Festival Excess - Tom Charity files our final report from Utah
Last year Sundance hits Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, and Open Water went on to make more than $100 million at the US box office. This year’s big deal is Hustle And Flow, a first film produced by John Singleton. Every studio in town passed on the script, and no wonder: it’s the sentimental story of a pimp (Terrance Howard) who decides to change his life by cutting a rap record (“Whupp That Trick”). You might think this would make a fun comedy but mostly Hustle and Flow is played straight. It’s not very good, but thanks in large part to Howard it’s highly watchable – you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an audience of mormons and film critics mouthing along to the rap “It’s hard out there for a pimp!”. Paramount bought it for a reported $10 million, a Sundance record.
Miramax spent over $4 million on Wolf Creek a couple of weeks before the festival started – pre-empting their competitors. This Australian horror yarn speculates on the fate of two English backpackers who disappeared in the outback, victims of a crazed Mick Dundee-type, according to a third traveller who escaped to tell his tale. Written and directed by Greg Mclean, it’s well crafted but too slow (Miramax are allegedly chopping ten minutes out of it) and ultimately too irritating to do serious damage to the Aussie tourist trade.
A 14-year-old castrates a paedophile in Hard Candy, and a middle-aged woman eats her own abortion in an episode of the Asian portmanteau Three Extreme, by Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chan-wook. But the most horrific sequence at Sundance is an oblique scene in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man in which the director puts on headphones and listens to an audio recording of the death of environmental campaigner and bear-nut Timothy Treadwell – a self-styled environmental warrior who filmed himself hanging with grizzlies for years, until one of them got hungry. Herzog listens, trembling, switches off the tape, and tells Timothy’s ex girlfriend she must destroy it for her own peace of mind. Even though we haven’t heard it ourselves, we know that he’s right. Grizzly Man is Herzog’s best film in years.
The documentary section kept on producing the goods this year. David LaChappelle’s Rize was another winner, a euphoric, inspiring film about the roots of Krumping, an electrifying hip-hop dance craze from South Central which he traces back to the influence of one man, Tommy the Clown. Then there was The Aristocrats, in which more than 100 comedians give us their take on the filthiest joke in the world, a backstage gag comics have apparently been telling each other since the vaudeville days. The film is a fascinating and uproarious peek into the art and craft of comedy (and no, I’m not going to tell you the joke).
As for Crispin Hellion Glover’s aptly-named What Is It?, this is a film so underground it digs its own hole and keeps on tunnelling. A plotless mishmash of avant-garde provocations including the slaughter of snails by salt, hammer and razor-blade; songs by Charlie Manson; a minstrel who calls himself Michael Jackson and wants to be an invertebrate; and amateur dramatics from a retarded cast presided over by Glover himself, What Is It has a certain car-wreck fascination – but like a car-wreck, it’s not something you’d want to experience for yourself.
Finally, the prize winners: the American documentary award went to Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight (see part one of our Sundance report). And the American dramatic competition winner was Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue, a lovely, low key character study about the Russian bride of a cantankerous Memphis recording artist who falls in love with his estranged, married son. Immaculately acted by Dina Korzun (from Last Resort), Rip Torn and Darren Burrows, Forty Shades was one of the least hyped movies in the festival, a slow builder that stays with you.
By Tom Charity