Unpredictability Parks Itself Again in Utah


Snow. Sleet. Sun. Ice. Rain. Hail. More snow. Maybe it’s not quite a litany of biblical plagues, but the weather for this year’s Sundance Film Festival has added that extra element of unpredictability that helps this mecca for independents remember its roots.

That reminder is apropos because Sundance 1998, with its fleet of Mercedes M-Class vans as “official vehicles” and a catalog as fat and glossy as an issue of Architectural Digest, exudes the prosperity and success that goes with being the most important of American film festivals.

With that importance goes an avalanche of humanity. Attendance is expected to hit 13,000, up 7% from last year, and the festival has added officially designated “crowd liaison” personnel at its theaters to help with the crush.


Harder to deal with is what the Park Record newspaper calls “the inevitable parking and traffic quagmires.” An added complication this year is the arrival of paid parking on Main Street, much disliked by residents and marked on local radio station KPCW by episodes of “Park City’s own soap opera, ‘As the Meter Turns,’ ” which talks of “Don’t Park on Me” protest signs, the plight of the city’s “spaceless people” and the spectacle of women in red miniskirts offering sex for parking.

Though no one film has been the talk of the festival, as Sundance approaches its midpoint the consensus is that the competition entries are more interesting and varied than last year’s feckless crop. There are fewer films about unhappy teenagers confused about their sexuality, and more focus on the comings and goings of gay men, lesbians, immigrants, mob hit men, Native Americans and African Americans.

Also noticeable is the literary quality of some of the dramatic entrants. “Smoke Signals,” based on Sherman Alexie’s short story collection “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven,” benefits greatly from Alexie’s tart sense of humor. And the crowd-pleasing “Slam,” about a crisis in the life of an impoverished black poet, couldn’t have existed without the vivid poetry performances of its stars, Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn.

As always at Sundance, the documentary film selection causes as much if not more talk as the dramatic features, if only because the chance to see 16 varied documentaries in one place is almost unheard of in this anti-factual day and age.

Surprisingly, given Sundance’s love of the offbeat, the competition’s most conventional documentary, “Frank Lloyd Wright,” is one of the festival’s most satisfying. Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in the style Burns took nationwide in his PBS “Civil War” series, this Geoffrey Ward-written biographical portrait of America’s greatest architect has the unbeatable combination of exceptional interview material and beautiful architectural photography put at the service of an astonishing life.


Also attracting notice is the very different HBO-sponsored “Frat House.” A first-time-ever look behind the scenes of fraternity hazing by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland, who had to agree to be hazed themselves to get access, “Frat House’s” subtitle could well be “Men Are Idiots.” Both fascinating and repulsive, the fraternity antics depicted make the protagonists of last year’s “In the Company of Men” look like committed feminists.


Since predicting what the festival juries will eventually decide is difficult, the festival’s midpoint seems like a good time to hand out some honorary Sundance awards in categories that are too often ignored. For instance:

Most Memorable Line Off-Screen: “The great thing about making a first film is that every mistake you make becomes your style.” (“The Misadventures of Margaret” director Brian Skeet quoting Pedro Almodovar)

Most Memorable Line On-Screen: “Beautiful women are for men without imagination.” (Emanuele Crialese, writer-director of “Once We Were Strangers”)

Best Alternative Festival: As reported (very much tongue in cheek) by the Park City Ear newspaper, something called Sleazedance, “a combination of exhibitionism and porn,” was set to open with features like “Eve’s by Two” and “Jeremiah’s Johnson.” Denied a proper venue, Sleazedance will show its films in a “lime-green Volkswagen Vanagon with the tassels on the headlights.”

Most Useful Giveaway: A tie between the box of Animal Crackers distributed by “Animals” and the disposable hand warmers given out by “Some Nudity Required.”

Most Useless Giveaway: “This Clicky Thing,” a tiny plastic box that makes a clicking sound on demand, from media publishing house 2014.


Most Humane Gesture: The staff at the Egyptian theater took pity on an audience that had waited an hour for projection difficulties to be resolved and handed out free sticks of Twizzlers red licorice all around.

Biggest Confusion: When director-dramatic juror Paul Schrader needed medical assistance at a local restaurant (he’s fine now), an employee was overheard in phone conversation with the paramedics. “It’s Paul Schrader, the guy who wrote ‘Taxi Driver.’ ” Pause. “No, he’s not a taxi driver, that’s what he wrote.”


Though the award for most serendipitous pre-production events always has a lot of contenders, the winner this year looks to be “Central Station,” Walter Salles’ affecting and emotional look at a young boy’s search for his father in the interior of Brazil.

Salles heard about a Sundance screenplay competition only three days before the deadline and had no choice but to submit “Central Station’s” script in the original Portuguese. It was the only one of 2,000-plus entrants, including one from China, that was sent in untranslated, but the script ended up one of six winners of the $300,000 award.

Serendipity struck again when Salles was searching for a child to play his 10-year-old protagonist. “We had done a thousand tests over one year trying to find the proper boy, we had several finalists, but none of them were really satisfying,” the director relates.

“Then on a rainy day, I went out to the Rio airport to meet someone. The plane was late because of the weather and while I was having breakfast at the restaurant I felt a hand grabbing me. It was an airport shoeshine boy who said business was bad because of the weather and could I give him money for half a hamburger; he had enough for the other half. His name was Vinicius de Oliveira, and though he’d never been inside a movie theater, he got the part.”