A Lifeline for the Independents

Some showcased films veered from the Hollywood norm but didn't cross into experimentalism. SUNDANCE FILM INSTITUTE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CAN independent filmmakers assert their voices and establish their careers outside the influence of wealthy Hollywood studios? Or will they always be overshadowed by the mainstream movie scene, with its tendencies toward formulaic storytelling and bottom-line thinking? I asked Robert Redford this question on a sunny Saturday morning at the Sundance Institute, which is tucked into the Utah mountains a few miles from here. He took a optimistic view of the relationship between Hollywood and the ``indie'' filmmakers that he built his 10-year-old institute to encourage and support.

Hollywood doesn't censor independent voices, Mr. Redford told me and other journalists at the rustic Sundance rehearsal hall. In fact, Hollywood is receptive to new talent wherever it comes from, as long as it's genuine, he says.

Established Hollywood types - director Sydney Pollack, for example, not to mention Redford himself - have been associated with Sundance from the beginning. Gifted newcomers are essential to the film industry's future, and from all accounts the industry doesn't mind a bit if they set up operations outside the gates of the major studios.

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This view is supported by the success of the annual Sundance Film Festival, which a recent Premi`ere magazine article called ``the hot festival, where wan and twitchy independents rub shoulders with ... swarms of sleek Hollywod executives'' hunting for the next ``Metropolitan'' or ``sex, lies, and videotape'' - two recent hits that were discovered by distributors here.

Still, it's possible to be more skeptical than Redford about relations between independents and the studio establishment. Friendship is fine as long as the independents keep functioning as an alternative, avoiding standardized ideas and mass-market preoccupations that are Hollywood's dubious trademarks.

But as independents get cozy with major studios, seeking production help and distribution deals, they run the danger of losing their distinctive qualities.

Fortunately, some filmmakers manage to steer a middle course, keeping a distinctive approach while still getting most of their movies into commercial theaters attended by mainstream audiences. Geoffrey Gilmore, director of programming for the festival, cited three of this year's contributors - John Sayles, Ken Russell, and Leonard Schrader - as proof that clever independents can function both outside and inside the industry, expressing a personal vision without cutting all ties to the establishment.

Mr. Gilmore is absolutely right about the almost miraculous ability of mavericks like Mr. Russell and Mr. Sayles to make feisty, even downright eccentric works year after year without compromising their views or falling into obscurity. The same feat has also been accomplished by such masters as Robert Altman and Michael Powell, both of whom were honored with special screenings at Sundance this year.

The most exciting new films I saw during the festival shared their spirit - steering far from Hollywood norms and ``correct'' filmmaking postures, yet not crossing the line into avant-garde experimentalism.

To shoot ``The Juniper Tree,'' for example, filmmaker Nietzchka Keene left her Los Angeles home and traveled to Iceland, where she found the right chilly atmosphere (and a talented Icelandic cast) to enhance her rigorous reworking of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about family and coming-of-age tensions. In a similar vein, Jon Jost left San Francisco to film his often brilliant ``Sure Fire'' in Utah, turning this state's mountainous beauty into an ironically colorful backdrop for a drama of jealousy and betrayal.

It's hard to imagine a Hollywood studio bankrolling the starkness of Ms. Keene's images, or the improvisational methods of Mr. Jost's performers, or many other aspects of these thoroughly independent-minded works.

Nor does Hollywood have a strong record of supporting female filmmakers, whose ranks at Sundance included not only Keene but also Jane Spencer, whose ``Little Noises'' is a boldly conceived tragicomedy about marginal characters; Nina Menkes, whose ``Queen of Diamonds'' explores Las Vegas with surreal precision; Yvonne Rainer, whose ``Privilege'' confronts difficult women's issues head on; and Julie Dash, whose ``Daughters of the Dust'' is a visually ravishing exploration of her African-American roots.

Looking in still other directions, how often has a major American studio assembled a mixture of fact and fiction as topical as Robert Dornhelm's emotionally charged ``Requiem for Dominic,'' about political confusion during Romania's recent revolution? Or a documentary as intelligent as Ric Burns's thoughtful ``Coney Island,'' about the New York amusement park and what it reveals about modern urban life? Or a story as zany as Richard Linklater's peripatetic ``Slacker,'' which veers in a new direction every few minutes?

By contrast, the most pedestrian films at Sundance were those that hewed closest to the standard Hollywood line - and hence, ironically, have the best chance at widespread commercial distribution. These included Maurice Phillips's boisterous ``Enid Is Sleeping,'' a dark comedy with Elizabeth McGovern and Judge Reinhold trying to dispose of a corpse, and the festival's opening-night attraction, ``Once Around,'' director Lasse Hallstr"om's look at May-December romance with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss as the oddly matched couple. Hollywood can do this sort of thing as well as it deserves to be done. Fortunately, a hearty share of this year's Sundance offerings struck into very different territory.

Remarking on the most prominent themes to emerge in recent projects developed with Sundance encouragement, Redford cited films about rites of passage and about oppressed characters struggling against the system.

These are essential subjects that the movie establishment rarely tackles with appropriate skill, sincerity, and commitment. Sundance has supported its share of second-rate works over the years, and its view of compatibility between Hollywood and the independent scene may be too sanguine. But this year's festival showed that independent-minded aspirations remain high, and that Sundance still has a solid contribution to make.

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