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

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.

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.

Stiller and screenwriter Helen Childress take up issues absolutely crucial to society. They get so much right in the film that the viewer feels betrayed by the ineffectual ending. When in doubt, the story seems to say, let your lost protagonist find meaning in romantic love. The trouble is, the entire film has demonstrated how promiscuity makes love impossible - nobody trusts anybody else. The filmmakers grasp the horror of materialism, but in the end, they have nothing significant to say about it.

But ``Reality Bites'' was a masterpiece of social commentary compared to films like River of Grass, Suture, and Blessing. It was painfully clear that few of the American films did much more than whine about society's failures, indulging in angst-ridden dysfunction as if that were enough to make drama. Perhaps destined to be a cult classic, the popular melodramatic thriller ``Suture'' has one central joke (a black actor plays a dead ringer for a white character) and excellent photography, but it remains a triumph of style over substance.

Far more involving and significant was Australia's The Nostradamus Kid - a marvelous, funny, moving coming-of-age film in which a young Jehovah's Witness loses his faith, yet somehow never quite escapes it. This is not a trashing of religion, but another view of a lost generation in need of meaning. Filmmaker Bob Ellis asks questions he never answers, but he leaves the film open-ended enough to encourage the viewer's own inquiries.

Temptation of a Monk by Hong Kong's Clara Law is an exquisite costume drama about a warlord who loses everything and goes looking for peace. Rich in cultural and religious detail, the film evokes 7th-century China, illuminating its characters' motivations in strong, brave strokes.

Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's elegant The Scent of Green Papaya, winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes, follows the life of a servant girl to young adulthood and a happy ending. The Cinderella fable moves slowly and gracefully, revealing layers of cultural detail in stately cinematic poetry - a tale so subtle, so quietly told, the viewer has to see the end before the whole meaning of the film breaks through.

Ivan and Abraham shows us life in a Jewish settlement in pre-Hitler eastern Poland. Two little boys, a Christian and a Jew, survive together despite prejudice and persecution. The simple tale is so layered with sociopolitical undercurrents, and so elegant in its storytelling, that the viewer finds genuine insight into another time and culture.

One of the most popular of all the films was an inspiring feature-length documentary about the civil rights movement. Freedom on My Mind investigates the efforts of black and white students who registered black voters during the summers of 1963 and '64.

Native American documentaries like Transitions: Destruction of a Mother Tongue, The Place of Falling Waters, and The Right to Be engage the viewer in lively, reasonable revisionist histories.

Director Arthur Penn (``The Miracle Worker,'' ``Bonnie and Clyde,'' ``Little Big Man'') was honored with a retrospective. One of the great surprises and the only masterwork I saw during the festival was Penn's Mickey One (1965). The film is a Felliniesque search for God and meaning in a confusing, frightening world. But Penn's answer lies in the best American tradition - Mickey (Warren Beatty as a standup comic hiding from the mafia) courageously faces his fears and affirms life in response to the urgings of a silent angelic clown, and in so doing expands his experience almost infinitely.

Penn's advice to young filmmakers summed up my own feeling about new American independent dramas. He stressed the need to tell the story visually, to find visual equivalents for language.

``See if you can't replace the language and plot with imagery. Don't get caught in merely representational photography,'' he told the packed audience of filmmakers and press. ``It is a breathtaking medium. It comes down to us from [Sergei] Eisenstein.''

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