) the greater the magnitude of buzz that a film goes into the festival with, the lesser quality said film will be, and 2) the lesser the magnitude of buzz surrounding a film, the better it will be.

Perhaps the “expectation variable” gets in the way or the “commercial viability” constant, but whatever the reason, Sundance 2008 offered the proofs once again: Variety’s 25 pre-fest “Target Titles” were filled with duds (“The Great Buck Howard,” “Incendiary,” “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” “What Just Happened?”), while the festival’s revelations (“Ballast,” “Momma’s Man”) were nowhere to be seen. To be fair, Variety did include “Sugar,” Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to “Half Nelson,” one of the festival’s strongest films. But rather than stay up all night in a bidding frenzy for “Sugar,” initially buyers seemed attracted to the festival’s worst titles likes flies to, well, excrement.

Here’s another inverse-proportional law: the bigger the festival gets, the less fun it is. More crowds, more traffic, more lines. The sub-freezing Park City event may very well be the least pleasant film festival in the world. Attendees, bundled from head to foot in Arctic wear, stuff into shuttle buses like Japanese salarymen, waiting to be taken on serpentine routes throughout the back roads of this oxygen-deficient Mountain town. Keep hydrated or headaches will seize the brain. And the festival’s most attended venues, the Racquet Club and Eccles Theatres, provide the same paltry nourishment between screenings: how many flabby turkey sandwiches can one person eat for dinner in a week?

The festival’s best films rose above these circumstances to transport viewers—not into fantasy worlds, however, but into deep pockets of American life. Combining neorealism with a careful attention to the Mississippi landscape, Lance Hammer’s stunning debut “Ballast,” which won prizes for best documentary and best cinematography, inhabits the wet and dreary Delta flatlands to chronicle the lives of three individuals in turmoil. Cinematically stimulating and emotionally satisfying, Hammer doles out story information and motivations with a teaspoon, always keeping the audience on edge. And when the conflicts are finally revealed, they sting with emotional truth. If “Ballast” doesn’t sound like the next “Little Miss Sunshine,” so be it: The film heralds the arrival of a visionary young director with a deeply felt humanism that deserves just as much of an audience.

During the festival, many critics cited Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (“L’Enfant”) as the European godfathers of this new strand of American neorealism on display. (Grand-jury prize winner “Frozen River” also apparently belonged to this camp, though admittedly, I missed it.) While the Dardenne influence may be true of “Ballast” – with its contemplative character studies and moral quandaries – it’s less apparrent in Boden and Fleck’s “Sugar,” which feels more like the work of fellow Brooklyn humanist and HBO backed director Jim McKay. Boden and Fleck, who directed “Half Nelson,” may have the heart of the Dardennes, but their storytelling is more accesible: “Sugar” is, after all, a baseball movie.

The story of a Dominican pitcher who travels to the strange foreign land of Iowa to play in the minor leagues, “Sugar” is also an immigrant’s tale, balancing the rush and suspense of the game with the alienation and discomfort of trying to make a home away from home. Produced by Paul Mezey, who was also behind the similarly touching and socially conscious immigrant drama “Maria Full of Grace” and not so coincidentally, McKay’s last few movies, “Sugar” captures one man’s journey with a credibility and sensitivity that surpasses just about anything we’ve seen on cinema screens since, well, “Maria Full of Grace” or McKay’s “Our Song.” Shockingly, as with their stellar debut “Half Nelson,” the film left Sundance without a single award.

If a theme emerged at this year’s festival, it was the distraught state of the male species. Masculinity was very much in crisis and afraid to grow up at this year’s Sundance. Both “Ballast” and “Sugar” depict male protagonists weighted down, by the loss of a loved one in “Ballast’s” burly black adult lead, and the super-responsibilites of being a star athlete in “Sugar.” A lesser film called “The Wackness” – an early ’90s Manhattan-set hip-hop coming-of-age film and the fest’s Audience Award winner – features Ben Kinglsey as a sixties burn-out psychiatrist whose addicted to prescription drugs and bong-smoking, and will do anything, including sticking his tongue down Mary-Kate Olsen’s throat, to be young again.

Then there’s the fabulously understated “Momma’s Man,” which in its very title, broadcasts the pathetic state of its male protagonist. Directed by Azazel Jacobs, the film stars his own parents, noted avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his wife Flo Jacobs as the father and mother of Mikey, a thirtysomething man who finds himself unable to leave their cluttered, womb-life New York loft and return to his wife and infant back in Los Angeles.

A wry and tender study of regression, “Momma’s Man” (also backed by Paul Mezey, give this man an award) shows Mikey digging into his high-school notebooks, singing immature songs from his adolescence (“Fuck Fuck You”) and commisserating with old-school chums who he clearly has nothing in common with anymore. Filled with brilliant instances of humor and pathos, and one magnificent inclusion of home-movie footage, “Momma’s Man” was this year’s quiet revelation, the sort of patient, intimate, handwoven film that gets lost at Sundance (see 2006’s “Old Joy”), but finds plenty of fans in the wider world of cinephilia.

A few standout documentaries also looked at men in trouble. Christopher Bell’s entertaining and penetrating “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” surprises in its twists and turns, and shifts in tone, from funny to tragic and back again. Not a muckraking expose of steroid use, as some had advertised it, the film is actually a moving investigation into the perils of male body image (the filmmaker and his brothers strove to mimic the bulging biceps of ’80s icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone). A kinder, gentler Morgan Spurlock, Bell also offers a broader social indictment of America’s culture of competition and pharmacuetical addiction. As Bell narrates in the film, “Steroids are not the problem. They are the side effect.”

If “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” shows what happens to boys who have unrealistic expectations about their bodies, the rousing “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” follows two men who refuse to admit to failure. A Canadian heavy metal band that at one time was the envy of everyone from Slash to Metallica to Anthrax, Anvil is now headed up by two 50-year-old Canadian-Jewish dreamers who have long been forgotten. Or have they? The movie’s charge comes from watching the excessively sensitive Steve “Lips” Kudlow and his more stoic best buddy Robb Reiner trying to regain their mantle, as they go on a pitiable European tour that is as sad as it is funny, and mount a final possible comeback concert in Japan.

Though not nearly as trenchant or as humorous, the alluring titled “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures” epitomized the festival’s theme of man trouble: British director Chris Waitt seeks out all of ex-girlfriends to find out why they all dumped him. What emerges is a mildly diverting account of a selfish, lazy asshole who can’t get it up. A scene in which an S&M dominatrix tries to cure Waitt of his ills by lashing at his genitals with a cat-o-nine-tails was the perverse embodiment of Sundance’s male emasculation.

Sure, Sundance ’08 had other thematic strands: the Spanish-language sci-fi drama “Sleep Dealer” and the lo-fi futuristic oddity “Reversion” both offer intriguing allegorical takes on America’s mishandled policies of immigration and irresponsibility; and suicide was big (the Hollywood Reporter wrote that more than 15 festival films included characters contemplating, attempting or actually killing themselves). But there’s something about the inadequacy of testosterone that feels right about Sundance: that inverse-proportional law that states the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

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