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Maverick Cinema Survives at Sundance

Far from Hollywood, the mountains of Utah provide a trendy spot for independent films, documentaries, and dramatic features to soak up praise and find their audiences

By Marilynne S. MasonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1994


THE annual Sundance Film Festival gives young American independent filmmakers their first crack at fame. Members of the press and industry pros actively seek out the next Steven Soderbergh and the new ``sex, lies, and videotape,'' and deals are made all over town during the 10-day event in Park City.

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The old-mining-town-turned-ski-resort lies 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City amid gorgeous mountains. The town, though small enough for visitors to get around easily on public transportation, hosts 6,000 viewers and filmmakers, 90 feature-length films, and dozens of short ones.

It has all the trappings of a good spot for a winter film festival: It's beautiful and cold. Robert Redford's famous Sundance Institute, the sponsor of the festival, is another 45-minute drive from Park City. Some screenings and interviews are held there, too.

It's a big festival, big enough so that different viewers can see varying sets of films - depending on which are sold out and which locations one can reach in time. The American dramatic films are empasized and are among the most popular. Fortunately, even documentaries, those ``poor relations'' to dramatic film, find special haven at Sundance. Then, too, Sundance cultivates an important relationship with Latin American and Asian film, and it screens a few European and Australian pictures as well. Many of the best films presented come from documentary filmmakers and independents from other nations.

American independent film - movies made outside the Hollywood mainstream - are supposed to be freer of commercial interests than their big brothers at the box office. They certainly cost less to make - thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than millions. But the point of independent filmmaking is still supposed to be independence of spirit: Directors making films on a shoestring so that they can make their own artistic statement about life or politics or society.

The trick here, no small accomplishment when it happens, is to have something to say and to find a new cinematic expression for that vision. Some of the most interesting films at the festival were those that took a longer view of society, including ethnographic detail, a sense of the people and country that fostered them, as part of the texture of the work. Of the American dramatic films I saw, only ``Golden Gate'' and ``Reality Bites,'' had something arresting to say about American culture.

Written by playwright David Henry Hwang (who wrote ``M. Butterfly''), director John Madden's Golden Gate is parodistic and stylized - an intense, beautiful film that's entirely artificial and strange. The dialogue is hilarious because it so closely parallels the language of 1940s and '50s B movies without ever imitating them.

A young FBI agent frames a Chinese immigrant suspected of communist activity in the 1950s. The innocent man spends 10 years in prison and is disgraced among his people. His suicide makes the FBI agent remorseful, and he sets about trying to help the man's daughter. Matt Dillon plays the agent and Joan Chen the Chinese-American woman he tries to protect and with whom he falls in love.

``An impossible love is love nevertheless,'' one character tells us.

The tragicomedy is about having the courage to choose justice over injustice and doing well instead of just doing what is expected of one, but the filmmakers squander this message with a totally implausible (and unsatisfactory) ending.

``Golden Gate,'' may not be a big commercial success. Its style defies Hollywood realism and its vision of love is not a popular one. Neither is its take on expiation - paying for one's sins. But popular or not, ``Golden Gate'' is an American original, full of excellent little theatrical twists - as natural, suprising, and predictable as a mountain stream.

Director Ben Stiller's Reality Bites captures the disillusionment of baby-boomers' children as they graduate college. They speak in TV slogans and caustic pronouncements, are afraid of commitment and AIDS, and can't find meaningful work. These kids are also aware of the materialism of the age without the slightest idea of how to offset it. It's the '60s revisited without the concern for social justice. Nothing they do or think even smacks of genuine rebellion because rebellion has mutated into mere style. MTV is the status quo.