by Harlan Jacobson
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
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.
MORE ON SUNDANCE TO COME...