January 27, 2005

Park City Dispatch. 5.

Sundance Hannah Eaves sends along our fullest Park City Dispatch yet, featuring not only first impressions of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, Jenny Abel's, Abel Raises Cain and Hal Hartley's The Girl From Monday, but also her own personal impressions of the town, the festival and GreenCine's own party, co-hosted by Res Magazine and DivX. All abetted by photos by GC Managing Partner Dennis Woo.

The American Dramatic Competition is finally heating up at Sundance. News hit several days ago that, after an energetic premiere, Hustle and Flow was picked up by Paramount for $9 million (although, after finagling, the grand total will probablybe closer to $16 million). Its story revolves around a pimp who, after hearing a gospel song, attempts to turn his dream of becoming a rapper into reality. No doubt the buyers were influenced by the success of 8 Mile and are looking to market this to the urban crowd.

Miranda July The Dying Gaul, however, seems to be the most popular amongst critics here. Featuring Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson, this stage adaptation by writer/director Craig Lucas is about a screenwriter who sells the story of his dead lover with a devil's clause - he must transform the character into a woman. Brick, a high school noir, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, have all garnered generally positive responses. One notable aspect of the festival this year is the lack of agreement; it's very difficult to name a single film that most people found outstanding.

There are some excellent entrants in the World Documentary Competition, however. Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is a fascinating character study of Timothy Treadwell, self-appointed grizzly bear expert. For thirteen summers, the youthful Treadwell camped in the Alaskan wilderness to observe and commune with grizzlies. His final year there ended in tragedy when he and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and completely devoured by an older, aggressive bear. Most of the visuals for the film come from Treadwell's own video footage, shot during his last few excursions. He comes dangerously close to the bears, touching them and swimming with them, all the while convinced that his work as a naturalist and lobbyist is helping to preserve their environment. Unfortunately, we soon come to learn that what Treadwell is filming in the Alaskan wilds is less a nature documentary than a kind of ongoing Crocodile Hunter episode with Treadwell styling himself as a great lone adventurer and the only human capable of understanding the creatures around him. His disturbed mental state becomes clearer through interviews and Herzog's own voiceover.

Treadwell was a failed actor and alcoholic, rescued in a sense by the power and individualistic importance that such a reckless undertaking gave him. The bears saved him from obscurity and addiction, but his staying there, against the wishes of the park service, to play out his own narcissistic fantasies and adamant death wish, was bound to end in tragedy. His childlike love for the animals around him seems genuine, as was his belief that the animal world, though admittedly dangerous, was somehow more benevolent than that of humans. In reality, nature is cruel and animals want to survive. The most powerful scene in the film comes when Herzog listens to a tape of the attack (the camera's lens cap was thankfully on during the recording). He agrees that, at over six minutes, this is something that the audience should not hear. Surprisingly, the film doesn't deal with the ethical issue of using Treadwell's own footage to make a film that he, undeniably, would hate.

On a far happier note, Jenny Abel's, Abel Raises Cain, screening at Slamdance, is a joyful history of media prankster Alan Abel, the director's father. This film has the potential to be truly fantastic. In the 1950s Abel enlisted his wife and actor Buck Henry in a fake campaign to clothe all naked animals for the sake of decency ("a nude horse is a rude horse"). Many people, unaware of the society's satiric foundations, got on the bandwagon, and through their stupidity inspired Abel to pursue a lifetime of media hoaxes. The film breaks its momentum by cutting back and forth to the present, when what we all really want to know is what stunt Abel's going to pull off next. Within segments the editing is excellent - the opening shots of Abel semi-jogging to canned music are hilarious - but this film is one of few that would benefit from chronological storytelling, up to and including the present.

Hal Hartley Hal Hartley's latest, The Girl From Monday, is likely to get a mixed response from critics and audiences alike. Starring Bill Sage and Sabrina Lloyd, it is what Hartley calls "fake sci-fi." Though it takes place vaguely in the future there is an undeniable sense that it could be happening right now; that, in fact, our current world is so surreal it could have slipped into science fiction without our noticing. Stylistically, it follows on from The Book of Life and is full of off angles and slow shutter speeds (what Hartley calls the "Wong Kar-wai button" on the camera). In Hartley's vision of the future (or, rather, exaggerated opinion of the present), sex is nothing but a commodity, used to boost one's credit rating. After all, the more sexually powerful we are, the higher our status. Attachment or rejection in any form is a liability, dealt with in court and by insurance companies. Secret, corrupting clubs exist where people have sex purely for pleasure. Common punishment is a long stretch of teaching high school. The title character is from another planet, one without human bodies that relies on a communal conciousness. She is on Earth to find one of her own and bring him back. There are some effective moments, particularly in the first half and towards the end, and Hartley's continual experimentation with narrative and performance is something to be respected.

A Personal POV

It has become clear from my first visit here that the Sundance Film Festival is just as much about the overall experience as it is about the movies. All sorts of people come to Park City - skiiers after celebrity sightings and post-slope movies, executives looking for a hit, industry folks here for the parties, an excited yet cynical press corp, and, of course, filmmakers full of hope and frivolity. As a first time attendee, I'd like to tell you a little bit about what it's like to actually be at Sundance.

The Egyptian

Park City is a straight 30-minute shot up the highway and into the mountains from Salt Lake City, Utah. The mountains here are not sharp and craggy like those in Washington or parts of Colorado, which lends them a deserty roundness, straggly and dusted with snow. It's such a skiing town that a lift actually lets off on Main Street. The street itself looks vaguely like Vegas's idea of an old mining town. It only seems fake because so many of the buildings' exteriors were renovated at about the same time. Strings of colored lights zig-zag above and, during Sundance, barricades extend along the sidewalks. The box office is here, along with a wall-sized version of the schedule; inevitably, every film is marked with a "Sold Out" sticker.

The skiiers that come to Sundance must have an interesting time of it. Shuttle buses take people from one venue to another, often to whatever screenings people can manage to get tickets to. It's not unusual to see a large contingent of blonde bunnies in ugg boots and parkas at, say, a highly experimental gay film. Often they don't last long.

The press corp experiences an entirely different festival. Most press passes allow bearers into special press screenings and, in fact, this year an entire two-screen venue was dedicated to press only. They generally only see public screenings if they have a special pass (like Roger Ebert), know a publicist that can get them in or get their hands on a ticket, usually to a film that isn't being screened for the press, or whose screening clashes with something else. There are also tapes that press take out and watch at their condos. So often, when you read a review, there's a chance that the film's only been seen on VHS. For the press, Sundance offers an exclusive chance to catch up with each other, and the opening question is always the same: "Seen anything good today?"

For the filmmakers, the experience seems to be both fantastic and frightening. I spent a great deal of time with the cast and crew of Police Beat, an entry in the American Dramatic Competition. There was a triple birthday celebration (myself included) that ended with champagne toasts in the wee hours of the morning. The night before their first screening they had about twenty people staying at their condo in makeshift beds. Walking out afterward, I asked one of the producers how he was feeling. He said that he felt great, not just because the screening was over, but because sitting there during it he realized that he had helped to make a beautiful film.

Jenni Olsen The director of Police Beat, Robinson Devor, was one of the honorees of GreenCine's own party, co-hosted by Res Magazine and DivX, which served to honor ten filmmakers and to announce GreenCine's online film festival. The great thing about Sundance is that all the filmmakers - Keith Bearden (The Raftman's Razor), Bryan Boyce (America's Biggest Dick), Maya Churi (Forest Grove), Brett Simon (The Sailor's Girl), Robinson Devor (Police Beat), Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), Jenni Olson (The Joy of Life), Talmage Cooley (Dimmer),Miranda July (You and Me and Everyone We Know) and Hal Hartley (The Girl From Monday) - were there, together, in an intimate bar. That makes for interesting conversation.

The best story I've heard so far about the whole Park City experience comes from Mark Lewis, whose film, Ill Fated, was screening at Slamdance. Five minutes before the end of the film, right at the climax, the print flew off the platter and unfurled all over the projection booth. The situation looked hopeless. But, as Lewis comments, what happened next was all cinema:

This was our US premiere and I had a little trepidation going in. We had a Variety review after our Toronto Film Festival Premiere that basically said, Though a hit in Canada, no one's going to like it in the US. And during the screening, I just had this feeling that they hated it. That is until the projection fucked up and everyone in the audience just went ballistic. They were utterly and completely enthralled. Not only that, every single one in the theater waited through the twenty some-odd minutes as they looked for alternatives to show the last five minutes. And just as my producers (Rob Neilson and Paul Armstrong) and I were going to reenact the finale (seriously), Dan Mirvish pulled out his laptop, which was in fact the smallest laptop I had ever seen, with a DVD of the film. And in a truly communal fashion everyone gathered around and watched, with eyes glued to this monitor, the remainder of the film unfold. It was frickin' beautiful.

Ill Fated's Canadian rights were later sold to TH!NKfilm.

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Posted by dwhudson at January 27, 2005 4:05 PM


with regard to herzog: hannah you may have been bamboozled. i'll bet anything that when herzog was supposedly listening to a tape of the grizzly attack, he was in fact listening to nothing and acting for the camera. all of his docs have these kinds of fabrications, and he freely admits it. if anything in his films sounds a bit to convenient (like the lens cap being on but the sound on and recording) it usually is. but i can't wait to see the film...

Posted by: cynthia at January 29, 2005 6:35 AM

If he was acting for the camera, it certainly did not appear that way. Many of the fabrications in the film are presented quite clearly. This moment, however, seemed honest enough.

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at January 29, 2005 7:19 AM