Sundance postcard

Film premieres and opening night jitters -- our correspondent files his first festival dispatch.

Published January 21, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

For Sundance Film Festival veterans in the know, the best two days are the day before and the day after. Sadly, no snow fell on a serene Sundance eve, but Park City's soon-to-be congested Main Street was navigable and condo hot tubs remained invitingly empty beneath a starry sky.

The erstwhile silver-mining town has come to resemble a Hollywood back lot in the two decades since Gentleman Bob Redford hatched his idea for a quaint independent film showcase. But this year's film lineup still looks promising -- the ancillary Burger King advertising, and digi-overload notwithstanding. The lack of buzz around Park City on Day 1 was a good thing, but the industry rumors and half-truths are already flying.

To begin with, it's been reported in the trades that heavyweight Miramax honcho, Harvey Weinstein is ill and hospitalized with a bacterial infection, preventing him from attending the festival this year. Of course the babbling fountain of gossip claims that the Weinstein is a lot sicker than the trades are letting on. Miramax flatly denies the rumors.

Whether he's punching out acquisition weasels from other studios, or dropping obscene amounts of dough on obscenely awful films, Weinstein has always cut a colorful profile in Park City. Amid the cacophonous guesswork, a Miramax competitor suggested to me that Weinstein's underlings will go on a boundless spending spree in the next two weeks to prove that the company can function like him -- without him. I'll leave that one alone, and hope for a speedy recovery instead. After all, what would Quentin Tarantino be doing these days without at least one friend on the planet?

On to opening night. Perhaps to appease the great Mormon state of Utah and top-dollar festival sponsor AT&T, programmers played it safe this year by premiering Gurinder Chadha's "What's Cooking?" -- an interconnected tale about fractured family values. The setup focuses on four diverse Los Angeles families as they prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the setup takes too long. Forty-five minutes into the film, it was difficult to track what the hell was going on with the Jewish, African-American, Latino and Vietnamese families. Not enough tension either. Robert Altman bored similarly with the laborious first act of last year's festival opener "Cookie's Fortune," and he's definitely to blame for the steady stream of interwoven story-line cinema clogging almost every art house artery these days.

If "What's Cooking?" makes middle America hungry, TromaDance might whet some sick soul's appetite. Yep, Lloyd Kaufman, the carny barker of indie cinema and creator of sludge like "The Toxic Avenger" and "Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD," is bringing to Park City a one-day affair billed as "A Film Festival for the People" on Jan. 28. I'll probably be there. Hell, he's not charging ...

Slamdance is back for its sixth year, featuring the return of The Filmmakers' Lounge and a new feature called Anarchy, which is programming a slate of online short films for Of the satellite festivals, I'll be looking at NoDance, SlamDunk, etc., but I'll definitely be going deep inside LapDance. Conceived by Jason McHugh in 1998, this multimedia extravaganza (now merged with promises mayhem, music, the antics of "South Park" madmen Matt Stone and Trey Parker and, of course, porn stars.

With all the madness, I'm predicting that the central controversy at LapDance will probably surround filmmaker Glasgow Phillips ("One Hand Clapping"), a guy who, in my opinion, totally pussied out during a recent publicity campaign. The director had promised to broadcast a trailer of his ultimate bad-taste film, "Human Number," on Christmas Eve. During the holiday season, he leaked a rumor that there would be a "live sacrifice" online at the stroke of midnight. Instead, he backed out -- blind to the "Blair Witch" marketing possibilities -- claiming that he was scared of bad press and an FBI crackdown. Now, he says he'll premiere the film at LapDance on Jan. 27.

For Phillips' crimes of cowardice, I'll spoil what really happens in the trailer. A girl -- the director's girlfriend, Heather Waters -- is strapped to a dental chair and forced to recite Proverbs 13. When she fucks up, her throat is cut in what is reportedly the most authentically gruesome mix of digital effects ever mastered. We'll see ...

By Mark Ebner

Los Angeles writer Mark Ebner has written for Spy, Premiere and Details. This is his ninth Sundance festival.

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