Sundance 2002 – the “post-9/11” festival… From the outset, a few things had changed, whether the main cause was the state of the US economy or the state of world affairs. Many film companies who would usually send 20 to 30 various “executives” to Park City dispatched only a few. Two major independent companies, Propaganda and The Shooting Gallery (the producer of indie landmarks such as Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity , Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade , Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool  and Sundance 2000 Grand Prize winner You Can Count on Me  by Kenneth Lonergan), had folded since last year – one of them the victim of mismanagement caused by a too-rapid growth.
A happy surprise was the revamping of the “frontier” section – that, created in 1996 to “embody a cutting-edge, risk taking attitude toward the art of filmmaking” from the US and abroad, was often graced by landmarks of experimental cinema (Nina Menkes’s The Bloody Child , James Benning’s Deseret , William E. Jones’s Finished , Sharon Lockhart’s Goshogaoka ) or international auteur films (Gustavo Masquera’s Moebius , Claire Denis’s Beau Travail ) but whose screenings were sometimes lost and under-attended in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace Sundance has become. Going from three titles in 1996 to seven programs this year, the section was launched by the premiere presentation of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002) in Park City’s main venue, the Eccles Theater. Appearing at Sundance like a graceful swan perched on the swing of a noisy children’s playground, Gerry is arguably one of the most fascinating works American cinema has to offer this year – an immediate cult movie for some, an object of controversy and even scorn for others. Co-written by Van Sant and his two stars, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, it is the story of two cool-looking young men who call each other Gerry, get into the wilderness for a hike, exchange no more lines of dialogue than the characters in Tsai Ming-liang’s The River (1996), and get lost in a spectacular landscape (actually shot in Argentina and Death Valley). The film comprises no more than 90 tableau-like shots, lasting between one and five minutes, with virtually no reverse angle (and yes, influences from filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Chantal Akerman, Michael Snow, James Benning, Nina Menkes etc. have been discussed and acknowledged by Van Sant). What was exhilarating in Gerry‘s presence at Sundance was the Festival organizers’ vindication of Van Sant’s ultimate gumption. Variety and other commercial publishing ventures would have been happy to benevolently ignore the film if it had remained safely within the confines of the avant-garde. Instead, Van Sant made a commercial film with an experimental outlook, a sort of slap in the face of the “industry”. Sundance no longer has to prove itself as the most successful marketplace for US films – in the last few years, some dissident voices had expressed fears that the Festival might be losing its more adventurous edge. The screening of Gerry should quell their anxiety.
Still in the “frontier,” another case in point was Decasia (2002), the latest opus of New York-based Bill Morrison, who works at finding, collecting, re-photographing and collaging early found footage, building an archeology of our culture’s mores and foibles in the last century, with its mishaps, auto-da-fés (one of his films shows a spectacular, end-of-Citizen Kane-like shot where unwanted paper prints, onto which images of early films were deposited for copyright reasons, are burning in a huge oven), gaps, erasures and lost treasures. In a previous work, The Film of Her (1996), Morrison paid homage to the archivists who rescued the paper print collection of the Library of Congress and transferred it to celluloid. Decasia is a splendid meditation on another aspect of the survival of films: their decay. The film starts with abstract images floating on the screen, that fleetingly reveal, behind the ravages of time that affected the original nitrate print, the serene face of a Japanese woman playing music, then walking by a paper wall partition, followed by a shot of a traditional Japanese landscape (rocks by the sea). The next image is that of a waterfall, whose drops have almost been solidified by the damage done to the emulsion, then that of a very liquid geyser, and, finally, the mineral beauty of a desert landscape, with a retinue of camels profiled at the horizon. Morrison focuses on the grain of the film stock, on the dialectical tension between the now-damaged surface of the medium, the illusionary depth of the representational image and the materiality of the film strip itself. He is indebted to both the Brakhage tradition of scratching and painting over the filmstrip and the work of other found footage artists such as Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi (of From the Pole to the Equator  fame). Yet, unlike the former, he only includes accidental alterations of the filmstrip (as Duchamp incorporating the cracks of the Large Glass into the piece itself). Unlike the latter, he does not seek to recontextualize the footage within a political history of the Western gaze. Morrison’s approach, however, is not strictly formalist, as some images resonate more than others – the recurring shot of dancing dervishes in an unidentified Asian setting; little Native American girls shyly walking in line under the stern, aloof gaze of missionary nuns. As viewers, we want to see more than this decaying, truncated footage will allow, we substitute our narratives, our tentative answers to the questions they raise. The other fascinating aspect of Morrison’s work is his ongoing relationship with the Ridge Theater – a loose collective of performance artists – and other “live” collaborators. Decasia was originally a performance, and played to a live rendering (by the Basel Sinfonietta) of an original music piece composed by Michael Gordon (now transferred to the film soundtrack). If early cinema is something that we, as modern viewers, have lost, and can only be reconstructed through its imperfect, yet magnified, traces, then a metaphorical approach makes sense, as well as the desire to re-embody these images of a dead past into the fleeting present of our physical existence.
In the Dramatic Competition section, apart from a strong presence of work directed by women (Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity  won the Jury Prize and Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves  the audience award), digital works played a significant role. The New York-based company InDigEnt (“Independent Digital Entertainment”) has asserted itself as a solid force in the last few years. That digital images can look splendid and allow for a sophisticated in-depth character analysis was attested by one of InDigEnt “products”, Personal Velocity, in which the director intertwines finely drawn portraits of three women. Yet digital imagery can also be used to crank out a lovable-but-superficial little movie, as proven by Gary Winick’s Tadpole (2002) (prep-school boy falls for sexy stepmother and sleeps instead with his love object’s best friend), the second InDigEnt entry that was bought for a hefty sum of money after its first screening.
Every few years at Sundance a film sets out to explore this quintessentially American theme – the drift of an alienated male nursing a secret wound across a boundless landscape, sometimes drab, sometimes unexpectedly amusing. In 1994 it was Lodge Korrigan’s Clean, Shaven; in 1999, Hampton Fancher’s Minus Man. This year the Dramatic Competition featured Todd Louiso’s Love Liza (2002), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman is achingly accurate as Joel, a recently widowed computer designer. Unlike the protagonists of earliest films, he’s not a killer, and the origin of his wound has a name, even, during a brief flashback, a beautiful young body, glanced at through the open door of a bathroom. His wife, Liza, suddenly committed suicide, leaving a letter that Joel can’t bring himself to read and carries, still sealed, in his pocket while wandering. He takes to inhaling fumes from gasoline cans and, to avoid possible embarrassment, fakes an interest in model airplanes. Next, he finds himself in a toy store buying a model airplane (and the can of special fuel that goes with it), and then going on the road to discover and partake in the bonding rituals (conventions, competitions) of grown-up men indulging in remote control toys. This quasi-ethnographic part of the film is the most endearing, and Hoffman’s superb acting carries the tension between the mundane, playful, slightly ridiculous activities and the unbearable pain of his character. If Wilson gets on the road, it’s because at home, people keep wanting something from him – his new boss expects results, a falsely shy co-worker declares her attraction to him and his mother-in-law (a formidable Kathy Bates), as destroyed as he is, wants the letter, but, once she acquires it, can’t read it either. Of course, once opened it’s a letter like any other– it does not explain anything, it is sweet and unassuming, for people who want to die can’t write well for the living, and it ends with the clichéd “love, Liza”. So, a living dead, Joel lets himself be sucked into the vortex of the American night. (The film’s screenwriter, Gordy Hoffman, received a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for outstanding achievement in writing.)
Also in competition, Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) is the first feature solo-directing job of Taiwan-born Justin Lin, who had already directed shorts and documentaries and, a few years ago, co-directed Shopping for Fang (1997) with Quentin Lee. With this new generation of thirty-something directors, Asian-American media are moving full-stride away from Chinatown and immigration stories – but also from the savvy political documentaries of someone like Chris Choy. The new locus of cultural integration/disintegration is the middle-class suburb, and the clash between tradition and modernity is expressed through the growing pains of ambitious high school students, with too much money to spend, too many parties to go to, too much drugs and boozes available, and too many girls to choose from. Yet, behind this noisy lifestyle, poignant questions of identity surface unexpectedly. A cool Asian beauty queen turns out to have been adopted by a white family, a rich Chinese boy hates his parents with a vengeance, pressure to enter a good college reveals a fear of “ethnic” inadequacy. Lin has gathered an impressive cast of Asian American teenagers, and the film moves at the same speed as his confused and hip characters, without providing easy answers.
Przemyslaw Shemie Reut’s Paradox Lake (2002) introduces us to another self-enclosed world, and, by following the idiosyncratic rhythm of its protagonists and visually suggesting their charmed, surreal world, attains an almost hypnotic quality. A confused teenager, Matt, decides to spend a summer in a camp for autistic children, and develop a special relationship with a little girl, by entering her playful fantasies. Reut has cast real autistic children, and worked for months with the parents and counselors of the camp, to provide an insightful, sympathetic, and ultimately moving portrait of the internal landscape of an autistic mind. Paradox Lake is not a fairy tale, but, shot by Reut himself on video, has the intimate look of a fictional/poetic documentary, and poses sharp questions about the fine line that separates what is “normal” from what is not.
Another film to successfully mix documentary and fiction is Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) (2002) in which the Chicana filmmaker displays her usual flair at questioning the surface of the visible. Shot during several trips and over a period of two years, the film is an attempt to unravel the complex level of reality surrounding the disappearance and sex-murder of several hundred young female factory workers in the Mexican border town of Juarez. The maquiladoras – where the victims used to work for minimum wages – are owned by US companies, and there is heavy drug trafficking in the area. Yet, as more and more mutilated bodies turn up, the authorities do surprisingly little, apart from arresting the usual scapegoats (a frightening-looking Egyptian sex offender, loud-mouthed local gang members), suggesting a level of complex corruption involving the police, higher-up officials, narco-criminals and maybe some Americans. Focusing on the faces of smiling young women (future victims?) met in the street, the suppressed tears of grieving mothers, the faded photographs of the disappeared, humble articles of clothing found on the bodies, snippets of life in Juarez and small, intimate reconstructed scenes in which she seems to play the main role (writing in a notebook, putting on white plastic shoes), Portillo weaves an intricate tapestry of truths and lies, deceiving appearances, ambiguous reality, confiscated speech – that functions by suggesting echoes in the mind of the viewers. When a mother, realizing that her daughter’s clothes had been put on another body, exclaims “if it’s not my daughter who’s buried there, then whose body is it?,” one thinks of a similar line in Psycho. Conversely, when the families of the disappeared start organizing and demonstrating with placards in the street, one is reminded of Portillo’s earlier work, La Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1986), in which the mothers of another set of disappeared, the victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship, were publicly voicing their questions, their anger, their outrage. Portillo keeps coming back to the same witnesses, mothers or near-victims of similar abuse, giving them the opportunity to finally find the mental space and the courage to tell as much of the truth as it may be possible. For what is at stake in Juarez, “the best place in the world to kill a young woman” as a US newspaper reads, if not the heavy price of globalization and colonialism, that turns the bodies of Third World women into discardable items?
Sundance’s conceptual backbone, the Documentary Section, featured a series of strong works. Winner of the Documentary Award, Gail Dolgin’s and Vincente Franco’s Daughter of Danang (2002) followed the reunion of an Amerasian woman adopted by a white family with her birth mother in Vietnam. Liz Garbus’s The Execution of Wanda Jean (2002), by focusing on the case of a mentally retarded, poor, semi-illiterate gay black woman, who was “dancing and smiling” while strapped to the execution table, is a hard look at the death penalty policy that keeps the United States one of the most backward nations in terms of human rights. In Two Towns of Jasper (2002), African-American filmmaker Marco Williams hired two separate film crews – one black, one white – to document the after-effects of one of the most heinous racial murders in recent US history (a black man dragged to his death chained to a pick-up truck) in a small Texas town. Executively produced by Lianne Halfon (the woman who allowed Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb  to be completed, and now, in partnership with John Malkovich, has recently produced Zwigoff’s Ghost World  and Malkovich’s own The Dancer Upstairs (2002), also premiered at Sundance), John Walter’s How to Draw a Bunny (2002) is a corky look at one of the most controversial, versatile, yet mysterious and withdrawn protagonists of the US artworld. A seminal Pop art figure, Ray Johnson, who committed suicide in 1995, was mostly known for his “portraits” of celebrities and friends in the guise of a Bunny cartoon, his collages and the invention of mail art. As elusive, flamboyant, multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory as its subject, the film shared a special Documentary jury prize with Señorita Extraviada.