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It's Very Invigorating at Park City Festival

February 05, 1989|SHEILA BENSON

PARK CITY, Utah — This year's United States Film Festival, whose final showings in the ski town of Park City, Utah, wound down last Sunday, had a bracing effect that went far beyond the single-digit temperatures or the nosebleed altitude. While a panel of film maker-critics wrangled before an SRO crowd about whether "independents have lost their social conscience," and decided, "well, sort of," the news thundering down was an exhilarating "no!"

Social conscience also means the ability to challenge, and the best of these films were challenges, tackling traditions, expectations, our social and sometimes our political fabric, even our memories. This time, however, there was the feeling that independent no longer only meant "worthy" and "good for you," but films that were sexy, life-affirming and seeable, as well as about something .

By the close of the festival, as audiences packed in to see the dramatic and documentary competition winners--"True Love," a shrewdly observed comedy about young love and (gulp) marriage, Bronx style, and "For All Mankind," a documentary that made unified art from the NASA footage of our moon voyages and landing--it was clear that 1989 marked a turning point.

The fine stuff is a trickle, still, not a torrent; but there is the sense of something exciting going on, of serious themes beneath the appealing exteriors.

Increasingly since Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took a hand in the proceedings in 1980, the U.S. Film Festival is an event that Hollywood watches with an eagle eye and attends in force. When Paul Mazursky, emcee of the awards ceremony, cracked that as a conservationist, Redford, was shocked by the deal memos littering the ski slopes, it was barely an exaggeration. The rush by agents, distributors, even publicists to press their cards on debuting writer/director Steven Soderbergh, standing on the snow-banked street after the tumultuous response to his brilliant feature, "sex, lies and videotape", was almost parodic.

If a film-making presence hung over the festival, it was the devilish, mocking, magnificent one of John Cassavetes, Regrettably, he was absent, yet you would swear not, after watching Michael Ventura's programming of all of his films as a writer-director and crucial examples of his acting performances. If you'd grown up with Cassavetes' films, the chance to revisit so much wild, insistent love was irresistible. To some of the younger film makers and filmgoers who had only heard of "Shadows" or "Faces," it was cataclysmic. Frankly, it wreaked havoc with good intentions and a tight schedule. Hooking into Cassavetes's dangerous, glittering confrontations, watching him shred every bit of the fabric of pretense or politeness was ruinously unfair to any ordinary film with the bad luck to follow him.

If it could be said that any film here connects directly into the Cassavetes vein, it is Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape," a delicate, tension-ridden and sexually charged investigation of contemporary romantic dysfunction. To be sure, Soderbergh's visuals are more elegant, his writing is more controlled, less the gasping, jagged American Realspeech of "Minnie and Moskowitz" or "Husbands" but he's no less relentless, and his intentions--to peer behind the careful facade to some unsettling truths beneath--are a match for Cassavetes' own, as is his quartet of actors.

You could pick up information on the real lot of the independent today from some of the production histories: The four years it took, for example, to assemble "The Lodz Ghetto," correctly described as an existential horror story of the quarter-million inhabitants of that Polish city, of whom 800 survived to the end of World War II. The film makers used tiny archival photographs as well as a cache of Nazi color footage, blew them up, combined them with muted color footage shot in contemporary Poland and letters from within the ghetto and orchestrated everything into a soaring whole that makes the still move and absorbs us into the daily lives of this slowly disintegrating community. Setting off the impeccable work of director Alan Edelson and co-director/editor Kathryn Taverna is a phenomenal "musical" score by Wendy Blackstone who has created an aural portrait so detailed and so inventive that the film seems three-dimensional.

On the other end of the production spectrum, there was the wild story behind another of the festival's triumphs, "Gingerale Afternoon," which had a gestation period of three weeks from the time producer Susan Shapiro saw Gina Wendkos' play at the Cast Theater in Hollywood to the day director Rafal Zielinski began shooting. What lent the affair its particular urgency was the fact that Dana Andersen, who plays the trailer-court heroine sunning in a bikini for most of the picture, was approaching her ninth month of pregnancy. The entire film was shot in 10 days; Andersen worked three of them before she delivered her 9-pound, 9-ounce son, and four days a month later.

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