Harlan Jacobson's Sundance wrap-up, part one


by Harlan Jacobson

Park City.

Of course, the best day I had at Sundance this year at the 32nd festival since Golden Boy took over the failing US Film Festival held in Salt Lake City and moved it a half hour southeast into this backwater resort town, was the day I decided to do my form of Gonzo journalism. I went to morning ski at Redford's Sundance ski resort, about 45 minutes outside of Park City. On the grounds of the Sundance resort, Redford maintains the Sundance Institute and Lab workshop, his residence, and a screening room, where I took in a post-ski screening of Ryan Coogler's eventual prize-winning Fruitvale.


More about which in a minute.

When I edited Film Comment in the 80s, I early on gave space to the then struggling festival and shortly thereafter started covering it myself for USA Today, which gave it mainstream exposure in a two million plus readership platform. In those days of infancy, a bunch of us would ski during the day, sometimes with Redford, in the morning at "his place," have a chat with him and then head back to catch three movies starting in the late afternoon. Now 40,000 non-skiers choke Park City with SUVs draped in obligatory black from clothes to moods, nobody skis, and Redford is a ghost, save for a glimpse at a press conference at which he has a time-tested set of points to make. He pops up on opening night, too, at the podium of the 1270 seat Eccles auditorium at the high school, to plug the global efforts of Sundance as a vertically integrated non-profit machine that develops projects around the world, shows them here, there,and everywhere and then helps sell ‘em. Then he exits on a warning: "Be careful crossing streets out there."  Some years, the screens are more dangerous than the streets, some years vice versa, and I'd say 2013 - notwithstanding some pretty out-there abuses of power, not to mention in your face blowjobs - the streets still had it.

Nobody died this year watching their slice of 113 films from 32 countries, 16 each in US dramatic and documentary competitions, and 23 divided between the foreign documentary and dramatic competitions. "If there's a theme this year, it's Sex," said one of the associate Sundance programmers, connecting the dots for those about to enter the hothouse passages of the strangely cool Interior: Leather Bar, a 60-minute amour fou put together by star James Franco and collaborator Travis Mathews. 

The Sundance programmer could have added that it was also the year of the End Screen Crawl, since one film after another conveyed essentially a lot of  "What Happened To" info at the end of film after film, dramatic and documentary alike, all part of a cascade of "Based on a True Story" films, as if ripped from today's or even yesterday's headlines seems to have completed reality TV's leveraged buyout of the American film imagination.

Based on a True Story, Fruitvale won the Grand Jury Prize, i.e. the top prize,  and the Audience Award, which in theory should spell some commercial presence later on. But it's well documented that a festival audience is not often a mallplex audience, The Artist a rare achievement to the contrary.

Fruitvale is based on events surrounding the Oakland police's shooting to death of Oscar Grant on New Year's Eve, 2009 at the Fruitvale station of the Bart train. The film's project is to fully flesh-out the deceased Oscar Grant, played winningly by Michael B. Jordan, as a 22-year-old young black male with a mixed scorecard for being both a screw-up and a sweet soul, so that we feel the full weight of Oscar's loss.


The film is bookended with a sequence in which a posse of psycho-cops moves in on Oscar following a scrape with a jailhouse nemesis also out on parole, and a shot rings out. Then another, or so I thought. The cop will later claim in court that he thought he had a taser in hand - discredited by the film's second bullet. The film was developed by the Sundance lab, which supported the 26-year-old writer director, Ryan Coogler, as he work-shopped a contemporary California version of a Greek tragedy set in Oakland's black working class..

Fruitvale wasn't the only film this year to rely on a post-third-act coda that discloses real-life updates, in this instance the over-reach by Oakland CA prosecutors, who inexplicably brought first degree murder charges against the shooter cop and then watched the jury return an involuntary manslaughter conviction which netted out a two year sentence and parole at 18 months. I didn't pay attention to what was obviously a big Bay Area story at the time in 2009-10, complete with protest riots, since there have been plenty of similar summary executions of young black males by adrenaline-fueled cops who see what they want to see in the New York area where I live. I'm also not a lawyer, but I do know that first degree murder is an almost impossible charge to make stick, is generally reserved for cases like crazed custody battles between divorcing doctors, etc. Ergo, I'd have liked to see a few minutes spent on the Oakland DA's mishandling of the prosecution rather than have it slide by as a gap in An End Screen Crawl. But that's the film I'd have made, if I were capable of such things, not the one the winning one that Coogler made that effectively sensitizes viewers to the perils facing the struggling black, working-class male making it into American adulthood.

Harvey Weinstein jumped on the film, which means it will go out into theatres later this year, and while the limit in this case is likely lower than the sky, who knows where it will go.


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