Cover Story: SUNDANCE TO AMERICA

Suck On This

Lucie M. Rice


Sundance To America: Suck On This



PARK CITY, UTAH — The boisterous shout-out to President and Mrs. Bush comes from an unlikely source: co-directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. The premiere screening of their documentary Inside Deep Throat, a lively and thought-provoking look at the 1972 hardcore film Deep Throat — a $25,000 film that earned an estimated $600 million — and its ongoing impact on American culture, has just finished, and the crowd is wild with enthusiasm.

Of all 11 Sundance Film Festival screening venues scattered around this small town, all bare-bones assortment of makeshift spaces, including a hotel conference room, the best shot at building Sundance buzz is the massive Eccles Theatre, the large high school auditorium at the center of town.

If a crowd likes a film — the way they clearly love Inside Deep Throat — the loud applause and cheers sparks priceless momentum and confidence that the film will find theatrical success following the Sundance Festival. (Inside Deep Throat opens in select cities Feb. 11.)

Asked by an audience member how the film fits with America's current conservative climate, Bailey answers matter-of-factly.

"Something about blow jobs in America drives people crazy," he says.

Barbato counters with his own question for the crowd. "How many people in the audience have had oral sex? Because I think that everyone has.

Go on. Raise your hands."

While Bailey, producer Brian Grazer and Deep Throat co-star Harry Reems watch from the side, Barbato observes, "You know, I think this would be a great film for Laura and George (Bush) to see."

If film is to play a leading role in the current culture wars, then the Sundance Film Festival, the leading forum for independent films made outside the Hollywood system, is the launching pad.

The results of the recent presidential election divide the United States into red (conservative/Republican) and blue (liberal/ Democratic) states, but there are only blue films at Sundance.

Early into the festival, after a screening of the documentary Why We Fight, about the influence of the military-industrial complex on the Iraq War, a young festivalgoer turns to a companion and asks. "Why are all these films so liberal?"

If this young man thinks Why We Fight is over the top, wait until he gets a load of Inside Deep Throat.

Inside Deep Throat speaks to a time in America when a film could help further a sociopolitical revolution among young people as well as a sexual revolution. Now, 32 years later, there is hope that a documentary about Deep Throat can usher in a new revolution at a time when Barbato and Bailey are convinced we need it desperately.

The conservative movement is moving against art, promoting censorship and blaming moral corruption on artists and entertainers. The Sundance Festival, through panels about the culture wars and sexual content in films, is promoting the idea that perhaps film — especially the types of independent films they showcase — can address taboos and deal honestly, openly and artistically with sex.

In its 21-year history, Sundance has always been about pushing artistic boundaries, but now the art has a specific political agenda. Can Sundance change America's political climate?

FILM LAND
After the planes from New York City and Los Angeles land at a fog-shrouded Salt Lake City airport, the 2005 festival gets underway on Jan. 20 with its opening night film, Happy Endings, an L.A.-set ensemble drama from writer/director Don Roos. At the start of the screening, Sundance founder Robert Redford jokes that he wasn't invited to another party — meaning the inauguration.

President Bush attacked John Kerry during the election campaign for his close relationship with artists and entertainers. He ridiculed Kerry as someone who thought you could find the "heart and soul of America in Hollywood."

The president is no fan of Hollywood, and it's safe to say he has no respect or interest in Sundance. Especially once the 35,000 film festival attendees arrive here, it's no longer a place that has much relationship with the rest of conservative America. Sundance might have more than its share of late-night festival parties, but it's still not the place for presidential offspring, twins Jenna and Barbara Bush, 23, or their generation of young conservatives.

At Sundance, little attention was placed on Inauguration Day. If there is a message for Bush and his conservative supporters, it's this: The culture wars are just heating up, and independent film will have its say.

Sundance is a place for newcomers and veteran filmmakers like Werner Herzog, who is here with his documentary, Grizzly Man.

The financial success of Fahrenheit 9/11 has brought additional attention to politically motivated documentaries. There are also two new world cinema competitions, bringing added attention to international film in addition to the festival's longtime emphasis on independent American movies.

Still, this is the festival that launched sex, lies and videotape in 1989 and In the Bedroom in 2001. Last year Napoleon Dynamite, Open Water and Garden State turned out to be both festival and audience favorites.

In Ellie Parker, Naomi Watts stars as a struggling actress trying to make it in Hollywood. The film is a feature version of a short directed by Scott Coffey.

Forty Shades of Blue is the second feature of Ira Sachs, a Memphis-set drama about a veteran music producer (Rip Torn), his young girlfriend (Dina Korzun) and his son.

New talent is introduced from both sides of the camera, and the emphasis is on interesting but smaller films, in particular films whose edginess divides audiences. There is gridlock on the two main streets running through Park City. It's faster to walk than to ride a shuttle. Case in point: Editors for the festival newsletter missed their deadline because they spent more than an hour on a shuttle bus.

There are walls of dirty snow piled along sidewalks and buildings, but no new snow has fallen; temperatures are unseasonably high. The warmth allows the crowds to linger outside the screening venues and debate what they've just watched. And there is plenty to debate.

Hardcore Love Affair
Variety reviewer Derek Elley called director Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs "the most sexually explicit movie yet by an established English-lingo director," and no one disagrees.

Alternative bands perform the nine songs of the film's title in a series of concert scenes: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand and The Dandy Warhols. A young man (Kieran O'Brien) remembers a recent love (Margo Stilley), and their passion for each other is shown with beautiful but explicit candor.

Winterbottom first captured audience attention with his debut feature, Butterfly Kiss, and his filmmaking career has continued to be diverse and prolific. His earlier Sundance credits include 24 Hour Party People, Wonderland and In This World. He continues to tackle different subjects in different times and places, but the humanity of his storytelling remains the artistic thread that connects all of his work: Jude, Code 46, Welcome to Sarajevo and his latest and now 9 Songs.

At a weekend afternoon discussion at the Elk's Lodge, a ramshackle building tucked among the numerous Main Street shops and restaurants that's been converted into a festival meeting hall, Winterbottom answers questions from a capacity crowd of would-be filmmakers and screenwriters, press and assorted fans. The audience clearly admires him, but they're not sure what to make of 9 Songs and its hardcore sexual content. They want to know if the film's couple is personally in a relationship. How else could they be so intimate on-screen?

"I wouldn't cast them if they were involved," Winterbottom says, speaking from a threadbare, oversized chair at the front of the room. "I didn't want to make a documentary. I wanted to make a fictional film. Theirs is a performance.

"You know, people always ask me about Kieran O'Brien and Margo Stilley and say that the film must have been fun for the man and a nightmare for the woman. I think it's interesting that they would divide it along gender lines like that and infer that the sex scenes could not have been a good experience for Margo. I think it was hard work for everyone involved."

The following afternoon, at the Marriot Hotel, Winterbottom sits with his 9 Songs actors and recounts the questions about their work and the film in general.

It's been more than 30 years since the sexual revolution, but Winterbottom isn't sure a lot has been accomplished if his film shocks audiences. He set out to make an artistic film about sexual desire and an honest, young adult relationship, but he senses that many audiences can't handle explicit sex, no matter how beautifully shot.

9 Songs contains energetic concert footage, a poignant memory story and a love story, one that takes place in the bedroom, as well as romantic walks in Britain's countryside.

"I am not going to defend this film," Stilley says, wedged between her director and co-star. "This is a beautiful film, and it does not need to be defended."

The Sundance World
iPods and X-boxes, a Motorola V3 Razr phone, Levi's jeans, Timberland boots, the French skin product Vichy and Philips electronics are just part of the mountains of swag — some say that's shorthand for "stolen without a gun" — and bags of promotional freebies given out to filmmakers and actors in order to promote the various products. Buzz-building and corporate presence at Sundance remains as strong as ever.

What has changed is this: Publicists and talent agents speaking into their cell phones during Sundance screenings are no longer an issue. The hand held Blackberry has solved that problem.

There is no need to talk when you can read and send e-mails silently, and the glowing pockets of light throughout the theaters, like flickering candles, reveals that the Blackberry has become the festival device of choice. Imagine: You can watch a Sundance movie and work quietly all at the same time.

The Blackberry has been called a disgraceful intrusion at the screenings, but teenagers and future filmmakers coming to Sundance to network and meet people have used their cell phones to punch out quick e-mails for years. At Sundance, they have two aspirations for moving up — to become successful filmmakers and to become someone who can validly afford a Blackberry.

DEEP, DEEP THROAT
The first point made clear by Inside Deep Throat is that the film was made for $25,000 and filmed over six days in January 1972, then went on to become a $600 million phenomenon. It was the first pornographic film to cross over into mainstream audiences. Its success made it the target of politicians seeking to build reputations based on cleaning up and clamping down on the film at city, state and federal levels.

Inside Deep Throat is more than the story of Linda Lovelace or even director Gerard Damiano (AKA Jerry Gerard) and the assistant cameraman who became its leading man, Harry Reems. Barbato and Bailey state without hesitation that their documentary is about First Amendment rights.

A couple of days after the film screening, Barbato and Bailey sit down for an interview at one of Main Street's many corporate-sponsored interview sites. They have directed the documentaries Part Monster: The Michael Alig Story, a Channel 4 series titled Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization, The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Monica in Black and White. In 2003, their first dramatic film, Party Monster, starred Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green.

Asked how the original Deep Throat and other hardcore films of the time were able to usher in a revolution and what needs to happen for their film Inside Deep Throat to bring about tolerance and acceptance, Barbato and Bailey speak with confident optimism.

"I think the sexual revolution is something that didn't happen," Bailey says. "The threat of the sexual revolution acted as a very strong counter force with the silent majority and the moral majority and values of the South, and it not only put Nixon in office but every Republican president ever since, including the last two Bushes.

"They basically demonized what had happened in the sexual revolution to that point as wanton lust and irresponsibility. But what the sexual revolution really was about was much more philosophical and ideological. That was what informed the people who made this film, independent artists, to get into the business and this was the only way they knew how to — they didn't have a problem with sex, but what they really believed in was freedom of expression. The message of Deep Throat and all the talk about the clitoris being located in the back of her throat was a chauvinistic expression; it's really a metaphor of how each and every one of us has a different sexual DNA. That's the message of the film. Linda goes on this quest — so everyone should find their own bliss and pursue their own path."

As soon as Bailey stops with his answer, Barbato jumps in. "Sadly, a lot of people have forgotten the importance of freedom of expression," he says. "There is a disconnect. That is the significance and importance of Inside Deep Throat and understanding this culture war we're living in."

Barbato adds, "It's shocking that this film is being released by Universal, and we think somebody upstairs is not aware of it yet.

He shakes his head. "After 30 years," Barbato muses, "conservatives have not even replaced the taboos. They remain obsessed with the oral sex at the heart of the movie. I hope the film can survive the curse of the NC-17. I suppose that's the message of the film — that the whole myth of sexual normalcy is a negative stereotype weighing everybody down. It would be nice if everyone could get along. There's such a life-affirming message in Deep Throat, and it's a shame that everyone suffers who made that film. The message got lost.

"The thing about conservatives is that they are defined by their fixedness of purpose; they are not known for being open to new ideas or trying new things or being experimental. They justify (their attitudes) by giving some divine assignation like God is saying this, so they justify their illogical behavior with another illogical belief and try to make everyone else bow down to it."

Barbado's speech winds down. "Films speak to our fears. They are a measuring stick of the public zeitgeist. There are issues and the acts behind them and emotions — even when the images are graphic and considered offensive by some."

Has America changed in the three decades since Deep Throat first played theaters? It will, if Sundance has its way. ©

More Sundance coverage
Find more Steve Ramos reports from the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in the film section on page 51. and check out Steve's Sundance blog at ramossundance.blogspot.com.

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