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Sundance 2007 Take Two: The Sad Eyes of Park City

By Gavin Smith

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Now more brand than festival, Sundance goes from boom to bust

Chicago 10

Chicago 10

“This year there was absolutely no rational reason to subject myself to the Cannes Film Festival, with its mostly absurd, often gruesome distortions of what film is all about . . . besides which in previous years I regularly came to the conclusion sooner or later that I would absolutely never go to Cannes again, no matter what.” So begins a brief essay by R.W. Fassbinder about attending the 1982 Cannes Film Festival as an audience member. Once there, he decides not to see any films: “Call it crazy if you like . . . I found the notion of getting an impression of films only through people who had seen them incredibly exciting.”

Grace is Gone

Grace is Gone

As I went through the festival catalogue and press-screening schedule on the flight to Utah and contemplated different festival coping strategies, I kept coming back to Fassbinder’s novel approach. Had I adopted his method and spent my time quizzing Sundance’s youthful, enthusiastic general public, I might have come away with the sense that this year’s festival was a cornucopia of cinematic mastery and groundbreaking innovation. But in the end, having dutifully attended the daily press screenings and sat through a modest 30 films—and, what, three walkouts?—I can attest that, for all its charm, the Fassbinder strategy leaves something to be desired. (Empirical proof: people who know me will testify that for me to walk out, a film has to be rock-bottom; one of my three walkouts was Grace Is Gone, which won not only the Screenwriting Prize but also the Audience Award.)

Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog

There was no equivalent to either Old Joy or Little Miss Sunshine this time around, and the once-hot (or at least warm) but now rapidly cooling Premieres section was even more pathetic than last year. Take the opening-night film, Chicago 10, an intriguing-sounding animation-plus-archive-footage treatment of the trial of Abbie Hoffman et al. for instigating the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention: a completely incoherent mess. A textbook example of great material in need of an organizing intelligence, it fails even as a Sixties Radicals for Dummies primer. Word is the makers are going back to the editing room—maybe they should take an editor with them this time. Mike White’s Year of the Dog was another major disappointment. A great comedic talent isn’t necessarily a born director alas, and this sweet, sincere story of the transformation of a lonely office worker (Molly Shannon) into an animal-rights activist lacks dimension and never finds the right tone, wavering between the satiric and the sentimental. You’ll groan, but what can I say: it simply lacked bite. And then there was the tedious Chapter 27, for which Jared Leto gained what looks to be 50 pounds to impersonate John Lennon killer Mark David Chapman. The film is basically an interior monologue with pictures. Chapman hangs out in front of the Dakota Building for hours on end. Chapman pretends he’s Travis Bickle in front of his hotel-room mirror. Chapman makes ineffectual efforts to connect with fellow Lennon fan Lindsay Lohan. Guess how it ends? Leto and director/screenwriter Jarrett Schaefer’s labors yield zero insight into their subject’s motivations. And gee, I bet it was a nice stroll down memory lane for Yoko to have a film crew camped on her doorstep re-creating the murder of her husband.

Son of Ranbow

Son of Rambow

Okay, so there were admittedly some good films. The Premieres section’s dark-horse highlight was Garth Jennings’s delightfully unlikely Son of Rambow, in which a school’s resident bully/misfit press-gangs a timid but plucky classmate into starring in a video remake-cum-tribute to First Blood, the (actually not-bad) 1982 debut of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo franchise. Full of madcap energy and invention, and reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Millions in tone and playfulness, it’s a lovely and affectionate tribute to children’s ingenuity and the power of imagination, as well as a fondly nostalgic re-creation of mid-Eighties middle England. (But what an American audience will make of it is anybody’s guess.)

The Savages Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Savages

Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages was the clear Premieres standout and a high point of the festival as a whole—as it would have been any year. Jenkins takes a TV-movie-ish but nonetheless pertinent premise—the dilemmas and complications facing adult children when a parent succumbs to Alzheimer’s—and uses it as a vehicle for a refreshingly adult contemplation of the discontents and disappointments facing two unfulfilled souls heading into middle age. From an initially seriocomic setup the film shades into an unsentimental, emotionally and psychologically convincing look at the prickly dynamic between a mid-level literature professor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his unsuccessful playwright sister (Laura Linney) as they relocate their father (Philip Bosco) to an East Coast rest home. It’s something rarely sighted these days at Sundance: the work of a mature sensibility in control of the material. The Savages delivers on the promise of Family Remains, Jenkins’s 1993 short, and her 1998 feature debut, Slums of Beverly Hills. Too bad that while a comparable talent like Alexander Payne has steadily advanced, she’s had to wait seven years to prove herself.

The Unforseen

The Unforseen

Overrun by know-nothings, wannabes, wild-eyed kids, and scene-makers for 10 days every January, the once-quaint town of Park City has metastasized into a bloated, truly hideous cash cow maybe twice its original size. Forget getting a restaurant table—they’re all booked solid months in advance by industry fat cats. I heard of one local resident who was offered 10 grand to leave town and turn over his home to a bunch of agents. How Robert Redford reconciles all this with his commitment to the environment, never mind “the artist’s personal vision,” beats me. And so The Unforeseen, a documentary about real-estate development, grassroots environmental activism, and civic politics executive-produced by Terrence Malick and, er, Robert Redford, seemed an obvious must-see. Commissioned by Malick, director Laura Dunn details a truly engrossing account of the opposition of local residents to a series of proposed suburban subdivision developments in Austin, Texas in the late Eighties and early Nineties. What’s at stake in this instance is the impact these developments will have on water quality in general and on a beloved local spring in particular. But the film ultimately succeeds in having a paradigmatic reach, not least because of the pivotal role newly elected Texas governor George Bush plays in the final chapter of this story. Deploying motion graphics and aerial photography to increasingly mesmerizing effect, and adopting what can only be described as a lyrical approach, Dunn interweaves this gripping narrative of political resistance with the personal story of one of the development’s prime movers, a now-bankrupt real-estate whiz kid whose surprisingly self-reflective interview allows the film to transcend its specifics and finally attain an almost metaphysical realm. Best film of the festival, hands down.

Fassbinder’s 1982 visit to Cannes would indeed be his final one. He died later that year, way before his time. And the sad fact is that when the Sundance brand celebrates its 50th anniversary, it still won’t have given the world a filmmaker with one-tenth of his talent and originality.

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