Although it's still going on,

by francine Hardaway on January 19, 2004

Although it’s still going on, Sundance 2004 is over for me except for the afterglow. It’s always a fascinating experience, and it has only become more so with the further progress of digital technology. For the first time, digital video can be shot in something called “24P,” which is the same number of frames per second as film, and allows the finished product to have a “filmic” look. More and more films are shot in digital video, for economic reasons, and at the director’s panel I attended, almost all the participants were from New York, not Hollywood. DuArt labs, an old company my mother used to work for when she got out of high school, has apparently become a cutting edge source of digital technology.

Not that every indie filmmaker wants his film to look like a Hollywood production, but for the ones who do, it’s all possible. In fact, with tne new special effects software that has come out, even Industrial Light and Magic might be in trouble; the mystery of “how they do it” is gradually becoming available to anyone with a HandyCam and a Mac G4. We at actually already own that equipment, and so do people from all over the world.

Which is why the cab driver told us that this year not all his passengers cam from Los Angeles, and why the world cinema and world documentary entries to the festival played to full houses.

Apparently, only fifteen of the 137 films at the Sundance Film Festival have a distribution agreement before they arrive. I try not to see those; I can see them at home.

Garden State, a first feature by the actor from “Scrubs,” which of course I have never seen because it’s on TV, not in a theatre, has captured all the buzz, as the critics say. Its about a guy who comes home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral and slowly re-connects with the realm of emotion after spending most of his childhood anaesthetized by lithium. It had some extremely good moments, but the actor-writer-director needed a better editor; it would have been better without some of its more tangential scenes. But you will see it, because it’s a coming of age movie without a lot of sex and violence, and it will invariably be the best choice available at your local cinema. Miramax and Searchlight did a joint venture right at the Festival to distribute. Natalie Portman plays the woman who liberates the hero from his drug-induced waking coma, and she does it by being too cute for words (and for me).

Riding Giants, on the other hand, rocked. I thinkit was one of the best visual experiences of this year’s Sundance. It is about the evolution of big wave surfing, about which I don’t care at all. But the function of a documentary is to open a window on a world you may know nothing about, push you out that window, and let you learn from the fall. I fell into the world of big wave surfing wholehearedly during Riding Giants. The photography is beyond belief. And the history of surfing turns out to be pretty funny.

You always ask yourself what happens to surfers when they reach middle age, and here we got to see all the middle-aged surfers showing their private home movies about their wacko lives on the Hawaiian beaches during the ’60s. And we can also see how, with the advance of board technology, younger surfers no longer have to swim out to a wave — they can be towed out or helicoptered out to waves larger than buildings.

Naturally, most of the elderly pioneers turned out to be entrepreneurs, founding surfboard manufacturing companies in both Hawaii and California. (Risk tolerance, anyone? Collaboration, anyone?) This film should be mandatory in entrepreneurship school.

So much for the guaranteed releases. The other films I saw were all part of the world cinema and world documentary categories, which were way more interesting for their ability to bring unfamiliar cultures alive than anything made in either New York or Hollywood.

The Good Lawyers’ Wife
is a Korean movie about the disintegration of a marriage when the wife has an adulterous affair with a high school sophomore. Of course her attorney husband has been having an affair forever, but the marriage doesn’t seem to unravel until she goes out to obtain her own pleasure. I’d say this movie is a marital tragedy, in which what appears to be the precipitating incident is actually a symptom of a far deeper and more longstanding problem. Once again I was struck by the violence that seems endemic in Asian society.

Fifteen is a digital documentary about the lives of fifteen-year-old gang members in Singapore, and the underbelly of that repressive society. The “actors” were true juvenile gang members, and the making of the film altered some of their lives profoundly; it gave them a way back into school and thus into mainstream society. One of them, however, tried to go back to school and was rejected for all his tattoos — another symbol of Singapore’s repression. It was the director’s first feature, and he told us during the Q&A that it depicted his own life ten years ago. It was banned by the Singapore government, which gave it enough buzz in the rest of the world to get it a distributor and force the government to rescind the ban.

For his next film, this young man is making a musical thanking the government censors of Singapore for banning his film and inadvertantly jump-starting his international career!

Principles of Lust is a film chronicling one man’s fear of becoming merely a middle class suburbanite, and the extremes to which he goes to try to escape mediocrity. It’s a fascinating movie that you may never see, because it contains male frontal nudity, cunnilingus, fellatio, and an orgy. The orgy is real, filmed at a swingers’ club in London, although the movie itself is set in Sheffield, a dreary former mill town. The star came up after the screening and answered questions, and I asked him how he felt about all this, and he said it had been a real problem for him, but that he wanted to help the director (a woman and a grandmother) explore the theme that you can’t know what’s really worthwhile if you never have enough experience from which to draw comparisons.

Another interesting aspect of the film is that it has scenes in which jaded cosmpolites wager on juvenile boxing matches in which the kids (about age eleven) get beat up pretty cruelly. The lead actor was asked how the parents of those children felt about letting their children appear in the film, and he said both sets of parents were on the set at all times, and that non of the children were really hurt. Sounds like one of those movies about animals that has to get a seal of approval from P.E.T.A.

We had to stand in line for almost four hours to see The Corporation, a Canadian documentary about the history of the corporation and its influence on the environment and society. We were all disappointed. The subject matter’s great, as is the academic expert testimony (did you know that corporations originally were chartered to exist at the will of the state for only a short and specific period of time to do a single activity? Like build a bridge?), but the technique — compared to what we had been seeing — was amateurish, and the editing primitive. It looked like a classroom instructional film from the fifties. There’s still a great movie to be made about the impact of the corporation, but that movie will probably be a Dilbert-like dramatization, like the BBC show “The Office.”

Nina’s Tragedies, which won eleven Israeli Academy Awards, is Israel’s entry into the Hollywood awards as well. It’s about a young boy who is in love with his aunt, and the diary he keeps. I’m sure it will be released in the US. It’s good enough — another coming of age story — but not great.

And that’s all I saw. Long lines and a short stay bested me.

So here’s my takeaway from Sundance: digital video is quickly replacing film, and lots of old Hollywood types are scrambling to learn new technologies or hire high school kids to create their special effects.

Marriages are universally tricky, and everyone faces the problem of whether they are still necessary, no matter what country you are from. Remind me to tell you about the short preceding The Good Lawyers’ Wife.Many filmmakers are young men or women, and the films they submit to Sundance are often autobigraphical. It’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” over and over again.

Western culture is pretty decadent.

Asian culture is very violent.

You can take these generalizations to the bank. (But only with an actress attached).

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