a culturevulture.net special report by Scott Von Doviak
It begins at the Salt Lake City airport. That’s when the cell phones come out in force, magically sprouting from the ears of every black-clad filmmaker, industry suit and wannabe player in sight. By the time I arrive in Park City forty minutes later, the ubiquitous phones have become a plague, infecting this beautiful ski resort tucked away in the mountains of Utah with a lethal dose of Hollywood schmooze. It’s festival time again.
The main attraction is, of course, Sundance, but in recent years a number of alternative festivals have popped up along the slushy sidewalks of Main Street in Park City. The first and still biggest of these competing venues is Slamdance, now in its sixth year. Slamdance has emerged as the chief rival to Robert Redford’s venerable brainchild and is now generally ranked near the very top of the list of film festivals in terms of importance to both filmmakers and distributors (as well as movie fans). As the Sundance roster becomes increasingly crowded with big budget "indies" – often arriving with name actors and directors in tow and distribution deals already in place – Slamdance provides a genuine outlet for independent filmmakers of limited means.
I arrived at Slamdance as a double agent. In addition to covering the festival for culturevulture.net, I was also attending as part of the campaign team for the world premiere of the Austin-made comedy What I Like About You (full disclosure: I co-wrote the screenplay and act in a supporting role). This double perspective gave me a comprehensive view of the festival experience: papering the town with flyers by day, attending industry parties at night and somehow squeezing a few screenings in between.
If that makes it sound as if the movies are almost an afterthought in Park City, well, there is some truth to that. The last week of January has become something of a working vacation for many in the entertainment industry. The parties are where connections are made, deals are brokered, and free drinks flow like the surrounding mountain streams. The harder a party is to get into, the more important it becomes to do so – by any means necessary. The promotional value of these events was not lost on the What I Like About You team, as we hosted one of the week’s hottest-ticket events at Cisero’s Ristorante and Nightclub on Main Street. It should come as no surprise to learn that the star-studded bash attracted far more media heat than the screening it was meant to celebrate, but it’s a sobering reality nonetheless. Many of the Slamdance films will play other festivals, a lucky few will secure distribution deals, but most will disappear from Hollywood’s radar screens even before the last flight back to LAX has cleared the Salt Lake City runway.
Herewith, some of the highlights and lowlights of Slamdance 2000:
Dolphins (Winner: Audience Award for Best Feature)
Writer/director Farhad Yawari may not have actually made the best feature at Slamdance, but he certainly got the best free ride as far as publicity is concerned. Reports surfaced early in the week that Yawari had been arrested on the first day of the festival for violating a new Park City ordinance prohibiting the distribution of flyers. Later in the week it was revealed that he hadn’t actually been taken into custody, but Yawari (whose bio trumpets his escape from Iran during the oppressive reign of Ayatollah Khomeni) reaped the benefits of the spurious news story nonetheless. As for his film, its 40-minute length would hardly seem to qualify it for feature status, which makes this award a bit of a puzzler. As does its content. Dolphins tells the thin but heavy-handed tale of a girl wrongfully detained in a mental hospital, who dreams of swimming free with the titular sea mammals. The images are glossy, the music is treacly, and the theme is "inspirational" in the grand Hollywood tradition. There can be little doubt that a deal with Dreamworks beckons Yawari, but all in all, his film would have made a much better three-minute Fiona Apple video.
The Target Shoots First (Winner: Best Documentary, Best Editing)
Chris Wilcha’s video diary is the polar opposite of Farhad Yawari’s slick debut, and much more in keeping with the free-wheeling, independent spirit of Slamdance. Shot on Hi-8 video over a period of two years, Wilcha’s film details his rise and (self-imposed) fall in the marketing department of the Columbia House CD & Tape Club. Hired for his ability to explain the popularity of Nirvana, Wilcha takes over the "alternative music" section of the Columbia House catalog, eventually launching a new magazine with an ironic edge that proves wildly popular with the targeted demographic. Wilcha takes his camera into meetings and office parties and lets it run until his co-workers barely notice its presence. In the process, he uncovers the sheer cluelessness of the corporate world’s relationship to the music it sells, as well as the rank hypocrisy of co-opting the anti-establishment rhetoric of alternative rock and using it to market that very same music. Target is a true no-budget movie – rough, crappy-looking and difficult to hear at times – but its also a biting and hilarious self-portrait that should not be missed.
Amargosa (Academy Award Finalist for Best Documentary)
Dancer Marta Becket found a derelict theater in the middle of nowhere and made a home out of it. The Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California, has been the sole performance showcase for Becket since the 1960’s. Audiences are bussed in to watch her peculiar dance pieces, many of which also involve her eccentric husband Tom Willgert, who often appears in drag. Todd Robinson’s heartfelt film is one of twelve documentary finalists for the Academy Award (the list will be narrowed to five when nominations are announced), but he would have better served his material by shaping it into a short subject. There simply isn’t enough rich material in this sporadically charming account to justify the feature-length running time.
Good Kurds, Bad Kurds
An invaluable piece of first-person journalism covering an issue all but absent from the headlines of American newspapers – the ethnic cleansing of native Kurds in Turkey. Kevin McKiernan’s dripping-wet documentary – it was completed mere days before its Park City premiere – questions the U.S. policy that supports a race of people when they are oppressed by our enemy (Iraq) but not when they are slaughtered by our ally (Turkey). Though McKiernan spotlights himself perhaps a little too prominently (though nowhere near as obnoxiously as Michael Moore in his recent work), his muckraking achievement deserves a larger audience.
This laughably pretentious and tedious examination of teen angst comes from pro skateboarder-turned-filmmaker Stephen Berra, who claims to have mined the story for his feature debut from the experiences of actual young people he encountered while touring the heartland of America on the skating circuit. Since he ended up with nothing but the usual assortment of cliches about uncaring and abusive parents and authority figures, he probably should have just stayed home. Berra’s self-indulgent film is further weighed down by a droning, monotonous score, drab cinematography, and countless loving close-ups of the writer/director/star’s brooding, pretty-boy mug. Any resemblance to actual human behavior in 7-Teen Sips is purely coincidental.
A lighthearted goof that aims both to entertain and to instruct, Road to Park City is Bret Stern’s loose adaptation of his own book, How to Shoot a Feature Film for Under $10,000 (and not go to jail). A directionless young man named John Venier, whose movie set experience is limited to a few days as a production assistant, decides he’s going to direct a feature film and take it to Sundance. After all, everyone else is doing it, right? Venier is slowly brought back down to earth through a series of encounters with film industry professionals, who explain to him (and us) how things really work. This modest little comedy is no American Movie, but it is good for a few chuckles – particularly for an insider crowd like the one at Slamdance.