PARK CITY, Utah--Wrapping up the final films I saw at Sundance this year:
The technical writer lives in the basement of the apartment building like a reclusive subterranean species, chain-smoking and typing arcane instructions for the operation of unnamed devices. He never leaves the building. He is friendly with a dying woman and on speaking terms with the desk clerk, and that is all, and it is enough. Then the swingers move in upstairs.
Scott Saunders' "The Technical Writer," a strange and haunting Sundance entry, is more character study than story. Michael Harris stars as the writer, unkempt, bearded, hostile. Pamela Gordon is the dying woman, and Tatum O'Neal and William Forsythe are the swingers. Oh, and another apartment contains two Russian prostitutes. Eventually, not without difficulty, O'Neal lures the writer out of the building and then into her bed, but this isn't one of those simplistic movies in which sex is the answer, or even the question. The movie has more to do with loneliness, tenderness, and finding something to be true to.
Alan Rudolph's "The Secret Lives Of Dentists" has some of the same themes. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis star as dentists, married to one another and with three children, the youngest one going through a stage where she hates her mother. By accident Scott discovers that his wife is apparently having an affair, and this begins a long, uneasy period in which this fact hovers over their marriage. He refuses to confront her, because that would open the whole can of worms: separation, divorce, custody, alimony. So they communicate by silences and absences, while meanwhile a laconic fantasy figure (Denis Leary) gives Scott harsh advice from the underside of his id. Based on Jane Smiley's novel The Age of Grief, the movie is acute in the way it shows two long-married people communicating by the very fact of noncommunication.
"Camp" is one of the audience favorites this year; the musical numbers are applauded by the audience. It takes place at an upstate New York camp for gifted young performers, some of them gay, who put on shows and a benefit and jockey for plum roles and compliments. A straight boy gets a gay boy as his roommate, and asks him if he has ever experimented with heterosexual sex. The gay kid asks, "You mean have sex with a straight guy?" The plot is intercut with musical numbers, remarkably well-performed, and if the love stories are predictable, the energy level is high and there is little question some of these performers will actually make it to Broadway.
Perhaps representing a return of the musical, in a year when "Chicago" seems destined for the top Oscar, Alex Proyas' "Garage Days" is a visually exuberant, high-spirited story from Australia about Sydney wannabes who form a rock band. Their sex lives are infinitely more tangled than the kids in "Camp"; but then they're a little older and more worn and, as one admits, not very good. But they love their music, and Proyas ("Dark City") uses dazzling graphics and special effects to underline, subvert and kid their stories.
Ernest Dickerson, whose "Our America" was one of the best of last year's films, is back with "Good Fences," where Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg star in what begins as a suburban comedy and then takes a U-turn to the dark side. Glover is a successful lawyer, later a judge, who with his wife integrates an all-white neighborhood in Greenwich, Conn. All goes well until a black welfare queen from Florida buys the house next door, testing their values and, in Glover's case, his sanity. The light tone of the early scenes makes the movie's turn to tragedy rather startling; Goldberg makes the transition successfully, but Glover's character is so oddly written that all he can do is struggle. The movie plays next month on Showtime.
"Buffalo Soldiers" was set for release in the autumn of 2001, but was yanked by Miramax after 9/11. Set in West Germany right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as an ambitious young GI who heads a ring of black marketeers and drug dealers on a U.S. Army base.
Scott Glenn is the hard-bitten top sergeant who makes life impossible for him after the kid starts dating the Top's daughter (Anna Paquin). Of course, he's also having an affair with the wife (Elizabeth McGovern) of his commanding officer (Ed Harris). True, the movie is not patriotic in its view of greedy slackers in the peacetime army, but it is hardly political enough to deserve the water bottle that was hurled at the cast by an angry audience member after the screening. Those who do not want to hear bad news are often the angriest when it comes.
And now the 2003 Sundance festival is over and it is time for melancholy list-making. I've seen more than 30 films, but I did not see "In America," "Soldier's Girl," "Whale Rider," "Bukowski: Born Into This," "The Weather Underground," "Off the Map," "Laurel Canyon," "The Murder of Emmett Till," "Normal," "Raising Victor Vargas" or "A Decade Under the Influence," all films I have been reliably assured I absolutely should have seen.
Four movies a day is more or less my capacity, and there must also be time for interviewing, writing, eating and not getting enough sleep.