Beyond the Multiplex

As Jennifer Aniston and her celebrity friends sweep up the accolades in Park City, one thing is clear: Sundance has lost its cultural mojo.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 26, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

It's one of the busiest weeks of the film year, with a new work of provocation, claustrophobia and all-around leg-pulling from the irrepressible Lars von Trier, along with an experimental micro-indie from Steven Soderbergh that's meant to reshape the Luddite patterns of film distribution. But let's start by talking about a film festival I'm not attending.

On second thought, is there really a major movieland hoedown happening near the Utah ski slopes right now? Oh, I'm sure the next issue of Us Weekly will carry some lovely color photos of Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and the rest of the cast of Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money" at the opening-night parties. But that's pretty much the Sundance problem in a nutshell.

Beyond the tide of biz-deal news and gossip flowing out of Park City via film-geek blogs and news wires, the mainstream media's response to Sundance 2006 has been pretty tepid so far. The festival that once -- hell, just a few years ago -- seemed to define the cutting edge of American pop culture has become an ambiguous brand name, basically a pretty winter stopover on the ceaseless gravy train of celebrity and publicity. It's Cannes, with earmuffs instead of bikinis, or anyway it's trying to be.

I'm really not bashing Sundance, and part of me wishes I were there right now, sitting around with some other idiots soaking in an après-ski hot tub and discussing Michel Gondry's latest antics or whatever. My own decision not to go this year was as much pragmatic and logistical as anything else. You pick your battles; this year I'm going to check out the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which has more outsider cred, and I also hope to make Cannes (a much higher glamour factor), Tribeca (a mini-Sundance, right in the indie industry's backyard) and Toronto (far more substantial in film-geek terms).

You can always claim that festival organizers could or should have done things differently, but Robert Redford and his collaborators were always clear about their intention to create a counterestablishment in the film world, different from Hollywood but not exactly opposed to it. To the extent that truly "independent" or "alternative" status is now to be found elsewhere -- and that it's de rigueur to deride Sundance, directly or by implication, in certain cool-kid circles of the movie world -- they have clearly succeeded.

Sundance remains a major marketplace for new films seeking distribution, to be sure, and arguably the most important such marketplace in North America. But for reasons largely outside the festival's control, it just isn't the signifier of hipness it used to be. Among other things, the indie-film market's center of gravity has shifted sharply away from dramatic feature films and toward documentaries (or at least films described as such). Sundance has either followed or led this trend, depending on how you look at it, but either way the festival's one-time mojo as a venue for risk-taking, mind-blowing dramas and comedies has largely dissipated.

Two years ago, Sundance's documentary competition showcased the smash hit "Super Size Me," the devastating future Oscar nominee "Born Into Brothels" and several other noteworthy films, including "The Corporation," "The Hunting of a President," "Los Angeles Plays Itself" and "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster." (Admittedly, the grand jury prize went to the relatively obscure rockumentary "Dig!" but that kind of thing is par for the course.)

There were some important dramatic films that made deals at Sundance in 2004, but perhaps only the soon-to-be cult hit "Napoleon Dynamite" fit the classic Sundance pattern: a strange little movie without much of a punch line that couldn't easily be summarized or sold in advance. Without the buzz of genuine excitement and discovery it provoked in that Absolut-primed Park City audience, it might never have gotten the boost it needed.

Other success stories of '04, including "The Motorcycle Diaries," "Garden State," "Open Water" and "Maria Full of Grace," arrived at Sundance pretty much prepackaged. Yes, they all found eager buyers and enthusiastic audiences at the festival (and I thought approximately 1.75 of those movies were excellent). But they all also represent completely conventional modes of filmmaking, and all of them would have easily found distributors at other festivals or through the ordinary deal-making process.

For extra credit, can anyone tell me what film won the dramatic grand prize at Sundance '04? Tick, tick, tick -- no? OK, me neither, I had to look it up. It was a sci-fi thriller called "Primer" whose existence I can only barely remember. I never saw it, and odds are you didn't either. Maybe it's a great movie, but that isn't my point. All sorts of interesting little indie dramas that got written about in tones of awe and veneration by my erudite colleagues at that festival would vanish thereafter with scarcely a trace: "November," "The Woodsman," "The Machinist," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "The Dreamers," "The Return."

Yeah, I know some of those got released, and if you live in a big city and were really quick on the draw, maybe you saw one or two of them. But for a whole complex of reasons I'm not smart enough to untangle, those kinds of movies don't have the same kind of cultural power that, say, Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" or Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" or David O. Russell's "Spanking the Monkey" (to cite three seminal Sundance hits of the past) possessed in the '90s.

This is clearly about much larger factors than programming a film festival in Utah -- let's just say that the 2000 election, the events of 9/11 and the Iraq war have played a role -- but the dramatic feature has faded into the shadows in recent years while the documentary has loomed ever larger. Sundance didn't create this situation, but it also hasn't done much to resist it, with the result that other festivals, especially Berlin, Toronto and even Cannes, the aging diva of the Riviera, have become more reliable venues for ambitious dramatic films in the last few years.

Last January at Sundance, the trend was even more pronounced. Consider the two grand-prize winners in 2005: Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" (documentary) and Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue" (drama). In my not-so-humble opinion, they're both exciting films, but their fates are strikingly different. Jarecki's achingly earnest hymn against militarism was snapped up by Sony Classics and released in major markets a week ago, with a massive publicity push and plans for a national rollout. Sachs' wrenching, Altman-esque drama set in the Memphis music scene was purchased at minimal cost by First Look, a small specialty distributor. After a test run for two weeks at New York's Film Forum, the company decided not to risk a wider release, and the movie is now awaiting release.

By far the bulk of the buzz-generating films at Sundance last year were documentaries: "The Aristocrats," "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," "Murderball," "Grizzly Man," "Inside Deep Throat," "Ballets Russes," "The Protocols of Zion," "Rock School." While "Murderball" was an overhyped box-office dud, and "Protocols of Zion" has yet to be released, most of the rest rank among the past year's most successful small-scale releases.

Yet again, the dramatic films that people like me drooled over mostly failed to interest the world. "Thumbsucker" was possibly the most praised festival film of the year, but attracted little audience despite a massive marketing campaign and a cast full of recognizable stars. "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," "Dear Wendy," "Nine Lives," "9 Songs" and "Oldboy" all came and went, without leaving much of a cultural ripple.

The hits, if you really want to call them that, were modest in scale, in ambition and (if you ask me) in level of accomplishment: "Hustle & Flow," "Junebug," "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and "Mysterious Skin" all more or less emerged at Sundance. On the other hand, such future hits as "Kung Fu Hustle," "The Matador" and "The Squid and the Whale" all played there, but those are classic examples of the mini-mainstream fare that has now become Sundance's stock in trade. There was never any question that those movies wouldn't be purchased by major studios and reach big audiences; the only question was how much juice the cumulative buildup of hype, from Park City to Berlin and Cannes and Toronto and wherever else, could generate.

Since I'm not at Sundance right now, I can't tell you whether "Little Miss Sunshine," the little-film-that-could purchased the other day by Fox Searchlight for more than $10 million, is an irresistible seriocomic gem or the hardened nugget of schmaltz mixed with didacticism it sounds like. Nor can I predict whether "American Hardcore," "Crossing Arizona" or "Iraq in Fragments" will be the year's breakout documentary. I'm already sorry to be missing some of the highly praised films on the artier edge, all destined to become unimpressive small to mid-level releases, from Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" to Carlos Reygadas' "Battle in Heaven," Fabian Bielinsky's "El Aura" and Max Makowski's "One Last Dance."

But I don't feel confident that any of those movies will be the ones we're still talking about a year from now. Last year's Sundance roster, for instance, did not include "Brokeback Mountain." Or "A History of Violence," or "Caché," or "Breakfast on Pluto," or the new films then in the pipeline from von Trier, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, Alexander Sokurov, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Roman Polanski, John Turturro, Tsui Hark and Larry Clark. (Most of those premiered at Cannes or Toronto instead.) Quirks of the calendar and the production process? Sure, in some cases. Not quite right for Sundance in some indefinable way? Perhaps. Index of a film world that has grown ever more difficult to understand? Definitely.

"Manderlay": Unanswered questions about Lars von Trier's satirical slavery epic
So I went to see the second film in Lars von Trier's trilogy about America, a country he has never visited, and found it maddening, hilarious, frustrating and invigorating, pretty much from moment to moment. Grace, the earnest gamine played by Nicole Kidman two years ago in "Dogville," is played this time by Bryce Dallas Howard, a pretty, almost boyish newcomer. She and her sinister dad (Willem Dafoe) have moved on from Dogville to the Depression-era Deep South, where they comes upon a plantation whose whites are still holding its blacks as slaves, seemingly unaware that all this had been legally done away with 70 years earlier.

Grace is not the kind of girl to sit around and watch the innocent suffer with a cynical smirk on her face -- though her father certainly is -- so she's going to do something for the benighted inhabitants of "Manderlay." Performed, as in "Dogville," on a bare wooden soundstage marked with lettering ("THE OLD LADY'S GARDEN" or "THE 'BELOVED' MAGNOLIAS") and decorated with minimal props and a few cutaway theatrical sets, "Manderlay" is so obviously artificial it's difficult to take any of it at face value.

I think von Trier, as usual, is trying to manage competing impulses: He actually wants to tell this story of how and why the slaves -- led by Danny Glover as the venerable Wilhelm, and Isaach de Bankolé as the distant and hostile Timothy (to whom Grace feels an irresistible erotic attraction) -- have chosen bondage, and how Grace launches a grand social experiment to teach them the value of liberty. On the other hand, he also wants to disorder the viewer at every turn, whether by tweaking American defensiveness, provoking high-minded anti-Americanism, or simply by screwing up our ordinary expectations of what a narrative movie does and why.

To state the obvious, "Manderlay" is often patently offensive in its racial politics, and it surely isn't for everyone. It is, however, very funny, very dark and very skillfully played. Whether von Trier makes his points -- whether, indeed, he has points to make, beyond a series of insoluble conundrums -- is up for debate. So I decided I would ask him. I worked hard on setting out a series of e-mail questions, and sent them along to his publicist, who assured me that von Trier would get back to me. About two hours later, she wrote back to say he wasn't getting back to me; he was doing a video conference with filmgoers at the IFC Center in New York, and didn't have time for pesky journalists.

So here, in lieu of any further discussion of "Manderlay," is my ass-kissy e-mail to Lars von Trier, in its entirety. At first I thought I would try to channel him, and write funny but (avowedly) fake answers; it seemed like something cheeky, more or less in accord with his sense of humor. Then I realized that was a stupid idea. My questions are unanswered, and that's how they'll stay.

Hello Lars:

I really appreciate your help with these questions on "Manderlay." The film is very powerful and strange and disturbing, which I suppose is more or less the effect you want. I've covered a lot of terrain here, so if you get impatient and quit, I will understand. Here goes:

1. The title "Manderlay" seems to refer to the 1940 Hitchcock film "Rebecca," or maybe to the Daphne du Maurier novel it's based on. Is there a connection, or did you just like the sound of the word?

2. In this film, as in "Dogville," you seem to be doing something that's very much in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht: the obvious artificiality of the presentation and setting, a situation that is satirical or cynical or absurd, a very loose relationship to actual history and geography. Is this a conscious influence for you?

2a. But Brecht's theater was specifically directed at capitalism: He sought to show the heartlessness and evil that current economic reality made possible, or inevitable. I don't think you're aiming at the same target. Or are you?

3. Another thing Brecht did was to try to engage the viewer emotionally, even within this artificial and/or implausible setting. You try to do that, don't you? At least, I found the young girl's death, and the subsequent "execution" of the old woman, very affecting, even though the larger situation is not all that realistic. [Sorry about this one, readers; you'll just have to see the film.]

3a. The highly theatrical staging of these films, with props and costumes but only the most notional sets, is powerful but also oppressive. I find that after a while it creates a mood of claustrophobia. It makes me long to see a tree or a ray of light and it makes me pity these people, trapped in this impoverished universe. Is that effect more or less deliberate?

4. Every time you release a film, we get this spectacle where Americans and Europeans go ballistic and start calling each other names. The Internet message boards about this movie are insane already, and I'm sure some of the reviews will be fun too. A lot of this, on both sides, is just reflexive and knee-jerk. Do you enjoy provoking these kinds of responses? Is it constructive in any way for bigots on both sides of the Atlantic to scream at each other? Or do you just think it's fun to piss people off?

4a. I'm inclined to think your movies aren't really about America, or mostly aren't. I suspect that 1930s America, and America's racial problems, are mainly a vehicle this film uses, without being its central concern. Is that right?

5. Still, I can't resist. The 1930s was a crucially important decade in American history: the Great Depression, the New Deal, the growth of organized crime, the military buildup on the road to World War II and becoming a global superpower. Also, it was one of the very darkest times for black people in the South, who had virtually no political rights and were persecuted almost as badly as under slavery. Does this background inform these films in any way?

6. Just one more question about history, I promise. Some African-Americans may well find the suggestion that some of them -- any of them -- would have wanted to remain slaves insulting. After emancipation in 1865, thousands of blacks participated eagerly in politics and civic life, at least until their rights were revoked toward the end of the 19th century. And of course the black struggle for equal political and civil rights in America was one of the most inspiring dramas of the 20th century. Why don't the slaves of Manderlay want freedom and equality?

6a. You had some trouble getting black American actors to appear in this film, perhaps for the reasons I've just mentioned. Why do you think Danny Glover took the role in the end? How much did the two of you discuss the film?

7. The montage at the end of your film -- scenes of horrific racial violence, set to David Bowie's "Young Americans" -- is devastating. Yet it seems curiously at odds with the rest of the film, which has such a dark and satirical tone. The photographs suggest that dynamic change does occur, although it may be painful. The film suggests the opposite: Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose. Is this disjunction deliberate, or do I misunderstand something?

8. You've remarked that people with good intentions are always the most dangerous, and have explicitly compared Grace's moral certainty about slavery in "Manderlay" with George W. Bush's moral certainty in Iraq. Is Grace, in her innocence and naiveté, specifically American? Or is she just the reformer, sure she's doing the right thing, whom we might meet anywhere in the world at any time?

9. Aren't there circumstances in which the outside world really should "do something," even if there are unintended consequences? Like Europe in the '30s, or the Balkans and Rwanda in the '90s? Yes, the slaves of Manderlay have chosen to be slaves, and Grace is too blind to see that. Yet one could go further with this reasoning: Perhaps the Tutsi of Rwanda, or the Jews of Europe, "chose" their fate in some way. How are we to tell the difference?

10. One last question. To me, Wilhelm, Danny Glover's character, is at the center of the whole riddle of Manderlay. Is that the way you see it? I won't give away the big surprise we learn about him toward the end. But why doesn't he warn Grace that cutting down the trees in the Old Lady's Garden will ruin the cotton crop? He must know that, but if anything he encourages her to bring the place to ruin.

I'm grateful for your time, Lars. This is an important film and as you are well aware, people will react strongly to it.

"Manderlay" opens Jan. 27 at the IFC Center in New York and Feb. 3 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

Soderbergh's vision of life in a "Bubble"
As far as I'm concerned, most of the attention devoted to Steven Soderbergh's twisted, deadpan little murder mystery, "Bubble," is for the wrong reasons. Yes, it's noteworthy that Soderbergh and his production partners are pioneering a new distribution model, known as "day-and-date," and like everybody else who follows the film biz, I'll be eager to see how it works. On Friday, "Bubble" will open in a fairly typical roster of big-city art-house theaters, but that night it will also be available as a pay-per-view movie on the HDNet network. Then, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, the DVD will be released through normal retail outlets.

This is an inevitable switch in the indie distribution model, with a lot of upside and a lot of downside. The cool part is that people in Hawaii and Alabama and downtown Baltimore and upstate New York -- basically, anywhere in the 98 percent of the country's land mass where movies like this don't play -- can see them almost as soon as jerk-ass urban-dwellers like me. The less cool part is the question of whether this sounds the death knell of the moviegoing experience, and the fact that film critics and other so-called experts will whine about this in panel discussions from now to kingdom come.

And yes, it's also interesting that Soderbergh has walked away, at least temporarily, from directing a bunch more sequels to "Ocean's Eleven," and has undertaken to make a series of six (!) new zero-budget films, shot in authentic American locations on digital video with nonprofessional actors. These fascinating news items tend to overwhelm the question of whether A) the resulting movie is any good, and B) anybody will want to see it.

I long ago stopped believing I could predict moviegoers' tastes -- the best way to do that, I think, is to throw the I Ching or consult the entrails of a vole -- but I'd rate "Bubble" at no better than a C-plus for artistic achievement and a D-minus for audience appeal. In one sense, it accomplishes its goals efficiently by making you feel, in less than 80 minutes, as if you've gotten permanently trapped in the dead-end, trailer-park lives of its working-class characters. I've never been so grateful to get out of a theater, turn my cellphone back on and plug myself into a $4 Starbucks latte.

A friend of mine calls this kind of thing "guilt art." Don't get me wrong: Taking us places we've never been, and giving us some vicarious experience of lives very different from our own, are among the noblest missions motion pictures can perform. But if there's no reason to make the journey, beyond a sort of voyeuristic horror at the wasted lives and poverty -- spiritual and material -- that we can find in our own country, I'm not sure what the point is. Compared to the America of "Bubble," Lars von Trier's mythical America is a beacon of hope and a barrel of laughs.

Set in the depressed factory towns along the West Virginia-Ohio border, "Bubble" offers a grim documentary-style realism that is intermittently impressive. Soderbergh's always been an able visual craftsman with an eye for the striking detail, and much of the so-called action here occurs in a factory where the heads, arms, legs and bodies for dolls are made. Watching the workers pry these naked pink forms from the machine that has molded them out of liquid latex is creepier, and more interesting, than anything that actually happens in Coleman Hough's screenplay.

Unfortunately, I think those mass-produced dolls are also meant to be symbolic of Hough's characters and their extruded-latex lives. The principal character is a doughy middle-aged woman named Martha, played by Debbie Doebereiner, whose real-life day job is managing a KFC franchise. Martha becomes enmeshed in a sort-of triangle involving her sweet, feckless friend Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) and a pretty, pushy girl named Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) who has just started at the plant. One of these people winds up dead, but if you don't figure out almost instantly who killed her and why, you've flunked Obvious Plot Twists 101.

The things I liked about "Bubble" were its incidental, almost-documentary elements, and didn't have much to do with its bonehead mystery plot: Kyle's mom on the couch in their trailer home, cracking up at "America's Funniest Home Videos"; real-life Parkersburg, W.Va., detective Decker Moody, playing himself with a Zen-like, methodical calm; Kyle and Rose on a date, pretty bored with each other but even more bored by their environment; Rose's ex-boyfriend Jake (Kyle Smith), a self-aggrandizing "graffiti artist" who seems like this town's only spark of life.

I don't know how aggressively Soderbergh prepared these people to perform for the camera, but the fairest thing to say is that some, like Smith and Wilkins, can do it a little, while others rely on that deadpan staring-at-the-floor mode that passes for naturalism in a lot of independent films. Doebereiner struggles valiantly to go from stolid normalcy to the edge of psychotic breakdown, but I don't think the script or the director do her any favors by veering suddenly into existential melodrama.

Whatever Soderbergh is trying to do here -- knockoff Dostoevski? an American grotesque, à la Harmony Korine? a study in unblinking moral-spiritual realism, in the vein of Bresson's "Pickpocket"? a never-produced episode of "The Twilight Zone"? -- I suspect you have to file the whole thing under Noble Experiment Gone Awry. Without a famous director and a news angle attached, this film wouldn't be on pay-per-view or in theaters, on Friday night or any other night.

"Bubble" opens Jan. 27 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., Washington and various other cities, with more to follow. It also airs on HDNet beginning Jan. 27, and will be released Jan. 31 on DVD.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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