No. 1: Don't do drugs -- or at the very least, don't make an indie about it, says Josh Wolk

By Josh Wolk
January 29, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Janeane Garofalo: Doug Piburn/

The Sundance Film Festival has taught me a few simple lessons. Read on, and learn:

Don’t do drugs. Not because it’s a dangerous, self destructive habit. But because, if there were no more drug abuse, there would be no incentive for indie directors to make movies about drug addicts who spin inexorably into despair, homelessness, crime, and — if the movie has a female protagonist — the inevitable turned trick where she realizes just how far she’s sunk.

I’ve seen two such movies at Sundance: the no budget ”Acts of Worship” and ”MacArthur Park,” directed by actor Billy Wirth (”The Lost Boys”). The HBO series ”The Corner” showed the day to day life of a junkie so perfectly that after years of cautionary tales it made a perfect final buzzkill. Plus, movies like ”Traffic” and ”Requiem for a Dream” have expanded the bounds of what a drug story can be, so a couple of junkies sittin’ around talking no longer has the power it used to. So, dear indie filmmakers… if we promise to stay off the pipe, will you?

Sitcom actors come to Park City to stretch. When I saw that ”3rd Rock From the Sun”’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt was going to be in the searing drama ”Manic,” which follows a group of troubled teens in a mental institution, I had my worries. What next, the cast of ”Two Guys and a Girl” in a remake of ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? ”Survivor”’s Jenna as Sylvia Plath? And yet, he was absolutely riveting as a short fused rageboy locked up for caving in someone’s head with a baseball bat.

How refreshing to see someone under the age of 25 not signing up for the first teen comedy he finds next to his Retin-A. (Well, maybe the second, considering he was in ”10 Things I Hate About You.”) As Gordon-Levitt said about receiving the ”Manic” script at the postscreening Q&A: ”I was reading a lot of putrid s—. This was the first script I read in years where people weren’t talking like Jennifer Love Hewitt.”

On the other hand, Nestor Carbonell — he of the poured on Latino accent on ”Suddenly Susan” and ”The Tick” — toned it down for ”Jack the Dog,” a digitally shot tale about a womanizer’s life with his son. If you used to watch ”Susan” and often thought ”He’s funny… but I wonder what he’d look like naked and having sex with many, many women?” — this is the movie for you. Everybody else, move along.

Don’t be a snob. If you come here thinking that the only movies worthy of the Dance that is Sun are deep, brooding dramas, then you’ll be missing lighter fare like ”Wet Hot American Summer,” directed by two members of MTV’s late ”The State,” and starring Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce. It’s a spot on parody of ’80s summer camp comedies like ”Meatballs,” and it perfectly captures the ’80s zeitgeist. Plus, after seeing the scene with Christopher Meloni humping a refrigerator, you’ll never watch ”Oz” or ”Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” the same way again.

The Internet troubles ain’t over yet. One of the most talked about documentaries at the festival is ”,” which follows two high school friends who launch an Internet company that soars high and then crashes. And everyone here is talking about how last year, Park City was a rush of Web geeks with excess venture capital cash — but this year there’s precious few of them left. While there have been seminars with the remaining dotcom holdouts claiming there is a future for online film, there is still a sense that while more and more filmmakers are getting their shorts posted on the Web, not that many more people are watching them.

Atomfilms held a party about half a mile out of town, down a long and winding side road. There was a logjam in the middle, with the cars departing and arriving unable to get past each other. After about 15 minutes, we had to back up a half mile just to get out, never having seen the party. A better metaphor for broadband problems I’ve never seen.

Celebrities are just like you and me. Only richer. As you walk around town, you occasionally find yourself seeing folks like Jacqueline Bissett and Albert Brooks strolling and shopping, too. It makes you feel like one big buddy buddy film community, as long as you ignore the fact that these actors make at least six figures per picture, while you are trying to decide whether it’s worth it to add chicken to your Caesar Salad for $5 more.

But perhaps the most equalizing moment came at the premiere of ”Madison,” an underdog true story tale starring Jim Caviezel about a small Indiana town that joins a speedboat race against the mean bigger towns. (Think ”Hoosiers” at 95 mph.) Bruce Dern has a small role as the avuncular speedboat expert, and before the film, the director asked him to take a bow.

Dern stood up in the audience, about 15 rows back, gave a wave — revealing that his shirt had hiked way up on his back, exposing his drooping trousers, giving everyone seated behind him a clearer than we wished for view of southern Dern. See? Knowing that even celebs have problems at Sundance just makes you feel that indie film kinship all the more.