The Black Hole of Sundance

Hollywood types speak gauzily of their "art," even if nothing seems to fit the definition of some of this "art" better than "films almost no one wants to watch." Robert Redford became a hero of the "art" film world by founding the Sundance Institute in 1981, based on the call for "creative risk-taking" and "nurturing the diversity of artistic expression." But the search for risk-taking-cum-creative diversity is a hopeless free-fall into the abyss, and all too often, and too predictably, results in creative perversity. What Mapplethorpe brought to the photograph, Redford's festival is now bringing to the silver screen.

The 2007 Sundance festival has reached a new low with a strange, yet highly publicized film called "Zoo." No, it isn't about giraffes and hippos. "Zoo" is about "zoophiles" - you know, humans who like sex with animals. The documentary explores the activities of a group of men in the Pacific Northwest who engaged in bestiality. To be precise, they engaged in sex with Arabian stallions - until a man died from a perforated colon in 2005.

No one seems to have asked Robert Redford how far outside the orbit of common sense he had to float to allow this film a hallowed place at his "art" film festival.

In Redford's orbit this movie qualifies as "art" and he's not alone in that sentiment. Film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times raved to the skeptical reader that "this strange and strangely beautiful film" contained off-camera interviews with the horseplay participants (what a surprise), as well as "elegiac visual re-creations intended to conjure up the mood and spirit of situations." Turan even claimed the director, Robinson Devor, put it best: "I aestheticized the sleaze right out of it."

What on Earth does that mean? Aesthetic means appreciative of beauty. So the sleaze of bestiality was made beautiful? And is "elegiac" the right adjective to describe the recounting of man-on-horse (or in this case, fatal horse-on-man) sex scenes? What kind of editor at the Los Angeles Times allows this kind of copy into the newspaper? If this newspaper is so convinced the scenes are not just tasteful, but touching, how long before the Times is publishing its own "elegiac" diagrams?

The official promotional copy of the Sundance festival lauds the film's cleverness and "visual poetry" of male "alienation." But the message is also stated more bluntly. This documentary challenges viewers to examine "where we draw the line, how much perversity we can tolerate in others." At Sundance it's no problemo. People like Robert Redford apparently have no limit in how much perversity they can tolerate for the greater good of "creative risk-taking."

I can hear the movie's defenders already: "Bozell, you haven't seen it! You have to see it to judge it." But do some films really need to be seen before we can form a judgment that they're revolting? Aren't there concepts (think "Auschwitz comedy") that can be - should be - rejected out of hand, without a need for three days of deep contemplation? The avant-garde elite ask us where we should draw the line, but that's not their intent. They are daring someone to draw a line they won't cross.

Then there's that other sick Sundance sensation making headlines. Twelve-year-old Dakota Fanning, the star of "Charlotte's Web" and other family films like "The Cat in the Hat," is starring in a five-minute rape scene in a film titled "Hounddog."

Is this - this - enough to shock the critics into denouncement? C'mon. David Halbfinger of the NewYork Times was perfectly predictable. After explaining how Fanning's character gyrates in her underwear, wakes up as her naked father climbs into her bed, demands that a pre-pubescent boy expose himself to her in exchange for a kiss, and finally, is raped by a teenager with the promise of Elvis Presley tickets - he attacked the moralists: "She's growing up. Get used to it."

For her part, Miss Fanning is insisting people see this spectacle and be "touched" when they "see the truth" of the movie's theme of loneliness on screen. She is 12 years old, and Hollywood has her telling adults how to "aestheticize the sleaze right out of it." The world's gone mad.

Thankfully there are a few people willing to speak the truth. Former child actor Paul Petersen has been vigilant in condemning the concept of a "tasteful rape scene" with a 12-year-old actress. "Nothing excuses it," he says, adding reports that the movie crew was so outraged during filming of the rape scene that they walked off the set. But sadly, the Sundance festival sees the exploitation of minors as only another courageous episode in the "diversity of artistic expression."

This year's Sundance makes last year's "Brokeback Mountain" look like a Disney release. God help us next year, when these "artists" plumb ever deeper.