Thursday, 17 December 2009

Book Review: The Sundance Kids - How The Mavericks Took Over Hollywood by James Mottram

Mottram's book is an in-depth, fascinating account about the new generation of American film-makers and how the Sundance Film Festival often proved a launching pad for their careers.

Primarily focussing on Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Paul-Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Alexander Payne, Mottram examines how their backgrounds and biographies fed into their future careers as 'auteurs'. Mottram also demonstrates how for the majority of theses film-makers it wasn't the training received at a film school that made and shaped them, but rather the influence the films of their forebears - 'New Hollywood' directors such as Scorsese or Coppola - had on them. In this respect directors like Anderson, Tarantino, or Soderbergh can be compared to their peers of the Nouvelle Vague as for directors like Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard it also was the countless hours spent at the Cinematheque, in addition to their passion for film, which replaced the formal training a film school would have afforded them.

Mottram begins his book in 1989 when Soderbergh received the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Soderbergh's triumph was a watershed in American cinema as his film, which had previously been shown at Sundance, marked the beginning of a new era, or put differently, it put American Independent film-making on the map. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is closely associated with the rise of Miramax: made for a pittance, owing to the coverage Soderbergh's film received following his win at Cannes, it made the company millions.

Telling his account chronologically starting in 1989, Mottram discusses key films shown at the Sundance Film Festival by homing in on the films by the directors named above. While his selection may seem random at first sight, upon closer inspection and reflection it quickly becomes evident that many promising talents that emerged from Sundance, only some of them managed to turn that initial success into a lasting career. For instance, following their success at Sundance, directors such as Alison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell or Tom DiCillo have had trouble following up on it. But, as Mottram makes clear in his book, besides proving that they're able to deliver at the box-office, lasting success in Hollywood requires a director to compromise as the studios have long caught on to the allure - and the big bucks - of so-called independent cinema, and thus the boundaries between independent and mainstream film-making have become increasingly blurred since Soderbergh first walked away with the Palme d'Or. Thus, Mottram's book is also a story of how independent American films and film-makers evolved as, today many films that are generally perceived as independent are, in fact, made with involvement from a major studio.

Mottram's book is an engrossing read, excellently researched, with a sharp and critical eye on all the films he discusses. But the best thing about it is that Mottram's passion for his topic is palpable on every page.