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Lone Star Sundance

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This past December, the new director of the Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper, told The New York Times that the watchword for this year’s event was going to be “risk.” Risk before commerce, risk before tradition, risk before Hollywood glitz, glamour or money. Acknowledging criticism that the festival had become “wishy-washy” about the definition of independent film over the course of its 25 years, Cooper said he and fellow programmers “weren’t going to be swayed by the marketability of a film.”

This year’s bold new version of Sundance, running now through Jan. 31, features six movies directed by Texans. Whether that means there’s a correlation between risky living and Texas is impossible to say. But it’s clear that a Sundance less concerned with marketability has been a boon for quirky, independent Texas filmmakers.

One of my favorites is Austinite Amy Grappell’s documentary short, Quadrangle, about her parents’ unconventional relationship with another married couple in the early 1970s. Grappell sets up her 20-minute film as a diptych, with her mother, Deanna, and her father, Paul, describing in split screen the transformation of their dysfunctional, suburban marriage to a dysfunctional, free-love swinger fantasy.

Quadrangle follows Deanna and Paul around their hometown of Massapequa, Long Island, where they became friends with Eleanor and Robert in 1969, a time when even suburban parents were thumbing their noses at social convention. In a remarkable blend of decadence and domesticity that could only have happened in post-Woodstock America, the couples eventually swapped spouses, moved in together—kids and all—and lived as a sort of double nuclear family. It may sound ridiculous, but Deanna, brash and unapologetic, tells her daughter it was all part of living in a rebellious, idealistic age. “We thought we were a brave new world together,” she says. “We were going to start a new fashion.”

To her credit, Grappell doesn’t judge her parents. Her intentions are anthropological, not ideological, and it’s remarkable how much her movie says about the nature of human desire and human disappointment without stooping to polemic or recrimination. Deanna and Paul, like so many of their generation, wanted to cross boundaries, but ended up blurring the line between revolution and selfishness in the process.

As an up-and-coming short-film director at Sundance, Grappell is in good company. Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and David O. Russell all started with short films at Sundance before moving on to Hollywood. Currently Grappell is writing the script for a feature version of Quadrangle, and if Sundance keeps praising her name, she might one day make the next Magnolia or Sideways or Three Kings, and tales of suburban wife-swapping might again have their day at the box office.

If Grappell’s films make it to the local cineplex, there’s a good chance she’ll be competing with the Duplass Brothers, a Texas filmmaking team returning to Sundance for the fifth time. Their seven-minute, three-dollar lark, This Is John, about a man and his fraught relationship with an answering machine, screened there in 2003. Two years later, critics at the festival heralded their first feature, The Puffy Chair, as a leading light of Mumblecore, an underground movement marked by self-effacing dialogue, a shrugging sense of dramatic purpose and protagonists with stylishly disheveled hair.

This year, Jay and Mark Duplass come to Park City as conquering heroes—with a couple of development deals to their name and a new Fox Searchlight comedy, Cyrus, starring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill. The film is a comedy about a divorced man who thinks he’s found the woman of his dreams, until he meets her son. Seven years after their Sundance debut, the brothers are on the verge of hitting the big time. I’d like to believe that when Robert Redford was first dreaming up Sundance, a filmmaking duo who once worked with a household appliance now directing Hollywood stars was exactly what he had in mind.

See the trailer for Quadrangle at http://www.quadranglefilm.com And one for Cyrus at http://sundance.bside.com/2010/films/cyrus_sundance2010.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.