How Neatly Spreads His Claws

The 18th annual Sundance Film Festival

Other noteworthy Sundance documentaries, none of which have theatrical distribution, include Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's Derrida, which affords an intimate glimpse of its formidable subject; Sister Helen, Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa's straightforward but affecting portrait of a boozer turned Benedictine sister who runs a halfway house for drunks and addicts (produced for Cinemax, the film will air on cable next year); and Kristi Jacobson's wrenching American Standoff, about a Teamsters' strike. Bill Weber and David Weissman's The Cockettes, a look at (mostly) gay hippies who sang and danced their way to infamy in San Francisco during the early '70s, is overpopulated by talking heads but is so winning and good-natured it nearly trumps complaint. It's typical for documentaries to go begging for distributors before or after Sundance; this year, despite the buying blitz, even some of the better fiction films were left similarly bereft. One that deserves a wider audience is Steven Shainberg's Secretary, a charmingly idiosyncratic love story written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a Mary Gaitskill novella about a female masochist and the male sadist for whom she types, then kneels. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who appeared with her brother Jake in Donnie Darko, plays the woman who discovers the pleasures of discipline, while James Spader, as the man on top, makes real a lawyer whose façade melts like so much tenderly dripped hot wax.

Secretary, which won a special-jury prize for "originality," will probably get picked up, but it's unlikely to find the larger audiences secured by films such as In the Bedroom, Mementoor even Hedwig. Its humor is too dark, and its subject and sexual politics, even post-Lewinsky, are too outré. A similar lack of big-screen viability and perhaps even potential characterized a number of the higher-profile films, including Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity, which was picked up by UA, now run by former October Films heretic Bingham Ray. Beautifully shot on digital by Ellen Kuras and based on Miller's short-story collection of the same name, the film divides into three separate narratives about women under the influence of both men and their own conflicting desires. There's hard-bitten Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), an abused working-class wife who flees her abuser but not her true self; Greta (Parker Posey, genuinely great and without the twitches), an ambitious, fidelity-challenged book editor; and Paula (Fairuza Balk), a little girl lost then found. Despite one casting indiscretion (Sedgwick's eyes can go black with hate, but her aristocratic beauty seems off-key, too untouched by pain or suffering) and a final story that drifts when it should veer hard, Personal Velocitywinds up so blissfully unsentimental about women, sex and love that it's almost a shock the director isn't French.
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