Robert Redford’s indie festival manufactures buzz with low-budget surprises

Brian D. Johnson February 2 2004


Robert Redford’s indie festival manufactures buzz with low-budget surprises

Brian D. Johnson February 2 2004


Robert Redford’s indie festival manufactures buzz with low-budget surprises


AFTER CUTTING through the backyard of a ski condo, climbing over frozen snowdrifts and crossing a four-lane highway to line up at a makeshift theatre in a high-school basement for a documentary by a man who spent a month eating only at McDonald’s, it occurred to me that this was no ordinary film festival. It was my first visit to Sundance. For years I’d been a regular at festivals in Cannes and Toronto. To get to a movie in Cannes, you stroll along a promenade past topless sunbathers on the beach. In Toronto, you take the subway to a multiplex. This was another story. Veterans of the Sundance Film Festival had

warned me that it was overcrowded, tough to negotiate, dysfunctional. Now I know why they keep coming back: to be surprised by good, low-budget movies that seem to come out of the blue. And among this year’s crop was the strongest Canadian presence in Sundance history—11 features and 12 shorts.

On the world festival circuit, Cannes is queen. Measured by scope, size and impact, Toronto comes second as its princely rival. But Sundance, which Robert Redford created in the Utah ski town of Park City 20 years ago, ranks third. It’s the scrappy proving ground on the frontier of American indie

cinema, where everyone is looking for the next Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh. Of the 137 features at this year’s festival, only 15 arrived with distributors. “Sundance is never going to be as comprehensive as Toronto,” admits its director, Geoffrey Gilmore. “But we’re a festival of discovery.” Attitude and altitude are its hallmarks. Unlike Cannes, a black-tie sacrament staged at sea level, Sundance takes place at a giddy elevation of almost 7,000 feet in an ambience of concerted informality. There are no red carpets, Gortex is the height of glamour, and amid the gridlock of rented cars that foul the thin air, limos are considered gauche.

Opening night. Redford saunters onstage, acting oblivious to the strobing blaze of cameras. Slipping off a fleece jacket, the eternally boyish golden boy tells the audience that after two decades he doesn’t need to give another speech about the festival, then proceeds to do just that. He talks about the gamble of creating it, how people said no one would come. Now they come in droves, a scavenging horde of agents, buyers, distributors, sponsors and media. Everyone’s welcome, says Redford, but he tells the filmmakers, “It’s your festival, so enjoy it.”

If he sounds defensive, perhaps it’s because he’s the target of a hatchet job in Peter Biskind’s recent book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. Calling Sundance and Miramax “the twin towers of the indie world,” Biskind casts Redford as a dithering Olympian, a passive-aggressive control freak who, “with his ‘Bobspeak,’ gave the people he worked with the feeling that they were standing on sand.” But Biskind’s scabrous book gives short shrift to the accomplishments of the Sundance Sun King. Even if the festival is now a shark-infested talent pool— American Idol: The Auteur Edition—he deserves credit for widening its horizons with documentaries and foreign fare. And if this year is any indication, his talk of “diversity” is more than an idle mantra.

menu was wildly eclectic. It included The Corporation, an acclaimed documentary that diagnoses the institution of capitalism as a psychopath; Seven Times Lucky, a caper movie that Variety deemed better than David Mamet; The Saddest Music in the World, a surreal fantasy about a glass-legged beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) in Depression-era Winnipeg; and Raspberry Reich, a camp, mockCommunist pageant of hard-core porn.

SUNDANCE ¡s a festival of discovery,’ the scrappy proving ground’ on the frontier of American indie cinema

Meanwhile, two Canadian marvels of multicultural romance, Touch of Pink and A Silent Love, struck a chord with audiences. These fresh feature debuts are both about triangles involving an unorthodox couple and an inescapable mother. And both are laced with homages to old movies. In the ongoing quest to concoct a Canadian romantic comedy, Touch of Pink resembles a cross between Bollywood/Hollywood and Mambo Italiano, but is better than both.

Written and directed by Tanzanian-born Ian Iqbal Rashid, who divides his life between London and Toronto, it’s the story of Alim (Jimi Mistry), an Ismaili Canadian in London who tries to keep his gay relationship in the closet when his overbearing mother shows up from Toronto. An inspired touch is a droll star turn by Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Alim’s imaginary friend— the dapper ghost of Cary Grant.

flamboyant, no less compelling. A Montreal film professor (Noel Burton) finds a Mexican mail-order bride on the Internet, then falls for her mother after he moves them to Montreal. More subtle than it sounds, this bilingual love story comes from Argentine-born director Federico Hidalgo. Subverting cliché, he brings a warm, uncomplicated realism to a tangled intersection of age, gender and culture. And you have to love a movie in which a Mexican—played by the magnetic Vanessa Bauche (Amores Perros)—uses a coffeetable book on Canada as an offensive weapon.

Latin America provided some of the festival’s most powerful content—notably Man« Full of Grace, a Spanish-language HBO drama about young drug mules. This first feature from American director Joshua Marston stars novice Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno in a heartbreaking performance. She plays a pregnant 17-year-old who quits a job stripping thorns off roses to work as a drug mule, flying to New York with a payload of heroin in her belly.

The Motorcycle Diaries offered a more uplifting Latin American odyssey. Adapted

from the journals of Ernesto (Che) Guevara, it stars Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal (T tu mamá también) as the young Che, an asthmatic medical student who takes a nine-month motorbike jaunt through South America with a friend in 1952. Exquisitely directed by Brazil’s Walter Salles (Central Station), this contemplative buddy movie explores a hidden continent and a hidden character—an embryonic revolutionary discovering a landscape of injustice.

Throughout the festival, I kept bumping into ghosts of bygone revolution. After The Motorcycle Diaries, I walked into a midnight screening of Raspberry Reich to see a man fellating a pistol in front of a wall-sized poster of Che. This German-made porno satire, by Canadian bad boy Bruce LaBruce, mixes terrorism, hard-core sex, and a Godardian barrage of slogans such as “The revolution is my boyfriend” and “Death to the fascist insect.” The latter was coined by the guerrilla sect that kidnapped Patricia Hearst in 1974—and it popped up again in a fascinating documentary called Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

On a more nostalgic note, Bernardo Bertolucci unveiled The Dreamers, a voluptuous boudoir romance set against the backdrop of May ’68 in Paris. It’s about an American adonis (Michael Pitt) who’s seduced by an incestuous brother and sister in a bourgeois apartment while their parents are away. This coming-of-age elegy is Bertolucci’s First Tango in Paris. It’s an erotic, and explicit, tale of a Franco-American menage-à-trois, young film lovers who wage sexual revolution while the world trembles in the street below.

By contrast, rite-of-passage movies from the current generation seem anemic. The most insanely buzzed movie at Sundance was Napoleon Dynamite, a deadpan Revenge of the Nerds comedy about a teenage geek in Idaho. At the premiere, screaming fans greeted its 24-year-old director, Jared Hess, like a rock star. But among the American tales of alienated youth, I preferred Garden State, a quirky romance starring writer-director Zach Braff (Scrubs) as a depressed actor who comes home for his mother’s funeral and finds a soulmate in Natalie Portman.

The bulk of American dramas at Sundance were dismally dark and interior. The first generation ofpost-9/11 movies is marked by a spreading stain of guilt. If this is the cutting edge, it’s the edge of the abyss. In The Clearing, a haunted Willem Dafoe kidnaps a genial businessman (Robert Redford) and drags him into the woods. In November, Courteney Cox is a guilty photographer unscrambling the random murder of betrayed boyfriend. In The Woodsman, Kevin Bacon plays a sympathetic child molester. And in The Machinist, Christian Bale—who looks like a concentration camp victim after shedding 63 pounds—portrays an insomniac racked with paranoid delusions.

In the pound-of-flesh department, Morgan Spurlock went the other direction to make Super Size Me, a terrific documentary in which he eats three meals at McDonald’s, and nothing else, for 30 days. He balloons from 185 to 210 pounds while his doctor warns him that his liver has become dangerously pickled in fat. The documentaries at Sundance were often more inspiring than the dramas. They ranged from I Like Killing Flies, a wonderful portrait of a philosopherchef in a Greenwich Village diner, to CSA: The Confederate States of America, a Ken Burnsish mockumentary that imagines how the world would look if the South had won the Civil War. (Abraham Lincoln flees on the Underground Railroad to Canada; a slaverich America fences off the 49th parallel.) And the most thrilling movie at Sundance was Riding the Giants, a documentary about the daredevils who pioneered big-wave surfing.

In the end, no new cinematic saviour emerged from the fray. But I’ll never forget Tarnation, a kaleidoscopic montage of home movies that Jonathan Caouette, 31, began shooting at age 8. This family scrapbook of abuse, sex and schizophrenia unfolds as a wriggling X-ray of mental illness, a home movie from hell. And in the Sundance search for fresh blood, and the perfect (new) wave, it doesn’t get any better than that. lïl