Festival of mediocrity

Despite some signs of originality and a few exceptions, moviemakers failed to impress at Sundance

January 29, 2001|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARK CITY, Utah - All the debate at the Sundance Film Festival about what constitutes an independent film should take second place to the question: Was the movie any good?

The festival concluded Sunday, and the most consistent answer was no. The majority of the movies made so little impression they evaporated into the frigid mountain air once viewers left the theater.

Perhaps the most notable exception was "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a rock musical that began as an off-Broadway curiosity. "Hedwig's" exuberance, cleverness and catchy tunes stretched the movie's impact far beyond its $5 million budget. And if Joe and Jane Moviegoer can digest a story line about an Iron Curtain immigrant whose botched sex-change operation sparks his quest for love and musical greatness in America, perhaps more than niche success awaits the writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask.

"I never really wrote it thinking audience or broadness," said Mitchell, reveling in the early blush of celebrity as a well-wisher congratulated him in a Park City cafe. "We always wrote it for us, for our friends."

Mitchell and Trask's personal stories are the stuff of indie dreams. Mitchell, the son of a retired two-star Army general, survived on the show-business margins with the occasional sitcom gig. Trask fancied himself a narrative songwriter, but unpaid bills and an impounded car told him he might have to find another way to make a living.

"I kept thinking I can't keep having my utilities turned off and eating rice and ketchup and romaine lettuce with no dressing," he said.

Then Mitchell and Trask met on an airplane and their artistic visions clicked. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" premiered on drag night at a New York City club. It now boasts several traveling companies - and one crowd-pleasing film.

"Hedwig" already has New Line as its distributor, but more movies in recent memory will probably leave Sundance without a buyer. The prediction of feverish dealing before potential actors' and writers' strikes fell as flat as a novice snowboarder.

Finding a studio

Miramax opened its checkbook after a one-year absence from the festival, purchasing "In the Bedroom" for about $2 million. This drama directed by Todd Field, is about a New England upper-middle-class family struggling with sex, domestic violence and class distinctions.

Other movies that had found homes as of press time were decidedly un-Sundance: "Double Whammy," a police comedy with Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley, and "Super Troopers," about goofy highway patrolmen.

Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, the makers of a documentary about an alleged rape at a University of Florida fraternity house, confirmed Friday that their "Raw Deal: A Question of Consent" had been bought by Artisan, which brought the world "The Blair Witch Project."

The two would not discuss price, but it is reportedly between $250,000 and $500,000. Graphic footage of the actual incidents and tabloid-fueled publicity made this the talker of the festival. Spellman and Corben said what has stood out to audiences is the lack of accountability on all sides: the frat brothers who created the drunken, aggressive environment; the woman, hired as a stripper, who admittedly got drunk in the house and who willingly performed other acts before the alleged assault occurred; the state attorney, now a state senator, who made the tapes public; and the officers who later arrested the woman, claiming she had filed a false police report. The woman later pleaded guilty to charges of operating an escort service without a license; prosecutors declined to pursue a rape case against the students.

Spellman and Corben, filmmakers since they were teen-agers, had suspended their college studies to finish the project, which was co-edited by Armando Salas, a graduate of the Art Institute of Maryland.

"It's sort of bittersweet," Corben said, "because at the same time you want to scream out in celebration, you also want to preserve the solemnity of the piece and the seriousness and importance of the subject matter."

Signs of life

Despite slowed commerce, other signs of originality emerged.

Demane Davis and Khari Streeter's "Lift" offers the premise that drugs aren't urban blacks' worst enemy - Versace and Nicole Miller are. Skewering the consumerism that's stoking ambitions in the inner-city, "Lift" features the promising Kerry Washington as a department store saleswoman who moonlights as a shoplifter. Washington's character considers herself righteous as long as she keeps her mom in jewelry.

In another urban drama, "MacArthur Park" evokes the 'hood genre that sprang up in the early '90s but does nothing to improve on it. Endless shootings, beatings and crack-pipe lightings bludgeon the viewer senseless.

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