The Slamdance Film Festival has always trotted along behind Robert Redford’s Sundance fest. While other competitors have come and gone, Slamdance has persevered as the primary Sundance alternative and a necessary second-guesser to the tastes of the Sundance programmers.
As recently as last year, Mad Hot Ballroom received its blastoff from the Slamdance launch pad at the Treasure Mountain Inn, located at the top of Park City’s steeply inclined Main Street.
Last Tuesday evening I visited Slamdance to catch up with area actress ANDREA POWELL and her husband Paul Ferguson, a performance studies professor at UNC. Powell had told me that she would be wearing a red T-shirt and that she looked like a “blond actress.” Even in Park City during festival season I was able to locate her instantly with that description. The T-shirt bore the slogan “Trust me, I’m an actress.”
Powell was on hand for the Slamdance premiere of THE LIMBO ROOM, a low-budget indie by New York filmmaker Debra Eisenstadt. Powell plays the lead role as a struggling stage actress named Ann who works as an understudy to a temperamental diva. Although The Limbo Room is frequently quite funny, the film delves into some serious issues, including on and offstage sexual intrigue, the fears of aging actors, and rape. Powell is surrounded by a strong cast, including Melissa Leo as her acting rival and Zack Griffiths as a callow stud. Midway through, Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) makes a show-stopping cameo, to which the Slamdance audience gave a round of hearty exit applause.
After the film’s unexpected and startling conclusion, Powell stood with Eisenstadt and several other cast members and took questions from the audience that was packed into the cramped screening room. Eisenstadt revealed that her film was partly inspired by her understudy experience in Oleanna, David Mamet’s tale of campus sexual politics. (Although the lead role was originated by Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon, Eisenstadt took the part for the film version, opposite William H. Macy.)
Later, Powell and I chatted in the lobby as actors and fans milled about. “I had the same manager as Debra, and the manager recommended me,” Powell says. “I fell in love with my character, and I was afraid of that because that usually guarantees that you’re not going to get it.”
One of the notoriously touchy subjects tackled by the film is the issue of feminine aging. Powell’s character turns 40 in the film, a melancholy milestone for many people but particularly for actresses. (Powell in fact seems to be enjoying a long-term lease on her mid-30s.) Still, while the age issue no doubt bothers the likes of Nicole Kidman as much as lesser-known performers, the consolations of success can ameliorate the sting of aging.
Powell’s character in The Limbo Room is forced to confront her motivations for being an actress. In the film, she shrugs and says that it’s too late to reinvent herself. Eisenstadt’s strikingly pessimistic script offers no easy reassurances about the value of the acting trade, and even suggests that many motives are unhealthy.
For Powell, the film is a welcome corrective to public notions about the reality of the acting trade. “There’s such a culture of celebrity,” Powell says. “Thousands of people in town come to see the celebrities. This film is a rare look on the other side where the majority of actors are just slogging away.”
“I mean, I went straight from shooting a network television show to doing a training film on the assembly of a self-cleaning cat box,” she says, referring to her recurring role in the upcoming F/X series Thief, which stars Michael Rooker and Andre Braugher.
The Limbo Room is, at its best, an actor’s film, both in its thematic concerns and in the strength of the main performers–all experienced thespians who betray no evidence of the production’s surely stressful nine-day shoot.
Despite its limitations–chiefly the hardships imposed by the tight budget–The Limbo Room proves the value of the Slamdance festival, which is more concerned with providing a fresh point of view than with production values. As accomplished as most of the Sundance films are, often there is an enervating familiarity to their narrative arcs. A case in point is The Hawk is Dying, which appeared in Sundance’s dramatic competition. Despite a typically powerful performance from Paul Giamatti, the narrative was as orderly as night following day: A downtrodden Everyman has a grandiose dream, endures humiliations and heartbreaks before finally achieving his ambitions.
The Limbo Room, in contrast, avoids those narrative traps on its way to its jarring and abrupt conclusion. And in its themes and in the practice of making the film, The Limbo Room accurately captures the sentiments on movie sets small and large, according to Powell, who has seen both: “Just get through the day and hope they’ll have you back again.”
Is North Carolina poised to become the next hotbed of white-boy martial arts filmmaking? Local filmmakers like Donald Whittier and Steve Milligan have been working this terrain in Carrboro, and I encountered a like-minded crew from Concord who had their own flick running in Sundance’s Midnight competition.
I saw THE FOOT FIST WAY in a satellite venue in downtown Salt Lake City. The film’s title refers to the literal translation of tae kwan do, and Jody Hill takes on writing, directing and acting chores in this anarchic slice of midnight munchy. Co-writer Danny McBride stars as Mr. Simmons, an inept small-town tae kwan do intructor whose life begins to unravel with the revelation of his wife’s infidelity. Ultimately, The Foot Fist Way is a series of non sequiturs and skits revolving around Mr. Simmons, played by the hilariously unlikely McBride, who sports a paunchy, sleazy demeanor.
Some viewers will remember McBride for his supporting turn as Bust Ass in All the Real Girls, a Sundance hit from 2003. All the Real Girls was directed by North Carolina School of the Arts alumnus David Gordon Green, and he, McBride and Hill are chums from that institution.
Last week, Hill sold The Foot Fist Way to British distributor Momentum Films and was in talks with potential American buyers.
Every now and then, one overhears a conversation that seems to have been staged entirely for the eavesdropper’s benefit. So it was one day on a crowded bus that I kept glancing over my shoulder at a couple of stylish young guys sipping lo-carb energy drinks to see if they were staging a joke at my expense. The lads seemed to be film students and they were discussing famous films they hadn’t seen. What they said went like this:
FUTURE FILMmAKER 1: I’ve never seen The Sound of Music.
FUTURE FILMmAKER 2: Shit, I never saw The Godfather until like three years ago at a special screening.
FF 1: Have you ever seen Singin’ in the Rain?
FF 2: No.
FF 1: Have you seen Sunset Boulevard yet?
FF 2: No.
FF 1: You can’t get out of film school without seeing that one.
FF 2: I have seen Citizen Kane, though. Like two or three times at school.
FF 1: Yeah, they really drill that one into you.
FF 2: It’s not even that good. It’s kind of boring.
I got a good look at them as they got off the bus. Despite their unapologetic ignorance, that’s no reason why they can’t become the next Tarantino or Soderbergh, the next toast of Park City.