PRINT April 1995

Q & A

the Sundance Film Festival

IT WAS ONLY TEN YEARS AGO that Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, an organization chartered to nurture young directors, got behind a little-known film festival sponsored by the Utah Film Commission. Rechristened Sundance, backed by Redford’s name, and blessed with an idyllic location—Park City, Utah, a mountain-ringed former mining town, PR-perfect right down to its Egyptian Revival movie house—the festival quickly became known as a showcase for adventurous independent movie-making. With the success of films like sex, lies, and videotape, River’s Edge, and Hoop Dreams (all Sundance discoveries), independent film has broken out of the midnight-movie circuit into profitable popularity. And if the Sundance Film Festival has transformed its Rocky Mountain Shangri-La into a new center of industry hustle, that only demonstrates the credit it can claim for the increase in both the quantity and the quality of American independent film.

We asked a handful of critics, filmmakers, a fashion designer (Isaac Mizrahi), and a museum curator (Lisa Phillips) who attended the festival this January what films impressed them most. Documentaries scored high, with two portraits of artists scoring virtually all round: Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped tracks Mizrahi through the creation and presentation of his Fall 1994 collection, and is buoyed by the designer’s witty high spirits; Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is a more disquieting look at the life and family of the cartoonist Robert Crumb. Besides these films about artists, two movies by artists—painter David Salle and photographer Larry Clark—piqued our interest. Phillips, a long-time supporter of Salle’s work, praises his cinema debut, but Artforum’s own columnist and Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman dubs it “a bomb.” (See also David Rimanelli’s review on page 13.) The consensus on the Clark? The buzz after Sundance’s sneak preview suggests that Kids is a cult classic in the making—a film to give the “art” in “art house” a good name.

J. HOBERMAN (film critic, The Village Voice): I liked the two vampire films, Michael Almereyda ’s Nadja and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, which were in some respects complementary: attitude-rich films shot in lower Manhattan in black-and-white, each evincing a certain amount of AIDS paranoia, which is now par for the course with this genre. They’re both centered on women vampires: in The Addiction Lili Taylor plays a grad student working on her Ph.D. at NYU, whereas Nadja is sort of an arty version of Dracula’s Daughter. The films are so different they’d make a wonderful double feature.

I also liked Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped, the Isaac Mizrahi portrait. I thought Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear was truly oppressive, whereas this was more delightfully gaga, and far more illuminating about the world it represents. There were some other good documentaries, like the one by Don Was about the reclusive Beach Boy, Brian Wilson—a very entertaining and garrulous guy. Then there was Michel Negroponte’s Jupiter’s Wife, about a homeless schizophrenic woman living in Central Park. I’d say that the best documentaries were personality driven. Finally, I’d recommend Tom DiGilio’s Living in Oblivion, about the vicissitudes of making an independent film.

You don’t want to hear about the terrible films—lugubrious Generation X and pre–Generation X soul-searching, really torturous. You feel bad, because people put so much into making these movies, but on the other hand it takes a certain type of calloused ego to put this stuff out there.

By the way, the David Salle film was a bomb.

MICHEL NEGROPONTE (director, Jupiter’s Wife): Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb was astonishing, a portrait of a ’60s legend, the cartoonist Robert Crumb, and his dysfunctional family. It describes the fine line between madness and survival; it’s tough, gentle, disturbing, and ultimately exhilarating.

Unzipped is a great epic fluff-piece. It’s fun. Douglas Keeve managed to take us backstage for an intimate look at a world that I found surprising. It’s shocking how hard supermodels work! Unzipped is one of the finest examples of ethnographic filmmaking I’ve ever seen.

ISAAC MIZRAHI (fashion designer): Sundance reminded me of fashion week, actually: a desperate little period in which you only have a few days to get everything done. People are running around wildly making deals, hawking, selling and buying.

I was only there for a day, completely booked with Unzipped-related events, so I didn’t have a chance to see films. The one film I saw was a short by Jonathan Schell that was shown with Unzipped, called Picasso Would Have Made a Glorious Waiter. It’s about Sean Driscoll and the Glorious Food people. I liked it and it seemed to be well received.

The thing I like about Unzipped is that it shows a fashion person as a person, and not just this horrible, wretched, tasteless, feelingless, hysterical screaming harpy with ice water in the veins. It’s weird seeing yourself documented for an audience of complete strangers, but I figure at this point in my career I have no humility left. It’s not about humility anymore. That’s a very early-20th-/late-19th-century experience. It’s 1995, and if Roseanne is the Laura Petrie of the TV world, do I really care if people see me in the bathtub?

JAMES MANGOLD (director, Heavy): The delicacy of Rebecca Miller’s Angela is still with me. I’m generally fascinated by the heroic struggle of making movies—always a giant financial and technical endeavor—particularly when they are about small, emotionally moving but “unspectacular” events. The film concerns a child’s perception of religion, which is like a vivid intoxicating storybook with graphic images of good and evil.

I sound like a cheeseball reviewer now, but for anyone who has gone through the struggle of independent filmmaking, Living in Oblivion is profoundly funny. It captures the chaos and hanging-by-a-thread sense of disaster that permeates making a low-budget movie.

DAVID ANSEN (film critic, Newsweek): The one movie that really haunted me was Todd Haynes’ Safe, which was certainly not the most beloved movie there; in some ways it was the most difficult. It has a kind of syntax that audiences are not familiar with. A lot of people didn’t know how to read it. It’s a deeply ambiguous movie, doing the opposite of what Hollywood movies do in terms of manipulating responses.

Crumb was one of the best films and certainly the strongest documentary. Another sleeper I was very fond of was a lesbian love story, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, by Maria Maggenti. As a romantic comedy, it succeeded, on a very low budget, much better than any of last year’s Hollywood romantic comedies.

Marion Riggs’ posthumous movie, Black Is, Black Ain’t, has wonderful voices in it—Angela Davis, Cornel West, bell hooks. It explores the multiplicity of black identity. I think it’s a very important movie, and very sad, too, because Marion appears in it in his hospital bed. He didn’t get to finish it, so we’ll never know if it’s exactly the movie he would have made, but it was one of the best films in the festival.

LISA PHILLIPS (curator, Whitney Museum of American Art): I came as an outsider, not for business but for pleasure. Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors and Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain were wonderful, though I think both had already premiered at other festivals.

Most interesting to me were the artists’ crossovers into directing. David Salle’s and Larry Clark’s films are both impressive and extend their artistic accomplishments. I think we’re going to see more of this kind of crossover. I’ve been involved with Salle’s work for a long time, so his approach to film fascinated me—the kind of screenplay and actors that he chose, the way he set the film up visually. Clark’s film was beautiful and raw—a tough movie, much like his photographs. I wonder if it will make it to the theaters in the form we saw it.

I also liked The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, which was a very touching film—daring, too. Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunrise, which opened the festival, was lovely. The dialogue was really good—sentimental, maybe, but the female character was very strong. Barry Shils’ documentary Wigstock: The Movie was a great affirmation and celebration of a subculture—exuberant, yet it also had a tragic side. One of the highlights of the festival for me was the post-Wigstock party at the Deer Valley resort, which is in Mormon country, with all these drag queens holed up in the snow during this big blizzard.

B. RUBY RICH (film and cultural critic, Elle and other magazines): What really struck me this year was how much more adventurous the audience awards were than the jury awards. I don’t know what kind of bonding the juries were doing there in the mountains, but I think they came up with extremely conservative choices, whereas the audience awards—which used to be called the money awards, because of their ability to pick the box-office winners—have assumed the quality status you’d expect from the jury awards.

I appreciated Kayo Hatta’s Picture Bride, which won the audience award for Best Dramatic Film, for trying to do something as a dramatic film without being the same old gangster or Generation X or aimless-suburban-teenager movie. Picture brides were women who came from Japan to Hawaii to marry Japanese husbands on the basis of their pictures. Some people complained about the film’s sentimentality, but that wasn’t a problem for me. Both Picture Bride and Greg Nava’s My Family are attempts to make epic films incorporating history, politics, cultural identity, and magic realism. The response to these films in the United States should be telling in terms of whether mainstream audiences will accept the epic genre’s extension to nonwhite people’s experiences.

Finally, Maria Novara’s The Garden of Eden was interesting in light of the antiimmigrant fever being whipped up by Proposition 187 here in California. There aren’t that many films that look at people’s lives along the border, and at what propels people in both directions—what draws Americans to Mexico, what draws Mexicans to the United States—erotically, economically, culturally.

I loved Nadja. Almereyda came up with a new cinematic language to accommodate vampire vision, mixing modes to give a sense of supernatural and natural worlds colliding. The juxtaposition of Nadja and The Addiction taught the old Sundance lesson that less money and more invention is what’s ultimately going to work. I fear that lesson may be lost as Sundance is overwhelmed by L.A. industry interests.

I also loved Unzipped. It was terrifically energetic and managed to find a visual corollary for the way Mizrahi works. The structure of the film and its cinematic style had the sense of a sketch pad, or of clothing being tacked on a mannequin. Heather MacDonald’s film Ballot Measure Nine, about the 1992 ballot measure in Oregon to stop gay rights, was great. It adeptly bridged the distance between activist video and documentary films. Given our current political climate, it’s almost a training manual for salvaging America’s soul—a primer about hate politics.

And, of course, this was the year of Safe, the long-awaited film by Todd Haynes. Safe gave audiences something unfamiliar and unexpected, and was punished as a result. I suspect the Sundance reaction will fade as the film finds its true, deserving audience—one with a strong stomach for irony and a capacity to recognize genre when it’s turned against itself.

Jeffrey Slonim contributes this column regularly to Artforum.