Review of 'The Sundance Kids', James Mottram, Faber and Faber £16.99
"It was good old-fashioned greed that inspired Hollywood's interest in the indie filmmaker," suggests James Mottram in his back-story to the careers of recent US filmmakers. Since pioneers like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty created a raw new US cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, critics have been looking for the next generation of movie mavericks.
The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood suggests we found them sometime during the 1990s and, despite the quote above, the ruthless profiteering of the media industry is only a subplot to the intriguing narrative of their personal journeys.
Mottram's starting point is director Steven Soderbergh, credited with elevating the Sundance Film Festival to a marketplace for new American film talent, and through his film Sex, Lies and Videotape, the launchpad for hundreds of independent films.
Hot on Soderbergh's heels were the "class of 92 and 93", including Quentin Tarantino, his friend Robert Rodriguez (director of El Mariachi) and many others.
By Mottram's measure, being a Sundance alumnus is the hallmark of independence. Directors with visual originality, who make character driven movies, and negotiate the Hollywood production quagmire, make the list of mavericks. Those negotiations make for some enjoyable diversions - such as Tarantino meeting his future producer Lawrence Bender at a barbecue.
Mottram wields trivia to film analysis, suggesting a continuation of the 1960s legacy. Reasonable service is also given to the significant role of production and distribution outfit Miramax, and there's an interesting discussion about genres. However, this won't satisfy those with a deeper political view of cinema.
The year 1999, for example, was the "annus mirabilis" for independents with the critical success of Three Kings, Magnolia and Fight Club. But the ideological content of these films, and their relationship to corporate Hollywood, is not explored in depth. Fight Club, presented as evidence of Sundance veterans in the mainstream, is a corporate produced film and has been the subject of intense political debate.
The previous generation of mavericks partly took their inspiration from the social movements of 1968 and the opposition to the Vietnam War. Their new styles of film making were inspired by a desire to represent an inequitable, corrupt world. Fight Club director David Fincher professes no such desire.
The book does not set out to explain capitalism in Hollywood, or how filmmakers relate to it. This means that an otherwise enjoyable book misses key social and political elements of the independent-corporate matrix. It is interesting that John Sayles, who has long worked outside Hollywood for largely political reasons, barely gets a mention. Nor do Spike Lee, Tim Robbins or the many political activists now present in Hollywood.
Mottram rightly concludes that "the Sundance Kids" have never been a movement. Their only mutual goal is to "make good films". If you can stomach the political deficiencies, this is a fascinating account packed with interesting film knowledge.