EVER since the French New Wave and the auteur theory arrived simultaneously on our shores in the early 1960s, there have been attempts to promote, as equivalent wavelets, succeeding generations of gifted American directors. The 1970s emergence of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Bob Rafelson, William Friedkin, Michael Cimino and Hal Ashby is often celebrated as the golden age of the maverick filmmaker, able to make exciting, personal works within the studio system. Now, according to London-based film journalist James Mottram's "The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood," a new group of filmmakers, taking inspiration directly from these godfathers, has arrived to shake things up. His book "centres on the question: 'Are we returning to an age where formerly independent directors are using studio funds to further their own idiosyncratic vision?' In other words, is this the dawn of New Hollywood Part II?"
Fully aware that market pressures and the collaborative nature of filmmaking can undermine "idiosyncratic" directorial vision, Mottram nevertheless answers in the affirmative. To make his case, he considers the careers of Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Kimberly Peirce, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Bryan Singer and Quentin Tarantino. One might quibble with the omission of this or that budding auteur, but Mottram is entitled to focus on his enthusiasms. He restricts the club to filmmakers who made their debuts in the 1990s (the single exception being Soderbergh, who arrived in 1989 with "sex, lies, and videotape"), are based on the West Coast or in Texas rather than the East Coast (hence, very little of Hal Hartley or Todd Solondz), receive studio support via the shotgun marriage known as "Indiewood," and have had some connection with the Sundance Institute, either through its festival or its workshops and laboratories. (The "Sundance Kids" label proves to be more a convenient branding device than a truly explored theme.)
Mottram has organized the book chronologically, as a set of interlocking critical monographs, so that we keep rotating among the directors, picking up this one, then returning to that one. For each film discussed, he supplies anecdotes about the vicissitudes of its funding and production, a plot summary, some critical analysis (by Mottram or various critics or both) and gross ticket sales. There are also side excursions: on the mini-major studios (Miramax, Fine Line, Focus, Propaganda), on genres (film noir, high school film, family tragicomedy) and on favored actors (Bill Murray, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and writers (Charlie Kaufman, Elmore Leonard). The book's hero is clearly Soderbergh, who keeps altering his path, taking experimental risks and reinventing himself; the cautionary figure is Tarantino, whose self-promoting egotism incurs Mottram's disapproval even as his cinematic brilliance elicits the author's admiration.
The book has many virtues and a few irritating defects, which grow out of its genesis in film journalism. First, the virtues: Mottram, whose previous books include studies of the Coen brothers and the making of Christopher Nolan's "Memento," clearly knows this independent filmmaking terrain inside out and has done his homework, with vast amounts of research and interviewing. He has a keen eye for the shared aesthetic propensities of his subjects: playing with structure; fracturing the timeline; employing cinematic self-reflexiveness, expositional voice-overs and a sophisticated pop music score. I find his critical judgments, overall, sound (that is, they accord with my own): for instance, his fond preference for Soderbergh's "Solaris" and Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" over the former's "Erin Brockovich" or the latter's two-volume "Kill Bill," and his willingness to concede that the ingenuity of Singer's "The Usual Suspects" may be a trifle hollow, or that it is easier to admire Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums" than to find it emotionally engaging. Occasionally, his investment in the significance of these intriguing but imperfect films inspires undue hyperbole, like this assessment of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia": "Both intimate and apocalyptic, it's also a profound meditation on the nature of chance and coincidence, an attempt to address the very secrets of the universe itself." But for the most part, he keeps both feet on the ground.
A bigger problem is that "The Sundance Kids" reads like a magazine article that has been blown up to 480 pages. The mixture of industry gossip (the producer "caught in a compromising position with a young woman in a less than private part of the house"), rarefied business news ("Insomnia," he reports, "marked star Al Pacino's third highest grossing film in the U.S. ... since 1990's 'Dick Tracy' ") and astute cinematic analysis makes for an uneasy shifting of authorial roles between dishing insider and film critic. The diction also trips over its shoes as Mottram tries to squeeze in every factoid, like this typical passage about Jonze and his milieu:
"Establishing the industry contacts that would lead him towards his next incarnation, Jonze befriended Beastie Boy Adam Yauch through a photo shoot for Dirt and was soon hired by Tamra Davis, wife of fellow band member Mike D (and director of 1993 rap spoof 'CB4'). Impressed by 'Video Days,' she recruited Jonze to film a skateboarding sequence in the Sonic Youth promo '100%,' though he claims to have learnt the basics of filmmaking by loading cameras for marine scientists. On the set, Jonze met Sofia Coppola, daughter to Francis and director in her own right. Through their short-lived marriage, they formed for a time Hollywood's most reluctant power couple, though it's hard to imagine Jonze being entirely comfortable at family gatherings at the Napa Valley vineyard. When wooing Ms Coppola, Jonze once arrived at the airport dressed in a fat suit, with grease on his face and cotton wool balls in his mouth; at their wedding, he avoided having his picture taken for the Vogue spread."
Some of us may be muttering "Who cares?" under our breath, while others (for whom this book is probably intended) will gobble up every scrap. The point is that there's nothing wrong with such detailed, short-attention-span prose in a fanzine article, but it palls over the course of a book. The author's preference for taboo-busting innovation also leads him into glib crudities. In discussing Fincher's "Fight Club," Mottram writes approvingly that the director is "a cinematic terrorist ... pissing in the Hollywood soup tureen from a great height." He regrets that it didn't have more incendiary results: "Even a film packing the wallop of 'Fight Club' would do well to inspire a revolution in this apathetic age." When you hang out too long in the zeitgeist, you risk defending films solely because they capture the pulse of a generation and overlooking fine works that may not mirror so exactly the narcissistic mind-set or subversive appetites of a youthful public. Those caveats aside, Mottram has given us a valuable, detailed map to the newest New Wave in Hollywood. *