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Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Sundance rises again

After 11 years, fest still holds a special place in filmdom

by Duane Dudek
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

PARK CITY, Utah - You won't find Sundance on any map.

What was once a twinkle in Robert Redford's eye has evolved into a state of mind that you can't get to without a plane ticket and a credit card.

Annually, for 11 days the Sundance Film Festival appears out of the mist, like a snow-covered Brigadoon, and takes over this small ski resort, making basic human needs like eating and sleeping things to be scheduled and treasured.

All in the name of movies: writing them, making them, watching them and talking about them endlessly. World and national events go all but unnoticed in a town preoccupied with film.

"I was trying to find something about Sundance on the TV this morning, and every station I turned on had the presidential inaugural," said actress Marylouise Burke,co-star of the reality-TV satire "Series 7."

"I thought to myself, 'Where are these people's priorities?' "

As the first major festival each year, Sundance is seen as a barometer of the state of film. And while it was a Hole in the Wall refuge for film mavericks and outsiders when it was created in 1985, it has seen the independent and studio film movements find a common middle ground over the years and probably helped push them to it.

Guerrilla films still abound, but they share the stage with films like the glossy opening-night gala presentation of "My First Mister," the feature-film directorial debut by actress Christine Lahti. The film was made for about $10 million, which pales next to the $50 million to $75 million budget of a studio release, but is a head-spinning figure for someone who maxed out his or her credit card to put their obsession onto celluloid or, increasingly, digital video.

"My First Mister" is the story of an angst-ridden teen-age girl's infatuation with a middle-aged man; it stars Leelee Sobieski and Albert Brooks. The budget may seem high, said Brooks, but he knew he was working on an independent film because his was "the same motor home they used on 'The A-Team.' "

Also, Brooks joked, the on-set catering left something to be desired.

"I think Domino's lets you call them a caterer if you use them more than once," he said at a press conference.

Brooks may sound glib, but his remarks reflect the continuing and conflicting debate over the state and definition of independent film that often makes festival organizers sound defensive.

Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore said that, regardless of budget, all the festival's films "struggled to be made at the cost that they had." Whatever restrictive ground rules were once "customarily viewed as the boundaries of the independent film movement are not operative anymore." The only things unchanged, he said are the artists' passion and vision.

This year, those artists include Kasi Lemmons, whose "Caveman's Valentine" stars Samuel L. Jackson as a homeless man investigating a murder; "Series 7," a violent satire of reality television, in which contestants hunt and kill each other; "Donnie Darko," an ethereal tale about a delusional teen-ager haunted by a giant rabbit; Richard Linklaters' dreamlike "Waking Life," which juxtaposes digital animation with monologues on existence; "Home Movie," a documentary on the places people live in by Milwaukee-based filmmaker Chris Smith; Bruce Wagner's "Women in Film," a video diary by three fictional women filmmakers; "Beautiful Creatures," a British crime noir, with Rachel Weisz; and "Go Tigers!," a documentary on high school football.

Gilmore said that of the 1,700 films submitted to the festival, 114 were accepted, including 65 world premieres.

"We're not as much a 'launch' festival as a 'discovery' festival," said Gilmore. "One of the things that has given Sundance its stature is the fact that the work we screen here is new."

This year's festival is being conducted without founder Robert Redford, who is filming "Spy Game" in Europe and Africa and will miss the festivities.

Having your film accepted at Sundance gives it "the stamp of approval," said Smith, whose "American Movie" was named best documentary here in 1999.

"It gives everyone the feeling that your film is worthy, especially when you're coming from a place like Wisconsin. It gives you a national audience and an even playing field" with filmmakers from bigger cities, Smith said.

Others have a less generous opinion of the place.

Kenosha, Wis., native Mark Ruffalo, who starred in last year's entry "You Can Count on Me," said that while Sundance was "cool," the Toronto Film Festival is "more chic and international."

"I feel much more respected as an artist" at Toronto, he said.