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Remembering Sundance 2005 as “The Year of the Penis”

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Pop culture analysis is all about making snap judgments—which, especially where filmmaking is concerned, is truly idiotic. We look to trends in movies to tell us something about where we are culturally, often forgetting that the journey from concept to production to screen can be years in the making. According to Skander Halim, the screenwriter of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition entry Pretty Persuasion, he first completed a version of the script seven years ago—far enough back that a reference to a casualty from the first war in Iraq had to be changed to a casualty from the current war in Iraq.

Still, it was almost inevitable in the wake of the divisive 2004 election year that entertainment journalists would look at the lineup of films at Sundance ’05 and proclaim it a shout against the reactionary side of the Blue State vs. Red State culture war. Never mind that festivals past have also featured plenty of entries that risked the sensibilities of sensitive viewers—anyone else remember the Tower Theatre screening of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible a few years ago? We would all be asked to see this as indie cinema’s response to Bush’s America: a great big raised middle finger.

Or maybe as another raised anatomical part. Because if Sundance 2005 will be remembered for anything, it will likely be remembered as The Year of the Penis. The male organ featured so prominently in so many films that it became hard—no pun intended—to keep track. Sometimes the unit was visible, as was the case in Michael Winterbottom’s art-porn relationship drama 9 Songs, or Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s insightful documentary Inside Deep Throat, or the Korean May-December romance Green Chair. Sometimes it was just the suggestion of fellatio or masturbation—often involving adolescent experimentation—as in the Dramatic Competition entries Pretty Persuasion, The Squid and the Whale, Thumbsucker and You and Me and Everyone We Know. There was the strictly verbal filthiness of The Aristocrats, the riotous documentary about the dirtiest joke in the history of professional comedians and how the boundaries of the shocking have changed through the years. And then there was Crispin Glover’s What Is It?, which featured not only manual stimulation of a handicapped man (by a naked woman in an animal mask, no less), but oral sex involving someone with Down syndrome, salted snails, a minstrel in blackface, the most racist song I have ever heard and Shirley Temple juxtaposed with swastikas. This wasn’t just pushing the envelope; this was shoving the entire freaking Postal Service off the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Yet rarely did all of this risqué button-pushing result in the festival’s best films. The fascinating Documentary Competition film The Devil and Daniel Johnston told the story of the titular singer-songwriter’s battle with manic-depression through ingenious filmmaking and access to Johnston’s films, visual art and music. The Dramatic Competition’s standout was Brick, Rian Johnson’s improbably marvelous extension of one high-concept gag—high school students involved in a mystery while spouting hard-boiled, Raymond Chandler-esque dialogue—to two fresh, funny hours. It also stayed true to its noir forebears by suggesting far more than it ever shows, and keeping the kids’ language squeaky-clean.

If Johnson bent a genre to his will in Brick, Stephen Chow tied several genres into the delightful balloon animal of Kung Fu Hustle. An elaborate goof on spaghetti Westerns, Looney Tunes mayhem and The Matrix, Hustle found the immensely talented Chow creating something kinetic, hilarious and so joyous in its winking references to other movies that everything feels fresh. Though certainly violent and a bit coarse in its language—thanks to the tale’s ill-tempered landlady—Kung Fu Hustle plays with such effervescence that even the bloodshed feels innocent.

But there was nothing innocent about the startling, riveting Hard Candy. From the Midnight section came this sure-to-be-controversial thriller about a 30-something pedophile photographer (The Phantom of the Opera’s Patrick Wilson) and a 14-year-old girl (Ellen Page, in a ferociously memorable performance) who meet over the Internet. While it’s best not to know too much about the film going in—and you’ll have a chance to see it this year after it was picked up by Lions Gate Films—predator soon becomes prey. And, perhaps fittingly for Sundance 2005, it all comes around once again to the male genitalia. Take that, Red States.

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