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'Dance mania

Slamdance has the real indie spirit,


Since the Sundance Film Festivaland independent cinema exploded onto the mainstream map in 1989, prefacing the box-office success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Robert Redford's celebration of "little" films has evolved into a full-on media monster. For a week or so, the eyes of the American entertainment industry are wrenched away from L.A. and focused on the Utah resort community of Park City. Big names can be seen strolling the main drag of the small town, multi-million dollar art-house hopefuls scramble for pride of place in the screening schedule, and commoners succumb to hypothermia or cannibalism waiting outside for tickets leftover from the online buying frenzy or, more likely, for a chance to crash one of the parties that have all but ousted pictures as the central focus of the festival.

The very prominence of Sundance, it seems, has overwhelmed the mission of the festival. To many a struggling filmsmith, the "Spirit of Independent Cinema," about which Sundance's Naugahyde founder so exhaustively speaks, is all but inaudible under the din of drinks, deals and the clink of extra Oscars in the pockets of celebs slumming with the indies.

So where, you may ask, can one look for the True Spirit, if Sundance has become such an insider's festival of outsider cinema? The answer is: Park City. Capitalizing on the proximity of their more respectable neighbor, a slew of counter-, pseudo- and anti-festivals descend on the city simultaneously with Sundance. And while Redford's brainchild may boast a bumper crop of photo-op faces, the various satellite festivals may represent the single greatest concentration of independent film and video anywhere on the planet.

There are, in fact, far more festivals in town than there are theaters, and screenings are held pretty much wherever the equipment will fit: the high school, the civic center, the hotels. Some of the events are one-time-only affairs, four-walled screenings advertised by sandwich boards and barkers, set up by filmmakers eager to steal a little of the excess limelight in town. Others are honest-to-god festivals, with entry fees and judges and a whole slate of screenings, albeit sometimes staged in the oddest places. No-Dance, a festival that welcomes any number of things the bigger kids in town ignore, including music videos, invaded an enclosed mini-mall for several days of screenings.

Troma-Dance, celebrating the legendary New Jersey grindhouse, took over a pizza joint on Main Street, where Lloyd Kaufman, the founder of the company, presided over "performance artists," scantily-clad women and a schedule of slapdash shorts -- mostly tasteless and awful, but definitely independent.

Despite the indifference of the paparazzi, Troma used Park City to premiere its latest feature, Citizen Toxie, the next chapter in the saga of the mutant Avenger on whom Kaufman built his exploitation empire. South American gore legend Coffin Joe also dropped by, complete with top hat, long fingernails and a Portuguese translator. He hosted a midnight screening of the restored print of his 1966 classic This Night I Will Possess Your Soul, screened in the local library.

The bars do their part, as well. Specializing in the sort of hipper-than-thou, low-brow chic the kids are into these days, Lap Dance is one of many things happening in Park City that you just have to keep your eyes and ears open to find. Advertised mostly by word-of-mouth and geared toward gonzo cinema and clubby hijinks, Lap Dance launched this year in a dance club with a documentary tribute to porn legend Ron "the Hedgehog" Jeremy and a full complement of strippers, doubtless much to the chagrin of the Park City Police Department, the only group in town more widely disliked than the Sundance jury.

The best-known, best-attended and oldest of the offshoot festival is Slamdance, this year held in a wonderfully kitschy tourist trap called the Silvermine, a little outside of town. Now in its seventh year, Slamdance prides itself on being a filmmaker's film festival and on screening the best of what Sundance foolishly ignores. Informal, informed and just a little geeky, Slamdance tends toward the eclectic; for every polished piece destined for foreign distribution and domestic cable, there will be seven or eight slum-budget shorts that only the filmmaker's mother could love. It's also been quick to embrace new media. This year, Slamdance unveiled a program of "$99 Specials" -- DV shorts produced by ex-Slammers for $99 or less (one film's line item budget reads: "$99 -- strippers and lapdances; 0 -- stolen videotapes; 0 -- stolen props"). Slamdance receives thousands of submissions each year and runs the entire length of the big fest downtown.

The problem with all of these festivals, though, Slamdance included, is that the odds of getting to see most of this stuff off the festival circuit is next to nil. One of the year's best features, Paul Is Dead, a sweet, smart, incredibly competent coming-of-age movie about a kid obsessed with John Lennon's cryptic utterance at the end of "Strawberry Fields," will never get out of Germany because of the kick-ass array of unauthorized rock 'n' roll classics on the soundtrack. Another, the Grand Prize-winning Hybrid, Monteith McCollum's hallucinogenic biography of his hog-calling grandpa, a pioneering corn cross-breeder, would become a classic of experimental and documentary cinema, if enough people get a chance to see it. Seriously, the last time any director made so bold with the medium, the movies were still silent.

Fortunately, there were some select gems screened at the Silvermine that you probably will get a shot at, sooner or later. The Trouble With Lou, directed by the mononymic Gregor, uses the style of the '50s hygiene film to alert youngsters to the devastating effects of chronic masturbation, and he actually gets more mileage than one would have thought possible out of its seemingly sophomoric conceit. It could also help revive intramural caber-tossing in our schools, thus keeping a generation of teenagers in kilts and off drugs. You should also keep your eyes peeled for American Chai, a by-the-numbers misunderstood-musician-wins-over-his-parents movie made irresistibly fresh by relocating the cliches to New Jersey's Indian-American community, and the latest Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation program. On second thought, don't keep 'em too peeled. With a few exceptions (some Aardman "Angry Kid" shorts, for instance), it's undoubtedly the single most offensive collection of cartoon atrocities ever assembled.

In all likelihood, a few of the films screened in Park City's spin-off festivals will swing through Atlanta. Some may even find their way to our own film festival. And though it is admittedly a drag that so much independent material pools in a remote mountain valley so far away, and in Utah, to boot, festival season in Park City is still an exhilarating experience, proof positive that the inevitable process by which the cutting edge is constantly dulled into conventionality can't keep up with thousands of rogue newcomers, armed with cameras and a vision, working all over the world to keep it sharp. u

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