Doing the Sundance shuffle

Our intrepid reporter went to the ridiculously famous indie film festival, hobnobbed with Mariah and Mira, breathed the same air as Brad and Parker and uncovered one dirty little secret.

Published January 23, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

The cherished conceit of the Sundance Film Festival is that out of 120 independent films shown over 10 days in the ski village of Park City, Utah, the cognoscenti will discover a brilliant new writer-director who had struggled in obscurity. The legend was inspired by the success of Steven Soderberg, whose "sex, lies, and videotape" conquered Sundance in 1989 and became a big commercial hit, and Todd Solondz, who won one of the festival's jury prizes in 1996 with "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and went on to make "Happiness," the most daring and disturbing masterpiece of our era. The great hope is that the newfound auteur will be shockingly young and will have languished as a video store clerk, like Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs," 1992) or rented his body for scientific research as a way of raising cash, like Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi," 1993).

At Sundance's 18th annual festival, which ended Sunday, the first-time auteur to emerge as the potential savior of indie film was a superb new talent named Karen Moncrieff. Her film, "Blue Car," was the festival's first entry to be bought by distributors for release in movie theaters. It's a dark, sensitive, lyrical drama of a beautiful and precocious teenage girl with a troubled family life who seeks self-expression as a poet -- and finds a father figure (and sexual predator) in her high school English teacher. Miramax bought the rights soon after the movie's debut on the first weekend of the festival, paying between $1 million and $2 million for a film made on the cheap for only $400,000. Moncrieff was instantly anointed as the new genius.

From her bio in the festival's program, I expected to meet a grubby 24-year-old overwhelmed by the spotlight. Her experience seemed limited to studying acting as an undergraduate at Northwestern, getting a "certificate" in film from a community college in L.A. and making a few shorts. So at our interview over coffee on Park City's tony Main Street, which is like three blocks of San Francisco or Manhattan transplanted into a canyon of the Rocky Mountains, I was surprised to find a poised and urbane 38-year-old. While many Sundance filmmakers don't own a comb and have trouble finding one set of clothing that isn't badly stained or torn or overly faded, even to wear to the final awards ceremony, Moncrieff's shiny, straight black hair was tied back neatly and she wore the kind of stylishly retro horizontal-framed eyeglasses that must have cost several hundred dollars.

It turned out that she had a dirty little secret. She wasn't an unwashed kid right out of film school. She was a seasoned star of television soap operas. For a decade she had profited from parts in B-movies and recurring roles on "Days of Our Lives," where she played a glamorous international spy, and on "Santa Barbara."

"I was really afraid that if people knew of my sordid acting background, they wouldn't take my movie seriously," Moncrieff confessed. Even though she worked on daytime TV, the dramas that she loved the most were French art-house films like "Blue" and "La Promesse." She said that her decade doing schlock helped give her the determination to make the kind of films that she really admired: "Because I saw that side of the business for so long, I know how rare good roles are, especially for women, and I wanted to put into the world good work that I'm passionate about. I love complex, flawed characters on the screen. I really want to find my audience, and I don't care if it's a huge audience, but I want to make films that I'd want to see. My agent in L.A. said the calls are pouring in, which is great, but I'm committed to doing work that means something to me. I'm not supposed to say this, but honestly I don't care about the money. I want someone to come out of my movies and feel like I did coming out of 'Blue.' "

Moncrieff's idealistic attitude and her legitimately big talent helped sustain the original guiding spirit at a festival endangered by the masses of celebrities, scenesters and hangers-on, who saturate Park City hoping to co-opt some of the groovy indie cachet. Like Burning Man, Sundance is a countercultural arts festival that became so successful and popular the elitists now go there simply for the parties and the chance to say they were part of the scene. They find that nearly all of the hundreds of screenings are sold out by the time they arrive. But who really needs to see a film? You can ski during the day and crash parties all night, getting bonus points for proximity to the big Hollywood stars. You can gape at the gorgeous aspiring actresses from L.A. and New York who walk around the hotels with bare arms and bare midriffs and tight leather pants, hoping to attract the attention of directors. They go around shockingly underdressed only for the first few days until the cold air chills their almost anorexic figures and grudgingly they have to put on sexlessly thick woolen turtlenecks that cover them from the neck down.

"It's sort of 'Animal House' in the snow, isn't it?" asked Ben Chaplin, a British actor who starred opposite Nicole Kidman in "Birthday Girl," a comedy about a shy bank teller who imports a sexy concubine from Russia who turns out to speak no English. Kidman surprised the festival with a bravura performance almost entirely in Russian.

This year, on Sundance's first weekend, one of the hottest parties was the fete for "Wise Girls," a comedy starring Mariah Carey, Mira Sorvino and Melora Walters as street-smart waitresses at an Italian restaurant that turns out to be a front for the mafia. Carey and Sorvino appeared in the VIP room in the back of a Main Street dance club. Their heels were so ridiculously high that they stood out like larger-than-life devotional statues encircled by human-size admirers. Sorvino wore a long-sleeved white dress covered with white sequins that made her look like a glitzy but, oddly, still-demure bride from Las Vegas. Carey's skin-tight black gown was cut so low in the back that it threatened to show off the crack of her butt. As their heads and shoulders rose about the crowd, they looked like the white and black queens in an enormous chess set, facing off from across the board.

Everyone at Sundance was gossiping about how much weight Carey had gained, and although she did look sort of zaftig when she was photographed on TV, in person the curviness seemed sexy rather than fat. One of the festival's surprises was that Carey could act. After her big flop in "Glitter," where she played a diva like her real-life self, "Wise Girls" let her prove a more modest but real talent in a comical character role and as part of an ensemble cast with more accomplished and experienced actresses around her.

Even more surprising, Carey spent the weekend saying "please" and "thank you" to everyone and acting like a normal mortal while so many other big-name stars had the haughty presumptuousness and entitlement of the stereotypical divas and spoiled celebrities. When the "Wise Girls" party was breaking up, I followed Don Johnson and his entourage down Main Street to a party for "Cherish," a drama about a San Francisco woman who is unjustly convicted of a hit-and-run killing and imprisoned at home with an ankle bracelet. There were already hundreds of people crowding the restaurant, so Don Johnson's posse squeezed its way through the bowels of the kitchen and emerged right in front of the stage and the bar, imitating one of the most famous scenes from Martin Scorsese's mob opus "Goodfellas." It was a case of life imitating art imitating life.

For some of the marginal has-been celebrities, it wasn't enough just to be seen at Sundance parties: They felt a need to perform there. Rosanna Arquette served as the disc jockey at a bash thrown by Independent Film Producers West. She looked slender and chic in a tight, black T-shirt with the inscription "J'aime le Cinema," but she didn't seem to love her many real-life fans. When they approached the stage to chat with her, she waved them off dismissively, shouting, "I can't talk now!" as if picking another CD every few minutes required all of her formidable concentration. Hardly anyone danced to her grooves, probably because they wanted newer, cutting-edge music, but Arquette wouldn't take their requests. Instead she was spinning outmoded rock tunes from the mid-'80s, when her own stardom peaked with "Desperately Seeking Susan."

"Just because she was a movie star doesn't mean she knows how to D.J.," said a hip young Angeleno who stood on the sidelines waiting for something better to dance to.

The stars displayed even more of their diva attitudes at the press conferences. At a Q & A session for "Personal Velocity," which ultimately won the jury prize for best dramatic feature film, Kyra Sedgwick scolded the photographers for daring to shoot her while she was talking, as if she wouldn't look attractive enough with her mouth open. And her co-star Parker Posey upbraided the reporters for all talking at once. Afterward, one of the dissed hacks sniffed that she wanted to ask Posey what it was like attending Sundance now that Christina Ricci has usurped her long-standing role as the festival's "it girl" and unofficial queen. The reporter was too timid for a confrontation. But at other press conferences, the press came out with venomous attacks. At the Q & A for "Better Luck Tomorrow," a drama about teenage Asian-American honor students who turn to crime, a journalist brazenly asked the director, Justin Lin, how he felt about making such a bad movie. Fortunately the famous critic Roger Ebert was in the audience and swiftly scolded the colleague for his disrespectful treatment of an earnest young filmmaker.

Apart from the parties and press conferences, the best places for spotting celebrities were the premieres and the promotional events. It wasn't enough for Robin Williams to attend the debut of "One Hour Photo," in which he portrays a lonely lab clerk who lives vicariously through the snapshots he develops for happy customers. Williams was so charged up that he did 20 minutes of stand-up comedy after the screening. Brad Pitt showed up for the first screening of his wife Jennifer Aniston's movie "The Good Girl," about a disaffected woman working in a Texas discount store. Even though he looked more like a grungy teenager than a glamorous celebrity, the crowd in the theater spotted the actor and surged toward him like a rugby team going for a loose ball.

So many big-name stars come to Sundance that major corporations spend lavishly to rent luxurious ski houses in the hills and concoct clever ways to draw the celebrities to hang out there and bring the companies media attention. Alanis Morrisette sang and John Leguizamo performed comedy shtick at the "Chrysler Lodge," though it's doubtful whether any of the Hollywood industry types would ever drive a Chrysler. Reebok got Matt Damon to come up to its "Reebok Retreat" and take a strenuous exercise class that combined elements of step aerobics, yoga and weight training. Damon tried it out for only a few minutes before he managed to escape. He promised to come back but never did, so a CBS TV crew had to film myself and my colleague Jean Tang for a Salt Lake City evening news segment on "where the stars work out at Sundance."

The celebrity frenzy began to subside after the first weekend of Sundance, and by midweek the festival was reclaimed by the critics and film buffs who watch as many as four or five films a day. At that point Sundance turns from a Burning Man-like party into a weird reincarnation of "Survivor," when the hardcore cinephiles compete to see who has the stamina to see the most films --25, 30, 40! -- and who can spot the great unsung talents. The irony was that while the powerful studios and distributors were swarming over Sundance, many of the best discoveries were two miles up the mountainside in the relative obscurity of the alternative Slamdance festival, which has recaptured much of the youthful, scrappy spirit that Sundance had before it became so absurdly famous.

Slamdance was where you could find intensely personal and risk-taking films such as "My Father, the Genius" by Lucia Small. The project began with the weird request of the filmmaker's father, Glen, who had been an extraordinarily promising and visionary architect in the 1960s and early '70s before his colossal arrogance derailed his career. During a period of especially harsh defeat, when he thought the world would never appreciate his genius, he put in his will that his daughter Lucia should write his biography after he died. Instead she made a gutsy documentary about him without waiting for his demise.

It was her way of finally getting to know her father, who she had seen only once a week as a child -- her parents divorced when she was 5 --and had rarely communicated with as an adult. The film shows Glen Small's brilliant and radical ideas about architecture and urban design that would harmonize with nature. But it also portrays how he pissed off the rest of the architectural establishment and caused his self-destruction. He could have been a giant like Frank Gehry, but he ruined his chances by making harshly critical statements about the real Gehry and their colleagues.

The film also shows Glen Small as a fiercely self-absorbed narcissist who largely abandoned his three wives and six children in his pursuits of his own talents and hedonistic pleasures. Glen was in financial ruin while Lucia Small shot the film, which forced her to max out her own credit cards and brought on the resentment of one of her sisters, who felt that she was using the project as a way of stealing away her father's attention and favor. The festival's premiere audience thrilled to the risky filmmaking and then gasped when Glenn Small appeared afterward for the Q & A even though the movie often portrayed him so negatively. It was an awkward but charming moment. When asked what he thought of the film Glen was as egomaniacal and impolitic in person as on-screen: He said that he wished it had focused more on his work than his messy life.

Slamdance also had this year's best hope for emulating the cultish following of "The Blair Witch Project." It was "Nothing So Strange," a fictional film about the internal politics in an activist group investigating the conspiratorial coverup of the assassination of Microsoft's Bill Gates. The film, which pretends to be a documentary, is an homage to classics of the documentary genre, such as Erroll Morris' legendary "The Thin Blue Line." It picks up brilliantly on the strange culture of conspiracy theorists, drawing inspiration from the JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King cases and from LAPD scandals such as Ramparts. The film's crew epitomized the no-budget couch-surfing spirit of truly independent film. The director, Brian Flemming, and one of its stars, Laurie Pike, were former lovers -- they actually met years earlier at Sundance, when he was promoting his alternative Slumdance festival and she was a journalist covering the scene. This time around, with 12 members of the film crew sharing a three-room hotel suite, they slept in the same bed once again but claim that it was motivated by necessity and that they didn't have sex. Pike said that she arrived at Park City with a single dollar in her pocket and got through the 11 days on all the free food at parties and events. When I bought them pints of beer after their screening, they seemed elated that someone was essentially paying to see their film, even if the financial contribution was indirect.

They came to the festival along with the Bill Gates imitator Steve Sires, who has a small but crucial role in "Nothing So Strange," appearing in their own equivalent of the Zapruder film. Sires looks remarkably like the real Bill Gates. The only tipoff is that Sires is 5-foot-8 and the real thing is around 6 foot. Strangely enough, Sires lives on Gates' home turf of Seattle and works as an engineering consultant on Linux, the free software alternative to Microsoft's Windows. Even better, he claims that a production company once hired him to fill in for Gates in a video shown at the 2000 Comdex convention when the real Bill couldn't make the shoot, and no one ever seemed to realize the difference. As he walked through Park City, though, the star-struck festies tended to ignore him because even though he looked like the richest and one of the best-known men in the world, he certainly didn't look like a film star.

There were a few mock celebrities who made a big hit at Sundance, though. Fans flocked to a party for the surviving members an early-70s San Francisco performance troupe of acid-tripping bearded hippie drag queens who helped inspire glitter rock. They were the stars of "The Cockettes," an exuberant and fascinating documentary that delighted audiences through the week. When one of the aging performers showed up in the kind of way-over-the-top makeup and elaborate costumes portrayed in the film, even the most jaded partygoers interrupted their schmoozing to gape for a prolonged moment.

By Alan Deutschman

Alan Deutschman is the author of "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs."

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