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Locals slamdunk Sundance?

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It's January, and for America's independent film community, that means one thing: Sundance. All birds of that particular feather will be flocking to Park City, Utah, for 10 days of movies, movies and more movies--with, perhaps, a little skiing on the side.

Local filmmaker Francesca Talenti will be among those in attendance, screening a short film of hers at the festival. The UNC-Chapel Hill film professor's short film, The Planets, is a gorgeous--and unconventionally animated--rendering of the solar system in rapturously swirling colors, to narration provided by an old NASA tape.

As vast as her cinematic universe seems on the screen, it was actually created by mixing dyes in a viscous solvent on clear trays. Talenti spent eight years experimenting with different chemical mixtures, shooting reels and reels worth of 16mm film to document the efforts. Finally, she shot The Planets in the summer of 2000, while teaching at the University of Texas in Austin, using a 12-foot-high Oxberry animation stand.

The effect is something similar to the startling transfigurations of an aurora borealis, except that Talenti's colors cover the entire spectrum. The initial spark for the film came from noticing the effects of liquids mixing together. "Like when you put cream in your coffee," she says, "liquid inside liquid, trying to capture that on film ... (but) getting a look like stained glass."

The other inspiration for the film comes from her experience as a painter: "I was always much more interested in what the colors did when I would wash up, what the inks would do when the water hit it," she says.

When I suggested that her vision of Jupiter is a particularly felicitous highlight of her film's journey, Talenti laughs and says, "Everyone has a different one! It must have something to do with your charts!"

Charts?

"Uh-huh. I dedicated it to my mom. She's a practicing astrologer."

Though Talenti is "ambivalent" about astrology herself, she sees a connection between her mother's vocation and her film in that "astrology is a very subjective way of looking at the planets."

Her film will precede an experimental feature called At the First Breath of Wind. ("At first," the irrepressible Talenti giggles, "I thought it was called At the First Break of Wind!")

As it turns out, this won't be Talenti's first trip to Sundance as a filmmaker.

"It was 12 or 13 years ago, and my short film only played once," she recalls. "Still, I got a pass to [see] everything. This time, my film's playing five times, and they only gave me 10 tickets. It's gotten a lot bigger."

Indeed, Sundance earned its current level of importance thanks to films that were discovered there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Roger and Me, Reservoir Dogs and, above all, sex, lies and videotape. While the search for the Next Big Thing generates the hype, Talenti is one of the fortunate filmmakers who will go to the festival just to have fun. "One good thing about having a short instead of a feature," she says, "is that I think I can relax a lot more than the people who are just trying their darnedest to sell."

Not that she wouldn't be delighted to sell distribution rights to her film, she adds. Still, she's not banking on it. "I really did this more for love more than anything," she says, "certainly not as a moneymaker, but out of curiosity and aesthetic need. But we'll find out if anyone wants to buy it."

The 2003 Sundance Film Festival kicks off this Thursday night with a screening of Levity, a new film featuring the very promising pairing of Morgan Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. It continues through Jan. 26.

As it turns out, Talenti isn't the only Triangle filmmaker traveling to Park City this month. In this space last month we wrote about Raleigh filmmakers Drew Martin and David Baeumler's ongoing efforts to generate interest in Fudgie and Jane, a short they produced last year. Despite an auspicious screening in a New York City comedy club, they were soon back to square one, submitting their film to festivals around the country.

Although Fudgie and Jane didn't get into Sundance, our favorite trans-species tragicomic-romance (with a guy in a giant foam whale suit) will still be seen in Park City. It's showing Sunday morning, Jan. 19, at the Slamdunk Film Festival, one of the latest in the ongoing proliferation of competing alternative festivals that serve as so many salons des refuses for indie filmmakers. While the most enduring of these is Slamdance, in recent years Raindance, Slumdance and No Dance have joined the fray.

Slamdunk, the most recent of these, is a six-day event now in its sixth year. Since it takes place in a Park City nightspot called Club Creation, music and dancing get thrown into the mix. There's even a celebrity filmmaker on the schedule: Pauly Shore, who will be screening a film called You'll Never Wiez in this Town Again.

While this festival may seem like a mere shadow of the colossus that is Sundance, it's worth noting that Slamdunk also has a presence at the Cannes Film Festival. It's enough to suggest some dreamy future travel possibilities for the two filmmakers. As Martin noted in a recent e-mail, "It looks like Fudgie and Jane is getting legs."

You can also say the same for Duke playwriting professor Erin Cressida Wilson. After the critical and modest commercial success of Secretary (for which she wrote the script), Entertainment Weekly revealed last week that she's signed on to develop a television series for HBO.

We were curious about what the author of the stage plays The Trail of Her Inner Thigh and The Erotica Project plans to contribute to the channel that has given us The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In an e-mail interview last week, however, Wilson wrote, "I cannot divulge anything right now." However, it's worth noting that HBO has announced that the upcoming season of Sex and the City will be its last. We're only speculating, but with the departure of a popular, sophisticated woman-centric show, could HBO be looking for Wilson to produce something to fill that niche?

Though Wilson spent 15 years building a reputation in experimental theater circles, Secretary finally made her famous. Now that its theatrical run is largely over, we wondered if there'd been any post-partum depression in its aftermath? "No letdown at all," Wilson reports. "It's still playing in New York City, where I'm living, and in L.A., where I'm working, so it still feels like it's still having its theatrical release. I feel blessed to have other projects to move straight into."

Wilson's script for Secretary, liberally adapted from a Mary Gaitskill short story, was honored with an Independent Spirit nomination for best first script. With a promotion campaign, it could conceivably be a dark horse contender for an Oscar nomination.

But if Lion's Gate is promoting her as a candidate, Wilson doesn't know about it. Instead, Lion's Gate seems to be placing their bets with Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film's star. "I have seen a couple of campaigns for her performance in the trades," Wilson reports. "She has a Golden Globe nomination, so it would be good for them to push her. I am thrilled for her."

One last question: Does Wilson's new prominence spell the end of her association with Duke University? "Not at all," she says. EndBlock

The sixth annual HiMom! Film Festival in Chapel Hill is accepting entries through Jan. 31. Find more information at www.himomfilmfest.org. The festival runs April 3-5, 2003.

David Fellerath can be reached at fellerath@indyweek.com.

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