Sundance Film Festival 2013

Severed ears, sadomaso-chism, bloody beatings and incest — though it sounds like the stuff of B-movie exploitation fare, such outre offerings are actually the hallmarks of Sundance’s most acclaimed and prestigious entries.

While American independent cinema has often been identified with serious dramas made for “sophisticated” audiences — think early breakouts such as “Ruby in Paradise” or “You Can Count on Me” — sex and violence have always dominated Sundance’s programs, from “Blood Simple” to “Reservoir Dogs” and “Happiness” to “Push.”

In fact, for independent art films, sensationalistic subject matter may be even more necessary as a way to be heard in the ever-competitive marketplace.

“Provocative subject matter is more important than ever,” says Mark Gill, president of Millennium Films, which is unveiling the pornstar biopic “Lovelace” at this year’s festival. “It’s so hard to get people off the couch, so you really have to have a reason to create immediacy and urgency. It’s helpful to have a hook, and the more provocative, the better.”

Gill, who worked on the release of Larry Clark’s “Kids” in 1995, says independent films have the benefit of being able to go much farther and push more buttons than studio pics. “You’re absolutely allowed to be edgier,” he says. “You have an audience that’s willing to see the dark side of things as well as the light.”

But backers have to be careful not to overplay these films’ unrated elements. “What you don’t want is something perceived as porn, so people would never see it,” says Gill.

Most salacious-seeming indie pics are, of course, more artful in their presentations. “Lovelace,” for example, promises to be a more dramatic rendition of the performer’s rise and fall; likewise, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut “Don Jon’s Addiction” is being described as both “crass” and “startlingly sincere,” exploring lessons about love and life as much as sexual escapades, according to Sundance organizers.

For that reason, IFC Films’ Ryan Werner says when handling a hot-button film, they still market it as an “art” movie. When releasing Michael Winterbottom’s unflinchingly violent 2010 Sundance entry “The Killer Inside Me,” they tried to keep the marketing “classy and true to the Jim Thompson source material,” he says. “While we embraced the controversy, it was not sold as an exploitation film.”

Still, “At the end of the day, the movie does have a lot of sex and violence, and I think that’s a great selling point,” says Werner, adding that “The Killer Inside Me” is one of the company’s top-selling titles on VOD — where licentious films have particularly thrived.

Independent filmmakers don’t necessarily see their films as extreme or confrontational, however. They often use sex and violence as a means to an end, or as backdrops for deeper psychological portraits.

Winterbottom says his new Sundance film, “The Look of Love,” which follows infamous British impresario Paul Raymond, who oversaw an empire of gentlemen’s clubs and erotic magazines, isn’t about sex at all. “His world involves naked women, and it’s connected to sex, but the story of the film is really about his relationship with the three women in his life,” Winterbottom says. “It’s actually a classic morality tale.”

Similarly, Antonio Campos, the director of “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer” and a producer on “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” acknowledges that even though the films include sex and violence, “The goal isn’t to glorify anything but to try and understand what happens when real people do bad things and how do they deal with it.”

And if he and other indie filmmakers tend to “tread in murky waters,” as Campos puts it, it’s not for their salacious aspects but “because these stories and characters interest us and pose a challenge that we want to take on.”

One of the most controversial films at last year’s Sundance, Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” sparked angry post-screening discussions, with audience members accusing Zobel of misogyny and exploiting the movie’s young star, Dreama Walker, who appears partially nude. Zobel says the film is not exploitive, but, conveying a crucial distinction, “is about exploitation.”

When done right, argues Zobel, sensationalistic films aren’t made simply to provoke, but to advance an idea. “Maybe people watch simply because ‘sex sells,'” he says, “but hopefully they leave and start a conversation.”

Sundance Film Fesitval 2013
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