Madison became a permanent extension of the Sundance Film Festival last Friday night when Sundance 608, a new 6-screen art cinema, opened in town. The Sundance theater project was designed by Sundance president Robert Redford as a means of making every trip to the cinema an idealized experience. The first of two initially planned theaters (the second, "Sundance Kabuki," will be opening in San Francisco later this year), the experiment involves presenting the films in the highest standard possible, giving the filmgoers a sense of true comfort, and creating a sense of artistic community. In other words, it's cinema heaven. The local ABC affiliate covered Sundance 608's opening as though it were a matter of controversy, since only ten minutes away is another art theater, Westgate--as though Redford was trying to present direct competition for this niche market. But this ignores the fact that Sundance is replacing another art theater, Hilldale, which just closed--and was located at the same mall. The truth is that Redford, who knew about Madison through his campaign work for Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, was well aware that Madison is a film buff's town, hosting the increasingly popular Wisconsin Film Festival and with a prestigious film program on campus--a campus which also houses a vast film and television archive. But this controversy is manufactured, and by and large Madisonites are thrilled to be the guinea pigs for Redford's experiment in remaking the multiplex.
In a FAQ form distributed at the theater, it's announced that Sundance 608 (named, simply, after the Madison area code) will specialize in art, international, documentary, and independent films. The opening weekend roster covers all those categories, showing Waitress, The TV Set, and Away from Her (independent), Black Book and After the Wedding (international), and Air Guitar Nation (documentary). Patrons are encouraged to purchase their tickets in advance--not because screenings will sell out, but so they can benefit from choosing their own seats. The theater is three stories, with the main lobby on the first floor containing two lounges, a gift shop, and a cafe. The auditoriums are spread across the first and second floors, and on the second floor is also a fine-dining restaurant. The third floor is actually a seasonal rooftop bar open to the late hours. All of this encourages guests to stick around after the film and half long discussions about what they've just seen, and the nooks and crannies are wonderful to explore and discover, with only one of these innovations coming across as half-assed (a sand-raking area squeezed into the bottom of a stairwell, which seems about as un-Zen as you can get). But the main event is attending the films...we arrived at about 6:35 on Monday night for the 6:45 showing of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, finding our theater at the end of a long, moodily-lit corridor bordered by trees that grasped the walls. In the auditorium, which features wide, tall, and truly comfy seats (and the smell of new carpet), we found the seats we'd selected online--not that it much mattered, since there were only about a dozen people at the screening on this weeknight--and watched not Mountain Dew ads or Jerry Maguire trivia, but the tail-end of an Australian stop-motion animated short, "Uncle," by Adam Elliot (which I could identify because it's featured on the Animation Show Vol. 1 DVD). After the film, there was an animated Sundance logo which cycled on the screen for a few minutes until the film began. No warning to turn off your cell phones--you had damn well better know to do that. Instead, one of the super-polite ushers stepped before the audience, gave his name and the title and director of the film, and promised to watch the first minutes of the film with us to ensure that the film was being properly projected. This might seem highly anal to you, but I wanted to stand up and cheer. Almost every one of my recent theater visits have been framed improperly, with the most egregious offender actually being arthouse rival Westgate, which cut off the bottom-half of the subtitles for the Korean thriller The Host. Most multiplexes are projected by automation, and the teenagers who work at them don't know how to fix the projector if it breaks. This, more than anything, has brought me to the brink of giving up the theater-going experience. Sundance 608 has made me want to pay top-dollar again. Best of all, the obvious care given by the theater management is reciprocated by the grateful audience, who act more respectfully. Sundance 608 will make a film fan out of you.
As for the movie itself: Black Book is Verhoeven's first Dutch-language film in decades, and a return to his earlier, Hitchcock-influenced thrillers, though with a scope and spectacle befitting his Hollywood years. Awash in depravation, sex, and violent betrayal, it manages to evoke a vision of World War II that may even be darker than many of the Holocaust dramas made over the years, although the characters in the film are unaware of the concentration camps, and the film, like its Dutch resistance fighters, is caught up in a game of pure espionage. A stunning Carice Van Houten plays Rachel, a young Jewish woman whose hiding place is bombed at the outset of the film; a brief reunion with her family ends tragically when their raft of Jewish refugees encounters a Nazi boat, which slaughters all but Rachel. She escapes to join the resistance, but finds them ambivalent in the cause of rescuing Jews; rather, their chief goal is to bug the local SS headquarters, which requires Rachel to dye her hair blonde, change her name to Ellis, and seduce a high-ranking Nazi officer, Muntze (an equally stunning Sebastian Koch). The chief innovation of Black Book--the title obviously referring to the sinful secrets many of the characters keep, but also to a literal black book which serves as the MacGuffin--is the way that stereotypes and cliches are subverted, so that seemingly evil characters behave nobly, and seemingly heroic ones become sinister. No one is in the clear; everyone is sunk in a swamp and has committed some kind of crime, either against others or themselves. Much of the film unfolds with a captivating spell, and serves as one of the best WWII thrillers in years, punctuated by scenes which Hitchcock would love, such as the botched kidnapping of a Nazi official which leads to an awkward murder in broad daylight. But as the film wears on and the plot twists in knots, the machinations of the screenwriters (Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman) become more obvious: be certain that when an anecdote about an insulin overdose is laboriously described, it will come into play (absurdly) later in the film. There are many absurd, over-the-top moments, but that's Verhoeven's specialty, and fans will easily rank this as one of his best efforts. Actually, I would too; for all its flaws, it's entertaining and suspenseful throughout.