Films screened in Utah's glory feature gritty New York

January 22, 1992|By John Anderson | John Anderson,Newsday

PARK CITY, Utah -- Come to Utah and see snow-dusted mountains. Stretch ski ensembles. Designer sunglasses. Corporate sponsors. The Lower East Side.

Those who descend on this picturesque, one-time prospector's town each year at this time do so for the area's natural beauty, the ski slopes, the glamour associated with Robert Redford and his Sundance Film Institute, and the wealth of cinema currently being shown at the Sundance Film Festival, which continues through Sunday. What they might not expect is the number of screens full of images of seedy New York.

Pundits may put the pessimism level in New York at an all-time high, and the independent film industry there may be on perpetually shaky ground, but you wouldn't know it from the menu here. A number of the "bigger" films being premiered use city locales -- Nora Ephron's "This Is My Life," for example, and Paul Schrader's "Light Sleeper." Even Spalding Gray's "Monster in a Box," which doesn't deal with the city specifically, is a product of it, indirectly. "I've never been able to handle New York in my work," Gray said last week from his therapist's office in Manhattan, "because I work here."

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Mystery Train") whose new film, "Night on Earth" is being given a regional premiere tomorrow night, has always found his material in odd places. This time, he finds it in five different taxicabs in five international cities over the course of one night -- including New York, where a black Brooklyn man trying to get home from Manhattan gets picked up by a cab driven by a former East German circus clown who can't drive and is on his first day as a cabbie.

That New York and New Yorkers seem to pervade this year's celebration of independent cinema is not that unusual. "Some years, New York has more films than others," said Geoff Gilmore, the festival's director, "but the films are almost always from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. There are always much fewer films from between the coasts."

Gilmore cited the "gritty realism" of New York movies as influencing their selection. And this year's crop of films, particularly the ones in competition for the dramatic or documentary prizes, seem particularly gritty, either in setting or subject. Sometimes both: Lech Kowalski's "Rock Soup," for instance, which was shown Sunday, is a portrait of a homeless soup kitchen on the Lower East Side, and an entry in the documentary competition. It starts grim and ends up there.

"I think New York on film is depicted in one of two ways," said Nina Sadowsky, producer of "Jumpin' at the Boneyard," a dramatic feature that had its first festival showing Saturday. Set in the South Bronx, it focuses on drug addiction and rehabilitation. "It's either at the very nadir or the apex. In 'Prince of Tides,' for example, you see a pristine Central Park and Barbra Streisand's Park Avenue office. I think filmmakers come in to show the good and the bad, but on the independent side you don't have the money to show the good."

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