January 28, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | January 28, 2007 |


I came into my week at Sundance skeptical of the whole shebang. I expected, based to some extent on the coverage I’d read of the first weekend, that the film festival would be largely about the famous people and the swag (and really, is there a worse word in the English language? Swag. It’s like my four least favorite words — moist, panties, swig, and greasy — all rolled into a single, cringe-inducing syllable: swag.) And, to a degree, Sundance was about those things, though the free shit was mostly stuff we’d throw out before getting back to our hotel, and the celebrities were more of an irritation than anything, a nuisance that’d only extend our time in waiting lines, so that there’d be someone outside to ooooh and ahhhh as Gwyneth and Spielberg and JT scurried over into the curtained aisle. Of course, it’s impossible not to get excited when Donny freakin’ Osmond is in the same restaurant as you — during breakfast that morning, there were bras removed, panties thrown, and women swooning, all until they realized that it wasn’t Teddy Bruschi (seriously, I don’t know how old Donny Osmond is, but he looks younger than I do, and I think he was already a has-been by the time I was born).

The surprising thing for me as the week wore on, however, was how much the entire experience actually did — as the buttons of many Sundance-goers suggested — “focus on films.” Outside of the obnoxious industry people, who spoke in a language only other slithering reptiles could possibly understand, most people we spoke to mostly wanted to talk about what they’d seen, what we’d seen, and what we were going to see next. It was, in a way, one of those magical communal experiences where a certain kinship sprung forth from a shared experience. It’s corny as hell, I suppose, but for cinephiles, I can’t imagine a better place to spend 16 hours a day in movie theaters watching films or waiting in lines discussing them, even if we did have to occasionally pretend to like a film so as not to hurt the feeling of, say, an enthusiastic and heavily Botoxed couple from Texas who just loved Hound Dog (which was the worst of the 16 films I saw this week).

At any rate, I can’t recommend the experience enough; it’s like watching all the year’s best films in a single five-day span, which probably means the rest of the year is going to suck my will to live through a stirrer straw as I attempt to follow up Sundance’s Audience Award Winner, Grace is Gone, with motherfucking Norbit. To mix metaphors: It’s the cruel hand of karma, I suppose. Sundance is also a very egocentric, self-absorbed experience — it wasn’t until I left Park City and got on a plane that it dawned on me that not everyone in the country was chattering about the magical powers of a vagina that could sever a man’s penis. Maybe someday. …

Anyway, the last full day of the festival found me watching The Savages, a moderately entertaining film about two siblings in their 40s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) caring for their estranged father during the last days of his life. Linney and, especially and always, Hoffman, were brilliant, and there were quite a few clever lines in the film, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. But it was mostly just another film about disaffected, middle-class white people discussing their disaffected, middle-class lives. It was, as my wife suggested, a lot like watching a cinematic version of The Corrections. Sample line: “No. We don’t have to go. This is not a Sam Shepard play.”

I followed The Savages with Waitress, an unbelievably moving magic-realist film about a waitress (Keri Russell) stuck in a horrible, claustrophobic marriage to an abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto). She also makes divine pies at the diner where she works, which she names after whatever mood she is in, such as the pie she made after she found out she was pregnant (“I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie”). After she gets pregnant, she falls in love with her gynecologist (Nathan Fillion), which basically changes the course of her life. It sounds pat and predictable, and it is, at times, but it’s also incredibly heartbreaking and at other times, hilarious, though even the funnier parts are suffused with sadness, knowing that the writer/director, Adrienne Shelley, was murdered only a few months ago. And really, how could you not love a film that features Andy Griffith, in what’s sure to be his last role before heading to the Mayberry in the sky? And Keri Russell — I don’t know what it is about her, but I’ve never loved a screen actress so platonically.

I wasn’t looking forward to Chicago 10, the Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) film that opened the festival. After my disappointment in two of the most talked-about films (Hound Dog and Black Snake Moan), the relative inferiority of a couple of the other premieres (King’s California and The Good Night) and what I’d heard about The Ten, I’d begun to think that the biggest draws at Sundance were also the worst it had to offer. Plus, I couldn’t imagine enjoying a rotoscoped documentary on the 1968 Democratic Convention. But there was nothing else decent showing during that time slot, and I wound up being pleasantly surprised by the film, which was daring, radical, engrossing, and only tangentially educational. Basically, Morgen weaves together archive footage of the ‘68 Chicago riots with an animated recreation of the trial of the Chicago Seven, focusing largely on Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, William Kunstler, and Bobby Seale. In doing so, Chicago 10 provides a brilliant counter-illustration to our relative passive opposition to the current war, in the hopes of inspiring this generation to do something about it other than mutter under our fucking breaths. It’s effective, too; I was ready to march on the capital steps myself, at least until the next movie started and I forgot all about Chicago 10.

That next movie was Dedication, which was one of the first films at Sundance to get snatched up by a distributor. And deservedly so. It’s an amazing film that manages to both faithfully follow and subvert the formulaic romantic-comedy storyline. It’s about an incredibly neurotic, misogynistic, phobic and fucked-up writer of children’s books, Henry (Billy Crudup), who falls in love with his new illustrator (Mandy Moore) after his best friend and former illustrator (Tom Wilkinson) dies. It presented a beautiful portrayal of the challenge Henry faced in connecting to other people and the courage he found in his friend, even in death, to open up to a romantic relationship. Also, it was easily the most stylized film I saw this week; I was blown away by the directing job, the visceral cinematography, and the choice of music (in terms of esthetic, think Eternal Sunshine crossed with Memento.). Crudup also turned in the best performance I saw by any actor during the week — and Mandy Moore wasn’t so bad herself. For what it’s worth, Ms. Pajiba-hyphenate, who is smarter and more discerning than I am, thought that Dedication was the best she saw at the festival.

On Sunday, after the awards were announced, Sundance shows all the winning films again. I had the opportunity to see any number of them, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to turn down another opportunity to see Rocket Science before I left. It’s damn near blasphemous, I suppose, to see a movie twice at Sundance, considering the number of great films in competition and the desire to see as many as possible. But after 16 films, it was Rocket Science that separated itself from the pack. It was like an infectious pop song that gets caught in your craw — for two days, images and snippets of dialogue floated around in my head, and I thought that by watching it again I might be able to exorcise it from my brain. It may sound hyperbolic, but I haven’t felt this way about a film since Bottle Rocket, a movie that I watched every day for two weeks in 1996, in the hopes of somehow exhausting it from my subconscious. Rocket Science, obviously, felt more real, more identifiable, and more heartfelt, but it possessed the same unidentifiable essence. It was truly transcendent — how many films can elicit simultaneous applause and tears? This one did it with a scene in which the main character did something as simple as order a slice of pizza, which had me turning away from the stranger next to me to hide the metaphorical streaks of mascara. I don’t even think that Rocket Science has been bought yet, but it will be — and it’s the kind of film that almost no one will see in a theater but, I think, will slowly gain cult status in the DVD market, as did director Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound before.

I sound effusive as hell now, and I realize it’s not terribly becoming for a site like Pajiba. But honestly, films like the ones I saw at Sundance are that makes wading through the rest of the excrement on a near-weekly basis tolerable. And now, of course, the countdown to Norbit begins.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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"Don't Make Me Come Home and Watch Norbit" Pie

The Last Daily Dispatch from Sundance / Dustin Rowles

Miscellaneous | January 28, 2007 | Comments ()



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