×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Grindhouse meets arthouse

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
Filmmakers flex options | Target titles | Grindhouse meets arthouse | Labs offer Mid East voice lessons | Five’s who’ll thrive

Popular on Variety

More Scene

  • DOLEMITE IS MY NAME!, 2019, DOL_Unit_06284.RAF

    'Dolemite Is My Name' Writer Larry Karaszewski Recalls 10-Year Journey to Make Rudy Ray Moore Biopic

    “Harriet” writer-director Kasi Lemmons was in a reflective mood at Tuesday night’s “Behind the Screen” event at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, sponsored by the Writers Guild of America West. The biopic, starring Cynthia Erivo as slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, has been receiving buzz since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s Lemmons’ [...]

  • Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis

    Holocaust Experts Debate 'Jojo Rabbit' at Museum of Tolerance Screening

    With its comedic, cartoonish portrayal of Nazis, Taika Waititi’s satirical Hitler youth tale “Jojo Rabbit” has polarized critics and audiences alike. And that division continued to be stirred at Tuesday night’s screening of the film at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where Liebe Geft, director of the museum, moderated a heated panel discussion [...]

  • Laura Dern MoMA

    Gwendoline Christie, Adam Driver Honor Laura Dern at MoMA Film Benefit

    Laura Dern is certainly no stranger to film sets. “Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd birthed me and bred me on cinema,” she said on Tuesday night in New York City, as she accepted honors at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Film Benefit, presented by Chanel. “I was conceived on a Roger Corman movie called [...]

  • Jon Huerta

    'This Is Us' Star Jon Huertas Builds Community With Venice's Clutch Restaurant

    “This Is Us” star Jon Huertas, who’s being honored at the Napa Valley Film Festival with Variety Vivant’s Spice Award Nov. 13, has always known he wanted a career in Hollywood. But he’s something of an accidental restaurateur. No, he didn’t exactly stumble into co-owning Clutch, one of the hottest upscale casual restaurants in Venice, [...]

  • John Legend LVE Wine

    Celebrities Take Hands-On Approach to Making Fine Wines

    Care to sip champagne backed by Jay Z or 50 Cent? Or mellow out with a fine Chianti from Sting and Trudie Styler? Behind every wine label is an incredibly expensive team effort of surprising proportions. Wine lovers may consider making their own as the ultimate dream; however, few can afford the buy-in. Vineyards are [...]

  • St. Clair Brown, Mad Fritz lead

    Craft Beer Thrives in the Heart of Napa Wine Country

    Napa Valley has long been devoted to the products of the grape, but the region actually played a pivotal role in getting the craft beer revolution off the ground. New Albion Brewing launched the microbrewery trend in adjacent Sonoma County in 1976, inspiring a wave of delicious and potent alternatives to pale industrial beer. There’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content