Movies, cell phones, and rock 'n' roll

Independent spirit thrives amid the celebrity crush of Sundance 2000: a report from Park City, Utah.

EVERYBODY AT THE Sundance Film Festival has at least one off-kilter celebrity moment, so when I saw Roseanne actress (and former Sundance short filmmaker) Sara Gilbert after midnight at the local Albertson's, I figured, good enough. A few days later I found myself crammed into a crowded Park City restaurant, not watching (low stage) and barely hearing (chatty crowd) the French duo Air perform its soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides with the help of Jason Falkner and Barrett Martin. Somewhere behind me was Kirsten Dunst, gamely enduring a crush of TV cameras and just as many "my-how-she's-grown" glances. Standing immediately to my right, jostling for position up front, was James Woods. He only lasted about 30 seconds, but give the guy some credit—he got closer to a live band than any number of record industry professionals ever have.

Music was everywhere at Sundance 2000. John Popper and Sugar Ray played parties, VH-1 taped a two-hour Storytellers show, and Michael Stipe is a movie producer. Courtney Love took another step in her film career by proving she could be in a crap indie film (Beat, playing Joan Burroughs, opposite Kiefer Sutherland as William) just as credibly as any other thespian. Ramblin' Jack Elliott was the subject of one of the festival's better documentaries; another was Barbara Kopple's My Generation, a work in progress about Woodstocks '69, '94, and '99. It seems that everybody in the rock biz wants to be in movies, while cinephiles are thoroughly enchanted by rock 'n' roll. How else to explain the sight of several hundred people queuing up on a 10-degree night to get into a Cult show? (Prediction: That will not happen to the Cult again any time soon.)

Outside the party circuit, youth, rock 'n' roll, and the cultural politics of both provided the festival with one of its themes, a "theme" being something that's made up by people like me when we notice more than three movies with something in common. There were others, of course—dot.coms and digital video, the usual catalog of familial dysfunctions, and, naturally, the fact that any number of fine films found distributors but no single flick pulled in big bucks or unanimous buzz. No matter. Despite the usual gripes that Sundance is overrun by cell phones and seven-figure deals, its spirit of independence and eclecticism is as strong as ever. Besides, everyone has a cell phone these days (personally, I had trouble getting a carrier signal).

Sundance is also the most supportive place in the world—standing ovations and applause for every name in the credits is the norm. Director Jenniphr Goodman was moved to tears by the response to her The Tao of Steve, a charming tale of a chubby, philosophizing lothario (prolific character actor and Greg Dulli pal Donal Logue) who finally meets a woman he's willing to change for. If you think In the Company of Men or Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago would have been better with happy endings, this is the movie for you. It's somewhat original, but not particularly surprising or adventurous.

The same can be said for Two Family House, a slow, sweet Staten Island period piece that happily telegraphs its story of an unfulfilled Italian husband (a warmly poignant Michael Rispoli) and the pregnant young Irish girl living upstairs (Kelly MacDonald, sad and luminous). Two Family House won the Audience Award, while Girlfight (Brooklyn kids take up boxing) and You Can Count on Me (grown-up drama by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, author of the play This Is Our Youth and the screenplay for Analyze This) split Grand Jury honors.

Failing to catch the eventual Grand Jury winner has been a Sundance tradition of mine for almost 10 years, but I can't imagine either film is better than New Waterford Girl, director Alan (Pump Up the Volume) Moyle and screenwriter Tricia Fish's sharply observed tale of family, community, and frustrated teens in the outer reaches of coastal Nova Scotia. It reminded me that ultimately the pleasures of the cinema have nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with a few simple questions: Have I seen this place/met these people/heard this story before? Do I care what happens to the characters? Am I surprised/moved/satisfied by what does? New Waterford Girl provides all the right answers, big-time. It's daffy, dazzling, and unpredictable, with a core of seriousness that leaves the tone somewhere between Bill Forsyth, early John Hughes, and Alice Munro. The setting is gorgeous, and so is 18-year-old Canadian actress Liane Balaban, who gives a remarkable, all-encompassing debut performance that seems purely instinctive. The entire emotional arc of the movie is written in her physical carriage and shifting facial expressions.

And what of all that rock 'n' roll I mentioned earlier? Well, my Sundance began with The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple's second go-round at a Sex Pistols movie. Temple told the screening audience that the film marks the first time the truth about the band has been told—the "truth" being John Lydon's side of the story, after Malcolm McLaren controlled the terms of debate for so many years. Certainly Malcolm was a prat and a swindler, but he's pure cardboard in the film, a Morris Levy/Max Pearlman figure who didn't make any cultural contribution at all. Unless they plan to hand out copies of England's Dreaming at every showing, the film is dramatically incomplete—and possibly dishonest. Really, it's not much more than your basic band bio, with the distinct advantage of superb archival footage and the incredible presence of young Mr. Rotten.

The festival also featured a pair of raver flicks. The American entry, Groove, which Sony Picture Classics snapped up early in the week, can't touch the first act of Go, and while it gets the night-in-the-life aspects of the scene down with v鲩t頡uthenticity, the characters never really come alive. In the Welsh film Human Traffic, on the other hand, everything is alive. Instead of leaving you feeling like the only sober person at a club, it fucks you up good, as director Justin Kerrigan mashes together all the things that matter about post-teenage life—music, sex, romance, drugs, parents, jobs, drink, Bill Hicks—into a surreal, splattery human comedy that's sentimental at the core. Trainspotting comparisons are obvious but a little small-minded—surely there's room in the world for two raucously energetic movies about drug-addled young people who talk funny. The film did not get a lot of attention here because it has already been released commercially in the UK and picked up for distribution by Miramax, but Sundance obviously mattered to Kerrigan—he didn't make it to Utah, but sent a friend of his with a camcorder to document the audience reaction at a midnight screening. It was more fun than the Air show.

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