Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An early Sundance winner shows what indie cinema used to look like

Illustration for article titled An early Sundance winner shows what indie cinema used to look like

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Sundance running all week, we look back at some of the festival’s best prizewinners.


Heat And Sunlight (1987)

One year before Sex, Lies, And Videotape made the Sundance Film Festival (then still called the U.S. Film Festival) America’s premier launchpad for independent cinema, the fest’s grand prize went to Heat And Sunlight, a black-and-white portrait of a romance’s death throes. The differences between the two films are instructive. Steven Soderbergh’s is superior, but it’s also cool, cerebral, slightly distanced; its runaway success pointed Sundance, or what would soon become Sundance, in a new, more polished direction. Heat And Sunlight, by contrast, is very much in the hotheaded, semi-improvisational, warts-and-all mode that had been pioneered by John Cassavetes two decades earlier, and that barely exists anymore. Few people talk about the film these days—it’s joined Waiting For The Moon and Old Enough among the forgotten early Sundance winners—but it’s arguably more riveting now than it was at the time, if only because so few contemporary indie movies are willing to risk looking foolish or uncool by being so uncomfortably raw.

Written and directed by Rob Nilsson—whose first feature, Northern Lights (1978), had previously won the Camera D’Or at Cannes—Heat And Sunlight also stars Nilsson as Mel, a photojournalist who’s still haunted, years later, by his experiences documenting famine in Biafra. It’s a sign of his capacity for self-pity that he manages to continually project that horror onto the end of his relationship with Carmen (Consuela Faust), a dancer who’s grown weary of Mel’s moodiness and begun seeing another man. The film has no real narrative to speak of, and its detours into other aspects of Mel’s life don’t always pay dividends (though Ernie Fosselius, best known as the director of the spoof “Hardware Wars,” has a funny turn as a friend who’s experimenting with an early form of anti-comedy). But the scenes between Mel and Carmen, as they negotiate the terms of their split while repeatedly having breakup sex, tap into a visceral intensity and a frank eroticism that the current indie scene could use a lot more of. Back in the late ’80s, Soderbergh’s more clinical approach, with its emphasis on mediated exhibitionism and voyeurism, seemed novel. After a quarter-century of that film’s influence, it’s time for the pendulum to swing back.

Availability: Heat And Sunlight is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library. It can also be purchased from Amazon for less than the standard cost of a rental.