January 19, 2006

Park City Dispatch. 1.

Between David D'Arcy and Jonathan Marlow, along Hannah Eaves following the fate of Iraq in Fragments, we should be posting dispatches from Park City just about every day through the festivities. Today, David D'Arcy previews several of the films he's caught so far.

Sundance 06 The Sundance Film Festival has shown amazing staying power. Everything from the Soviet Union to Enron to Miramax has crumbled in the years since I started coming to Park City in January.

Sundance 2006 opens tonight with the comedy Friends with Money by Nicole Holofcener. And every year we're tempted to spot trends - all the more so since a growing number of marketers and studios are watching closely, not just for films, but for anything new that can be sold to the people watching those films.

Independence is not just an attitude (or lack of funds) that filmmakers bring to the making of a movie. It's now a set of preferences found in a certain kind of consumer who buys cars, clothes, computers, food (for humans and dogs), and snowboards. More about that in another installment.

It's too soon for me to suggest what trends are here (if anyone actually cared) so I'll just concentrate on subject matter.

Crossing Arizona

Politics. There are always politics at Sundance, partly because the position of independence presupposes that you have to be independent from something. This year films deal with Iraq, global warming, the complicated figure of Ralph Nader, racism in the courts, the Middle East and corporate power. Panels will surely fill in any gaps. The issue that strikes me as important and different this year is the border between Mexico and the US and the way in which the border has become the locus for our concerns about the much-deplored growing business of human trafficking, but also about crime, drugs, security and the "invasion" that threatens to transform the United States into a country that's not necessarily white and doesn't necessarily speak English. (Take the example of Park City. Everyone serving you in a low-wage job speaks Spanish.) In Crossing Arizona, Joseph Matthew tries to take the complex issue apart - character by character. It's a start.

Sex. At Sundance there always seems to be a quest for the New New Thing in sexual matter. This is the festival that brought us Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story, a portrait of the young woman who set the record for the number of sexual partners in a limited time period. I can't remember the details, but I can remember the lines of men who answered ads in the newspapers for a chance to be part of this historic event which has since been surpassed. Sundance also first screened Larry Clark's Kids, the grimly prophetic look at teenagers and sex. But these are films, and sex isn't just sex, it's performance. I'm looking forward to Destricted, in which different directors try their hands at pornography - from art world players like Matthew Barney and Sam Taylor-Wood to veterans like Larry Clark and Gaspar Noé who'll be mining old veins.

The Night Listener Gender. Not the same as sex, obviously. Look for The Night Listener, a collaboration between Armistead Maupin and Patrick Stettner about longing and deception. Robin Williams, always good, plays a writer for radio, just dropped by his lover, who's drawn to a young boy, a casualty of abuse. But does the boy really exist, or is this just another level of exploitation?  There's also Small Town Gay Bar, produced by Kevin Smith, a story of a bar in the woods of Mississippi near Tupelo that the evangelicals couldn't kill - at least not yet - although a young gay man's death becomes part of the story. In both cases, Williams and Smith helped get these films made, carrying on a tradition of older, more successful independents giving back to a newer generation.

Investigation. Two films catch my fancy. This Film Is Not Yet Rated penetrates the hidden recesses of the MPAA's rating process, and all the pompous child-saving rhetoric that we've endured over the years. Kirby Dick shows that there's no reason why solid investigative journalism can't be funny. When you see who's making these decisions, and you hear the decisions explained by these people, you can't do anything but laugh - or tear your hair out. Also look for Who Killed the Electric Car? Anyone who had a chance seemed to stick a knife into the dream (and the manufactured reality) of a car that could be used every day without causing pollution or making noise. Your corporate friends at work, and the political officials who could have made a difference.

Art. I'm told that the Sundance Film Festival Director Geoff Gilmore has said that films about art submitted to the festival have grown at an alarming rate. And why not? Artists are assumed to be complicated characters and, in a society that has lost respect for just about everyone else, they're still revered. They're also as hot as anything in fashion. The selection here is mixed - By the Ways, A Journey with William Eggleston, a French doc and another of many about the photographer who seems to have caught on hard and fast with independents, the afore-mentioned group-porn Destricted and What Remains, Steven Cantor's portrait of the photographer Sally Mann. There's also Terry Zwigoff's funny Art School Confidential, with a script by graphic novelist Dan Clowes, and The Giant Buddhas, a doc with inside footage of the demolition of the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. There are sure to be new docs on the antiquities trade soon, giving the media frenzy now brewing over scandals at the Getty. They'll be lucky to get this kind of access. With so many films submitted and accepted, you have to wonder what they turned down.

There are some staples this year on the Sundance program. One welcome story that rarely worsens from wear is the investigation of the wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, wrongly imprisoned innocent man (although there have also been some women.) We all know that this story is as old as any story gets (remember Jesus Christ?), but in independent film it seems to have begun with The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris's spare emotionless reconstruction of a man's wrongful conviction and death sentence for murder.

The Trials of Darryl Hunt This year the "justice denied" film to watch is The Trials of Darryl Hunt, the chronicle of a black man's trial, conviction and imprisonment for the brutal rape and stabbing murder of a white woman journalist in Winston-Salem North Carolina in 1986.  Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say? Sure, but it reminds us of what seems to be the widening gap between justice and the justice system, and it has the kind of emotional hold on you that fiction aspires to and rarely reaches.

It's emotionally gripping because even though the genre seems to require redemption at the end - with either a live prisoner or a dead body honored for courage and fortitude - this documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, is truly an extreme case. It's been a while since I've come across a case in which law enforcement from top to bottom has been so determined to keep a wrongly convicted man behind bars, and we never really learn why. Perhaps that's another film. But I suspect that it's far from the most extreme. There are plenty of cases that are worse.

There's a can-you-top-this element to the "justice denied" genre. You find yourself incredulous at the corruption and stupidity that seems routine in law enforcement. And then there's the next film takes it to a higher level. In The Trials of Darryl Hunt, the wronged man defies your expectations about the nature of a criminal and keeps defying those expectations at every stage of his mistreatment. Somehow I doubt that we're even being told all that may have happened to him in prison, where guards offered to bring skinheads drugs if they agreed to kill him.

Hunt, who we're told had no family, seems unnaturally calm and gentle, which the jury should have noticed before it put the then-teenager away on the testimony of a prostitute who was well known to have problems telling the difference between fantasy and reality. In this case, rather than line up the usual suspects, they lined up the usual witnesses. A television correspondent tells us that the prosecutor spoke so convincingly that she could have been persuaded of anything. To be fair, it was also the press at the local newspaper that finally brought the government's case down.

As the film moves along, the young defendant/prisoner has the serene grin of a Buddhist monk and the patience of Job, as his lawyers first talk tough, and then break down in tears when the system fails at every level. Is Hunt all there, you wonder. Is it fatalism, or serenity? At one point, when a DNA test shows that Hunt's semen was not in the dead woman's vagina, prosecutors suggest, improbably, that it must then have been in some other orifice. At another point, when a man in prison for another brutal attack in Winston-Salem at the time confesses to the crimes that Hunt is jailed for committing, prosecutors assume that the rape and murder must have been committed by a team that included Hunt. I found myself laughing at the absurdity. Yet the defense lawyers stick with him, knowing that they are his only hope.

I won't give away the ending, which you can surely guess. See it for yourself, and be aware that the reality of the justice system is not the OJ verdict, as shameful as that was, but the imprisonment of innocent men in the face of overwhelming evidence. And remember, too, that this is North Carolina - the real Mayberry. Yet it seems to happen everywhere.

One other film worth seeing: As injustices go, Thank You for Smoking takes a lighter tone, although by sheer coincidence the great city of Winston-Salem figures in this one, too. It's a capital of the tobacco industry, and the hero of this satire practices one of the most-hated of all professions - he's a tobacco lobbyist.

Thank You for Smoking If you've seen the trailers for this film, which seem to be playing everywhere, you know that it's about a lobbyist, which puts a fictional feature in an odd position, given the journalist glare on lobbying right now which could reach pretty close to the President. Normally, an issue is in the newspapers, and then a year later documentaries on that issue turn up at Sundance and at other film festivals. I'm sure that there are a dozens of teams trying to make the film about the evils of Jack Abramoff and the politicians that he and his cronies bribed. (For all I know, they've cleaned local stores out of black hats and trenchcoats for their re-enactment scenes.) I'll leave it to them to figure out how to keep any of those films down to feature length. How about an epic? The cast and the script should be no problem.

But here we're in a situation where the documentaries that I assume are being made are a year or so from being shown, and the feature, Thank You for Smoking is overtaken by events in the news. And when that happens, it's hard to compete with C-SPAN.

Jason Reitman, who directs his own script, can't be blamed for timing or for any other circumstances outside his control (now that really sounds like a lobbyist talking), and the film rings with more than laughs. There's lots of wry truth to it, starting with the volubly appealing frat snake of a protagonist who can smile his way through any kind of lie. He becomes the champion of kids with cancer, noting all the time that no direct link has been made between smoking and the disease. There's plenty of Orwellian double-speak here (although you can get that on the evening news for free) or it may be just that spin, which used to be called lying, has become such a fact of life that we analyze the techniques of spinning the same way we watch figure-skating, judging the argument as a performance rather than evaluating its elements of truth. Gun supporters become "Americans for Safety," or something like that, and a whiskey "institute" has another world-saving title.

There's more than a glimmer of the rogue Jack Abramoff in Nick Naylor, the rakish hero played by Aaron Eckhart. When a starlet of a journalist (Katie Holmes) whom he's slept with exposes his techniques and his unrepentant attitude toward them, he plays it for laughs at first, just like Abramoff used to imitate Marlon Brando in The Godfather. (I kept thinking, imagine what secrets Katie Holmes might get out of Tom Cruise when she sleeps with him.) As you'll see, our hero in Thank You for Smoking also had a glimmer of a conscience. We'll have to wait and see if Abramoff does.

One thing we know is that we'll be seeing more films about corruption in politics - the material is just too good to pass up - although I doubt that independents, because of their youth and inexperience, will be making the best ones. But that's a presumption, not a hard rule - give them a chance. There are plenty of stories. Corruption is the gift that keeps on giving.

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Posted by dwhudson at January 19, 2006 9:25 AM


The Sundance Film Festival has shown amazing staying power. Everything from the Soviet Union to Enron to Miramax has crumbled in the years since I started coming to Park City in January.

You've been going to Park City since 1917? Sundance has been going on since 1917? Wait, maybe you were visiting the real "Sundance," Harry Alonzo Longbaugh, who supposedly died in 1908?

I'm so confused!

Posted by: Sean at January 19, 2006 1:24 PM

Oh, thank god, that there still are witty people on this planet!

Posted by: gacca at January 19, 2006 2:46 PM

Correction: Miramax was actually founded in 1919 by Arthur Miramax, not 1917. According to a now-deleted entry on Wikipedia, anyway.

Anyway, thanks David D for a thorough first dispatch - I almost feel exhausted as if I were there!


Posted by: Craig P at January 19, 2006 3:35 PM

Let's not forget, too, that if Stalin hadn't knocked off Trotsky in 1940, the Kid wouldn't have come out of hiding and the focal point of the American independent film movement today would be Bolivia.

The mind reels.

Posted by: David Hudson at January 20, 2006 12:30 AM