PARK CITY, Utah — The official promotional trailers for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, which open every screening and were created by Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, better known as JibJab, feature an artistic highway line-painter, an animal-loving dogcatcher and a loose-cannon demolition expert who stay independent and do their jobs the way they want to and wind up sending a car off the road, being mauled by wild canines and getting blown to pieces. Then a title card emblazoned with the logos of the festival's corporate sponsors appear on the screen, from which I can only extract the message that JibJab believes that independent filmmaking is both really cool and potentially lethal.
Three days and about a dozen movies into the festival, the promos strike me as emblematic of the overall experience. From one moment to the next, depending on where you are, what you're watching or whether Carmen Electra is breezing by you on her way to the Yahoo! Cafe at the Village on the Lift, the feeling here is alternately egalitarian, elitist, inclusive, exclusive, down-to-earth, over-the-top, authentic and artificial. Friday, for instance, saw me go from the premiere of director/photographer David LaChapelle's "Rize," a moving documentary about kids in South L.A. who've created a quasi-tribal, spiritual dance movement as an expression of their oppression and despair, which is being compared to Jenny Livingston's "Paris Is Burning," to a party for the same movie that my cabdriver referred to as "the Paris Hilton party." Apparently, he wasn't the only one who thought of it that way. If you were lucky enough to squeeze past the dense and insistent throng at the door of the VIP lounge, you would have seen the dense and insistent throng inside and mistakenly bellied up to Hilton and Pamela Anderson to order a drink too. It really looked like there was a bar back there somewhere.
That the party for the movie about the kids who have nothing wound up belonging, in effect, to the girl who has everything seemed as fitting as anything else during these 10 days in Park City. A similar ironic tension runs through many of the movies I've seen so far, which have focused on queasy unions and uneasy alliances between naifs and roues (Marcos Siega's outrageously mordant black comedy "Pretty Persuasion," which features what must be the darkest language ever to emerge from the mouth of an angelic teen on screen), insiders and outsiders (Craig Lucas' equally dark and well-acted "The Dying Gaul"), idealists and pragmatists (Rebecca Miller's quietly surprising "The Ballad of Jack and Rose") and just about everyone in Don Roos' poignant, well-constructed comedic drama "Happy Endings."
Three of those take place in Los Angeles, which doesn't exactly fare well. "The Dying Gaul," which was adapted from a stage play of the same name, concerns a screenwriter who sells his script to a studio only to be asked, a million dollars dangling in front of his nose, to change the name of the movie and the protagonist's lover from a dead gay man to a dead straight woman. The movie acknowledges its own self-defeating title, which is clever, though moments after leaving the screening I overheard a woman, who had not seen it, say that the title put her off. In art as in life, I guess.
Several of the movies at the festival that people are talking about are flamboyantly transgressive, with mixed results -- Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" also features nine explicit sex scenes; Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's "The Aristocrats," which I haven't yet seen, involves around 100 comedians telling what is said to be the filthiest joke in the history of the world, to name just two. And "Pretty Persuasion," which is essentially what "Mean Girls" wanted to be when it grew up and got funny, revolves around the most messed-up rich kid I've ever seen on screen. The first third of the movie is a jaw-dropping marvel of inappropriateness.
Considering there's barely an uncrossed filmmaker finger or an inch of unbranded space to be found within a 10-mile radius of the screening rooms, global corporations and the entertainment industry have taken an on-screen beating. And that's not even counting Hal Hartley's lamentable "The Girl From Monday," a silly, mannered allegory about the commodification of sex and culture, which takes place in a near future in which a person's buying power kicks up a notch every time he or she has sex. Where all the fundamentalists went is never explained, but the movie is almost pretentious enough to drive Noam Chomsky into the enveloping arms of GE.
A far more interesting look at the commodification of sex can be found in the documentary "Inside Deep Throat," which traces the modern evolution of the porn industry in America and the government's role in promoting it by prosecuting; and more enjoyably in Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow," the sweet story of a pimp trying to go straight and the big winner of the festival so far.