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Sundance A Proving Ground For Innovative Films

Sun., Feb. 1, 1998

In some cities, Spokane included, you can’t walk down the street without someone hassling you for a handout.

In Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival, you can’t walk down the street without someone shoving a flier into your hand while proffering a very different kind of request.

“Hey, I’m showing my movie tonight,” you’re likely to hear. “Come and see it!”

And so, one week and a day after the close of Sundance ‘98, the time has come to speak of awards, humble thanks, additional credits, special significance, one or two informed opinions and other final observations.

Let’s get started.

When “Smoke Signals” won the audience award at Sundance’s Jan. 25 closing-night ceremony, Sherman Alexie was pretty sure what would come next.

A Grand Jury “Slam” dunk.

“The producer, Larry (Estes), and I were over there chanting ‘Slam,’ ‘Slam’ under our breaths,” Alexie said of the Washington, D.C.-filmed movie that did win the festival’s top award.

“It’s a great movie, and they’re great people,” Alexie said during a phone interview Tuesday. “The Grand Jury Prize will help them a lot, so I was happy they got it.”

He wasn’t being falsely humble. No one values Alexie’s work more than he does, and the author-turned-screenwriter is predictably high on “Smoke Signals,” the Chris Eyre-directed adaptation of a story from Alexie’s book “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”

In this case, though, he’s more than willing to share the spotlight with the makers of “Slam.”

As with most film festivals, and the film industry in general, prizes, honors and “best of” lists are common. At Sundance, the annual display of mostly American independent films, everyone gets a chance to shine.

The audience votes its favorite, the filmmakers award their trophy and the jury - made up of filmmakers, scholars, critics and industry professionals - votes on its selection.

“It’s very democratic,” Alexie said.

To its credit, “Smoke Signals” won two of the top three feature-film honors: The film as a whole copped the audience award, while Eyre was awarded the Filmmakers Trophy.

Alexie hopes those two wins will earn “Smoke Signals,” which was filmed largely on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and in Spokane, a widespread release. So far, though, the film’s distributor, Miramax, has made no decisions.

“It’s the only multiple winner,” Alexie said. “I saw press beforehand that talked about the competition films being non-commercial. But I think this points out that the film is not only commercial with the audience liking it, but with the filmmakers liking it, too, it’s also a quality film.”

Alexie wasn’t the only Inland Northwest filmmaker to show up at Sundance. He wasn’t even the only one who worked on “Smoke Signals.”

Randy Suhr, a 1971 graduate of Republic High School, is listed as associate producer in the “Smoke Signals” production notes. According to a letter from Suhr’s father, Adolph Suhr, the filmmaker boasts an extensive resume. He’s apparently worked on everything from television news to television shows (“Cheers,” “Matlock”) and feature films (“The Mighty Ducks,” “L.A. Story,” “Grumpy Old Men,” “Star Trek VI”).

Suhr, whose brother Rick is a cameraman for KXLY television, is one of the people Alexie was referring to when he talked about the help he and Eyre received.

“Both Chris and I made tremendous mistakes, in screenplay and directing,” Alexie said. “And with the help of our cast and crew, editor and composer, we were able to improve on our mistakes, hide them completely. This movie would not exist without everybody else as well.”

Of the dozen or so short films that I saw at Sundance, one of the most entertaining - bizarre but hilarious - was a three-minute live-action movie titled “Phil Touches Flo.”

That movie, plus one titled “Aquaphobia” that screened at the Telluride Film festival, was partly the work of 1988 Lewis and Clark High School graduate Derth Adams. Adams, who earned a master’s in fine arts from the University of Southern California’s prestigious film school, was director of cinematography on both.

“Phil Touches Flo,” which played at the festival with the feature “Jerry and Tom,” is more of a cinematic remark than a full statement. It involves three men, a cute little dog, a lonely street and what happens when jealousy rears its ugly head. As I said, it’s bizarre.

But Adams’ parents, Maxey and Vivian Adams, both of whom still live in Spokane, have come to expect as much from their filmmaker son.

Vivian Adams visited Derth last year and, while in Los Angeles, she watched one of his films. What was it like?

Well, she said, when it was over she remarked, “Derth, I always knew that you were going to grow up to make movies that I wouldn’t understand.”

Still, she’s proud of him. And remember: David Lynch once lived in Spokane, too.

So, now that the Sundance winners are in, when will we Inland Northwest film fans get to see them?

One guess: About the same time that “Titanic” director James Cameron goes to work for Inland Imaging.

Oh, some of the films that debuted there - the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” “Girls’ Night” (which stars Julie Walters and Brenda Blethyn), the Showtime-produced “Blind Faith,” Ken Burns’ documentary “Frank Lloyd Wright” and a few others - will get a release wide enough to include Spokane.

But the winners? Far less likely.

“Slam,” for example, is a film that features some of the most authentic acting that you’re apt to see. Consisting of a few days in the life of a young Washington, D.C., street poet, it portrays him as he faces the danger of jail, as he comes to know a young teacher, as he recites his work in public and as he contemplates his shaky future.

The good news: It is everything you expect from an art film. The bad news as far as Spokane goes: It is everything you expect from an art film.

Which means grainy film stock, superfluous flashback sequencing, a plot that only meanders toward a conclusion, extended dialogue with little sense of action, etc., etc. In other words, it isn’t “Flubber.”

In other words, despite being purchased by Trimark, don’t expect “Slam” to play - ever - at the Spokane Valley Mall. Even the Lincoln Heights and/or Magic Lantern might pass.

Sundance is well known for the films that its audiences “discover.” Among them: Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape,” Edward Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen,” Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” All went on to earn a respectable profit.

But several other Sundance audience favorites, “The Spitfire Grill” among them, have flopped. Some didn’t even garner a distribution deal.

Still, the film festival auction goes on. This year the bidding war got more heated than usual. According to one Associated Press report, such non-winners as “Next Stop, Wonderland” and “The Castle” were sold for as much as $6 million.

Stunned critics point out that such outrageous sums took a toll in 1997. During that festival, Trimark purchased the Tom DiCillo film “Box of Moonlight” for $3 million. Its domestic gross to date: barely $782,000.

Expect “Slam” to work in there somewhere.

Alexie and Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” may be a bit more fortunate. Having been developed out of a Sundance Institute screenwriters workshop, it attracted the attention of Miramax early on.

It’s benefitting now from some early critical nods.

New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, for example, called “Smoke Signals” “a beguiling film laced with humor.”

Still, according to Alexie, there’s been no word on a potential date.

“No buzz, nothing,” he said. But then, he added, “They bought - what? - six films (actually three) during the festival? They have a lot to figure out.”

As, when it comes to spending our $6.25, do we all.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Dan Webster Staff writer By Dan Webster Staff writer

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