Sundance 2015: Fest looks to mavericks from the (not-too-distant) past

Brett Morgen on his Cobain film: There's 'something nice to making movies about iconoclasts I grew up with

In its 31-year history, the Sundance Film Festival has often showcased movies by some of the country's most maverick personalities.

But as the prestigious gathering enters its busy opening weekend, there may have never been so many of the iconoclasts themselves up on the screen.

Maybe more important, many of these subjects and themes come not from the "Midnight Cowboy" era of the 1960s that has so long dominated American cinema but from the 1980s and 1990s.

Movies about author David Foster Wallace, musician Kurt Cobain, National Lampoon and martial-arts actor Chuck Norris are all at the festival this year. So is an offering about the decidedly modern persona of Evel Knievel — produced, for good measure, by that quintessence of 21st century ditch-the-rules abandon, Johnny Knoxville.

"There's just something about making a movie of a man who changed music and showing him in a way we've never seen before," said Morgen of his film, "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck," which uses animation unreleased music, art and poetry to tell the story of the late Nirvana frontman's search for acceptance.

Morgen opened Sundance in 2007 with "Chicago 10," a film about 1960s radicalism. There is, he said, "really something nice [about] making movies about iconoclasts I grew up with."

The maverick theme isn't limited to personality-driven movies. Dystopian adventure "Turbo Kid" evokes the BMX rebels — including the music and color schemes — of 1980s dirt bike pioneers, focusing on the restless aspects of that decade's spirit. Ditto the Ethan Hawke-starring "Ten Thousand Saints," a tale of the downtown New York punk scene of the 1980s and the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988 from the filmmakers behind "American Splendor."

Sundance has long been a place of countercultural interests. But it's been sporadic, and it's often come with a 1960s spin. The festival was founded, after all, by Robert Redford, the paragon of baby boomer activism; over the years, movies spotlighting Bob Dylan, John Lennon, the Yippies and Central American injustice have gained notoriety here.

But as the seminal decade of the 1960s has receded, look-backs to a more Gen X-infused counterculture have grown more common. This year, they're everywhere.

In "The End of the Tour," director James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") dramatizes the period right after Wallace's rule-chucking "Infinite Jest" was published in 1996, examining the author via a memoir by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, who interviewed the author extensively. Jason Segel stars as Foster Wallace, who of course brought flashy intellectual free associations and other postmodern flourishes to American fiction before committing suicide in 2008. (Iconoclasm is not without its risks, however: Both Wallace's estate and his longtime editor have disavowed the movie, saying the author never would have agreed to it.)

The Lampoon movie "Drunk Stoned," meanwhile, shows how a few shake-the-system types came together in the 1970s to create a radical style of comedy that — through magazines, movies and other media — resonated well into the 1990s (and even continues today, with a "Vacation" sequel coming out later this year). Tirola's film also demonstrates how current phenomena like "The Daily Show" and the Onion owe a cultural debt to the dog-threatening pioneers of the early Lampoon.

Mavericks are a perennially appealing subject, furnishing a built-in audience a chance for a collective hero-worship--or, for more skeptical films, giving audiences a chance to tip over their sacred cows. But with their willful disregard of convention, these subjects may particularly resonate in present-day America.

"We live in a time when there's no anarchy, no overthrow the system. There's change-the-system by committee," said Douglas Tirola, who directed "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon," about the legendarily subversive comedy brand. "It's 'I want to change the way things are done, but as long as it doesn't affect my kid's status on the soccer team.' So movies about the Lampoon or Nirvana or David Foster Wallace just become very liberating."

In "Being Evel," Daniel Junge moves from the Oscar-winning realm of his somber Pakistani-attack documentary "Saving Face" to Knievel, who influenced a generation of kids in the 1970s and 1980s with his broken-boned brio, focusing in part on the icon's not exactly glorious personal life.  At some points in the film, audiences are likely to outright resent the kamikaze figure for his unsavory actions away from the public eye, though they are also likely to come around in the end.

Junge said making a film about admired iconoclasts like Knievel is a fraught enterprise. "You don't want to make hagiography, but you also don't want to tear someone down just for the sake of it," he said. "Because what you really don't want is people leaving the theater feeling like someone just explained away their admiration for that person."

Breaking the rules is such a common theme in Park City, Utah, that it long ago became a Sundance cliche. In fact, as some wags have suggested, the biggest way for a Sundance filmmaker to break the rules would be to follow them.

But there are various ways to carry out these maverick ambitions. Sometimes it's with stylistic or formal boldness, such as with the found footage of "The Blair Witch Project" or the 12-year-shoot of "Boyhood." Sometimes it's the novelty of the storytelling itself in such landmark works as "Reservoir Dogs" and "Hoop Dreams."

This year, filmmakers seem to have decided that the people who've changed the rules are a fresh genre unto themselves.

Mark Duplass, the actor and filmmaker who with his 2005 Sundance breakout "The Puffy Chair" and current HBO series "Togetherness" has become one of the pre-eminent Sundance personalities, has four producing projects premiering at the festival this year. Though he's never made a personality-driven film, he says he believes they appeal to filmmakers in a way that few subjects do.

"I think anyone who's ever made a movie looks at Kurt Cobain or David Foster Wallace and sees a little bit of himself in them," he said. "They look at someone who was told they can't do something that way but went and did it anyway and then were really successful, and they feel inspired."

He added, "Making a movie about someone like that is really making a movie about yourself."

These personalities can also influence filmmakers in unexpected ways. In "Chuck Norris vs. Communism," Romanian director Ilinca Calugareanu tells a hybrid documentary-narrative story about how 1980s figures such as Norris and Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character gave people in her native country hope during the worst days of communist rule, as they watched pirated VHS tapes at stealth apartment gatherings.

"You'd see people like Chuck Norris on screen, and it would give you a window to the West," Calugareanu said. "I wanted to make a movie showing how figures like that gave people a taste of what was possible."

Festival organizers said they didn't set out to program a maverick theme. But as they were combing through submissions, they couldn't help noticing how many top-tier filmmakers were making movies about game-changers.

They also couldn't help noticing the era in which a lot of these game-changers lived.

"I guess for a lot of younger filmmakers, a 1980s or 1990s hero is someone who operated in the distant past," said festival director John Cooper, 58. "I try not to let it make me feel old."

That shift to the late 20th century is a generational inevitability, as the personalities who seemed ordinary at the time take on a glorified aura decades later.

But there may be a simpler factor at work — namely, that a well has run dry."There are," Morgen said, "no more boomer stories left to tell."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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