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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Even now, the Sundance Film Festival still matters

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PARK CITY, Utah - Morgan Spurlock is the latest in a burgeoning line of stunt filmmakers. It's a living. He does not throw himself off roofs or crash through breakaway windows. His stunts are more in the line of stunts of discretion.

He's more of a stunt filmmaker the way Michael Moore is a stunt filmmaker: the thrill comes from watching him toss his camera into a situation where one or both parties are uncomfortable; then we watch them either squirm and separate or tear each other apart, along with decorum.

Typical stunt filmmaking is often high-minded and provocative - Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are flawless practitioners- and their points tend to leave you unsettled, but they're also never far from feeling like the 21st-century equivalent of an expertly placed crank call.

You can't help the giggling.

At the 20th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped last Sunday, you could not escape Spurlock and his documentary Super Size Me; it landed him the best directing award in the documentary competition, but more importantly, it landed him the buzz of the festival - at least in the documentary segment, which was formidable and overabundant this year. It is cheap, stunt filmmaking of the highest caliber, narrated in the familiar (and grating) tone of a local TV news.

At one screening I witnessed a shoving match break out between journalists and film buyers, clamoring to grab any extra seats and decide if Spurlock's film was all that - if it could be the next Bowling for Columbine.

And it could be.

In that 10-day period of Sundance I saw exactly 41 feature films - a new personal record that often felt like a stunt in itself. Perhaps because Super Size Me came early in the week, it guaranteed I would have the time to see so many movies - because after seeing it, I simply did not want to sit and eat.

So I binged in another, more celluloid-based way.

Here are a few random notes and thoughts from the 2004 Sundance Film Festival:

• Back to Spurlock.

He had this idea two Thanksgivings ago, and it had something to do with how fat and out of shape you are. OK, maybe not you specifically, but Americans in general: They're fat and out of shape and getting fat and flabbier at an alarming rate and risk to their health (and health insurance costs).

Spurlock decided he would not exercise for 30 days, and that he would eat only foods sold at McDonald's for 30 days - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Around day 20, when his cholesterol had tripled and he had put on more than 30 pounds, his doctors became fascinated and repelled: they had never seen a case of pure fast-food subsistence.

Alcohol, yes. Drugs, yes.

Big Macs, no.

"Your liver is pate," one M.D. told him, and offered Spurlock an aspirin. Spurlock refused:

"They don't sell aspirin at McDonald's."

That is commitment.

Not to mention, a great example of why Sundance still matters. No studio or even specialty film division of a studio would risk funding Super Size Me. Bowling for Columbine and its prime targets - K-Mart, Charlton Heston - pale in comparison to a film that takes on a corporate behemoth the size of McDonald's - and then has the audacity to knowingly present an argument riddled with holes:

Why does Spurlock have to use dressing on the salads, McDonald's is not intended to be eaten at every meal, does he actually prove anything, etc.

Maybe that's why distributors backed away a bit by week's end; Spurlock himself said McDonald's - which didn't cooperate with the film, of course, despite numerous requests - was trying to block its release. (A&E picked up television rights to the documentary, but a theatrical release remained a question mark.)

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius it's not. But it is entertaining and accessible, and McDonald's should be nervous - Spurlock gives a well-reasoned argument and illustrates his points with ways that guarantee you'll never view the Golden Arches again without feeling a little turn in your belly.

• This cuts right to a conundrum of Sundance that refuses to go away: How does a successful film festival that celebrates and promotes artistic independence and bold expression reconcile itself with an equally fierce determination by filmmakers to have their be seen outside the hot house environment of Sundance - to be picked up by some savvy distributor and dropped into multiplexes nationwide and loved by audiences? What's astonishing is how this has even become the central conundrum of Hollywood itself - especially evident by just perusing that recent list of Oscar nominations:

There's a major disconnect between what studios release into the mainstream on a weekly basis and the films that gather awards, critical praise, and a genuine love that doesn't fade the instant you reach your car.

Kevin Bacon said something to me at Sundance that underlined this in the most straightforward way possible. He was there with an intensely moving picture called The Woodsman. (Expect it to show up next fall, just in time for Oscar consideration.) He plays a pedophile trying to build a life after years of jail, and the film is sympathetic and complex toward characters this heinous in ways mainstream movies would never attempt:

"Say what you want about Sundance. It really is the only place you can show up with a movie like The Woodsman. It's the only place a film like this stands a chance of being seriously considered for purchase."

• One of the annual parlor games at Sundance is plunging your hand into the snow and trying to gauge its temperature: What is the mood of filmmakers? What are their concerns? What are the grand themes, if any, that rest heavy on their minds? And what does it say about the state of independent filmmaking?

Usually this is a deeply useless exercise: How do you funnel 137 features through your head and then draw generalizations?

This year, however, I noticed something: Sundance filmmakers are basically godless, bomb-throwing communists. Well, more or less. But two subjects emerged: the evil corporatizing of the planet and the hypocrisy of organized religion. Far more of a cheery crowd-pleaser than you might expect in rural Utah, Saved! stars Jena Malone and Mandy Moore as students at a Baptist high school, and takes brave swipes at Christian rock, religious youth groups, and the entire What-Would-Jesus-Do ethos. Ambitious and satiric, it wants to do for religion what Election did for campaigns: underline, in bright yellow highlighter, the self-righteousness inherent in any belief, not just religious - but it winds up coming off a bit self-righteous and glib itself.

There's nothing easy about Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation. Taking the tone of a breezy corporate public relations films, for 2 1/2 hours its traces the rise of the corporation from publicly trusted community leader to global monster, and becomes easily the angriest export from Canada I have ever seen.

Even at the Sundance award ceremony, where the film picked up the audience award for best foreign-made documentary, Achbar couldn't help notice the irony of Sundance: Most of the awards are sponsored by giant corporations, and you couldn't walk down Park City street without encountering a gift bag brimming with name-brand giveaways, or running into official Volkswagen festival shuttles.

"This is a callow ploy to put a caring face on a psychopathic institution," Achbar said, accepting the award (sponsored by Coca-Cola). "But that doesn't mean it isn't appreciated."

• Speaking of communists: Heir to an Execution is filmmaker Ivy Meeropol's account of bringing some closure to the darkest questions concerning her family history. Meeropol is the granddaughter of the infamous Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of selling nuclear secrets to the Soviets and executed. She tracks down anyone close to the case who is still alive, family members and Rosenberg associates, and pounds them with questions of guilt and innocence and legacy, and rarely takes the camera off herself. There are the makings of another Capturing the Friedmans here, with its open-ended questions and slippery slopes of truth that veer into lies and the murkiness of gray, vague areas.

But I doubt it: Meeropol gives her investigation the shape of a personal-essay film, and the limits of the form become striking: How much of the filmmaker do we need to see on camera before they become the subject? Michael Moore has this problem. Meeropol's could be corrected with a bit of editing. HBO expects to show it this summer.

• Kenny Shopsin has his rules. You come into his restaurant, Shopsin's, a Greenwich Village hole-in-the-wall and a neighborhood haunt, and if you don't know his rules, you're out on your ear. For instance: No parties of five. Not going to happen. Never will. Nowhere to put the fifth chair. Also: Don't order something someone else at your table already ordered, you jerk. Do it and you're out on your ear. Then there are the arbitrary rules: Kenny doesn't like you, Kenny doesn't know you, Kenny in a bad mood, doesn't like the amount of time you're taking with his eight page menu, and its literally hundreds of dishes.

Out on your ear.

Matt Mahurin's I Like Killing Flies is like a corrective to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me: it's a remarkable portrait of a man who enjoys food, a working-class New York intellectual and bona fide American original who refuses to change. Then the owner of his building boots him after 25 years and the film becomes a heartbreaking study of how much local history we're willing to steamroll and lose in the name of progress and profit.

Mahurin is an unlikely populist: He's spent his career directing extravagant videos for Metallica and Sting and Peter Gabriel.

"I got sick of cranes and egos," he told me. "I got sick of thinking about making a movie, and just decided to I wanted to do it. I am proof you can do this in your basement with a pile of video and enter it at Sundance and end up standing here, with all this attention, just speaking to you."

• Creativity is inherently personal. That might sound crushingly obvious but it's given new meaning in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a fascinating 2 1/2 hour film that tracks the making of the last album from the world's most successful metal act, and how egos and selfishness and creative burnout prove more damaging to a rock band than alcohol and drugs.

Whether you like Metallica, whether you don't know an i-Pod from a paintbrush, if you care about art, this is a must-see. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who made the engrossing '90s documentaries Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost, have put together an incisive look at the act of creating something out of nothing. Metallica owns the film and commissioned the filmmakers, so you'd be wise to be skeptical; but there's a cloud of exhaustion over the band that's apparent in the film and that they don't try to sugarcoat.

The only work I can think of that cuts so deeply to the core of a popular artist is Picture, Lillian Ross' classic fly-on-the-wall history of the making of The Red Badge of Courage.

In Metallica, we follow the band through rehab and public relations fiascoes and a near breakup. But the moment that hooks you: when the band brings in a $40,000-a-month psychiatrist to sit in on the recording sessions and coach them through years of feuding. Then they invite former member Dave Mustaine (and founder of Megadeth) to air decades of grievances and jealousies and it became the most moving sequence I saw at all of Sundance.

• My favorite film? There were the popular hits, Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State, light tales of growing up that suggested the ongoing influence of Wes Anderson and The Graduate. Millions were paid for these two, and careers created overnight. I was underwhelmed.

Maybe a sizable part of the audience was, too. The Dramatic Audience Award went to a Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace, a lacerating tale of a young woman who signs up to swallow and transport tiny capsules of heroin into New York. The movie is relaxed but angry beneath its facade, and finds its unbearable tension without a drip of sweat.

In the film, Maria (newcomer Catalina Sandino) is stopped at the airport and security is on to her.

"Where are you going?"

"My sister's."

"She know you're coming?"

"Yes."

"How did you buy a plane ticket on a seamstress salary?"

"Well "

At moments like that, with your brow moist, and real people on the screen Sundance matters.



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