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Screens and Stars Glow at Sundance

This year's Sundance Film Festival has been a haven for stars -- and those who would like to be stars. Critic-at-large John Powers discusses the festival's scene -- and its movies. Among the standouts: Wrist Cutters: A Love Story and Old Joy.


Other segments from the episode on January 30, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 30, 2006: Interview with Marc Zvi Brettler; Interview with John Powers; Obituary for Wendy Wasserstein.


DATE January 30, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Marc Zvi Brettler, author of "How to Read the Bible,"
discusses his book and his views on the Bible

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "History of the World: Part I")

Mr. MEL BROOKS: (As Moses) Oh, Lord. Why have you chosen me? What would
you have me do for you?

Unidentified Actor: (As the Lord) I shall give you my laws and you shall take
the unto the people.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Moses) Yes, Lord. Lord, I shall give these laws unto thy
people. Hear me, oh, hear me! All take heed! The Lord, the Lord Jehovah has
given until you these 15...

(Soundbite of breaking tablet)

Mr. BROOKS: (As Moses) Oy! Ten, 10 commandments for all to obey.

GROSS: That's Mel Brooks as Moses in a scene from his film "History of the
World: Part I."

We're about to get a more historically accurate picture of Biblical times. My
guest Marc Zvi Brettler is the author of the new book "How to Read the Bible."
It's about Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament and how they compare
with Christian interpretations, including their different understandings of
the Decalogue, the 10 commandments. The book explains how modern Jewish
scholars try to interpret the Bible and understand the culture that produced
it. Brettler is a professor of Biblical literature and chair of the
Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.

Do Jewish people view the old testament differently from Christians?

Professor MARC ZVI BRETTLER: Jews view the Old Testament so fundamentally
differently from Christians, they won't even use the term Old Testament.
Using that term assumes that the Old Testament is really half of the Bible,
that it is combined with the New Testament. And thus most Jews will prefer
using the term "Hebrew Bible" or some similar terms which suggest that the
Bible for Jews comprises only a certain number of books. It does not include
the Gospels, it does not include the epistles, and is a fundamentally
different book.

GROSS: Let's take a look at Genesis, the story of creation, now. There's two
different versions of the story in the Bible. Where are they both located?

Prof. BRETTLER: Well, the first story obviously starts at the very beginning
in Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1. And it runs through the middle of Verse 4 of
the second chapter of the Bible. This is a story which has a very short
introduction. It then talks about the six days of creation. And then it has
a conclusion, which talks about the Sabbath.

The second story is actually the better known story, and that is the story
that talks about the Garden of Eden, talks about the creation of woman from
the rib or other translations from the side of man. And these are two
fundamentally different stories with fundamentally different ideas, which I'm
at least trying to argue, and here I'm very much part of the mainstream of
Biblical scholarship, these two stories should be read primarily as separate
stories rather than combined together.

GROSS: What are some of the most important differences between these two
different versions of creation?

Prof. BRETTLER: Well, I would actually say that the most significant
difference is in terms of gender. There have been a lot of interpretations
that have tried to connect gender studies to Biblical texts. But in the first
creation story, man and woman are both created at the same time, and,
according to most scholars in terms of the way they understand the verse, they
are both created in the image of God. And I'm referring to Genesis Chapter 1,
Verse 27, which can be translated as "God created person or humanity in his
image. In the image of God did he create it, male and female did he create

In contrast to that, the second story has a very different order of creation.
Adam is created first. God has a sense that Adam is lonely and creates all
sorts of animals to bring before Adam. And it's really a comic scene if you
allow yourself to laugh at the Bible, which I think in some cases is a good
idea. You could imagine God is bringing the crocodile before Adam. Adam
says, `No, no, no. This is not going to work for me.' Then the hippopotamus,
etc. No fitting mate for Adam is found, and only then, from the rib or the
side of man, is Eve created.

Now, there is a big debate in Biblical scholarship about whether or not this
represents subservience of woman to man or not. But what is clear from the
second story is that after eating from the fruit, God speaks to the woman and
one of the things that he says is that he, namely Adam, shall rule over you.
So no matter how we read the rest of the text, those particular words seem to
suggest a subservient role of women to men, while in the first creation story
we have absolutely nothing like that.

GROSS: Well, how do you reconcile this major difference?

Prof. BRETTLER: Well, the answer is I refuse to ask your question. I don't
think that these two stories should be reconciled. Much of what I'm trying to
argue in "How to Read the Bible" is that the Bible is fundamentally an
anthology rather than a unitary work or a unified work. And as such, we need
to hear the different voices that are in the text. And thus, nothing upsets
me more than when I hear people say, `The Bible says...' and then they finish
that sentence, and what they're really doing is they're picking one particular
section of the Bible and ignoring what other sections say.

GROSS: A good example would be if you're using the second Genesis story to
explain that men are of greater stature than women, that women were created to
be men's helpmate.

Prof. BRETTLER: Right. That would be a great example. Or since you asked
me about both creation stories, perhaps a more theological example would be if
somebody looked at Genesis Chapter 1 and tried to imagine what God looks like,
with broader depiction of God in that particular chapter, God is clearly
highly majestic in that chapter, God says something and it comes true, nature
responds to God.

However, in the second creation story, you do not have the same structure of
majesty. There you have, and one could always wonder how literally this
should be taken, God saying to Adam, `Where are you?' There you have a whole
story which is based on a notion of God saying to Adam, `You can do everything
but this.' And especially those of us who are parents have a good sense that
if you do that you clearly know that your child is going to violate the one
thing that he or she was told is not permissible. And thus it's a very
different image of God that you have in the second chapter. And which one is
right? I don't know. They both appear, at least in my Bible, in the same
size font. And it becomes very hard to decide how to balance which one is
more correct or more accurate. And thus I almost never want to say `the Bible

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you read the Bible more as story as myth than as history
or science. So when you read the Bible as story or myth, what does it mean to
you? What is the value of that?

Prof. BRETTLER: Well, I'm glad you used the word myth first. Myth is a very
problematic word, and I really wish that I could find a better term to use.
But when I read the Bible as myth I don't read it as a myth in the sense that
many Americans think of a myth as a silly story or something that should not
be believed in, but rather as a story that is attempting to charter
fundamental values of a society, and I try to understand what these values
are. Thus the first creation story is trying to charter a world which is
incredibly well organized, in which everything is in its place. I imagine the
first creation story in terms of cubbies, and everything can be assigned into
the proper cubby and is in perfect order.

While the second creation story is imagining a world which, I must admit, is
much closer to the world that I know, a world which is somewhat messy, a world
in which things do not go always as planned. For example, the notion that God
could try creating animals as helpmates for people, but that doesn't work out,
so God tries something else, and the second thing works out better.

So I imagine these stories as ways of my ancestors, the ancient Israelites,
really trying to understand the world and doing this in a which in which was
very common in such ancient societies, namely through stories rather than
through science. And these stories, I believe, were not meant to be
understood literally, by and large.

GROSS: So when you hear people making the case for intelligent design or
creationism based on the Bible, what do you say?

Prof. BRETTLER: Well, I say to them that the first words of the Bible are
not, `This is science.' And I really ask them why do they believe that this
material is science? After all, a myth can be true without necessarily being
literally true or scientific. Let me give you an example of what I mean by
that. I can say of a person, `She is a rose,' and somebody who is very
literally minded could say to me, `Hold it. How can you say that that person
is a rose. That person does not have beautiful petals. That person does not
have a beautiful fragrance. That person does not have thorns,' perhaps. And
I would simply answer, `Hold it. You don't understand. I'm speaking
metaphorically. And as such, a statement such as "This is a rose" does not
have the same truth value as a statement "This is a pen" or "This is a school"
or "This is a radio show." And as such, if you understand something
metaphorically literally, you're really misunderstanding it. Similarly, if
you understand a myth as science, you are fundamentally misunderstanding it.

GROSS: My guest is Marc Zvi Brettler. His new book is called "How to Read
the Bible." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Marc Zvi Brettler. He is the
chair of the department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis
University, where he's also a professor of biblical studies.

We talked a little bit about the Genesis story. Let's talk a little bit about
the Ten Commandments. Are there controversies among biblical scholars about
the meaning of any of the Ten Commandments and how they should be interpreted?

Mr. MARC BRETTLER: There are lots of controversies about the Ten
Commandments. In fact, there's even a controversy about what they should be
called. In English we call them the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew does not
say Ten Commandments. The Hebrew is aseret hadevarim, which means the Ten
Sayings or the Ten Things, and if you look at various discussions of the Ten
Commandments, you'll see that this difference in terminology really does make
a difference. If you ask most non-Jews where the Ten Commandments begin, they
will answer with a particular commandment, `You shall have no other gods
before me.' If you ask many Jews where the Ten Commandments begin, they will
begin it with, `I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of
Egypt,' and so forth. And thus, whether you call them commandments or not,
does make a very, very big difference in terms of what you include within them
and where they begin.

To say the obvious, the Ten Commandments do not have Roman numerals in the
original Hebrew text, and, as such, if you read them very carefully, you'll
see that they're actually 13 or 14 statements which need to be divided into
10. Different religious traditions, different biblical scholars do this in a
number of different ways. And to give you a sense of a controversy that
exists within biblical scholarship, the last one or, according to other
enumerations, the last two of these so-called commandments deal with coveting.
And one question is how can a commandment really talk about something that is
internal to you and scholars continue to debate whether--in what I would call
the Decalogue, which is a Greek term which really means the Ten
sayings--whether this is talking about desiring and desiring the heart is
fundamentally wrong, or whether the particular, unusual Hebrew verb that is
used there actually refers to desiring which you act upon. So that's one
fundamental difference that you have within biblical scholarship about what
part of the Decalogue means. But there's a much bigger difference about what
is included in the Decalogue and how it should be divided up into various

GROSS: Is the amount of emphasis placed on the Ten Commandments different in
the history of Judaism than it is in the history of Christianity?

Mr. BRETTLER: Yeah. I know less about the importance of the Decalogue in
the history of Christianity. But I can answer that both in the terms of the
history of Judaism and even in the terms of the history of Jewish printing.
At some point it became commonplace to have pictures of the Decalogue on the
frontpiece of Jewish books. This was influenced by Christianity, which had it
first. And, in fact, when some of these Hebrew books were first published,
people were wondering if the printers were really Jewish or if the printers
were Christian. And this indicates that the Ten Commandments, or the
Decalogue, was not really as prominent in Judaism as it was in Christianity.
You have to remember that when you read the Bible as a whole, it is not the
case that the Ten Commandments are at the beginning of the Bible or at the end
of the Bible or even right in the middle of the Bible and that the words are
not really in a place of extreme prominence. So they're halfway through the
book of Exodus. They're in the fifth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. And
nowhere do the Ten Commandments say either, `I am the center of the Bible,' or
`I am the main ethical lesson of the Bible.' And my sense, especially
listening to the contemporary American debate, is that this is something which
has very much entered America from the Christian side rather than from Judaism
or even from the place that the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue holds within
the Hebrew Bible itself.

GROSS: What surprises me to hear this is, you know, there is Jewish law, and
I always assumed that the Ten Commandments were part of that and that that was
a very important part of Jewish history, the laying down of and the following
of Jewish law.

Mr. BRETTLER: Yes. The Ten Commandments are part of Jewish law, but, at
least as the rabbis enumerated the laws in the Bible, there are total of 613
laws. And so the Ten Commandments are some part of that, and it is not the
case that according to old Jewish tradition all of the laws of the Decalogue
are important than all of the other 603 laws that you might have elsewhere in
the Bible. And the second thing that needs to be said about the first part of
the Bible, about the Torah, is that it is not all law and the stories--and I
would really argue the stories understood as myths, which help constitute a
society and its values--are important on par with the laws themselves.

GROSS: Does your interpretation of the Ten Commandments and their relative
importance as a Jewish biblical scholar affect your position on the public
display of Ten Commandments in courthouses or, you know, in public squares?

Mr. BRETTLER: Yeah, I have a very strong feeling about that. And you might
imagine that as a biblical scholar I would love to see the Ten Commandments
all over the place because, in a sense, it's publicizing the book that I teach
and is extremely meaningful to me. But, on the other hand, I'm very bothered
by the public display for a number of reasons. First of all, most public
displays call them the Ten Commandments. These are not really 10
commandments, especially from the Jewish perspective, where the Decalogue,
what others call the Ten Commandments, begins with `I am the Lord, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt.' So just the title Ten Commandments
already is removing it from the Jewish tradition.

Secondly, in all of the statues that I've seen or all the monuments for the
Ten Commandments, they have very specific enumerations. What is commandment
number one? What is commandment number two? They're significant to
Jewish/Christian differences and even differences within de--even within
differences within different branches of Christianity about how to enumerate
the various commandments. And thus, any statue is going to take a particular
choice and disenfranchise one religious group rather than another religious

There are other reasons I object. One of the commandments--according to many
enumerations it's the seventh commandment, in the Hebrew it is (Hebrew word
spoken), almost all of the monuments follow the King James translation, which
says, `Thou shalt not kill.' That is simply not what the Hebrew means. The
Hebrew means thou shall not kill illicitly, thou shall not murder. We can
talk about whether this is for better or for worse, but the Hebrew Bible does
include the notion of capital punishment. It does include the notion of just
war. So thus many of the translations bother me as well.

And finally, I really wonder whether or not the Decalogue in its full form
should have a place, especially in public buildings like courts. After all,
one of the issues that is discussed in the Decalogue, if it is read in its
entirety rather than in its condensed version on many of these monuments, is
the notion of intergenerational punishment, where children and even
grandchildren, great-grandchildren are punished for sins which earlier
generations had perpetrated. And I would really wonder what place this notion
should have in sites like public courthouses. You put all of those reasons
together, and I really believe that as--that these monuments must be kept out
of public spaces, they should be kept out of schools, they should
be--especially be kept out of public courthouses.

GROSS: Marc Zvi Brettler is the author of the new book "How to Read the
Bible." He chairs the department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at
Brandeis University. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, independent filmmakers and big corporations get their names
out in Park City, Utah. We talk with our critic at large John Powers about
the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. And we
continue our interview with Bible scholar Marc Zvi Brettler.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Marc Zvi Brettler,
author of the new book "How to Read the Bible." It discusses how modern Jewish
scholars interpret the Hebrew Bible. He chairs the department of Near Eastern
and Judaic studies at Brandeis University, where he teaches biblical

When you teach Bible classes now, are the interpretations that you teach
considerably different from the ones that you were taught? And if they are,
would you choose an example to show the interpretation that you were taught
vs. what you teach now?

Mr. BRETTLER: The interpretations that I teach are certainly very different
from the ones which I was taught as a child going to a Jewish school. I guess
the best way of representing this is to look at the stories that talk about
the ancestors, what many people would call the patriarchs--but I think it's
more important to be broader than that--the stories about Abraham, Sarah,
Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and his wives, where very often many people who read the
Bible--and this is quite true within Jewish tradition--will understand these
ancestors as models or as heroes that you are supposed to follow, and thus
will whitewash certain things that are in the text which seem to suggest
otherwise; while the interpretations that I offer in class and in my various
books suggest that these are not really hero stories at all, that these people
are not being presented or represented as role models that one needs to follow
but rather are stories that are working out values in various ways, stories
that in some cases, are entertainment, in some cases, perhaps, even high
entertainment. And I would just point out that nowhere in the Bible does it
say that these ancestor are ideal. And I think that the Bible is much more
interested in showing human characters as characters with all their foibles
and is not really interested in showing them as heroic or as role models.
That would be really one of the biggest differences between the way in which I
was taught the Bible and the way in which I teach the Bible to others.

GROSS: You write that in part of the interpretative literature of the Hebrew
Bible there's a tradition of describing God at the moment of revelation as a
statue with faces on every side.


GROSS: What's the significance of that?

Mr. BRETTLER: Well, the significance of that is most people claim that they
understand revelation, that they understand the Bible and that there is simple
meaning that the biblical text has. What that particular rabbinic passage
which you quoted means to emphasize is that there is something fundamentally
subjective about the understanding of each individual of the Bible, that each
individual looks at the Bible and sees it from a difference vantage point,
sees a different face in the Bible, sees a different understanding of the
divine by reading the Bible. And what that particular rabbinic text
emphasizes is that each of those interpretations is legitimate because,
actually, that particular rabbinic tradition is an interpretation of the
Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, of `I am the Lord, your God, who brought
you out of the land of Egypt.' There "you" is in the singular rather than in
the plural. Hebrew makes that distinction. And the point that that text is
trying to make is that the subjectiveness of interpretation of each individual
looking at the divine and looking at the biblical text is something
legitimate, is something to be applauded rather than something to anguish
about as we search for the single correct voice in the Bible.

GROSS: Which means that you're never searching for the single correct voice
in the Bible.

Mr. BRETTLER: I never am. I correct myself very quickly whenever I begin a
sentence that says, `The Bible says....'

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BRETTLER: It's really been my pleasure. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Marc Zvi Brettler is the author of the new book "How to Read the

Coming up, our critic at large, John Powers, talks with us about what he saw
on and off screen at the Sundance Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Fresh Air's critic at large, John Powers, discusses
the Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is the most important showplace for independent
films. The 25th festival wrapped up over the weekend in Park City, Utah.
This was the 19th time that our critic, John--that our critic at large, John
Powers, attended. We asked him to tell us what he saw on and off screen.

So, John, what were your overall impressions of Sundance this year?

Mr. JOHN POWERS: Well, I think, Terry, that this was the most schizophrenic
I've ever known Sundance to be. On the one hand, you have this kind of tiny
film festival, you know, filled with films by first and second-time
filmmakers, and it's resolutely unglamorous in a lot of ways. I mean, you
really haven't lived until you've gone to one of the theaters and gone to one
of the port-a-johns outdoors when it's 18 degrees. So there's that festival
with young filmmakers. But what's built up around it over the last 20 years
is this kind of festive atmosphere. And in a way you might compare it to the
Super Bowl, where you actually have the game and then you have all the stuff
that surrounds it. And Sundance is that way. So you have this small festival
surround--devoted to lack of commercialism and independent thinking. You have

What surrounds it is this corporate fiesta, so the city of Park City is taken
over by companies like Heineken and Chrysler and BlackBerry, who buy up the
store fronts for the time during the festival and throw big parties and
musical events and giveaways. And what that means is the city is then flooded
with people who have no interest in the actual film festival, but who come in
order to catch a glimpse of someone like Paris Hilton, who, of course, was
there. I mean, like God, Paris Hilton seems to be everywhere. So Paris
Hilton's there, Al Gore is there, Jennifer Aniston's there. And they're all
pouring in for the media event of the festival, which is super commercial,
super celebrity-driven, super unindependent. And you have those two things
happening at once. They're inhabiting the same space. And this produces a
very zoo-like atmosphere where you will be trying to get from one place to the
next in order to see a first-time film that may never have any commercial
future, and, in fact, there's a huge traffic jam because there are people
trying to get uptown in order to go to a party or see a glimpse of Jennifer

GROSS: So in this kind of like dual environment did you spend time hiding in
your hotel room or going to the movies?

Mr. POWERS: Yes, well, you know, it used to be that when I was covering
Sundance I would actually do both. It's now almost impossible to do both.
You either wind up covering parties, which is, I think, what a lot of the
media does--because when you watch television that's what they seem to be
covering--or you go to the movies. I go to the movies. And it's an
interesting and frustrating experience because the thing that people need to
know about Sundance is that it's not every film that's available that shows at
Sundance. They're actually trying to find new talent, and they're trying to
find talent that usually doesn't have a very big budget behind it. Some years
there are still big movie stars. This was a year--it's the 25th anniversary
of Sundance, and they were saying they went back to their roots. And what
that means is that, probably, given a choice between a 50/50 call between a
film with char--with actors you've never heard of and actors you have heard
of, they chose the smaller film because part of the strangeness of Sundance is
that every year they get smacked for either being too commercial or not
commercial enough. You know, if there are too many stars, people say Sundance
has sold out. If there aren't enough stars, all the reports are what an
incredibly dull festival it was.

GROSS: John, tell us a little bit about the films at Sundance this year. Do
you want to choose one or two that epitomize what's really special about
Sundance and the kind of visibility it gives films that might otherwise never
have been seen?

Mr. POWERS: Yes. You know, there were a couple of films which were very
much representative of what Sundance can do at its best. One was a very small
film called "Old Joy," by Kelly Reichhardt, which I thought was the best film
I saw in the entire festival. And it's a very simple story of two guys trying
to rekindle an old friendship, you know, now that they've grown up a bit,
trying to capture their youthful joy. And it's a very modest film in all of
its externals, but the--it's Chekhovian because it is the story of these two
guys who go off to a hot spring and over the course of the movie nothing
seemingly happens, but by the end of the film you're filled with melancholy
and you understand completely the two people. It's very much like Chekhov.
It's a wonderful film.

At the opposite end, emotionally, you might have something like "Wristcutters:
A Love Story," which is based on an Israeli novella and is set in a world
where everyone in it has already committed suicide. It's a kind of weird
limbo. It's a black comedy, maybe in the "Harold and Maude" vein, where the
hero kills himself and winds up in another reality where every single person
there has killed themself. And then they're trying to work out the meaning of
life in this limbo that's kind of presided over by a God-like figure played by
Tom Waits.

GROSS: OK. There's a movie called "Little Miss Sunshine" that all the press
coverage has emphasized--all the press coverage of Sundance. And this is a
movie that sounds like it's actually pretty commercial and very entertaining
that ended up not having a distributor until Sundance. What did you think of
the film?

Mr. POWERS: "Little Miss Sunshine" is a very good film. It was one of those
films that is shown in the opening weekend with the idea that distributors
will pick it up. And so it's the hottest ticket of the entire festival and,
you know, people actually were bidding, I'm told, hundreds of dollars to get a
ticket to the screening. The film itself is very much a commercial film of
the kind that Hollywood would make. It has Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette and
Steve Carell, and it's about a dysfunctional family. The thing that makes it
different is that it's probably the funniest film I've ever seen at Sundance,
or at least the funniest film I've seen since the movie "Citizen Ruth" that
was the first film by Alexander Payne. In addition to that, it's the first
Sundance comedy I've seen in at least 10 years, maybe ever, that you thought
could actually travel outside the rarified confines of Sundance. You know,
there's a general principle with Sundance films, is that once they leave Park
City, Utah, where the festival is, they tend to seem smaller. This was a film
when you were watching it you thought, `Oh, actually, audiences everywhere
will like this movie.' It's really funny. It has a whole range of jokes from
really good slapstick gags to jokes about Proust and Nietzsche, which isn't
something you get in a normal Hollywood movie. It's a very, very good and
funny film.

GROSS: Several of the major studios now have independent film divisions
within them. So why is that happening, and how is it affecting the style of
independent films and even what we describe as an independent film?

Mr. POWERS: Well, in the old days an independent film was something that
seemed to have two qualities. It had financial backing that came from--not
from a studio but from independent sources and had independent vision. What's
happened over the years is that, as Hollywood has kind of gotten caught in the
blockbuster complex, that they've looked for other sources of filmmaking
ideas, and one of those sources is the aesthetic ideas that you found
initially at Sundance in movies like "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." It turned out
that such films could become profitable, and the industry, always looking to
renew itself and buy up the latest thing, has now established a way in which
every studio does have an independent division. And what they're doing is
taking the kinds of themes and ideas that used to belong purely to independent
film and integrating them into their own films.

The examples this year would be something like "Brokeback Mountain." You know,
it cost $14 million, it has an edgy subject--you know, put simply, gay
cowboys--and is done in a very simple style. You know, 15 years ago this is
the kind of film you might have seen at Sundance and is better than that,
perhaps, but it's the kind of film you might have seen then. But it's now a
film from Focus Features, which is itself a branch of Universal, and Universal
OK'd the money and essentially paid for the film. And you find the same thing
happening where every big studio has its branch which brings out
something--will bring out its "Capote." It will bring out its "Good Night, and
Good Luck," which is a Warner Brothers film. And so what you've seen is that
the studios have managed to acquire what used to be unique to independent film
and make it part of its own.

GROSS: One of the changes we've seen in the past few years in the film world
is the popularity of documentaries at movie theaters. You know, they used to
be played on television a lot, but it's only now that you're really seeing a
lot of popular documentaries in movie theaters. And I think Sundance has
played a role in popularizing the documentary and getting documentaries out
there. So what was the documentary scene like at Sundance this year?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I mean, Sundance has been crucially important for the
development of documentaries, partly because they're so popular with the
audiences in Park City. And I think began realizing that if they're that
popular with audiences there, they can be popular elsewhere. So every year
the documentary competition has grown more and more important. This year I
didn't see a lot of the documentaries; I saw some. And may I just mention
parenthetically there are 120 films that play there so that you're constantly
picking and choosing, trying to find the correct films to go to.

This year I went to see three documentaries about Iraq, very, very different
documentaries that weren't particularly strident. One of them was clearly an
anti-war film, but the two best films, one called "Iraq in Fragments," which
won three awards at the festival, you know, showed us things about what's
going on in Iraq that I'd never seen before. I've worked as a media
columnist, I watch more television news than almost anybody I know, yet what
was interesting about these documentaries was that it showed you things that
you never, ever saw on American TV screens. The film "Iraq in Fragments" took
you inside the life of a little boy in Baghdad, who's a Sunni, whose family
members and people who push him around believe that things were better under
Saddam. It also took you inside a Shiite militia, and among the things you
got to see, which I'd never seen before, were the Shiite militias going and
beating up people that they thought were guilty of selling alcohol. And then
finally taking you up to the Kurdish area where the Kurds were thanking the
United States for making them free. And it showed you aspects of daily life
and the way--just the way things looked in a way that I'd never seen before.
It's very beautifully shot by this guy James Longley, well edited, and it
actually was giving you a picture of things that you've never before seen.
And that's the thing that documentaries at Sundance often do.

GROSS: Well, the winners were announced over the weekend and, from what I
hear, John, you didn't see any of the main winners at the film festival. So
does that mean that we're talking to the wrong guy? Does this mean our
relationship is over?

Mr. POWERS: It does--well, it's part of the shame of the thing that you
haven't seen them, yet you need to, you know, people need to understand how
this actually works--is that everyone is always picking and choosing from this
huge menu of films. You know, five films are showing at once. So in the case
of the dramatic competition winner, which is a film called "Quinceanera,"
which I missed that film because I was off seeing the "Iraq in Fragments"
documentary, which actually did win three awards. And so you're constantly
being forced to choose. Some years you're lucky; some years you're not. I
was on the jury at Sundance one year and the dramatic film competition winner
was a film called "Sunday," which I think I can safely say was the film that
had been seen by the fewest people ever of any winner. When we announced the
winner, there was a gasp from the crowd because they hadn't seen the film, and
afterwards, at the closing party, every journalist I knew came up and rebuked
me because they were going to look bad with their editors because they hadn't
seen the film that won. In fact, I mean, I was there for about five and half
days; I saw 28 films, I think.

GROSS: Well, apparently you didn't see enough.

Mr. POWERS: Then you don't see enough, and so then you seem as if you're not
working. And, meanwhile, what you are doing, is, because of the structure of
the city, is that you are taking buses in the freezing cold everywhere,
standing outside for half an hour in the cold to get into a film, and then, as
soon as that's over, standing outside again because there's no place to eat in
a--there's no real place to eat in some of these screening areas, OK, and
waiting for another film, and then doing it over and over again. So you're
watching films for 10 or 12 or 14 hours, and you can still miss the winner,
which, in fact, you know, makes for enormous anxiety among journalists and,
you know, lots of bitter laughter.

GROSS: So, John, the fact that you, someone who really knows Sundance--you've
been there for 20 years, you were on the jury one year, I mean, you know your
way around the festival--the fact that you missed some of the movies that won
the big awards, what does that say about the actual meaning of the awards?

Mr. POWERS: Well, the meaning of the awards at Sundance are a tricky thing,
and they're tricky because, more than most places you're dealing with, you're
dealing with people who are unknowns so you're not starting--at Cannes, for
instance, you will know that there's a film by Jim Jarmusch or Lars von Trier,
and you will know the contenders because of that. When you get to Sundance,
many of the films are by people who've never made films before, and they--a
lot of those films will never have been shown, and no one will have any idea
what the talent is like. So you're trying to guess which films sound good, or
you're following your instinct, or you're thinking, `Oh, this plot sounds
good. I'll go to see that particular film.' So that's how you do it. Then,
by the time--only people who probably see every film are a handful of
journalists and the members of the jury, and they see all of them. And the
juries at Sundance are famous for not always choosing the films that you think
would win or for choosing films that don't prove to be the big movie that
comes out of Sundance.

Last year the film that won was called "Forty Shades of Blue," which had
almost no commercial life in the US, but the movie that everybody talked about
afterwards was "The Squid and the Whale." So you actually don't really know
for sure whether the award is the most important, in some cultural sense,
movie to come out. And you don't know in advance whether it's going to be
important, you don't know who made it, and so it's very hard to know your way

GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers. We'll talk more about
the Sundance Film Festival after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our critic at large, John Powers. We're talking about the
Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend.

The success of Sundance has actually led this noncommercial, independent film
festival to be this big commercial extravaganza. It's not that the films are
commercial, but all the stuff surrounding it sounds like it's become very
commercial. So do you think, finally, that's good or bad for the festival?
It certainly gets it more press attention and more people showing up for it,
but is that kind of commercialism likely to kill the actual spirit of Sundance
or compromise it in some way? Can the both of them survive together side by
side like that?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I think to talk about whether or not it's good for the
films you have to go back to the old days of the Sundance. I've been going to
the festival since before it was Sundance, and back then it was actually
pretty dreary. The films were small, there weren't stars, and there was no
corporate sponsorship to speak of. And when you went you seemed as though you
were just trapped in this small town watching movies aimed at the Lifetime
channel, if there'd been a Lifetime channel then. Now there are stars
everywhere and at some level that actually has helped the independent film
world. It made independent films so important that every studio has its film
division. On the other hand, it's probably overshadowed the actual films at
the festival.

If you listen to the media coverage or read a lot of the media coverage in the
Los Angeles Times you'll find a lot of space being devoted to the gift bags
being given to Paris Hilton or Jennifer Aniston. You will have coverage of
the parties. When TV does it they will go for the images that are exciting
and that seem sexy and that sell, and those are very seldom the films. So you
have this case where you have this huge gap between the fiesta and the
festival. And I think it's not clear yet whether that's going to be bad in
the long run for the festival or not.

GROSS: So, I know that you feel the parties were particularly commercial this
year, that there was a lot of particularly commercial stuff. Nevertheless, I
can't really let you go without asking you about the best party that you
attended, if, in fact, you went to any.

Mr. POWERS: Well, actually, probably the best party I attended was for a
small film, which actually won an award, called "Stephanie Daley." And what
was nice about it was that it was less star-studded, you know, unless you
consider Timothy Hutton a star, which I guess he no longer is. But he was
there at the party. But it was a very nice, pleasant thing, where I was
talking to people, and even it grew kind of crazy. One of the things about
these parties is that there's always a crush of people at the door waiting to
get in, and you're kind of squeezed in as though it were some sort of feed
tube, and as you go into the party somebody else is blocked out. As soon as
you leave, they push two more people in. So it's a very mad situation in that
kind of way. You know, but I had a good time. Actually the best times I had
were seeing the good films and then talking to people about them. You know, I
had some very nice conversations on the shuttle buses between things with
people who either wanted to make it in the movie business or who just loved
the movies so much they came in from Park City for their annual vacation. You
know, it's a kind of lovely thing to be some place where people would actually
fly in just to see the movies. And, although there are thousands of people
who don't, it's always wonderful when you meet people who love movies that

GROSS: Well, John, thanks for talking with us about Sundance.

Mr. POWERS: OK, sure thing.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR'S critic at large and film critic for Vogue.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Playwright Wendy Wasserstein dies of lymphoma at age 55

The playwright Wendy Wasserstein died today of lymphoma. She was 55. She was
known for her witty plays about women dealing with work, motherhood, feminism
and getting older. She won a Pulitzer prize and a Tony for her play "The
Heidi Chronicles" in 1989. Here's a moment from our 1987 interview.

GROSS: I think a theme that runs through several of your plays is women
trying to figure out what kind of lives they want to live...


GROSS: ...what kind of adults they want to be. Was that difficult for you to
figure out? When you got out of college did you flounder around for a while
trying to figure out what you wanted to do with your life?

Ms. WASSERSTEIN: Well, it still is. I don't think it's over. I wish I
could tell you, yes, that I figured it out and I'm marvelously happy. I mean,
I think that it's something that goes on for a long time. My elder sister's
50 and is quite an interesting woman, and she's still, you know, grappling
with these things. My mother still is. I think that there are a lot of
choices, and there are a lot of definitions and, especially with women, we're
given a different definition every four years. So four years ago we were told
to have it all, and now we're told to be--I think we're beginning to be told
to become wonderful mothers again. I get that sense. So I think, yes, I'm
someone who's still grappling with that.

GROSS: Wendy Wasserstein, recorded in 1987. Twelve years, later at the age
of 48, she gave birth to her daughter, Lucy. Wasserstein died today of

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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