Sundance reflected our woeful world

Reality checks, busy checkbooks define fest

PARK CITY -- If audiences are giving a standing ovation while critics are rushing from the theater with handkerchiefs over their mouths, it must be the Sundance Film Festival.

If a programmer tells you the festival is "all about discovery," then you know it's Sundance.

If you're exhausted, sleepy and bleary-eyed yet somehow strangely comforted that some filmmakers at least are confronting the dark world we live in, you know Sundance has just wrapped.

Going into the festival, word was not good. Coming out of the festival, you realize how little value this "word" actually possesses. All that acquisition frenzy wasn't because of the high altitude. Sundance audiences' thunderous ovations for every movie are getting to be a joke, but in many cases they were deserved.

If anything epitomizes Sundance 2007, it is the acknowledgment not just in the documentaries but also in the lightest of feature films that the world is in a bad place right now. After seeing a couple of documentaries about atrocities in one day, a festivalgoer said to me that he felt like spending the next day in bed. Yet he was very glad he saw them.

Historical catastrophes were the topic of Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's "Nanking," about rampaging Japanese troops in that Chinese city after its fall in 1937, and Steven Okazaki's "White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," in which 14 survivors of the atom bomb attack are interviewed.

Contemporary horror was captured in disturbing images in Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's "The Devil Came on Horseback," concerning the humanitarian catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan, and Rory Kennedy's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," tracing the prisoner abuse of the Iraq War all the way back to the Oval Office and Defense Department.

Iraq has been on filmmakers' minds for the past couple of Sundance festivals. This time it cropped up in both features ("Grace Is Gone") and docus ("No End in Sight"). One can argue that the opening-night film, Brett Morgen's "Chicago 10," an animated re-creation of the famous Chicago 8 trial of Vietnam War protesters in the late 1960s, also had Iraq on its mind. (The number change to 10 reflects the filmmaker's addition of two lawyers defending the protest leaders, who also were fined by the judge.) By rehashing the era of war protest and the counterculture, Morgen pointedly asked what American citizens in 2007 are going to do about the current war.

The theme of rape and child abuse was everywhere. Marco Kreuzpaintner's "Trade" tried to tackle the tragedy of the worldwide sex-slave trade, but the movie suffered badly from genre conventions that turned a 13-year-old girl into the thriller's "MacGuffin." Tommy O'Haver's "An American Crime," which dramatized the real-life torture death of a young girl in the Midwest, was thoroughly unpleasant without being enlightening.

The South came in for its share of finger-pointing in two films that shared a basic theme. Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan" and Deborah Kampmeier's "Hounddog" made the dubious claim that music, specifically the blues, can cure the pain engendered by child abuse and rape.

David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels" didn't take place in the South -- the film was shot in eastern Canada -- but like all of Green's films, it felt like a backwater Southern town without the accents. Here a melodrama about rage, marital abuse and murder certainly spoke to emotional disturbances beneath a sometimes placid, natural setting.

David Stenn's docu "Girl 27" focused on the lifelong devastating impact a rape had on the life of one MGM chorus girl who was lured to a virtual sex party by studio brass and abandoned -- indeed, MGM ordered a cover-up -- when she brought suit. And, of course, "Nanking" concerned rape as an instrument of war and terror.

Dan Klores' docu "Crazy Love" concerned violence against women in telling the perverse tale of a beautiful woman who suffered an acid attack that disfigured and blinded her, only to marry the guy responsible.

Even when festival films entered the realm of comedy, rape was not forsaken. Mitchell Lichtenstein's "Teeth" was a dark comedy about a young virgin who discovers male companion tries to rape her that she has teeth in her vagina.

Respite from total darkness was found in the usual clutch of New York films at Sundance, films that survey the village of Manhattan by those who love that city. Even here, though, one need not expect happy endings. Justin Theroux's "Dedication" found genuine warmth and humanity in the unlikeliest of places, this being the misanthropic soul of a neurotic and phobic writer of children's books played with astonishing daring by Billy Crudup. Dare I mention that the cause of his dysfunctional personality was undoubtedly an abusive childhood?

The most deserving Grand Jury Prize winner, Christopher Zalla's "Padre Nuestro," dealt with the plight of illegal immigrants in that city with an unusual story and complete sympathy for all its characters, even the nominal villain. In "Adrift in Manhattan," Alfredo de Villa crisscrossed the lives of three Manhattanites, two suffering from mind-numbing tragedy and the other an emotional reticence because of an overbearing mother. Tom DiCillo's "Delirious" was a wonderful vehicle for the extraordinary talents of Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt as it looked into the dog-eat-dog world of the paparazzi.

What about the festival itself? Longtime visitors to Park City become so inured to its drawbacks that sometimes a newcomer has to point them out. A visitor from Europe, who had never been here before, was appalled by the poor projection in the makeshift theaters annually installed in the Yarrow and Racquet Club. Will this ever be remedied?

A foolish comment on opening day by Robert Redford hung over this year's festival. The usually sagacious founder of the Sundance Institute insisted that Sundance is a festival and not a market.

Organizers also handed out huge buttons declaring "Focus on Film," a timid counter to the media focus on sales activity and the now ubiquitous swag lounges. Look, Sundance has always been a market, going back at least to the discovery of Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1989. What filmmaker doesn't want to sell his film? More to the point, programmers have increasingly booked films with an eye to that market and not necessarily to aesthetic concerns. Indeed, as a convenience to film buyers, the festival front-loads the 10-day festival with its key "buzz" titles.

Many of the other problems that face Sundance attendees can actually be avoided if one avoids Main Street. These would be the ambush marketers, traffic jams of both cars and people -- many who come to party without ever seeing films -- and the aggressive bouncers and chilly publicists who hover protectively over the doorways to scenester clubs and temporary dining venues.

But then again, why should you avoid an area that used to be the very heart of the festival? Much of this might be outside the control of festival organizers and Park City officials. But the Manhattanization of Sundance certainly has put a damper on what used to be one of the friendliest film festivals. It no longer is.