The Sundance Kids by James Mottram

The life cinematic with Steven Soderbergh and his fellow mavericks
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The Independent Culture

There is an accepted history of how movies went bad. Once upon a time in the 1970s, Hollywood - encouraged by the box-office takings of films that studio heads didn't understand, such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider - opened the gates to exciting, ambitious film-makers such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Then, big dumb movies such as Steven Spielberg's Jaws and George Lucas's Star Wars grossed exponentionally more than Altman's Nashville, and Hollywood squashed innovation to get more of the same. And so it was for a generation...

In this study of what happened next, James Mottram is at pains to point out that this vision of history is too simplistic. Those studio heads turned to making disaster movies with far more enthusiasm than they had ever shown in distributing Badlands, and most of the interesting current directors who are the focus of Sundance Kids are as likely to revere Spielberg as Altman.

Mottram proposes that a loose group of young director-writers, who mostly came to prominence after acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, are now a significant force in the film business. However, he belies the book's subtitle - "how the mavericks took back Hollywood" - by showing that Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Fincher and Sofia Coppola have hardly put Joel Schumacher on the unemployment line.

Sundance Kids works best when it follows their intertwined careers, mixing artistic and commercial anecdotage with analysis of recent movies. It has a few quirks, which reflect an inability to decide whose standards to embrace. Assuming that a film's financial success can be gauged by its US box-office takings alone, it also trots out snippets of review to suggest a critical consensus where none exists.

Mostly, these films are too recent to evaluate in any definitive manner - which is one of the book's strengths. It engages with, say, Payne's Election and Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. in a way that still feels fresh and useful. Mottram admits to being selective, and a better subtitle might have been "how some interesting films got made", though the book makes a real case for taking seriously, if not solemnly, big-budget studio works such as Bryan Singer's X-Men films, even as it considers Soderbergh's Schizopolis alongside Erin Brockovich.