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Sympathy for the Devils

By Steve Ramos · February 2nd, 2005 · Arts Beat
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President George W. Bush attacked his opponent, John Kerry, during last year's hard-fought election for the senator's close relationship with artists and entertainers. Bush's negative sound bite was this: Kerry believed you could find the "heart and soul of America in Hollywood." Bush, on the other hand, proposed that America's "heartland" wanted little to do with the Hollywood entertainment industry and, ultimately, nothing to do with Kerry.

If Bush is no fan of Hollywood, then he certainly wants nothing to do with the Sundance Film Festival, the popular independent film festival that finished Jan. 30 in Park City, Utah.

Park City might not be as conservative as the surrounding "red state" of Utah, but the town turns liberal "blue" once the festival's 35,000-odd attendees arrive from points in New York City, Los Angeles and beyond.

At Sundance, little attention was placed on the Bush Inauguration Jan. 20 except for an opening night joke by Sundance founder and longtime liberal activist Robert Redford, who couldn't understand why he wasn't invited to the nation's capital.

After the recent election, political pundits have divided the country into red and blue states, but experienced festivalgoers know that there are only blue films at Sundance -- like director Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, winner of the American Documentary Grand Jury Prize, about the influence of the military-industrial complex on the Iraq War, and veteran director Gregg Araki's wrenching family drama Mysterious Skin.

The argument heard from numerous Sundance filmmakers is this: The conservative movement is against progressive art, promotes censorship and blames moral corruption on artists and entertainers. Basically, conservatives are intolerant of artists who deal honestly, openly -- and most important of all -- artistically with sex and other taboos.

Of course, what's not mentioned is whether artists can be tolerant of red state inhabitants, their sworn enemies in the current culture wars.

The realization that tolerance is a two-way street occurred at the Jan. 25 screening of the "reddest" film in Sundance history, director Phil Morrison's engaging Southern drama Junebug. In it, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a pretty Chicago gallery owner who deals in outsider art, accompanies her new husband, George (Alessandro Nivola), to North Carolina to meet a rural painter. While there, they decide to visit his family, conservative Christians who instantly clash with Madeleine.

The Sundance storytelling formulas in the films competing with Junebug are clear: Liberals are good and tolerant. Conservatives are rigid and bad. But working from Angus MacLachlan's script (MacLachlan won the Playhouse in the Park's new play prize in 2000 for Dead Eye Boy), Morrison proves himself to be the most accepting of any Sundance director in recent memory and perhaps more tolerant than many of the festival audiences.

George's ultra-right family is shown honestly, flaws and all, but ultimately in a positive light as they strive to accept their son's big-city, college-educated, arty wife.

George, played with charisma by Nivola, might be the most attractive conservative ever to appear on film. When he sings a Gospel hymn at a church potluck, you cringe because, well, that's not something we expect from leading men in American independent dramas, nor is it something many of us do.

Yet George is proud of his churchgoing family and small-town upbringing. It's Madeleine, the hip, urbane modern woman, the outsider staple of numerous Sundance dramas, who comes off as selfish.

With Junebug, Morrison accomplishes something few other Sundance directors ever consider. He shows festival audiences of self-promoted liberals that tolerance goes both ways.

Sundance filmmakers would never dream about portraying American Muslims as terrorist villains. It's worth remembering that the Southern, conservative Christians also deserve fair and balanced portrayals.

Morrison reminds us that if liberal artists -- Sundance filmmakers or anyone -- want to walk with their heads high into the culture wars, then they must respect those people they too quickly deride as intolerant devils.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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