Meet the indies
BY Anne Stockwell
February 25 2005 12:00 AM ET
The 2005 Sundance Film Festival is receding rapidly from memory, but the films that premiered there will be rolling out all year. So why look back? Because as much as you’ll enjoy these indie offerings when they come to a TV or a theater near you, there’s no experience like having been there in Park City, Utah, crammed into an audience of film fans both amateur and professional, waiting to be wowed by something in the midst of being born.The 2005 jury was two-thirds gay—media critic and former Advocate columnist B. Ruby Rich officiated along with indie force of nature Christine Vachon—and the unofficial word was that documentaries outshone narratives. Nevertheless, gay talents loomed large on both sides of the imagination. Out director Ira Sachs took home the grand jury prize for Forty Shades of Blue, which follows a transplanted Russian woman married to a Memphis blues producer. Other intriguing gay-related titles were Happy Endings, the newest comedy from Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex). Loggerheads starred Kip Pardue as a young drifter intent on protecting the turtles on a Carolina beach while denying his own HIV status. The great Cherry Jones appeared in Swimmers.Heights gave us a kiss between stars James Marsden and Jesse Bradford—and the star power of Glenn Close.Among the documentaries, The Education of Shelby Knox, about a young hetero Texan activist who fights to start a gay-straight alliance at her school, snagged the American Excellence in Cinematography award and a distribution deal to boot. Fans gay and otherwise can look forward to catching the film June 21 on PBS’s P.O.V.Ballets Russes won high marks with terrific archive footage of the brilliant, queer-heavy ballet troupe that changed both classical dance and its audience at the dawn of the 20th century. Not only that, but one of the doc’s main talking heads, septuagenarian former Ballets Russes dancer Wakefield Poole, turned up at Sundance’s Queer Brunch in fine septuagenarian fettle, equally happy to discuss his grands jetés or his subsequent career in ’70s gay porn.Inside Deep Throat, produced by the prolific and fabulous Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato under their World of Wonder banner, was a festival favorite. The duo have established total dominance with a cheeky documentary style that shakes up history, sexuality, and pop culture and achieves the filmic equivalent of the perfect dry martini. Their latest may be the best of the lot, tracing the grainy little porn flick that made millions and stirred the sexual revolution.Boxer Emile Griffith, subject of the feature documentary Ring of Fire, once killed a man in the ring for calling him a fag. To this day nobody’s confirming or denying the story: Apparently the filmmakers got through the Sundance post-screening Q&A without ever confirming whether the accusation was on target. Maybe we’ll get more detail in the narrative version that Scott Rudin and Paramount have since signed on to produce. As for the documentary itself, check it out on USA Network, premiering April 20.I missed the above films and maybe 30 others, including shorts, at the fest. We’ll all discover them together as the year goes on. Meanwhile, I’ll take you with me to some of the films I saw and to the filmmaker Q&As afterward, where the appeal of the movies was doubled by the sight of the filmmakers’ elation.Rize by David LaChappelleThe out fashion photographer turns his camera on the fascinating South-Central Los Angeles. dance scene known as krumping. There’s no point in trying to explain how inventive, difficult, and lightning-fast this style of movement is, or why the dance involves dressing up in clown costume; it’s best just to say that the movie opens with a title saying, “None of this footage has been sped up in any manner.”Afterward, LaChappelle hit the stage with a dozen of the young dancers from the film as well as Tommy the Clown, the man who started the movement after the Rodney King riots put South-Central L.A. on permanent edge. There were tears and standing ovations and a turn at the podium for everybody, including the children. Most of the krumpers thanked God, making me hope their god wasn’t the homophobic kind, considering that the very out LaChappelle had been the one to bring them here. Whatever; it was impossible not to be swept away by their excitement. Marveled one: “I was on a snowmobile all afternoon!”The Joy of Life by Jenni OlsenQuiet as a reflecting pool in a meditation garden, this experimental feature lulls with spare, lovely views of a San Francisco caught, generally in the early mornings, with its citizens still asleep. In part one, a butch dyke (voiced by Steak House) confides her sex-versus-love insecurities. Part two charges up with a history of the Golden Gate bridge and, more specifically, its popularity as a spot for suicide. In the Q&A afterward, writer-director Olsen explained why she chose the bridge: Her colleague, Marc Finch, jumped off the Golden Gate 10 years ago. That Olsen, midway through her career as queer-film archivist and commentator, took time to celebrate Finch in true experimental San Francisco style speaks to her substance as a filmmaker and a friend.Saving Face, written and directed by Alice Wu (Sony Classics)This first feature from out director Alice Wu is technically assured, elegantly written, and genuinely romantic—wearing with ease the mantle of first lesbian Asian-American romantic comedy ever. Michelle Krusiec is appealing as Dr. Wilhelmina (Wil) Pang, whose widowed mother, Ma (Joan Chen, in an overdue return to the screen), is destined to be frustrated in her hetero matchmaking by Vivian (Lynn Chen), an out lesbian dancer who wants a real meet-the-parents kind of girlfriend. So far, so good, but Saving Face gets its originality from a less familiar dilemma. At 48, Ma, a traditional Confucian good girl, turns up pregnant, and tyrannical granddad orders her out of the house. Ma, in turn, tyrannically barges in on Wil in her tiny Manhattan apartment.The audience at Sundance loved this movie even before its unassumingly hip director took the stage and introduced her three charismatic leading ladies. Krusiec described the challenges of being a natural cutup who’s cast as the earnest girl who sits by while everybody else gets the comic stuff. (“Alice kept telling me, ‘You’re not the funny one!’”) Lynn Chen, making her first movie, said she’d realized only afterward how great the experience had been. Joan Chen, quite as stunning at 48 as she was at 28, wowed the crowd by announcing that she’d decided to stop acting because she was too old—but that Wu had persuaded her to return to the screen just when “the wine was exactly the right age.” Wu finished off the salutations by recognizing her own mother in the audience, a highly respectable lady beaming with pride in her gifted gay daughter. Saving Face hits theaters in a few weeks; expect to see long lesbian lines at the box office as well as brisk business among all the film fans who made Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet such a hit.Pretty Persuasion, directed by Marcos Siega, written by Skander Halim (Lions Gate)Here’s a tip: Don’t ever cross teen actor Evan Rachel Wood. She can do anything—and clearly she will. Two years ago Wood knocked Sundance’s collective socks off in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. (That was after she’d knocked queer socks off with her insightful performance on Once and Again, in which her young character falls in love with another girl in school. In Persuasion, a high school comedy savage enough to make Heathers look like a Hallmark card, Wood pulls all the evil strings in the book and a few brand new ones too, all in her quest to…but I wouldn’t ruin it for you for the world. Just trust me when I say that your bitter gay bones will adore Jane Krakowski as a lesbian reporter, Ron Livingston as a teacher with a taste for the girls he teaches, Adi Schnall as a deadpan Muslim exchange student, and—unbelievable as it seems—James Woods in his most obnoxious performance yet.The Dying Gaul, written and directed by Craig LucasVeteran playwright and screenwriter Lucas (Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss) does an exemplary job of adapting his own intricate play, assisted by three of the smartest actors in captivity—Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Advocate cover boy Peter Sarsgaard—playing mind games amid the kind of balmy L.A. landscape that invariably conceals lethal acts of treachery. Lucas’s story goes like this: Sarsgaard, a gay screenwriter mourning his dead partner, gets a Faustian offer from studio exec Scott, who’ll buy Sarsgaard’s script for a million bucks, but only if Sarsgaard changes his story—a tribute to his lover—into a made-up straight romance. While the screenwriter mulls over that betrayal, Scott introduces Sarsgaard to his wife, Clarkson—who proceeds to befriend Sarsgaard even as her husband starts making passes at him behind her back. It’s Machiavelli-meets-movieland as these three resourceful people maneuver in increasingly destructive ways, leading to a conclusion that will have audiences rearranging their gray matter in all kinds of pansexual configurations.After the screening, Lucas, who resembles a hilariously articulate and bitter Al Pacino, took the stage in a dapper brown ensemble that nevertheless had leading man Campbell Scott quipping: “Craig, why do you look like Tevye?” Lucas’s comments to the audience were delicious, centering on his flat-out statement that The New York Times—i.e., theater critic Ben Brantley, who panned The Dying Gaul in its original stage production—had basically driven him out of New York City theater and into new media.What happened next, you’d never see in Hollywood: A silver-haired indie film producer jumped up from the audience and yelled “Fuck The New York Times! Your play changed my life.” From the crowd, roared applause; for Lucas, instant vindication; for the rest of us, another great Sundance moment.And finally: Want to see a video game?“You have to understand, I know nothing about video games,” I told the publicist for Sony Playstation 2’s newest blockbuster, The Getaway: Black Monday.The appointment was off my beat: Nobody connected with the game was gay. True, the game’s designers—two frighteningly intelligent 20-something women from London—offered to pretend to be lovers in order to reach America’s gay gamers. But Black Monday, the new sequel to Sony’s hit game The Getaway, turned out to be so complex that I couldn’t imagine its creators having time for sex of any kind.Katie Ellwood, Black Monday’s writer, explained the universe of the game—it’s the same the seedy London of Guy Ritchie crimefests like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. The difference, though, is that Black Monday’s art director (read “cinematographer”) went out and shot every inch of a sizeable part of London so that the game is truthful in a way two-dimensional cinema can never be.Black Monday does its real envelope-pushing when it comes to character and plot. This is no simple bang-bang fantasy; characters make what Sony’s rep describes as “moral choices” to influence the game’s outcome. There’s no visible menu to slant your judgment about what to do next, no “you have 10 bullets left.”Frankly, it’s more fascinating than I can describe. These women knew their presence was changing the all-male world of video-game explosions and car chases—adding plot, complexity, ingenuity, all the factors that lift entertainment above sensation and into something memorable. The game was cool, but they were cooler.Before I left, I asked: “So where are the gay characters in games?”There was a pause. For the first time, my young designer friends were stumped. Ellwood allowed that she personally would be happy to have gay characters but doubted she could get the idea past Sony Corporate. This led to instant harrumphing by the Sony rep: Gamers are young men; ergo, gamers are homophobes—really, it’s all about the audience, not the manufacturers.I’ve heard that kind of equivocation in enough settings now to know the message by heart. Cutting-edge technology or not, we’re still being asked to spend gay dollars on entertainment that has no place for gay lives. No surprise there. But we talked, at least, about how gay characters might turn up in the tough London of Black Monday—exactly like the rest, except with an occasional mention of a boyfriend. Would our conversation plant a seed? As I walked out into the snow, I caught a wave of optimism. What I saw at Sundance this year changed me. Maybe it changed others as well—if not today, then by January of next year when we’ll all trek back to Utah wanting to be wowed again.
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