Warm Front

(Photo credit: WireImage)

On the same day as the Great New York Snow Dump, Naomi Watts was standing in the middle of a Park City, Utah, street, white-capped mountains behind her providing an extra layer of beauty, yelping happily into a cell phone: “Yeah, there’s plenty of snow, but it’s so warm here, it’s hot! Bring me a sweater, not a coat!”

Whether it’s eavesdropping on Naomi or overhearing Amy Sedaris simultaneously parodying a Starbucks customer while paying for a Starbucks beverage (“Six dollars for a cuppa coffee! You cruel whippersnappers!”), this year’s Sundance Film Festival was indeed a warm one—sometimes with tempers to match. David LaChapelle, director of the extraordinary South Central L.A. “krump”-dancing documentary Rize, got himself arrested after disobeying the police outside a party on the city’s Main Street in the wee hours of January 22. (He was released within hours, free to revel in praise for the festival’s most galvanic nonfiction movie, about black kids who apply clown makeup and dance with dervish speed.)

Most days hit 40 degrees, and inside the party for another terrific documentary, Inside Deep Throat, things were even hotter, as two women wearing nothing but pasties and G-strings danced languidly, steaming up mounted TV screens that broadcast their retro-porno gyrations to the farthest corners of a crammed party space. And shortly before a sold-out screening of the excruciating Adrien Brody nightmare-narrative The Jacket, a thrilling shouting match occurred between two members of the press. One writer had left his coat on his seat to race to the restroom; when he returned, the seat was occupied by another journalist, who refused to budge. “That is so unethical!” yelped Journalist One. “I’m going to throw a temper tantrum right here, so everyone can hear how unfair this is! You are going to cost me my job!” Journalist Two merely replied, “I admit it; I took it. I’m not moving.”

Such directness was bracing at a festival where false flattery competes with laptop Wi-Fi signals to fill the air. Deals were wheeled everywhere, even on the buses that were used to shuttle producers, directors, publicists, and writers to the half-dozen screening rooms sprinkled across a few miles of Park City. I sat next to a woman with talon-shaped fingernails cooing fiercely into a cell phone: “Is there any point in offering this deal to Affleck? Well, he liked the script, and Ben is material-driven, but I have to know now.” Too bad I couldn’t hear whether the Affleck deal was sealed: I had to get off at my stop to see the sincere but soggy Loggerheads (sea turtle as metaphor for adult adopted child; Bonnie Hunt in a beautifully serious turn as the woman who gave him up for adoption). But among the other pacts completed: Hustle & Flow, a feel-good saga of a pimp going legit, sold to Paramount-MTV for $9 million; Miramax paid $3.5 mil for Wolf Creek, an Australian horror movie with mind-numbing violence.

As a novice to Sundance, I was sometimes frozen with indecision over what to see among the more than 200 movies screened at this annual Robert Redford–fronted market for independent-filmmaker minnows yearning to be swallowed by a studio whale or Harvey Weinstein, whoever offers the better deal. I found the legendary “buzz” erratic. The Squid and the Whale, a hot ticket written and directed by Wes Anderson collaborator Noah Baumbach, is a portrait of Park Slope literary life, with Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as married writers whose union is cracking, but the film is at once too broad and too pat in its dry drollness. And one day when I was trudging up a small hill to a screening, two women heading down passed me, one turning to say, “If you’re going to see Thumbsucker, save your energy.” Startled but undeterred, I persisted and was rewarded not only with a devilish film about a loopily eccentric family but also the sight of most of the cast in the flesh: Keanu Reeves glowering a force field of stay-away privacy; Benjamin Bratt obliging melting fans by seizing their digital camera and snapping his own shot as he gathered the girls around him; Tilda Swinton admonishing one of her young co-stars to calm down with mock-severity, “I can see you’ve been into the Red Bull!”

In general, the documentaries tended to be better than the increasingly big-star feature films. I was doc-ed out by New York Doll, the heartbreaking story of Arthur Kane, bassist for the legendary proto-punk band; and by the already notorious The Aristocrats, in which a gaggle of comedians, including George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, and Bob Saget, tell the same hoary, filthy joke. Co-producer Penn Jillette said he was hoping viewers would be so offended that there’d be walkouts. I thought, What hype: Hip media people offended by a joke? But damned if at least eight people didn’t stomp out.

A boxing doc that turns into an exploration of homosexuality and unintended murder, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, is a jaw-dropping uppercut of a movie. Indeed, if Sundance yielded a recurring theme, it was the vagaries of sexuality, from the dismal, ceaseless fornication in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (talk about ruining some good Black Rebel Motorcycle Club music) to the steely glory of the film adaptation of Craig Lucas’s play The Dying Gaul. Campbell Scott, Peter Sarsgaard, and Patricia Clarkson are all magnificently cruel and wounded in it, stranded in an opulent Hollywood that kills both the weak and the strong. Lucas, present to introduce the movie, summed up the kind of emotion that a Sundance showcase can inspire. “Until this week, the most people who’ve seen this film was twelve,” he told an audience of hundreds. “To see all of you here is so freaky, I’m gonna go vomit, and I’ll see you after the movie.”

  One New York film that didn’t make a splash at Sundance was Frederick Wiseman’s anticipated documentary The Garden. The iconic filmmaker—best known for his searching institutional exposés (Titicut Follies, Welfare)—was scheduled to debut his look at Madison Square Garden on January 22 (Wiseman also made a documentary about Central Park in 1999). But just one day before the premiere, Wiseman pulled out. The reason? He would only say, via press release, “There are unresolved issues between me and Madison Square Garden.”  

Sundance Film Festival
Park City, Utah.
January 20 to January 30.

Warm Front