Time Out New York February 20, 2005

Corportations shill and documentaries shine at Sundance

If you listened to the murmurs of Park City passersby during the past week, you heard the word Sundance used as a noun, a verb, a compliment and even a philosophy. But 15 years ago, when fest founder Robert Redford rechristened the United States Film Festival with a catchier name, it’s doubtful he imagined the term synonymous with Indie cinema would be used for all-out product-branding opportunities. If there was any question about Sundance’s tolerance for corporate entities riding the coattails into your frontal love, just take a peep at nipster animation team JibJab’s festival trailers—the ones ending with music decrying “working for the man” while the credits thank Starbucks, Volkswagon and other companies for their sponsorship. Independents, indeed.

Despite the endless extracurricular events and the uneasy art-and-commerce snuggling, the festival remains the premiere U.S. showcase for personal filmmaking. Cinephiles were forced to make quick, often painful calls regarding their six films-a-day schedules: Do I blow off the Korean revenge thriller for the Australian slasher flick? Should I wait in line for the documentary on dirty jokes or for the one on Daniel Johnston? What’s been picked up by a major studio? What might show up on PBS? And what exactly is Crispin Glover’s What is it?

That last question is a tough one to answer, even after sitting through the actor-director’s abstract epic on Down-Syndrome kids and salted snails (we are-- naively, perhaps-- assuming that the next two installments of Glover’s proposed trilogy will make everything crystal clear). But those who spent day after day in the festival’s screening rooms found bright spots. Themes repeated, motifs recurred (pedophilia, it seems, is the indie world’s taboo du jour), and, like last year, truth often trumped fiction.

Perhaps the strongest verite-versus-drama showdown came in the form of two heavily buzzed entries. Hustle and Flow quickly became Teflon-coated with hype, as crowds seemed taken in by director Craig Brewer’s feel-good movie about a Memphis pimp trying to make his name in the dog-eat-dog rap music world. (The movie won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature.) It’s gritty look makes the Dirty South seem even dirtier, but if you wanted a gripping portrayal of the hip-hop ghetto nation, the best representation wasn’t smothered in neorealistic grime—it was covered in clown makeup. Photographer David LaChapelle’s documentary Rize follows South Central L.A.’s hyperkinetic underground cultures of “clowning” – gymnastic dance routines complete with, yes, traditional whiteface and red-nose getups—and ‘krumping.’ an offshoot that combines African tribal movement, old-school breaking and punk-rock aggressiveness.

The movie mixes music-video-like sequences with fly-on-the-wall movements and has all the garish color of LaChapelle’s cover shoots, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better slice of cultural anthropology or a more vibrant portrait of inner-city life. You want the ‘hood? Rize has it, in all its ragged glory, and LaChapelle’s film made its fictional counterpart seem even more woefully lacking in comparison.
Nonfiction’s dramatic potency extended past the petri dish of South Central. Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith follows an Ohio fireman who finds out that a the priest who molested him as a youth now lives five doors away, opening a Pandora’s box of pain and nearly dissolving his marriage. Dick’s camera captures both the healing process and the man’s demands for justice from a church bureaucracy that dodges any responsibility: by the end of the film’s cathartic and consuming journey, you’ll find yourself wondering when all those tears will stop streaming down your cheeks.

Eugene Jarecki’s equally stunning Why We Fight also tackles a topic torn from the headlines—the Iraq War—then pulls back to examine how today’s hawkish […] culture gained such traction in the first place. The film covers much of the same material found in Farenheight 9/11 but with a sounder structure and subtler ways of scoring emotional points. Even the gambit of presenting a grieving parent’s testimonial—in this case, from a retired New York City policeman who lost a son in the Twin Towers—builds in such a way that the man’s agony doesn’t feel exploited so much as expurgated. The film deservedly won the jury prize for Best Documentary, and it confirms that you can make a political doc without being strident.

While highly anticipated works from fest favorites such as Thomas Vinterberg (Dear Wendy) and Travis Wilerson (Who killed Cock Robin?) failed to deliver, two fiction films surprised everyone and made up for the large number of narrative duds. Coincidentally, both came from veteran Sundance directors who’ve scored career highs by leaving behind superficial snark. Noah Baumbach’s past comedies mined a mildly pleasant urbane wit, but his highly autobiographical The Squid and the Whales focuses on the fallout from the divorce of two writers (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, both excellent) living in Park Slope in the 1980s. Local and period details abound, as Baumbach finds the optimal mixture of personal storytelling and layered, novelistic depth in this funny, sorrowful tale of familial meltdown; its final shot achieves heartbreaking poignancy sans a single word.

Even more surprising as Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, a complete 180-degree turn from his previous, infuriatingly glib work. Gone is the barrage of mall-punk jargon and too-cool-for-school posing. Instead, Araki’s dreamy look at the tenuous connection between a male hustler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose other popular fest entry, Brick, established him as this year’s MVP) and a nerdy teen obsessed with UFO abductions (Brady Corbet) found the director developing a more mature, emotionally engaging voice. Both of these narratives proved that independent filmmaking is still alive and well, and capable of providing the epiphanies that keep people flocking to Park City no matter how many corporate shills set up shop there.

By David Fear