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Braving the Elements

[whitespace] Buffalo 66
Nice Directors Finish Last: Director/star Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci in 'Buffalo 66.'

Sundance was an endurance test--but worth it

By Rob Nelson

"I'm havin' a rough Sundance. People here are creepy."
Vincent Gallo

P ARK CITY, UTAH: Can't say I disagree with the above comment, made by actor/writer/
director Vincent Gallo after a screening of his outrageously entertaining Buffalo '66, a sort of comedic version of Taxi Driver in which the star's wimpy Travis Bickle brings a piece of jail bait (Christina Ricci) home to Mom and Dad, passing her off as his wife before heading out to kill the former Buffalo Bills field-goal kicker who ruined his big bet.

Stories about Gallo--the bizarre-looking indie actor from Palookaville and The Funeral--became legend among the "creepy" players at Sundance. He nearly perished, supposedly, while driving himself to the wintry Park City across patches of black ice. During a Q&A, he referred to director Gus Van Sant as "a twisted queen from Portland." God only knows what he did in private.

The party line on Gallo: riveting actor, talented filmmaker, miserable human being. But in a way, you can't completely blame the guy for wanting to scare up some cheap publicity for his low-budget picture. With more than 120 films unspooling in a half-dozen theaters in a week and a half, it can be hard to make yourself heard.

The industry mentality is standard: just about every interaction at Sundance amounts to some sort of power play. Embodying this aesthetic in more ways than one, director Nick Broomfield's largely unseen muckraking documentary Kurt and Courtney drew a line in the snow. Reportedly premised on the notion that Kurt Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, exerted so much control over his life as to drive him to his grave, the film was pulled from the festival in deference to Love's threatened lawsuits over music rights. Then, just when it seemed this movie had been buried, Kurt and Courtney had a single nonfestival screening at midnight for a select audience of 150 cool people, myself not included. Once again, the power trip.

Conveniently in terms of hype, you can't get more underground than a withheld film about a dead grunge rocker; and yet indieness is still in the eye of the beholder. On the morning after the opening-night showing of Sliding Doors--a melodrama that might as well be subtitled Gwyneth Paltrow and Her Two Haircuts--the local daily's front-page headline read "Sundance premieres with heavy-hitting film."

Really? By what standard? To some of us, what hit hardest was this soaper's unconscious celebration of a woman's right not to choose. Worse still, the condescendingly male-directed women's picture turned out to be a Sundance subgenre.

The Bostonian love story Next Stop, Wonderland had its charms but likewise put a woefully undefined debutante (Hope Davis) at the mercy of Romantic Fate. Seeming to reflect on this trend, the weird Miss Monday concerned a sexist screenwriter who breaks into a bulimic woman's house for "research." The ends justify the means: the man finishes his script.

D ON'T GET ME WRONG. This was the strongest selection of Sundance films I've seen in four years. Even some of the high-profile premieres qualified as independent in spirit: The Coen Brothers' slapstick noir parody, The Big Lebowski, is their funniest, gentlest and most visionary work to date; and Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals earned the festival's Audience Award without compromising its intimate portrait of life on the reservation through a son's gradual forgiveness of his alcoholic father.

Speaking of abuse passed down and laid bare, auteur-of-machismo Paul Schrader merged with novelist Russell Banks to devastating effect in Affliction, which, like The Sweet Hereafter, uses a winter accident to reveal the subtler chill in family relationships. The film's tone of grief is powerful enough, but the scene in which Nick Nolte's booze-swilling sheriff tears an aching tooth out of his head with a pliers is as vivid an image of tough-guy masochism as anything in the Schrader-penned Raging Bull.

Elsewhere, two great docs likewise tackled the topic of drunken men. Penelope Spheeris' aptly depressing The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III revisits punkdom by following homeless and alcoholic L.A. kids.

Whereas these fans of Naked Aggression form a doomed community around their sense of being oppressed, the brotherhood explored in Frat House is based on the consolidation of power through sadism and misogyny. Narrating in voiceover, co-director Todd Phillips describes Frat House (jury prize for Best Documentary) as "a study of the lengths men go in order to belong." And insofar as the film shows its own maker surrendering to the nightmarish hazing process in trade for access, it also proves the lengths to which fledgling directors will go.

Directorial obsession and self-sacrifice were plainly visible at Sundance. Darren Aronofsky's intense, brilliantly photographed Pi, the winner of the Filmmakers' Trophy, is an obvious labor of love that strongly resembles David Lynch's Eraserhead--both in its starkly experimental black-and-white dreamscape and in its surreal portrait of a loner mathematician (Sean Gullette) with a serious headache.

Even though both Pi managed to get picked up by smaller distributors, the question remains: How much of Sundance's repertoire will appear in these parts before the year's out? No doubt we'll be seeing plenty of innocuously diverting fare such as The Castle, a year-old Aussie farce. But what about the gutsier likes of Affliction, which is still without a distributor?

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Sundance '98 was Robert Redford's announcement that his Sundance Cinemas--a chain of art-house theaters committed to showing world cinema and other fringe product--will begin to appear before year's end in Austin, Philadelphia and Chicago.

But is it horribly naive to trust in Redford's claim that the movies at Sundance Cinemas will "not be subject to the same requirements as films shown in most cinemas, where the lines of communication between the distributors and exhibitors have become clogged"? Very possibly. Indeed, no one who braves the elements of art and industry at Sundance is without an overabundance of blind faith.

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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