Slammin' Fun in Park City By Mike White. When I told people that I was going to Utah in January, they thought I was some kind of skier. The last time I went skiing, it resembled that "agony of defeat" guy from "ABC’s Wide World of Sports...

When I told people that I was going to Utah in January, they thought I was some kind of skier. The last time I went skiing, it resembled that "agony of defeat" guy from "ABC’s Wide World of Sports." No, I wasn’t going to hit the slopes. I was going to Park City to seek sanctuary inside of some darkened screening rooms for four full days of film. I had been invited to the , the youthful alternative to the industry-centric Sundance Film Festival. While Slamdance has been around for nearly a decade, it maintains the upstart attitude from its antiestablishment origins. Luckily, the fest isn’t all about ‘tude. Simply put, it’s about the films.

The fest certainly did right by me. Not only did they put me up in a nice condo outside of town (where I stayed with fellow judge Mike Gramaglia), but they put on one hell of a program. From morning till night I took in a boatload of documentary features and shorts along with Gramaglia and Geralyn White Dreyfous. From the harrowing to the heartfelt, the documentaries of Slamdance didn’t fail to impress.

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Glennell, United Kingdom, 2006)

Jake Glennell’s film explores the world of the Japanese "Host Club." Inside the walls of Cafe Rakkyo, one of the host clubs of Osaka, we witness a handful of young men who share drinks and stories with their female clients. If anything more goes on, we’re not witness to it. It appears that there’s nothing more than hardcore flirting and consuming copious amounts of champagne in the clubs.

The audience’s host for this journey is Issei, the club’s most popular employee. He’s a mentor to his fellow hosts and the object of ardor from his clients. We see him interview new hosts and see them transform from looking like salary men to gender-ambiguous anime characters. The real "stars" of the film are the patrons of Club Rakkyo. With stars in their eyes, these ladies initially come across as sad and deluded. How can these poor women pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars, night after night, for champagne and company? Simply put, they’re very well-paid prostitutes who use their hard-earned wages on men who could essentially be seen as gigolos.

As I took in the nine features and nine shorts at Slamdance, I began to codify what I felt made a good documentary work. At the top of the list was showing me a world that I didn’t know existed. The Great Happiness Space definitely fit that bill. This was the one movie that I wanted to give an award but, after a hard fight with my fellow judges, I lost.

Stroke / Um Seidenen Faden (Katarina Peters, Germany, 2004)

I wonder how Katarina Peters thinks that her film portrays her. This personal documentary about her love and "loss" of her husband, Boris Baberkoff, really brings into question the appropriateness of videotaping difficult moments. When Boris undergoes a horribly debilitating stroke, it’s only his love of music and his wife that bring him back from the brink. Katarina soon begins to wither under the yoke of Boris’s disability. Is Boris manipulating Katarina with his needs, or is she just a self-obsessed bitch? I vote for the latter. If you want to see an artsy-fartsy piece about triumph over adversity and the strains that sickness can put on a relationship, this film is for you. It wasn’t for me.

The Empire in Africa (Philippe Diaz, 2005)

One of the most harrowing documentaries of the competition, if not the most challenging film that I’ve ever seen, The Empire in Africa chronicles the wars in and against Sierra Leone. Not only has Sierra Leone suffered from civil war, but it’s been manipulated by its former colonial masters who continue to pull the strings behind the scenes of its "official democratic government." The story of The Empire in Africa is told via heartfelt interviews and incredible footage of rampant inhumanity. This sobering film embodies everything that documentaries should do, and it does it right. Informative while avoiding preachiness, voting this the best documentary of the festival was a no-brainer.

B.I.K.E. (Jacob Septimus & Anthony Howard, 2006)

An attempt to document an "underground bike club," B.I.K.E. showcases an endless array of scenes wherein people joust one another on overly tall bicycles. These contests are interesting to a point, but not as fascinating as filmmakers Jacob Septimus and Anthony Howard would like to believe. However, the film’s biggest pitfall is that it serves as an outlet for Howard’s unquenchable ego and becomes more about this actor/director/enfant terrible than anything else. Worse yet, as Howard is (in)famous for his pranks, I tended to disbelieve every word out of his mouth, jeopardizing the veracity of the entire film.

Rambling and overlong, we’re never made privy to what the acronym "B.I.K.E." stand for, or what B.I.K.E. the movie, stands for either. One to miss.

Holy Modal Rounders... Born to Lose (Sam Wainwright Douglas & Paul Lovelace, 2005)

If you haven’t heard of Holy Modal Rounders, don’t worry. I didn’t know that I had until I caught the scene in this flick from Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), in which Jack Nicholson flaps his arms to Rounders’ "If You Want To Be A Bird." Apparently, there’s some connection between the Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs and Sam Shepard. Unfortunately, neither of these is elucidated in Douglas and Lovelace’s lackluster documentary. Rather, we’re treated to overabundant conversations and bickering between founding Rounders Steve Weber and Pete Stampfel.

Born to Lose feels like A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003) if it had been only about the Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara) characters. Alas, this isn’t a comedy, no matter how outrageous the "characters" may be. And, when Steve Weber goes missing before the triumphant return concert near the end of the film, he’s not out buying a rose for Pete. We never really find out what happens. There’s no actual documentary work of tracking down Steve and trying to get an interview. The film just peters out and ends. This rambling mess might have been better if a half-hour shorter, but it’s missing as much information as it shares.

While in Park City, I also managed to catch a few of the narrative features. The following made quite an impression.

The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang / The Sasquatch Gang (Tim Skousen, 2006)

Told in a semi-elliptical style (it could be called "loopy" and enjoy many meanings), Tim Skousen’s feature film debut as a writer/director shares much of the same personnel and affection for geeks as Napoleon Dynamite (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Jon Heder). The story of Gavin, the middle-sized nerd in a trio that includes the diminutive Maynard (Rob Pinkston) and gargantuan Hobie (Hubble Palmer), these three friends enjoy discussing the finer points of Clash of the Titans and LARPing via mock sword fights on their front lawns. Gavin makes two major discoveries over the summer that change him forever. First, he finds love—at Video Vern’s rental emporium—in Sophie (Addie Land), a highly body-conscious teen who takes some drastic measures to lose weight. Secondly, he and his pals discover the footprints and "dumplings" of Sasquatch!

Through this astounding find, Gavin finds himself caught between the nefarious plot of Zerk Wilder (an amazing performance by Justin Long in a mullet wig) and his pal Shirts (an equally great turn from Joey Kern), and a bet with his rival, Shane (Michael Mitchell), with his video collection in jeopardy. Add into the mix Sasquatch expert Dr. Artimus Snodgrass (Carl Weathers), and jealousy of Gavin by the girlfriendless Hobie, and The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang comes alive with teenage angst and frolicking fun.

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