Los Angeles Times

A delicate balancing act in Park City

Times Staff Writer

The Sundance Film Festival's selection for its dramatic grand jury prize, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "American Splendor," reflects the complex new realities of the independent film scene.

As a warm, playful and visually inventive biopic about permanently disaffected Harvey Pekar, who became an icon of the underground comic world without being able to draw a straight line, "American Splendor" has impeccable counterculture credentials. But the film was financed by and will be initially shown on cable TV's HBO, which, along with Showtime, is emerging as an unlikely corporate home base for independent-style projects.

"We share this award with Harvey Pekar. I hope this cheers you up for a couple of days," Pulcini said in accepting the award Saturday at the Park City Racquet Club, with co-director Berman adding, "I think this award can safely be called the true revenge of the nerds."

The Sundance festival itself is increasingly doing the same kind of delicate balancing act, being simultaneously a place where a non-housebroken goat can wander up Main Street on the way to a photo op and a company called Ducti can proudly announce that "its signature 'Barhopper ' wallet has been selected as an official product of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival."

Even co-host Steve Zahn noticed how things have changed when he waxed nostalgic about the time "before the SUV limos with J.Lo (Jennifer Lopez was in attendance this year), when you could see the smell of beer on the closing night and the emcee had to say, 'Shut up dude, we're handing out the awards.' Those were the good times."

The documentary grand jury prize went to Andrew Jarecki's bizarre "Capturing the Friedmans," a film that also reflects a contemporary American malaise -- our obsession with reality TV. It tells the story of a family intent on recording itself on video long before it became popular, and it kept on doing so even after the father and youngest son were arrested on multiple charges of child molestation.

The dramatic film gathering the most awards was "The Station Agent," Tom McCarthy's sophisticated, beautifully made story of the unlikely connection among three solitary lives.

Purchased by Miramax, it took the dramatic audience award as well as the Waldo Salt screenwriting prize, plus one-third of a special jury prize for outstanding performance given to Patricia Clarkson for her roles in that film, "Pieces of April" and "All the Real Girls."

Clarkson, who was also in a fourth film ("The Baroness and the Pig") that was not in competition, allowed as how "this has been an extraordinary week for me. If I ever have four movies here again, I'm going to do it by satellite from my bed in New York."

A telling statement

Veteran drag performer Charles Busch got the same outstanding performance prize for "Die Mommie Die." Accepting for the actor, who was appearing in a play in New York, , was producer Dante DiLoreto, who got off perhaps the night's best line when he said, "I don't know what it says about the state of independent film that you have to work in the theater to support your film career."

One of the surprises of Saturday night was the puzzling lack of recognition for "Pieces of April," the story of a Thanksgiving from hell that was one of the festival's most popular films. Written and directed by screenwriter Peter Hedges ("About a Boy" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), this pungent and savvy family comedy with a hidden heart did get a significant consolation prize: It was purchased by United Artists for the festival's highest price -- $3.5 million.

Shaping up as formidably popular among international films was New Zealand's "Whale Rider," written and directed by Niki Caro, which added Sundance's world cinema audience award to the audience award it won at Toronto.

Winning the most prizes on the documentary side was "My Flesh and Blood." The emotional story of 12 months in the life of a family of 13 children, 11 with special needs, in Fairfield, Calif., it earned both the audience and directing awards for Jonathan Karsh, who left his TV station job to work on the film full time. "I personally believe," he said, "that anybody could win this award if they put a camera on this family for a year."

Accepting the directing prize on the dramatic side was Catherine Hardwicke for "thirteen." Hardwicke, a former production designer, also co-wrote this cautionary tale of the perils of hanging out with the wrong crowd with co-star genuine 13-year-old Nikki Reed. It will be distributed by Fox Searchlight.

"Quattro Noza," a flashy look at L.A.'s culture of illegal street racing, earned the dramatic cinematography award for Derek Cianfrance's gorgeous digital work. On the documentary side, the prize went to Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn and Peter Gilbert for "Stevie," a personal look at the interaction between "Hoop Dreams" co-director Steve James and a difficult youth he was once a big brother to.

The Freedom of Expression award went to the documentary "What I Want My Words to Do to You." Directed by Judith Katz, Madeleine Gavin and Gary Sunshine, it presents the moving story of the cathartic effect a writing class by playwright Eve Ensler had on the female inmates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, N.Y.

The documentary jury also gave a pair of special jury prizes to Stanley Nelson's "The Murder of Emmett Till" and Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock's "A Certain Kind of Death," a cool and corpse-heavy look at the L.A. County coroner's office.

Not to be outdone, the dramatic jury gave two special jury prizes for artistic merit and emotional truth to David Gordon Green's heartfelt "All the Real Girls" and A. Dean Bell's "What Alice Found."

'You made my life'

Taking the jury prize in short filmmaking was "Terminal Bar," Stefan Nadelman's portrait of a venerable Manhattan drinking establishment. The director thanked his father for his decade of taking still photographs of the bar's clientele.

"When he left Park City after the screening," Nadelman related, "my father said, 'Not only did you make my day, you made my life.' And my mother started crying."

Sundance's cross-town rival, Slamdance, still the top alternative festival despite challenges from newcomers X-Dance (for extreme sports films) and SchmoozeDance (for Jewish films), gave out its prizes Friday night. Elliot Greenebaum's "Assisted Living" took the jury prize for best dramatic feature, David Eberhardt and Jack Cahill's "Long Gone" won for best documentary, and Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce's doc "Missing Peace" took the audience award for best feature.

Although they didn't win a thing, a pair of competition documentaries on cultural subjects were some of Sundance's most involving films. Mark Moormann's "Tom Dowd & the Language of Music" introduces the great hidden force of rock's classic age, an engineer's engineer who not only pioneered multitrack recording but also possessed the kind of peerless musicality and warm personality that made him the key creative element in such songs as "Layla" and "Sunshine of Your Love."

Also blessed with a passionate and humane personality was photographer Robert Capa, the subject of Anne Makepeace's thoughtful, comprehensive and surprisingly emotional "Robert Capa: In Love and War."

Capa was lauded at a young age as the world's greatest war photographer for his work during the Spanish Civil War and the Normandy invasion, which later inspired the look of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Both his images (the film shows many for the first time) and his life are explored with a sensitivity the man himself would likely have appreciated if he hadn't died during the Vietnamese war of independence in 1954.

Documentaries are traditionally Sundance's strength, and this year, two involving items, both out of competition, explored extremes of the economic spectrum to great effect. "Born Rich," directed by Jamie Johnson, the 23-year-old Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals heir, offers privileged entrée to the thought patterns, such as they are, of the director's peers -- young people of unimaginable wealth who obsess about prenuptial agreements before they've so much as fallen in love.

At the opposite end of things is Travis Wilkerson's compelling "An Injury to One," an examination of the 1917 lynching of IWW union organizer Frank Little in Butte, Mont., that is so out of the ordinary that it ended up in the festival's Frontier section. Unapologetically political, uncompromisingly poetic, unexpectedly dramatic, this adventurous but completely realized project is just the kind of filmmaking that makes Sundance, those Barhopper wallets notwithstanding, still very much worthwhile.

Ending the awards evening on a classic Sundance note, co-host Maggie Gyllenhaal said, "I want to take this moment with all the cameras on me to say I really hope everyone in the U.S. can do everything we can to avoid this war." She got some of the biggest applause of the night.

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