Event serves as gauge for indie film trends

PARK CITY, Utah — No matter what one thinks of the 1999 Sundance dramatic competition, certain thematic and stylistic trends emerge, trends that go beyond Sundance to characterize indie filmmaking at the present time.

Of course, there’s no way to validate empirically to what extent the 16 entries in the dramatic series reflect the large number of movies — estimated at more than 500 — submitted for consideration. The following is an analysis of 15 movies watched over 10 days; the one excluded is “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole,” which premiered in Toronto in 1998.

Critics were relieved to observe the decline of the coming-of-age tale, a reliable staple at Sundance, with such previous grand jury winners as “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Hurricane Streets,” and others. This year, there were only a few coming-of-age movies, such as the aforementioned “Sebastian Cole” and Frank Whaley’s “Joe the King,” which deservedly shared the writing award and was not the typically predictable growing-pains saga.

The other pleasant surprise was the decline of the Tarantino effect, Tarantinees, as producer rep John Pierson once described them in a panel at the South by Southwest Festival. There were no cool, violent, darkly comic and cynical heist-action pictures. The one possible exception, Dan Clark’s “The Item,” was not exactly Tarantino-inspired, but in its combo of excessively graphic violence and slapstick humor, was a midnight movie that had no reason to be in competition.

The vision thing

On the other hand, there was a paucity of truly original and visionary films. Tony Bui’s luminously shot, intensely poetic “Three Seasons,” which won three awards (grand jury, audience and cinematography), was arguably the most distinguished film in competition, a foreign-language film that offered an intriguing look at contempo life in Vietnam by magically interweaving three stories.

Most alarming of all, and this is a trend that marks general indie production of the late 1990s, is the mainstreaming of indies.

There were several well-crafted, even slick, productions such as “Guinevere,” a most accomplished and enjoyable film that announced the arrival of writing-directorial talent Audrey Wells. However, what was missing this year was the low-budget, audacious, experimental film, such as Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” or Vincent Gallo’s idiosyncratic, boldly offbeat “Buffalo 66,” both shown in 1998.

An abundance of old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing films — comedies as well as dramas that were basically the reworking of familiar ideas and conventions — was shown this year. The central premise of “Happy, Texas,” the most hyped film in the festival, was lifted from Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” with the central male duo masquerading as gays rather than women. Gavin O’Connor’s well-acted “Tumbleweeds” borrowed ideas and characters from “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Ruby in Paradise” and even Neil Simon’s script for “The Goodbye Girl.”

Pictures that were stylistically impressive left a lot to be desired dramatically, such as the visually striking but vapid noir “Treasure Island,” the psychological thriller “The Minus Man,” the politically naive and shallow “Roberta” and the undernourished, Montana-lensed “The High-Line,” basically a two-character meller.

Comfort spool

What disturbed observers this year was the lack of such provocative and troubling movies as “In the Company of Men,” innovative guerrilla movies like “Rhythm Thief” and uncompromising films like the sharply observed drugs-and-art portrait “High Art.” It was hard not to notice the insistence of a new crop of comforting films to entertain the audience at all costs. Steven Maler’s “The Autumn Heart,” arguably one of the weakest entries, was shamelessly sentimental and manipulative in its pandering to the viewers. Big in heart, but small in vision, it’s a schmaltzy woman’s film (about three eccentric sisters and their dying mother) that would play well on Lifetime without any damage or need to see it on the bigscreen.

This partly explains why a charmingly personal film like “Judy Berlin” stood out. Winning a directorial citation, it displayed an idiosyncratic talent, Eric Mendelsohn, who shot in black and white and audaciously populated his moody, bittersweet yarn of a Long Island community with middle-aged and old characters (played by Barbara Barrie, Madeline Kahn, Bob Dishy, Anne Meara and Carlin Glin) rarely seen anymore in American cinema, studio or indie.

In the past, the two prime enemies of indies were Hollywood’s mainstream innocuous fare and television’s simple, broad contents.

Judging by at least a number of pictures at Sundance this year, the approaching millennium seems to be the age of rapprochement, reflected in soft, uncritical movies that steer clear of moral or psychological ambivalence, insisting on neat resolutions and happy endings, with more hugs and tears exhibited onscreen this year than one can recall in recent memory.

(Emanuel Levy is a film critic for Daily Variety and author of the upcoming book “Cinema of Outsiders: The New American Independent Wave,” which will be published by NYU Press in August.)

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