Sundance is the best forum for non-formula films in the U.S., an indisputable force in promoting cinematic diversity, be it Hispanic, black, Native American, or gay. Singly and jointly, they form a stinging re-buke to the judgmental, stereotypical portrayals given to most non-mainstream issues in Hollywood once they make it to the bigscreen.
Year after year, Sundance platforms the voices of young directors committed to the making of innovative movies. But it’s not only subject matter that distinguishes the best Sundance pictures, there have been Hollywood movies and telefilms about obesity, disability and gay issues. It’s their bold approach and fierce determination to address difficult topics sincerely.
Sundance has promoted the cause of other minorities. In 1990 and 1991, more black-themed films were shown than ever before, showcasing the voices of a new generation of African-American filmmakers. Included in this cy-cle were: Reginald Hudlin’s “House Party” and Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger” (both in 1990), and Wen-dell B. Harris’ “Chameleon Street,” Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” Joseph B. Vasquez’ “Hangin’ with the Homeboys,” and Matty Rich’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” (all in 1991).
Once again, it’s not just the impressive quantity, it’s the energy and originality of these movies, their fresh insights on uniquely African-American problems. Outsiders from both the larger society and white-dominated Hollywood, these directors provided an insider’s point of view to the rich, multifaceted black experience. Though they were socially conscious, even message movies, there was a certain cool about them, both in vigorous storytelling and a hip sense of style. As a group, these pictures, many of which were confident debuts, signaled the end of Hollywood’s “white” perspective on distinctly black issues.
The new black films deviated radically from ’70s blaxploitation movies. Even those that flaunted a slick visual style (such as “A Rage in Harlem”) were never as emotionally vacuous as “Shaft.” A message film in the best sense of the term, “Straight Out of Brooklyn” had its share of moralizing speeches, but the immediacy of its perspective was undeniable. Angry at the white society, and its mass media, for neglecting blacks, the new films turned the cold statistics of homicide in the black community into an emotional probing of lifestyles, calling for sympathy, not pity. Made at a time when the country is torn by polarized race relations, they resonate strongly.
Statistically, women are not a minority in America, but they are still vastly underrepresented in Hollywood. At Sundance, however, 20% of the 188 features exhibited in the dramatic competition from 1985 to 1996 have been directed by women, a much higher percentage than their proportion in Hollywood.
The politics of these female-directed movies may or may not be feminist, but they nevertheless provide a distinct female perspective on issues that have traditionally been tackled by men. Take Lizzie Borden, a filmmaker who has shaped a polemical cinema devoted to the cultural representation of women. Her second picture, “Working Girls” (1987), a provocative, de-eroticized semi-documentary, offered an incisive, witty probe of a workday in an upscale Manhattan brothel. The film’s educated middle-class prostitutes are a far cry from call girls in Hollywood movies, in which they are usually stalked by psychotic killers or offed in the last reel, if not before. Neither runaway teenagers nor drug addicts, the film’s hookers work in a brothel because the pay is good and hours flexible enough to accommodate family life and other interests.
As much an outsider as Lizzie Borden or Matty Rich, Neal Jimenez wrote and co-directed “The Waterdance,” an intensely personal movie. Paralyzed from the waist down, Jimenez (who also penned 1987’s “River’s Edge”) told the remarkable story of his own recovery with astonishing humor and candid intimacy. Who can forget the brutally honest, highly erotic scene between a young paraplegic (played by Eric Stoltz, as the director’s alter ego) and his mistress (a lovely Helen Hunt) in the hospital ward? Characteristically, Jimenez first developed his script at Warner Bros., but the studio let the project go; it was later rescued by independent producer Gale Anne Hurd.
Neophyte helmer James Mangold (“Heavy”) also fits the description of an outsider. After a frustrating stint in Hollywood that almost sapped his idealism, and career, Mangold found in New York’s independent film milieu “a good, healthy anti-Hollywood sentiment.” “Living in Hollywood in the years after the Disney deal, I felt invisible,” Mangold recalls. “I had gone from being this hot prospect to being transparent. I gained 20 pounds. I would sit in my house making these elaborate breakfasts for myself.” Miraculously, Mangold’s frustration was creatively channeled into a delicate exploration of invisibility, “living a life where you are unseen.”
For Mangold, indies are by definition, “against the system, against the grain.” Would Hollywood make a serious, nonjudgmental movie about a homely, emotionally starved, obese man (described in the film as “a big ox nobody notices”) without pandering to the audience?
In the late ’80s, Bill Sherwood (“Parting Glances”), Gus Van Sant (“Mala Noche”), Gregg Araki and others launched what’s described now as “queer cinema,” a cycle of films that unabashedly and aggressively contested stereotypical cliches about the way gays and lesbians live — or look.
Todd Haynes’ “Poison” (1991) is arguably the toughest, most provocative movie on the AIDS crisis to date. A brilliant, iconoclastic film, ironically made famous by right-wing politics, “Poison” is actually a socially responsible work, the kind government agencies should subsidize. Though one of its three interwoven stories (“Homo”) deals with a prisoner’s sexual obsession, the film’s overall tone is neither pornographic nor sensationalistic. Soaked in paranoia, “Poison’s” central theme is deviance, the penalizing attitude of mainstream society toward any form of deviance, not just homosexuality.
Rose Troche gallantly carried the torch with “Go Fish,” a romantic comedy centering on intelligent lesbians who live completely normal, ordinary lives. Troche effectively subverted such long-established cinematic cliches as the notion that lesbians are “attractive” women who are passable as straight, or that lesbians are always going after straight women, who usually concede at some point in the story. A landmark film, “Go Fish” offers an alternative, as Troche said, “by staying within a lesbian community, where women have healthy relationships and aren’t ob-sessed with their place in the straight world.” Unlike most gay fare, “Go Fish” refreshingly did not deal with com-ing out.
Film cycles, genres and trends come and go, as Sundance movies have reflected year after year. While the Hollywood studios spend their time, energy and bucks churning out big-budget, over-produced, star-studded “event movies,” something significant is happening out on the fringe, Off-Off-Hollywood. The American independent cinema, and Sundance at its pinnacle, are enjoying their most exhilarating years, with a receptive audience, critical support, and the promise of an even better future.
Emanuel Levy’s new book, “Cinema of Outsiders: The New American Independent Film Wave” (New York University Press), was published in December.