Sundancing with the stars
Observe them in their heavy parkas trooping into the high elevations of Park City, the journalists and publicists, the buyers and marketeers, and indie honchos and indie celebrities. It's difficult to tell who anyone is inside all the wrapping. Is that Aaron Eckhart all bundled up or is it Teri Hatcher? Or is it that blogger I keep running into?Skip to next paragraph
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The 10-day Sundance Film Festival, which opened Jan. 18 and runs through Sunday, provides ample incentive to huddle for warmth in overcrowded screening rooms. And many are required: Out of 7,732 films submitted to the festival, there are approximately 581 screenings of 196 feature films, plus 71 shorts, for an estimated audience of 50,000 festivalgoers.
Color-coded bus routes to the theaters have been set up to accommodate the swarm, although the big-ticket festival players often opt for cabs. A garishly painted stretch Hummer, like some piece of conceptual art, seems to be permanently situated in front of the Yarrow Theater, one of the festival's main press venues.
Robert Redford, who founded Sundance in 1985, is quoted in a banner headline in the local "Park Record" newspaper: "It's a festival, not a market." It sounds more like a plea than a statement. But he's right, even though the shopping sprees get the most media attention.
Sometimes, however, the attention is all about the controversial subject matter of a movie, and this year there was a lulu. In Hounddog, which as of this writing has not been bought by a distributor, 12-year-old Dakota Fanning plays a motherless, Elvis-obsessed girl named Lewellen who is raped by an older boy.
The film premièred for the public Monday night, setting off a firestorm, and soon Sundance became All "Hounddog," All the Time. News outlets begged journalists for their reactions, an actress represented by Fanning's talent agency quit it in a huff, and the president of the Catholic League, who has not seen the film, issued a press release prior to its first showing calling for a federal investigation of its potential as child pornography. By the time many critics got to see it, on Tuesday, the wanna see factor was sky high.
For all that, "Hounddog" is a truly bad movie – a Southern Gothic that looks as if it was left out in the sun too long. (The imagery appears to have been sprayed with Lemon Pledge.) And what of the rape scene? It's mercifully brief and ungraphic. The real obscenity, it seems to me, is director Deborah Kempmeier's almost utter inattention to the girl's postrape trauma – i.e. there is none.
By contrast, Longford is a prime example of what truly gifted filmmakers can accomplish with controversial material. Directed by Tom Hooper, written by the ubiquitous Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," "The Deal") and scheduled to air later this year on HBO, it's based on the true-life relationship between British government minister Lord Longford (Jim Broadbent), a deeply religious man who believes no one is incapable of redemption, and Myra Henley (Samantha Morton), an accomplice to Britain's infamous 1965 abuse and murder case of three Manchester children.
"Longford" is one of the best of the 18 films I've seen so far at Sundance. (Like everyone else, I've missed more than a few reputedly good ones.) It is also one of the least Sundance-y, and by that I mean it isn't about self-absorbed mopers bemoaning their dysfunctionality. Although the official festival spin this year is that the dramatic movies are broader in scope, there's still a whole lot of navel-gazing going on.