Beyond the Multiplex

The festival offers up films about dead rock stars, undead Angelenos, man-horse sex and teeth in strange places. Plus: Dick Gephardt made me cry!

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published January 22, 2007 5:30PM (EST)

You can start out a weekend at Sundance, as I did, irritated by all the minor inconveniences of this place and end it, as I also did, sitting in a roomful of strangers weeping at an impromptu late-night speech delivered live by Dick Gephardt. In between came a lot of other things: a grisly horror movie about a girl blessed with a unique ability to repel sexual advances, a lyrical documentary about men who love horses (in a manner illegal in most jurisdictions), a faux-documentary about the growing population of zombies (aka the "non-living community") in Los Angeles. My favorite film of the festival so far, beyond a doubt, is a documentary about a dead '80s rock musician that I almost didn't show up for.

No question about it, Sundance can be a pain. Sometimes, as you're trudging through the icy muck from one distant venue to another, or waiting in the bone-numbing wind, while your extremities turn exquisite shades of crimson and ivory, for a shuttle bus that will putter along so incrementally you'd be better off just trudging through the icy muck, thoughts occur to you. Thoughts like: Whose idea was it to wedge a major film festival into a ski resort at the peak of snow season, when it's freezing cold, insanely expensive and plagued with blond people recklessly driving SUVs and recklessly wearing headbands?

Oh, that's right. It was Robert Redford's idea. Make sport of Bob if you will, but he's probably done more to further independent filmmaking as an art and a business model than anybody else on the planet. One can have mixed feelings about the way all that has played out in recent years, but still. If he wants to invite all these people to a party in his backyard -- in January, when the temperature might break 20 degrees on a nice day -- I guess he's entitled to.

As the list of movies above might suggest, there's a strange current of change -- mutation or adaptation, perhaps -- running through the 2007 Sundance Film Festival at the close of the first weekend. Documentary filmmakers are experimenting, stretching the form, defying conventions and blurring the customary boundaries between truth and fiction. Narrative filmmakers, in contrast, seem like the sober materialists of the movie world, focused on hard social and political reality.

OK, that's too simple. You can't describe an entire film festival in glib phrases, and it's not like there aren't earnest talking-head documentaries and winsome relationship indies among the movies being trotted out this week. But it does seem as if Sundance is itself mutating, struggling to adapt to its own bigness and self-importance, to adjust to the fact that it long ago stopped being an outsider institution and now plays a central role in the movie world's political economy. This year's batch of films is more diverse, cosmopolitan and formally ambitious than we usually see at Sundance. There are more overtly political, ripped-from-the-headlines films. There are definitely more zombies. And for some reason I cannot explain, there are two movies with the number 27 in the title. (Those would be "Girl 27" and "Chapter 27.")

Brett Morgen's documentary "Chicago 10," which opened the festival, set the tone with its inventive blend of period footage and motion-capture animation (you can't make a self-respecting documentary without animation these days), and also with its obvious desire to strike a rebellious spark. If I wanted to set somebody afire with the potential of aesthetic and political revolution, though, I'd take them to see Julien Temple's rich and exhilarating documentary "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten," which premiered here on Saturday.

Temple's film is much more than a biopic of the late Clash frontman, and still less a hagiography. Like the director's outstanding Sex Pistols doc "The Filth and the Fury," it's a portrait of the peculiar convulsions of British society in the late 1970s and the exciting and often self-destructive pop culture it produced. "Joe Strummer" has all the energy, passion and high style of Temple's many music videos, but the sheer complexity of the subject makes it his best film by a fair stretch.

Strummer came from an atypical background for a punk hero; he was middle-class, attended boarding school and had traveled all over the world. He was a hippie R&B musician before he was a punk, and was pushing 30 when he got his crack at stardom. He'd had lots of time to reflect on how not to become a cliché rock star -- rich, famous, stoned and out of touch -- so the fact that he did anyway is one of pop culture's great cautionary tales.

Temple gathers Strummer's friends, former friends and ex-bandmates around a series of outdoor campfires, which lends his interviews an intimate, ritualistic quality the subject himself would have appreciated. For a film that directly addresses aging, mortality, depression and betrayal, among other salubrious subjects, "Joe Strummer" is an incandescent experience. It celebrates Strummer's fecundity and self-invention and honors his reticence and private despair, reminding us along the way what a contradictory and amazing affair a single human life is.

Speaking of human life (of the undead variety), my second-favorite Park City film, so far, is Grace Lee's self-mocking comedy "American Zombie," which purports to tell the story of how Lee (director of "The Grace Lee Project") began working with another filmmaker named John Solomon, on a documentary about the untold story of Los Angeles' zombie population. Zombies are among us, as an L.A. County health official reluctantly admits. Yes, occasionally they have been known to be aggressive, and yes, there are scattered reports of flesh eating. But the zombies we meet in Lee and Solomon's film are pretty ordinary folks, albeit troubled by maggots and rotting patches of skin: They work low-wage jobs, keep scrapbooks with pictures of cute guys, do flower arrangements for funerals (other people's).

"American Zombie" is actually in the Slamdance festival, Sundance's multiply pierced little sister, and I suppose some of its in jokes might be lost on a broader audience. But it sure is funny, in its bone-dry way. Lee skewers her own self-involvement, the pretensions of cinéma vérité and the stupidity of investigative TV documentary at the same time. (Her partner Solomon keeps trying to get into zombies' fridges, in search of possible human flesh.) Then again, the "Live Dead" festival, a desert party of undead citizens fashioned after Burning Man, does prove to be a troubling experience.

I won't say with any confidence that "American Zombie" is an allegory about Muslims or undocumented immigrants or anything else specific. It might just be a goof on the silliness of contemporary media that gets a little broader and darker as it goes along. But the mere fact that Lee can make both a media satire and, in the end, a creepy horror flick, while at least alluding to bigger social issues, suggests the breadth of her wit and intelligence.

That may not be an adequate segue into "Teeth," the debut feature from writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein, but maybe nothing would be. A lurid suburban satire that feels evenly appropriated from David Cronenberg and John Waters, "Teeth" is the saga of Dawn (Jess Weixler), a perky Christian teen who's the leading chastity cheerleader at her high school. For about the first hour it's a finely balanced if never subtle picture, with an intriguingly cool visual aesthetic, but after Dawn comes to understand her remarkable genital gift, it's pretty much one can-you-top-this gross-out scene after another.

Sure, I guess Lichtenstein is trying to single-handedly revive the grade-Z shock-comedy tradition of the '70s and '80s (word here is that the Weinstein Co. is likely to acquire "Teeth" and release it unrated) and it's not like I have some huge problem with that genre. But Lichtenstein is clearly a director with vision and ambition, and I think he ends up selling himself a little short. This is going to be a notorious film that young audiences will be daring themselves to see, but it's actually funnier, darker and more troubling before it turns into a carnival of repeated dismemberment.

There's already a media mini-flurry around "Zoo," the quiet, sensitive, resolutely unsensational documentary about virtually the most sensational subject you can imagine. OK, no, it's not about vagina dentata. But it is about a small community of men in rural Washington state who used to get together on a ranch to have carnal relations with animals. Specifically, with horses. That is, with stallions. One of these men was dumped at an emergency room in July 2005, where he died of a perforated colon. A subsequent investigation of the ranch he had been visiting uncovered many hours of videos of men enjoying similar activities.

Much about this case remains shrouded in mystery. It's amazing that director Robinson Devor got any of these guys to talk to him at all. None of them reveals his real name, and several won't appear on camera. The dead man, purportedly a midlevel U.S. intelligence officer in an unspecified agency, is identified only as "Mr. Hands." Since there's no archival footage to work with (the ranch tapes remain under wraps, unsurprisingly), most of Devor's film consists of re-creations, using actors on substitute locations, narrated in voice-over.

It would be ludicrous to claim that "Zoo" dispels prejudice against people who have sex with animals; these men themselves understand that their practices are not socially acceptable. (They refer to themselves as "zoo," short for zoophile or zoophilia. They say, "I'm zoo," as other people might say they were gay or straight.) But at some level this film will confuse and surprise you. For the most part these guys seem like gentle, lonely and odd people, poorly socialized to human life. They insist that their love for their horses is genuine, and make clear that for the activities they have in mind, no coercion -- and not much persuasion -- was required.

To Bible-believing fundamentalists, of course, there isn't much difference between the activities presented in "Zoo" and ordinary, garden-variety homosexuality. My Dick Gephardt moment arrived at the end of a powerful documentary exploring exactly that issue. It's easily the most conventionally structured film I've seen all week (even if it does have a goofy animated sequence). It's also almost guaranteed to find a devoted audience; the crowd for the Sunday night premiere was at the edge of tears almost the whole time.

"For the Bible Tells Me So" explores the stories of five religious Christian families dealing with a gay or lesbian adult child. Two of the families are relatively well known -- the Gephardts, whose daughter Chrissy is a lesbian, and the family of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire -- while the others are not. Daniel Karslake (a director and producer for the gay-oriented TV news magazine "In the Life") approaches these families forthrightly, without a hint of judgment over the questions of faith and morality they're wrestling with. For the Gephardt family, as for Robinson's parents (conservative Christian Kentuckians) and for a Lutheran family from Minnesota, the story has been one of love, reconciliation, even joyful acceptance. The film's other two family histories are more painful, and one ends in tragedy.

After the film ended, Karslake and some of the family members present stood up to take questions. Someone asked Gephardt whether it had been painful to learn that Chrissy was gay. He got up and spoke briefly and movingly, and said it had not. "I was brought up to believe that you were supposed to love other people more than yourself; that was the principal commandment," he said. "I was only worried about Chrissy. I was worried that she would suffer discrimination and hatred, and to some extent she has. There are so many millions of people with gay sons and lesbian daughters -- so many! -- that need to see this movie. We need to get off the path of hatred and onto the path of love."

Along the way, "For the Bible Tells Me So" tries to wrestle with the theological controversy over homosexuality, which is too complicated and divisive to be summarized in a few sound bites. Like the rest of the movie, it's a brave and noble (and perhaps doomed) effort to heal a gaping wound in our society. And getting to see a bland career Washingtonian like Dick Gephardt overcome by basic, mawkish fatherly love, and open his heart to a group of strangers late on a frozen night, made for a perfect Sundance moment. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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