It's on day four that the Sundance press and industry corps start to resemble the bags of trail mix they've been carting around. “Water and hand sanitiser” were the other survival tools Robert Redford recommended on opening day, the latter a reference to the flu circulating Park City, a bug that went viral with its own twitter feed before the first films screened. The latest public victim is Darren Aronofsky, who tweeted Saturday night that he'd been hit, and that his festival was over.
The 'no handshakes please' vibe of the traditionally long but convivial screening lines seems to have extended into the business-end of the festival: so far the biggest news from Sundance's biggest weekend is the lack of big news. Relatively few deals have come through thus far, although the reason for that may be this year's distinct move away from front-loading the festival with buzzy titles, ostensibly to keep people who otherwise jet in and out for the weekend on hand for a few days longer.
Documentary deals are leading the way: Alison Ellword's four-hour History of the Eagles, a look at the lifespan of classic rock radio's favorite band, was picked up by the Showtime network. One of a notable number of music docs showing this year, it is joined in deal-dom by Twenty Feet From Stardom (pictured), Morgan Neville's crowd-pleasing opening night selection about the world of back-up singers, those men and women with familiar voices but not household names. Steve James, whose dazzling The Interrupters was a 2011 Sundance highlight, has already found a buyer for his as-yet untitled documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, as has Nick Ryan's The Summit, which tells the story of the disastrous 2008 climb of the mountain known as K2.
Still up for grabs is one of the most hyped premieres of the festival, Don Jon's Addiction, the writing and directing debut of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “Obviously it will find distribution,” one breathless young woman said to Gordon-Levitt during the post-premiere Q&A Saturday morning, but what will he do about the film's copious images of pornographic sex when the moneymen come calling? Told from the point of view of a modern-day Tony Montana named Jon (Gordon-Levitt), Don Jon's Addiction follows the romantic education of a mook who prefers porn—endless streams of it—to sex with the actual babes he pulls every weekend.
“For the first half I thought it was the worst movie I'd ever seen,” my friend said to me as the lights came up, “but some interesting stuff came up toward the end.” I liked it a little better, but I saw my friend's point: Gordon-Levitt seemed to want his film to embody the thing it's about—a tricky business when it comes to the objectification of women. Jon is a kind of aesthetic fascist: he wants everything in his life to be antiseptic and perfect, and he and his friends are especially vicious judges of women. Whether twos, threes, eights, or “dimes”, none of these women measure up to the porn stars, and none can satisfy Jon to his liking.
It struck me as the kind of portraiture that might stand a better chance in print, where the film's endless images of naked, nameless babes—their breast and buttocks flailing—getting reamed from behind can't stake their massive claims on the viewer's imagination. Or alienate the viewer, as the case may well be. Gordon-Levitt called the film a romantic comedy, and I guess a case could be made, but the tone is too acid, uneven, and, paradoxically, generic for any clear designation. Scarlett Johansson is amusing as the Jersey princess caricature (one among many one-notes, including those played by Tony Danza and, to a lesser extent, Julianne Moore) who tames our Jon, but very little about her character adds up. Least plausible is Gordon-Levitt's equation of Jon's relationship to pornography with Johansson's character's reality-distorting love of romantic comedies.
“I wanted to tell a story about love,” the director told the Sundance audience, and what's always getting in the way of love is the way people objectify each other. Boys do it to girls and girls do it to boys.” Especially in light of the exchange my friend and I had when Gordon-Levitt walked on stage (he would; I wouldn't), it was an apt observation. I'm still not sure the story worked on the terms he set down, but then it's all subjective.
Sucking up all available buzz as it thundered through Park City over the weekend was Escape from Tomorrow, the debut of writer/director Randy Moore. Apparently shot, without permission, on the grounds of Disneyland, Escape follows an average dad (Roy Abramsohn) as he falls apart during a family theme park vacation. Described as dark, surreal, and subversive, the film might also be doomed once the Disney borg is alerted to its existence. Which only makes us want it more, of course: Escape from Tomorrow has become one of the festival's most elusive tickets. I hope to report back from the front after catching it tonight.