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Bleakness infuses films at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah --The theme song of the opening days of this year's Sundance Film Festival should have been "Get a Job." I've seen six American films so far, all of them about characters mired in aimless unemployment or unsatisfying work. Oh, and I saw a Czech film too: That was about a man in Prague who is kicked out of the philharmonic and reduced to playing his cello at funerals.

Some of these films are very good. But the U.S. films reflect a startlingly bleak view of the society and economy. Is this a coincidence? The festival, which is the showcase of American independent films, has a week to run; maybe the tide will turn.

Sundance has Park City bursting at its seams. There were long delays Friday as fire marshals inspected temporary seating and projectionists struggled to show movies in motel meeting rooms. Somehow the disorganization adds to the excitement; you're not really surprised to overhear, while standing in line, "Yeah, the Coen brothers' new film is based on me."

Sundance has even spawned two satellite festivals. Slamdance, showing films rejected by Sundance, has moved into an inn on Main Street, and one of its entries is "Schizopolis," by Steven Soderberg - whose "sex, lies . . . and videotape" ironically put Sundance on the map in 1989.

Slamdance, prospering in its third year, has now been joined by Slumdance, for films rejected by Slamdance. Located in the basement of a microbrewery, Slumdance says it's "the third ring of the circus."

All of the films have been made on small budgets, but they hold the promise of breakthroughs to fame and fortune. The audiences include famous faces like Billy Crystal (his daughter stars in "35 Miles from Normal"), Martha Plimpton (she's in two titles) and William H. Macy, from "Colin Fitz," who is beloved by the indie crowd for such films as "Fargo." Trolling the screenings for new prizes are major distributors like Miramax's Harvey Weinstein.

With all of the ambition and enterprise on view here, it's ironic that so many films should be about young Americans who feel their lives hold no promise. But consider, for example, Richard Linklater's hypnotically alienating "SubUrbia," written by Eric Bogosian, about a group of unemployed losers who spend their days and nights leaning against the wall of a convenience store, drinking and making desultory conversation. They don't like the ambitious young Pakistanis who run the store - and the Pakistanis don't like them. (Sample dialog: The store owner tells them they're on private property, and one of the GenXers shouts back, "Don't tell us about private property! This is America!")

Then there is the remarkable, powerful "Black & White & Red All Over," written and directed by DeMane Davis, Harry McCoy and Khari Streeter. This film takes place entirely within an apartment where six young black friends hang out, watching TV, drinking, smoking pot and engaging in endlessly inventive riffs on American society, pop culture and their own lives. They're trapped in a drug scene that's killing off their friends and maybe themselves, but they can't see that (one sequence is filmed from the point of view of a joint).

Consider, too, Tim Blake Nelson's bleak "Eye of God," which takes place in a small Oklahoma town that's losing population; there's so little to do that the heroine (Martha Plimpton) is driven to hanging out at the convenience store near the interstate, making small talk with travelers. Then she marries a prisoner (Kevin Anderson) she meets by correspondence and finds herself a prisoner of her home because of his fundamentalist idea that it's wrong for her to talk to strangers.

A funnier angle on meaningless jobs is provided by Robert Bella's "Colin Fitz," starring Matt McGrath and Andy Fowie as security guards hired to watch the grave site of a rock star on the anniversary of his death. They both average many different jobs a year, hate their work and regard their go-getter boss (William H. Macy) as a curiosity.

A warmer but still pessimistic view of small-town emptiness is painted in Mark Schwahn's "35 Miles from Normal," set in central Illinois and starring Gabriel Olds as a college graduate who works as a roofer until there's a strike at the local factory. He's fired to make way for his boss' son, who's out on strike, and so with a certain logic he becomes a strikebreaker.

One girl (Jennifer Crystal) has broken free and moved to Chicago; the others endlessly replay old tapes from high school and get drunk every night. (Work at the factory consists of using sledgehammers to knock petrified sludge off giant cylinders.)

Still another job without a future is held by the heroine in Sarah Jacobson's "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore," with Lisa Gerstein as a clueless employee of a college-town repertory cinema, whose fellow workers treat their jobs as ways of subsidizing idleness. Mary Jane, perhaps because she is clueless, has hopes for her future.

In all of these films, most of the hopeless characters, from such different backgrounds, borrow their dreams from show business. The black kids are expert TV critics (their analysis of BET cable is uncanny). The slackers in "SubUrbia" are visited by a classmate who has become a rock star. The security guards in "Colin Fitz" get reflected fame by guarding a rock star's grave. The only person who is making it in "35 Miles from Normal" has moved to Chicago and wants to be an actress. The aunt played by Mary Kay Place in "Eye of God" has a life revolving around the soaps. Nobody finds any cause for hope in their own communities.

By contrast, the hero of "Kolya," the Czech film, has a more visible target to blame for his troubles. He was bounced out of the philharmonic by a Communist bureaucrat after making an irreverent entry on an official form. Now he plays at funerals, his best friend is a gravedigger, and he supplements his income by lettering tombstones.

His life takes on new meaning when he unexpectedly finds himself caring for a small boy, however, and at least he still loves and plays his cello - oh, and he has an active and happy sex life, which is something none of the characters in the American films can claim. Maybe he's more positive because, under communism in the 1980s, he was supplied with an enemy and didn't have to become his own.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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