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Sundance 1998: Romance Abounds.

Film critic John Powers has been attending the Sundance Film Festival. He'll talk with Terry about what he's seen on and off the screen.



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Other segments from the episode on January 27, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 27, 1998: Interview with Gail Collins; Interview with John Powers.


Date: JANUARY 27, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012701np.217
Head: Scorpion Tongues
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It may be the State of the Union day, but this week Americans are more caught up in the state of the president's sex life and whether or not he lied about it. Along with the facts, we've been exposed to gossip and rumors.

My guest Gail Collins is the author of a book on gossip, celebrity, and American politics called "Scorpion Tongues." It will be published in early spring. Collins serves on the New York Times editorial board and wrote a recent op/ed piece called "The Long History of Presidential Sex Scandals."

I asked her what she thinks is the closest parallel to the current media, political, and legal examinations of the president's sex life.

GAIL COLLINS, MEMBER, NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD, FORMER COLUMNIST, NEWSDAY, AUTHOR, "SCORPION TONGUES": It depends on what part of it. The basic thing about this particular crisis of presidential confidence, I guess, is that every piece of it has happened before, but they've never all happened at the same time, and certainly never this fast.

There have been presidents before who have been involved in sex in the White House who, as far as we know, did indeed have affairs -- in the case of Jack Kennedy, multiple, multiple, multiple encounters in the White House.

There have been presidents who have been under incredible attack for their sex life during campaigns. There have been presidents who have been yapped at by the press about their private life throughout their presidency in incredibly personal ways. But we've never had one guy have all these things happen to him at the same time.

I think probably in terms of a president who suffered the most from the media following and looking into his personal life, that -- you had to go with Grover Cleveland, who just went through absolute torture during -- especially during his first presidential campaign in which outrageous, outrageous things were said about his personal life. And unlike Bill Clinton, Grover Cleveland was a very unresilient kind of guy who was very starchy, very private. It must have been incredible torture for him.

GROSS: What were the allegations?

COLLINS: There -- well there start -- it started out with an illegitimate child who popped up, who Cleveland had taken responsibility for. After much pain and effort, my researcher and I decided we didn't really think it was his illegitimate child, but he did take responsibility for it and he did refuse to let anybody talk about it.

But after that, that burgeoned into this enormous assault on his private life, in which you had newspapers claiming that he had been in brawls in saloons and been laying their naked and bleeding while he fought over prostitutes; and ministers denouncing him from the pulpit for having taken the virtue and innocence of all these different young women, who all then died of grief and lie there in their graves remembering this horrible man -- and so on and so on and so forth. It went on...

GROSS: What were the standards for reporting?

COLLINS: There weren't many. That was -- that was in the 1890s, and you were just getting into the period in which you had professional reporters who were serious about their craft; who were somewhat trained and who believed that you should report things that were true. But most of the press was still partisan and there was a ton of little bitty press. And I think that that's the crucial thing that you have to remember when you're looking at the way the media covers politics and covers personal lives of presidents.

Whenever you have in American history a whole mess of small media, competing, not terribly well-funded, not funded at all sometimes, often partisan or having an agenda -- sort of all yapping together and running around -- you're going to get some very wild accusations. That's the way things were in much of the 19th century when -- people don't remember now, of course -- but outrageous things were said about the personal lives of major politicians, including the president.

And when you have a few pieces of media that are very well-funded, that have a lot to lose, that are sort of corporate, that don't really have much competition, that know that their own futures are secure -- you tend to be much more discreet and respectful. And that's the situation that we remember for most of the historical lives that people who are alive today can think about.

But it's not like that anymore. We're much -- in many ways, we're much more like the 19th century. We've got tons of little stuff out there, and we've got incredible competition. We've got three or four all news TV channels going at the same time in any one market. And they're -- a lot of what's happening today has a lot more to do with that technology and that economics than it does to do with any change in our moral fiber or our perceptions of what's appropriate to talk about.

GROSS: Let me go back to Grover Cleveland. What was the impact of the Cleveland sex scandals on his presidency and on the office of the president?

COLLINS: Grover -- I think of him as "Grover" -- he's my very favorite president because his life -- his life as president was so outrageous and it's so totally out of keeping with his character, which was very stolid.

There -- one of his friends said after that first campaign that the iron had entered into his soul and it stayed there. It was -- he was not exactly a fun guy to begin with, but he was even more repressed and sort of resentful. He just hated newspapers.

When he did become engaged -- he was a bachelor during this whole horrible campaign -- and one of the reasons, it's very clear, that he refused to let anybody talk about what was going on was that if he was not the father of the illegitimate child, the person who was was probably his dead law partner. And Cleveland was secretly madly in love with the dead law partner's daughter, who was this beautiful 19-year-old girl, while he was this middle-aged, 300-pound, very non-suave governor of New York.

And they finally did get married, but he was -- he hated the press so much that he wouldn't even tell -- he wouldn't admit that he was engaged. He wouldn't tell them he was going to get married. He wouldn't tell them who he was going to get married. And many people just presumed it was Frances -- the girl's mother -- because they would be the right ages together, which made him even more upset.

And during his entire presidency, which lasted -- he's the only two-term total peacetime Democratic president we've had until, we think, Bill Clinton. And all during his -- all during his presidency, he suffered from one set of rumors after another, more outrageous than the other. Once he got married, people said he beat his wife, who he was totally devoted to.

Then they said his children were retarded or deformed because when -- when his wife was pregnant he had beaten her and he harmed the children. Then they said he was a total alcoholic. The man had not a moment's peace during the entire time he was president.

GROSS: You know, I think when we talk about the sex life of a public figure, we assume that that talk is gossip. In the case of President Clinton, the nation is fixated on this because of a possibility of perjury. They're fixated on this because...

COLLINS: Well, not necessarily.


GROSS: Well, OK. That's true. Yes, that's right. But you know, officially this -- the press is focusing on this and American citizens are focusing on this because Kenneth Starr is focusing on this. So I'd like -- I'd like for you to think out loud for us if this is the first time that a sphere that we always consider gossip -- the sex life of a public figure -- has become such a kind of...

COLLINS: A legal issue?

GROSS: ... legal issue -- exactly -- that we have legal reasons why we want to know if the president had oral sex with somebody?

COLLINS: Well, it does make things easier doesn't it? I mean, you can -- we really can't all sit around and say: "we really don't care about the sex at all. We're only interested in the perjury issue here." That's happened before, when in the '70s when we had gone through a period in which -- long period in which the media was totally discreet about the behavior of politicians, about their private lives. We hit a period of incredible scandals about members of Congress.

A lot of people remember the Fanne Fox -- the "Tidal Basin Bombshell" -- the stripper who was involved with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Wilbur Mills. And you know, they were sort of bounding around all over the place. He later admitted that he'd been an alcoholic and didn't remember a lot of it.

So, this has happened before in that context. But we've never had a sitting president who was involved in a public sex scandal that had some official cover that allowed you to talk about it in terms of -- in terms of policy like this, before. That part of this is totally new.

GROSS: My guest is Gail Collins, author of the forthcoming book Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Gail Collins. She's on the editorial board of the New York Times and she's the author of the new book Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics. It's scheduled for publication in the spring.

The press is now reporting on the sex life of a president in an area that used to be relegated to gossip. Do you think that the press is using the same standards of reporting to report on this -- on these sexual allegations as they've used to report on, say, Watergate, which is...


GROSS: ... you know, a purely political scandal?

COLLINS: It's hard in a way. I noticed reading the news magazines this week that there is a disproportionate number of "said a close friend" or said -- of people saying very hard, sort of harsh things about Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky -- and not being named.

On something like Watergate -- on anything normal -- you'd -- that we cover, you tend to be a lot more rigorous about when you're going to allow unnamed sources to be in your stories. I think the reason for that is partly that -- that the media is desperate to get a whole bunch of stuff out there, and they're also very well aware that you can very seldom get anybody to say -- to talk about someone else's sex life and/or private behavior and be quoted. This is very sort of tender and sensitive stuff.

But the problem with that is whenever you use unnamed sources -- whenever you have "said a former friend of Monica Lewinsky's" you know -- "she was always very flaky and you know she had this affair with this other guy" -- yadda, yadda, yadda. Whenever you do that, you know, you're lowering the standard. It's -- you can't rely on somebody who's unnamed. The reader can't rely on them in the same way they can with somebody whose willing to stand behind what they say. And to that extent, it's getting a little -- it is getting a little messy out there, I think.

But you know, we've gone through this before -- that the real famous precedent in that, for the media, was the Gary Hart case, in which you suddenly had people for the first time doing investigative reporting about a politician's very private life.

And that -- that had sort of never come up in that context before in America, where you had the great moral -- moral standing of the press being used. I mean, back in the 19th century, people didn't think about newspapers as the great champions of civilization that they've thought about them in this century, particularly since Watergate.

And suddenly you had these reporters who were, you know, trained college graduates -- people who go on TV on Sundays and talk about the great issues, and are regarded as leaders in society themselves -- go on out there trying to find out whether or not Gary Hart had gotten on a boat and spent the weekend with this beautiful blond woman who he wasn't married to, during his candidacy for president.

That was a whole new deal, and that's the closest thing that's ever happened before to what we're going through right now.

GROSS: Do you think that the Gary Hart story led to any new standards of reporting? Standards that are still being applied today?

COLLINS: Well, it led to new standards about what's -- what gets covered. It's hard -- we tried -- I think that people tried during the Gary Hart period to use the same standards of reporting they would -- they did use for -- for Watergate, for a sex affair. And they were -- they were pretty careful. They were -- if you look back on those clips, boy, they were pretty vigilant about what they wrote and -- and who they quoted and making sure that all of their sources were clean on this thing.

And there's a reason, though, you know, that we're going this now. The reason that it made sense -- the reason that the Gary Hart thing was almost inevitable -- and a real change that's happened -- that's put political campaigns in a different context is that unlike the 19th century, unlike most of the 20th century, right now, regular American voters nominate and elect the president.

There's nothing that stands between the regular average voters and the next President of the United States except their own judgment. There are no great, wise elders sitting back there going through all of everybody's past history and deciding whether they're appropriate candidates or not.

And once the people -- the average voters -- have the responsibility for screening these guys and these women, then they -- they have a right to know more about them, perhaps, than they did before. And that -- that was the context in which the Gary Hart issue had -- and that's why from now on, you're -- I think you're going to often have political campaigns for president in which personal issues come up again and again and again.

GROSS: Do you think the standards have changed at all for what it takes to turn gossip into a legitimate news item?

COLLINS: That's a good question, and in one way it hasn't changed at all. Throughout American history, whenever one event happens officially, then other things followed. We -- and there's nothing that certainly that's happened in terms of the Clinton situation that hasn't happened before. This is all real news. This is all stuff that's happened. This is all things that are happening in a totally public context.

What is different is that at this point in history -- and it's happened before, but it hasn't happened for a long time -- you can -- things can be in the news simply because they are rumor. People can say, well, there are rumors going around that Susan McDougal, who is now in jail because she refuses to testify before the special prosecutor -- I saw a story in the Post a while ago -- in the New York Post -- saying: "Susan McDougal, it is rumored -- and everybody's saying Susan McDougal is only staying in jail because she thinks Clinton will marry her -- divorce Hillary and marry her once his term is up."

Now, they have no proof for that. They don't even -- they don't even pretend to have any proof. They simply want you to know that that's a rumor that's out there. Now, how do we know it's a rumor? We know it's a rumor because somebody told it to somebody else.

And that -- it's a faux kind of way of doing reporting, because everybody who's a reporter knows that you can start a rumor yourself and get it tossed back to you within a half an hour. If I call somebody up and say: "have you heard the rumor that -- that Bill Clinton is sleeping with X in his cabinet."

I can guarantee you, if I call five people and ask them that question, by the end of the day, if I call up a sixth person and ask them, they'll tell me that they've heard the rumor because they heard it from one of my first five people.

It's one thing you've always got to be really careful about when you're trying to find out whether a rumor is a serious thing or not.

GROSS: Ted Koppel on Nightline the other night -- in the opening words of his broadcast -- used the words "oral sex." And I think a lot of Americans have been actually quite entertained by hearing all their anchor people...


... using terms like...

COLLINS: That's a first.

GROSS: ... like "oral sex." Yeah, it certainly is.

COLLINS: And the entire female population of America wants to know where they were in high school when this rule about oral sex didn't count was being, you know...

GROSS: That's right.

COLLINS: ... was being taught. Yes.

GROSS: That's right. Well, I'm wondering if you and your colleagues at the New York Times are kind of gritting your teeth as you decide what level of explicitness to use in your discussions on the editorial pages....

COLLINS: It's not just my...

GROSS: ... of these sexual allegations. Yeah.

COLLINS: ... not just my colleagues at the New York Times, though the New York Times is well known to be one of the places that's the least enthusiastic about this kind of reporting and this kind of talk, of all the media in the world. But it goes on everywhere right now -- everyplace where there is media right now, people are trying to discuss how -- how much you can say, you know, how -- when you talk about oral sex, what that means and how much you can follow that through.

But you know, when we talked about before about what gossip teaches people, it's -- everybody knows -- or a lot of people know that there are guys in the world who have two standards about what's appropriate sexually -- the one they use with good girls and the one they use with bad girls.

And knowing this kind of stuff about a prominent man is -- is depressing, I'm sure, if it happens to be true, for many Americans. But it's also -- you do learn stuff about the way the world operates through this kind of gossip, but I'm not sure that it's an entirely bad thing.

GROSS: What do you mean?

COLLINS: Well, this is not the first time we have had a politician tell us that oral sex doesn't count. This was an issue in the Senate campaign in -- I think it was '94 I guess -- in which Senator Robb was running against Oliver North.

And Senator Robb, as Oliver North's people pointed out on an almost daily or hourly basis, when he had been governor, had been going down to Virginia Beach for parties that his wife was not invited to, and that he'd been a real party kind of animal down there for a while.

And he denied that he had ever committed adultery, and hoped further as the time went on -- his aides said: "well, he was only talking about oral sex. That didn't count." So we've been down this road before with other politicians.

And I find this a very useful piece of information to know, as a woman, that this -- there is this theory that's been going around. And then -- you don't learn these things by, you know, through your normal course of history. You pick this stuff up usually through gossip.


COLLINS: I mean, do you now found that useful in your own life, to know these things? That there are these double standards that clearly some men are operating under in which these things don't count?

GROSS: Yeah, I see -- I see your point. It is useful for people to know this. Do you think it's useful for people to know this about their politicians? Do you think it's relevant?

COLLINS: Would you -- you know, it's -- I think it's relevant. It's -- if we were having an election, it would be more relevant. We did have -- we had two elections with Bill Clinton in which people came to know that this was a man who had -- had a very active sexual life; who told us -- not voluntarily, but because he had an ex-mistress running around, you know, yelling about it, that he had not had a perfect marriage and that he wanted people to get past that and talk about his issues and his politics.

And people did. And people clearly decided over those two elections that the top thing on their agenda was not having a president who had a perfect history as a faithful husband. And now we're learning a new thing, maybe. If these allegations are true, we're learning that these things don't necessarily stop; that a guy perhaps who had a history like that when he wasn't president will not have a different history when he is president -- if this stuff turns out to be true.

Now, that's an important thing for people to know. And they have a right to sort of put that into their bank of information when it comes to judging the next president. We worked under the assumption, I think, with Bill Clinton that the stuff that had happened when he was governor, when he was a regular private citizen, would of course not happen again when he was President of the United States.

Well, now there are serious allegations that no, it happened. It was just the same. It just kept going on exactly the same as before. Now, that's not trivial information for people to know. And it might be depressing and at the end people might simply decide that, as a poll that the Times had today suggests, they might be deciding that, well, yeah it's terrible and we're really sad, but life goes on and we like his policies.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much, Gail Collins, for talking with us.

COLLINS: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Gail Collins' forthcoming book is called Scorpion Tongues.

You're listening to FRESH AIR. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Gail Collins
High: Journalist Gail Collins is on the New York Times' editorial board, and a former columnist for New York Newsday. Her book "Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and the American Politics" will be published this spring. She discusses the current scandal surrounding President Clinton in light of other political/sexual scandals.
Spec: Politics; Government; Scandals; History; Media; Monica Lewinsky
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Scorpion Tongues
Date: JANUARY 27, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012701np.217
Head: At Sundance
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our film critic John Powers, who is also film critic for Vogue, just returned from the Sundance Film Festival which wrapped up on Sunday in Park City, Utah. It's the most important American showcase for independent films.

For the filmmakers, it's the best place to be noticed. For Hollywood producers, agents, and distributors, it's the place to find new talent. For film critics, it's the place to preview new films, some which are likely to become hits; some which may never even make it to theaters.

I asked John if there were any themes that emerged from the films this year at Sundance.

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Well, the interesting thing about Sundance is that, you know, because it's an independent film festival, traditionally a lot of the films are going to be grim and alienated. And perhaps there's some sort of cultural changeover -- or maybe just a change in the psyche of the selection committee, because this year's festival was packed with romantic comedies.

Now, you -- I mean there were -- it was filled with sweet stories, both gay and straight, about couples who managed to make it together by the end of the film. So even when you had a film about an alienated ex-con who's -- returned home to his parents who didn't love him, by the end of the film he actually has found the woman who loves him.

GROSS: What won the biggest awards this year?

POWERS: Yes, well the grand prize winner and clearly the sensation of the festival was a film called "Slam." It was directed by Mark Levin (ph) and stars a really charismatic performer named Saul Williams (ph). He plays a young black poet -- a brilliant young black poet -- who gets busted in DC for having maybe four ounces of marijuana, and is basically sent to jail initially and told he's going to be -- he has to more or less cop a plea or he'll go to jail for 10 years.

But it starts off as a sort of a socially conscious, very taste-ile (ph) drama about this poet. But what happens is it basically turns into something like a musical, because at different points in the film, he just starts spouting poetry, or other people start spouting poetry. And the film actually is about a double-meaning of the word "slam." As opposed to being thrown into the slammer as a prisoner, but also the poetry slams that they have, where people recite poetry.

And what's interesting about the film is you're watching this film that looks for all the world like a grim prison documentary that then later the guy gets out on the street, but it's a grim verite-style documentary. But like a musical, it stops for these kind of other-worldly sequences of people performing really brilliantly.

So when I saw the film, it was interrupted constantly by applause. Each time somebody would finish a poetic number, the audience would applaud. It's actually an interesting film, although I think in lots of ways not a very good film. It's kind of naive because the conflict between the verite style and the music -- the kind of musical style doesn't really hold together. But the film is very powerful because of the performers.

The other thing I would say is it's a very weird experience to sit in Utah in an audience filled with agents watching them weep and applaud poems by people that they would sooner die than sit next to anywhere else in real life.

GROSS: Were the performers in this movie real poets?

POWERS: Yeah, they are real poets. And in fact, after each show, they would sort of get up and sort of -- sort of do poetry for the audience in the Q&A period. And as I say, the lead actor Saul Williams is extraordinarily charismatic, and he more or less carries the movie because he's able to pull off sequences that are in lots of ways extraordinarily implausible.

By any -- by the standards of realism of the visual style of the film, the scenes are extremely implausible. At one point, he's in -- he's about to be murdered in the prison yard by somebody, and instead he begins giving this incredible sort of poetic rap. And all the prisoners stand around transfixed and amazed.

Now, I suspect in the real world, he would simply be killed. But in the logic of this film, his rap is so brilliant that even his -- even enemies are stunned and they stop and they realize he's some kind of driven genius.

GROSS: This film sounds really different from most of the films that you described at the festival as being, you know, romantic comedies.

POWERS: Yes, well I think perhaps it stood out because it was probably the most emotionally intense film for people. And it's also -- but it too is an affirmative film because it starts with a guy being thrown in jail, but gradually more or less coming to terms with that part of his life and making peace with the fact that this part of -- this suffering in prison is part of what it's going to take to nurture his genius.

So the fact that it actually ends up in a weird way sort of an upbeat film on a very downbeat subject. Because I mean one of the really depressing things about watching the film, which is set in, you know, the DC prisons, is you look and you see that every single person in the prison is black -- is a black man, and pretty much a young black man.

GROSS: The best director award went to a movie called "Pi." What -- is this about?

POWERS: It's -- well, it's important to explain that "pi" refers to the mathematical symbol, not the dessert. It's a film by Daron Aaronovsky (ph), who's a 28-year-old guy with a lot of talent. And it's about a mathematical genius who becomes obsessed with the idea that he can use mathematics to understand, more or less, reality.

He starts off being fascinated by trying to find the -- trying to see if he can use math to predict the exact workings of the stock market, not because he particularly wants the money, but because he thinks that math underlies everything. And so, it's an intellectual challenge for him.

Then later he gets involved in this kind of cabalistic sex -- sect and starts looking at the Torah and begins thinking that maybe somehow underlying both the Torah and the stock market are the same numerical principles. The film is basically about a math genius who goes kind of berserk trying to pursue the largest meaning of things in mathematical terms.

What's interesting to me is that it strikes me as being the intellectual version of something like "Good Will Hunting." 'Cause in Good Will Hunting, you have this same mathematical genius, but in a peculiarly American twist, it's an anti-intellectual film about a genius.

So that the Matt Damon character in Good Will Hunting, you know, is another Einstein, yet what the film thinks is interesting about him is that he had a really bad upbringing and, you know, more or less can't get his life together. Whereas in Pi, there's the suggestion that if you're a genius at the level of this guy, you start noticing patterns so deep and profound that your entire perception of reality is different from everybody else's.

So that -- and the film more or less is shot completely from the point of view of the math genius. So that when he steps out on the street, what he notices, what he feels, the sounds he hear -- all suggest his genius; that he is not like us and that the world is an extremely complicated place for him, that isn't like the world would be if you're not this particular genius. It's a very interesting film. It probably is the best-directed film of the entire festival. And if I had to name the one person whose next film I most wanted to see, it would be Daron Aaronovsky.

GROSS: OK. And the film is called Pi.


GROSS: Does it have a distributor? Are we likely to see it soon?

POWERS: Yes, it actually does have a distributor. And I mean, you know, one of the funny things about Sundance in general is that the question of who gets distribution comes to take over the entire festival. I mean, in fact the great joke of Sundance is that the festival prides itself on not being commercial.

I mean, there's no festival in the world where you hear more speeches about art, integrity and all the rest. Yet there's no festival in the world where more of the talk is actually devoted to whose film has been bought, who's a rising star -- all of the commercial side of the business.

In the case of Pi, it was picked up, although many people thought it wouldn't do a lot of business because it's about an intellectual topic. And it's generally thought in film circles, both independent and Hollywood, that if you make a film about smart people, you're in real trouble.

GROSS: The Filmmaker's Trophy, which is an award given by filmmakers to filmmakers, is the film that also won the Audience Award. And that's called "Smoke Signals." And I know that it was written by Sherman Alexy (ph), who is a Native American writer whose written short stories and I think a novel as well. Did you like the movie?

POWERS: The movie's OK. It's -- I mean, it's -- you know, my sort of condescending term for there's a particular kind of movie that Sundance has, which I guess is the kind of cute-ethnics film. And Smoke Signals has a little bit of -- a little bit of that. It's about -- it's about two guys more or less seeking out one of the guy's fathers, but it's filled with jokes and kind of high spirits, and you know, a sense of dislocation and search for the self.

And the film is actually quite enjoyable to watch, although it's sort of a mess. The script by Sherman Alexy is very funny and the performing -- performances are very, very good. There's a very touching performance by the Native American actor Gary Farmer, who people might have seen in "Dead Man" and some other films.

GROSS: He was great in Dead Man.

POWERS: Yeah, he's really great. And he actually has real charisma. And in fact, the performers are very strong and the script is funny, yet in lots of ways, it's kind -- a kind of clumsy film. So if you go to see it expecting a piece of great storytelling or a sort of well-crafted film, you'll be disappointed.

If you go expecting something that's sort of amiable and heartfelt, that's clunky at parts, but actually has jokes of a kind you don't normally see, and more or less represents a point of view of the world, which is to say the Native American view of their own lives, then you actually are -- you will see something you'll enjoy. The audience loved it a lot. I mean, I can't honestly say I think it's a really good film, but I was -- I was quite happy to have seen it.

GROSS: If you could give out an award to a film that didn't receive an award, what film would it be?

POWERS: Well, I think the tricky thing at Sundance is that a lot of the best films aren't officially in competition. Now, this is partly a good thing that -- I mean, the best single feature film there that I hadn't seen before was Paul Schrader's film "Affliction" based on the Russell Banks novel, which is the beautiful story of Nick Nolte, who plays a sort of small-town loser, and his relationship to his overbearing father.

And it's an -- a beautiful, harrowing film -- perhaps the best performance of Nolte's career, certainly I think -- I think a better performance than any of the Oscar nominees this year will be. I mean, a really wonderful film, made by Paul Schrader, who wrote "Taxi Driver" and has made a bunch of other films. It's the best film of his career. It's a really wonderful piece of work.

And I think perhaps in a -- something that kind of typifies what's going on in American film right now, it doesn't have a distributor, partly because it's a downer subject; partly because "The Sweet Hereafter," which is also based on a Russell Banks novel, didn't do very good business.

And I think partly because Schrader is a known commodity. What happens at Sundance and lots of places is that -- is that distributors buy relationships with young talent. So, it's not at all uncommon that when a film like -- a romantic comedy like "Next Stop, Wonderland" is bought by Miramax, they will also then have a two-picture deal for the next two films by the young director, 'cause everybody wants to sort of sign up the young talent because it's such a competitive business.

But Paul Schrader has been around a long time. He's a known commodity. People know that a lot of his movies don't make money. So that there's -- there's not quite the same advantage. Yet he had, I think clearly the best feature film at the festival, I mean, by quite -- by quite a lot.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR film critic John Powers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with our film critic John Powers. We're talking about the Sundance Film Festival, which concluded on Sunday.

There was a big controversy at the Sundance Film Festival this year over a movie -- a documentary movie about Kurt Cobain, the late lead singer of Nirvana, and Courtney Love, who was his wife and also starred in the Larry Flynt movie. The festival withdrew the movie after being pressured by, I think, Courtney Love's lawyers. What was this controversy about?

POWERS: Well I think -- well, it's probably important to start talking about the film. The film is about the relationship between Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, in particular the death of Kurt Cobain.

You know, and there's been a lot of stuff on the Internet for quite a while suggesting in one way or another that Courtney Love isn't -- was either more -- either indirectly responsible for Kurt Cobain's death or, more dramatically, that she'd actually arranged to have Kurt Cobain murdered.

The film essentially focuses on this subject, or at least that -- that's what it starts off looking at. And it sort of like goes through all the evidence. It talks to the various conspiracy theorists. It interviews a guy who claims that Courtney Love offered him $50,000 to kill Kurt Cobain.

And that's the -- that's the -- sort of like that's the basic idea in it. And it's easy to understand by Courtney Love would not exactly love to have a documentary out suggesting that she -- that she murdered Kurt Cobain.

But -- but the film was made by a British filmmaker named Nick Broomfield (ph) who sort of specializes in kind of -- story about women who are the verge or -- more or less notorious women. There's one named Eileen Warnose (ph), a serial killer. He made a film about Heidi Fleiss. He even made a film about Margaret Thatcher. And what he always does is he builds in his making the film as part of the structure of what he's doing.

So, the film is not only about whether or not Courtney Love killed Kurt Cobain, but it also -- it becomes about Courtney Love's attempt to stop him from making the film about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. And this -- this also would be upsetting to Courtney Love, because it's filled with tapes of her shrieking vile obscenities at people, threatening to destroy people's lives -- clearly being dishonest in her presentation of herself.

So for both of those reasons, it's a film she -- she doesn't want out. And through different kinds of legal pressure, including the music company refusing rights to some of the songs that were in the film, it became clear that if Sundance showed it, there would be probably some huge legal problem.

The solution to this was that after they withdrew the film -- Sundance decided not to show it -- one of the dissident film festivals that also took place in Park City, a thing called "Slam Dunk," had a midnight screening of the film about 100 people, who I think they thought would be to the benefit of the film to see. So there were journalists there, film distributors, various celebrities.

And so we all huddled in the -- the -- more -- in a -- this kind of wood-lined Elks lodge with actually no dead elk heads on the wall, and watched this film being projected. And it was, you know, one of the sensations of the festival, because it's filled with interesting and wonderful things. I mean, my favorite detail in the entire film is when Nick Broomfield, the filmmaker, goes off to meet the guy who claims that he was offered money to kill Kurt Cobain. The person who brokers the deal is Divine Brown's pimp.

And you know, that kind of weird sense of intersecting layers of sleaze and madness is really wonderful in the film. And there's also a wonderful thing at the end where Broomfield crashes an ACLU awards ceremony where Courtney Love is presenting an award for freedom of speech.

And he asks -- he basically asks the question from the stage: why are you letting this woman whose suppressed and threatened and bullied reporters be a spokesperson for freedom of speech? And he has the triumphant moment of more or less having the ACLU throw him off the stage for engaging in freedom of speech in an awards ceremony devoted to freedom of speech.

So, it was quite a sensational film. I don't know that it will ever come out. There's lots of talk that distributors want it, but the legal problems have to be enormous, because the film explicitly says that the filmmaker doesn't believe that Courtney Love had Kurt Cobain killed, yet gives so much evidence that he sort of does believe it, that it's a kind of -- it's a very insinuating film.

GROSS: Well, I believe that the people who tried to get Sundance to withdraw the film and succeeded in getting them to withdraw the film, were also saying that the filmmaker didn't properly own the music rights to a couple of the songs used in the movie.

POWERS: Yes, well the music rights argument was the basic argument, although I think no one at Sundance actually believed that was the real problem, partly because this was a film made for a British television channel and they traditionally have waivers that allow them to show -- show -- to use music in films when they're shown at festivals.

But I think also the idea was that no music company was probably going to sue Sundance for having two screenings of a film. But if -- this was just I think part of the full-court press on the part of the Courtney Love team in order to have the film not shown. And it worked very well.

And you know, I must say that, you know, there is something slightly unsavory about the film. You know, it's -- I mean, Broomfield's work is on that sort of fine line between sleaze and serious journalism. I mean, I could sort of imagine that his next film will be about Linda R. Tripp because it's perfectly there. You know, it's always the case of something that looks kind of tabloidy, yet also raises serious issues.

GROSS: Which leads me to this subject: while Sundance was underway, network anchors were using the term "oral sex" describing the latest controversy surrounding our president. And I'm wondering how this dramatic story affected the people at Sundance, especially considering that Clinton has been considered the Hollywood president in some ways? A lot of people in the movie industry were pretty solidly behind him during his campaigns.

POWERS: Well, I think the first thing to be said is that movie people do not use terms like "oral sex" in discussing the Clinton episode. You know, they are much more direct in their discussion of it. It was actually funny, because the news sort of seeped through the walls of the festival very slowly.

I remember talking to Michael Moore, who you all know from "Roger and Me," who had a film at the festival. And he'd shown his film at the festival and had made a couple of jokes about it -- and nobody in the audience laughed. And he realized that at the time that he had made those jokes, people hadn't yet heard. They probably just thought he was making some sort of a weird, gratuitous swipe at the -- about Clinton's sex life.

You know, but by the end of the festival, it was talked about as much as anything else. Partly people were tired because festivals are very exhausting and hermetic and sort of self-absorbing things. And by about the end of seven or eight days, you need to get -- you need desperately to have some sort of contact with the outer world. And you know, what could be a better contact with the outer world than allegations against the president of this kind?

So every morning, you'd wake up and people would say "oh, I'm really exhausted. I got in from my -- I got in from my screening at 12:30, and then I turned on CNN and watched until 2:30." Because everyone was fascinated by it, and because it also -- this kind of story has a kind of Hollywood aspect to it.

I mean, not only do you have the film "Wag The Dog" which is part of it, you have -- and you have "Primary Colors." But as you mentioned, Hollywood is particularly interested in Clinton and there's the whole question in the film business of how you present yourself in relation to society.

And this actually sort or raises all sorts of delicate and interesting PR issues. I mean, how do you handle a story like this is you're the White House is a thing that's very, very fascinating to lots of people in the film business, whether or not you're publicists; whether or not you're trying to promote a film. I mean -- so the -- just the sort of technique of it all became a fascinating thing.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR film critic John Powers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is FRESH AIR film critic John Powers. And we're talking about the Sundance Film Festival, which concluded on Sunday. Let's get back to a controversial documentary about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, which was withdrawn by the festival organizers.

You saw the Kurt Cobain movie at Slam Dunk, which is an alternative festival. Is Slam Dance yet another alternative festival?

POWERS: Yes, Slam Dance was the first of the alternative festivals.


POWERS: In the logic of how it happened, it's a natural thing that often happens at the big film festivals, is that as Sundance grew bigger and more powerful, they were turning down more and more films. So that, you know, when I was first going to it in the mid-'80s -- you know, maybe 100 films would be submitted and 16 would be chosen, you know.

Now, there are literally thousands of independent features and -- but they're still choosing 16 films in competition. And so, it's only natural that people who are being turned down could rightly feel they had interesting work and they wanted some sort of place to show it. But the only really good place to show it would probably be in Park City, Utah along with Sundance, because that's where the world's press is.

So a few years ago, the thing Slam Dance came along. But then Slam Dance made a couple of -- you know, did rather well. You know, one of -- one of its winners was the film called "The Daytrippers" which came out and, you know, was a commercial success. And eventually what happened was there were so many more films being made that even Slam Dance was turning down people who felt they had really good films.

So you had yet a third and fourth and fifth festivals springing up over the years. And every year there's, you know, there's a new one. One was jokingly called "Sleaze Dance." And basically what it is is they're all trying to capitalize on the fact that the film world and the film media's attention is all in this small city in Utah.

This year, the winner at Slam Dance was certainly the wildest and craziest film I saw in Utah in 10 days. It's called "Surrender, Dorothy." You might remember, that's what the Wicked Witch of the West writes in the sky in the "Wizard of Oz." And it's a story about this demented busboy who uses the heroin addiction of another man in order to gain power over him. And by withholding heroin, gradually forces this other guy, played by the filmmaker Kevin Denovis (ph), to become a woman.

So initially, she's just doing women -- womanly tasks around the house. Then he makes her start dressing -- you know, wearing an apron. Then, he starts making her wear panties. Then he starts making him shave his arms and legs. Then he starts giving him drugs to try to see if he can make him grow breasts. And it ends with a scene that's about castration.

It is a weird, obsessional, really interesting movie -- not completely successful, I must say, and you know, sick, sick, sick. But it has the kind of feeling of -- that you got from something like, I don't now, "Eraserhead." It's not as accomplished as Eraserhead, alas, but this is an obsessive film. I mean, you know, Susan Sontag once said that, you know, films can be either be constructed or secreted. And this is one of these films that is secreted.

You don't think that anyone in their right mind would cynically sit down and think: "I'm gonna make this movie 'cause it's gonna make me a star." It's clearly about all sorts of deep psychological issues inside the filmmaker. And it's a really interesting film.

I mean, traditionally in the past, one would say: "that should have been in Sundance." But in fact, Slam Dance is a serious enough event that it -- it's probably no longer fair to say of their best film that it ought to have been in the other festival. I mean, suffice it to say, it was better than a lot of the films I saw at Sundance, and probably not as good as some of the films I saw at Sundance.

GROSS: So sum up for us, of the movies that you saw at Sundance, name two or three that we should be looking out for, assuming they get released.

POWERS: OK. I think the films that I think that -- that people should be looking out for from Sundance, among feature films, is one I think that people will really like is a film called "Next Stop, Wonderland," which is a very traditional kind of love story -- or actually I mean a very untraditional kind of love story -- where there are two characters who are destined to meet, and the whole question is will they or won't they meet.

But the thing that's interesting about this particular film is it's not clear that they will meet, because the tone of the film is very dark and slightly pessimistic, and the heroine -- wonderfully played by the terrific actress Hope Davis -- is sort of a sad, depressed woman. And you can't tell whether she's actually going to make it to the end. That's a film -- it's a very good film.

It didn't win anything, partly I think because Miramax paid a lot of money for it. And it's the tradition at festivals like this that if you get -- if you make a lot of money in a distribution deal, you may not win an award, because the jury thinks that they should be trying to help something else out. That's a film you should look for.

Another film that will be coming out, called "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" is a lot of fun. It's a -- it's a gay comedy, sort of. It's an American equivalent of -- sort of a cross between a Pedro Almodovar movie and a big screen musical of the -- of say the '50s. It's extremely funny; shot in wide screen with nifty primary colors, very attractive performers, extremely funny and sharp. It's a very nice film. The filmmaker described it as a "trifle," and it's one of the few films there that knew it was a trifle.

And finally, there's a film I just want to praise -- and I know this will sound excruciatingly pretentious, but perhaps the best film I saw was a 12-minute Scottish short by a woman by the name of Lynn Ramsay (ph). As I say, I'm embarrassed to say this 'cause it sounds so much like a film critic. You know, to go off to a festival with 100 films, and say: "oh, yes, but the one I liked best was a 12-minute Scottish short."

Nevertheless, the film I did like best was a 12-minute Scottish short called "Gas Man" (ph). And I wasn't the only one. It was shown with a very good film called "Under the Skin" by a young British woman. And this was before it, and virtually everyone who saw it came out thinking: "this is the tremendous film." You know, this is -- this is the person whose the next Jane Campion. This is the person whose really, really talented.

Because in 12 minutes, it gave you more of a sense of this family's life. It's about a man who has basically two families. It gives you more a sense of their life and a feeling about their life than other films did in, you know, 90 or 100 minutes. I mean, it's just an incredibly impressive piece of work.

This Scottish woman who made it is making a feature film now which I'm hoping to see soon because it's -- she's really, really, good.

GROSS: Well John, thanks for reporting to us on the Sundance Film Festival.

POWERS: Sure. Happy to do it.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for Vogue.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Film critic John Powers has been attending the Sundance Film Festival. He'll talk with Terry about what he's seen on and off the screen.
Spec: Movie Industry; Sundance Film Festival
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: At Sundance
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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