Foreign Entries Shine at U.S. Fest

Times Film Critic

There were, indeed, discoveries to be made at the 10th United States Film Festival that closed this weekend in the bracing cold of the Wasatch Mountains here. You could leave with the memory of at least half a dozen exceptional movies. The shock was that in this showplace of American independent film, at an event now sponsored by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, most of the festival's best came from somewhere other than the United States.

China, Great Britain, France and Argentina produced the week's most notable films. There were, to be sure, scattered American pictures of promise, but they were certainly scattered. The disturbing and beautiful "Lemon Sky," a filmed version of a Lanford Wilson play in the American Playhouse series and "The Brave Little Toaster," a full-length animated film of endearing warmth, heart and wit were two of the most arresting American features.

On the American documentary side (where the strongest entries were found), three films stood out: "Elvis '56," an exceptionally perceptive portrait of the last year of vulnerability for a certain young rock 'n' roller; "Acting Our Age," an insightful investigation of the prides and problems in the lives of six older women; and the wrenching "Dear America," the letters of the fighting men of Vietnam, read in accompaniment to extraordinary NBC news footage.

Ordinarily a smooth-running affair with few surprises, the festival was plagued this year with pullouts and no-shows. ("Walking on Water," picked up by Warner Bros. and retitled "Stand and Deliver" was one of the notable casualties.) The idea of a serious retrospective of Argentine cinema became a madhouse as film after promised film failed to arrive, or came in unplayable condition.

As it happened, some of the substitutions became instant favorites: "The Kitchen Toto," a stunning debut film set at the time of the struggle for independence in Kenya; or "Le Grand Chemin," a miraculously well-played and -directed delight from France, with a little of the tang of "My Life as a Dog." (The great news for Los Angeles is that both films will be arriving shortly; the first during the upcoming UK/LA Festival; the French film at a Laemmele theater in the near future.) Unfortunately, a few of these late arrivals really suffered from lack of program notes and the highlighting they provide.

For example, only a dogged handful of early-comers saw "The Big Parade," the festival's most stylistically electrifying entry by a talented young Chinese director, Chen Kaige. (Felicitously, the film and its director will be at UCLA's Melnitz Auditorium tomorrow at8 p.m.) Chen is sometimes jokingly described as the Chinese New Wave--all of it. This spare, austerely shimmering film looks at a platoon of recruits preparing for a monumental military parade. Almost without artistic precedence in the current Chinese cinema, "The Big Parade's" recognition of the individual spirit makes it doubly interesting in the West.

One particularly individual spirit provided a feisty heartbeat to this year's doings--film maker Sam Fuller, roaming the icy streets and steaming-windowed coffeehouses in fine fettle, accompanied by his wife and daughter. As newly minted prints of such Fuller classics as "Shock Corridor," "Park Row" or "Verboten!" appeared each day, Fuller's openness and accessibility to the young film makers who shadowed his every move made him one of the festival's unqualified heroes.

In spite of the seemingly anemic state of American independent film right now--a condition commented upon at some length by an international panel of critics at one of the daily seminars--the U.S. Festival seemed determined that its best, or at least most current, face be seen.

You could browse through a nifty and well-culled collection of new American short films (including the dryly delicate humor of Luis Meza's "Who Gets to Water the Grass," a personal favorite), a sterling selection of current animation, and highlights from an intriguing pilot program developed in Hollywood to give professionals already working in other areas of film a chance at directing.

The brainchild of Jonathan Sanger and Jana Sue Memel through their Chanticleer Films production company, this first crop of five short films seems to reflect, in microcosm, exactly the problem of the commercial film world: They tend toward triviality. These are creamy-smooth productions--there isn't an amateurishly made film in the lot--but only two of them deal with subjects of any substance or humanity: "Astronomy," about a dippy mother and her young daughter struggling to reach even the poverty line; and "The Price of Life," an exceptionally intriguing premise about a future world in which the currency is time--the literal time of your life.

It's hard to fault a needed experiment for the very thing that afflicts movie making everywhere; on the other hand, it would be even more heartening if a pilot project of this significance made films with substance in equal proportion to their style.

The festival closed with two wildly different examples of content and style. The heavily publicized "Zelly and Me" is certainly about something: a privileged orphan's struggle to hear her own voices like her idol Joan of Arc. However, in writer-director Tina Rathborne's hands it has turned into a deadly slow and cloying little sticky-bun, tailor-made for the teddy bear collector set and utterly defeating to such talents as Isabella Rossellini and Glynis Johns. How it fought its way past prescreeners--if it did--is one of festival-going's greatest mysteries, but there it was, in the important closing slot, presented with great fanfare and heavy celebrity attendance (Robert Redford; Rossellini with David Lynch, and, bizarrely enough, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a distinguished Sundance visitor who must have been one of the most confused men on the planet to have been hauled out to witness this).

On the other hand, there was the completely irreverent "Tapeheads," by a team new to me, Bill Fishman and Peter McCarthy, and while it is about almost nothing except youth, music, energy and a passion for video making, its makers have filled it so richly and divertingly that it is an unalloyed joy. "Tapeheads" isn't quite in the great, pure "This Is Spinal Tap" vein, but it's close.

From "Au Revoir Les Enfants," the gala and successful opener, to "Tapeheads"--with Sam Fuller in between. Not a bad parlay for an adventurous, ambitious film festival. So American film makers didn't exactly hold up their end--there's always next year. One hopes. . . .

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