EACH year the Sundance Film Festival seems to bring increasingly frantic bidding wars among buyers eager to find breakout successes and increasingly dire assertions (usually from critics) that American independent cinema is not what it used to be. Often lost amid the laments, though, is a clear idea of what preceded the go-go years inaugurated by Miramax with Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" in 1989.
If American indie films of an earlier era appear to have less of a shared identity, it's in part because the Sundance boom had such a homogenizing effect on the landscape (so many indies of the last decade and a half can be slotted into one of several subgenres: violent Tarantino copycats, sensitive coming-of-age dramas, dysfunctional-family comedies, slumming-star vehicles).
Indie films of the '80s were harder to pigeonhole and generally less reliant on formulas and gimmicks. But the more enduring titles -- the landmark early films of Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and John Sayles, for instance -- had a few things in common: not only indie badges of honor such as genuinely low budgets and not-yet-famous actors but also a real sense of place and an attention to regional specificity.
Seattle-based director Robinson Devor is one of the few American filmmakers who has found a measure of success while remaining indie in the old-school sense. With his writing partner Charles Mudede, Devor has made two of the least likely and most original American independent films of the last few years. Their most recent collaboration, "Zoo," is an improbably lyrical documentary about a community of zoophiles, obliquely retracing the last days of a man who died of a perforated colon after having sex with a horse on a farm in rural Washington state. The film understandably earned notoriety at Sundance in January and was released earlier this year (the DVD is due out from ThinkFilm in September).
The first film Devor and Mudede made together, "Police Beat" -- an under-the-radar critical favorite at Sundance 2005, finally out on DVD this week -- takes its name from a crime-blotter column that Mudede writes for the Seattle alternative newspaper the Stranger. (It's Devor's second fiction feature, after 1999's smart neo-noir "The Woman Chaser," adapted from a novel by Charles Willeford.)
"Police Beat" follows a Seattle bicycle cop known as Z (Senegalese soccer pro Pape Sidy Niang) through an apparently average work week; all the incidents depicted are drawn from actual police reports. But the film could hardly be further from a typical "cop movie" or "crime movie." It takes place largely outdoors -- and shows off green, hilly, overcast Seattle to stunning effect (thanks to the impeccable widescreen cinematography by Sean Kirby) -- but it practically unfolds inside Z's head. Throughout, the character's alienated voice-over musings are heard in Wolof, the native language of Senegal.
The first scene establishes the mood of disconnection that dominates the film. Z has discovered a corpse floating in the water, but all he can think of is his girlfriend (Anna Oxygen), who is off on a camping trip with her male roommate. His absent beloved is the one constant in Z's obsessive inner monologue, which darts from intense longing to paranoid jealousy to uncomprehending anger.
His lovesick ruminations are set to a haunting ambient score (mixing avant-garde pianist Erik Satie with electro minimalists the Aphex Twin) and juxtaposed with a succession of crimes and misdemeanors, mostly shown in fleeting fragments. Some of the incidents are commonplace (a mugging, a knifing); others are odd to the point of surreality: a hedge-trimming accident, a burglar's strange encounter with a caged bird.
The gap between Z's mental and physical realities is disorienting, but it's also precisely the point of this strange and beautiful film.
The seemingly unbridgeable distance emphasizes the character's acute loneliness. "Police Beat" is not just one of the loveliest portraits of estrangement in recent memory -- it's also one of the most literal.