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Kevin Smith's 'Red State' carnival

Posted 1:54am on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

This year marks the 11th time I’ve come to the Sundance Film Festival, but nothing I’ve ever experienced here quite compares to the world premiere screening of Kevin Smith’s Red State, which took place at the Eccles Theater in Park City on Sunday night.

Smith -- whose career was launched at Sundance in 1994 with Clerks -- orchestrated an evening designed to get people to pay attention.

First, he restricted access to the press, by refusing to allow the film to have a formal press screening. Those who got into the premiere had to finagle a ticket through alternate means. Everyone else just kept buzzing and tweeting about how much they wanted to see Red State.

Then came word that there would be protests outside the theater, from supporters of the Rev. Fred Phelps, the controversial Kansas minister who is the basis for one of the characters in the film. Ever the opportunist, Smith organized a counter-protest, pulling up in a giant bus, and having his cast and crew carry their own signs. (One of them, held by his producer, read: “I Am a Happy Jew”).

It gets wackier: Smith had also blogged that he would be auctioning off distribution rights to the film immediately after the screening. Following the closing credits, Smith took to the lectern on the Eccles stage and delivered a bizarre, rambling, nearly 20-minute speech about how movies have become too expensive and a spirit of independence has been lost. The big-name distributors in the room sat glued to their seats, wondering whether Smith was really going to auction off his movie in front of a crowd of more than a thousand people. From my own seat, I watched Harvey Weinstein whispering into the ear of the film’s sales agents (alas, my powers of eavesdropping abandoned me, and I had no idea what they were saying.)

In the end, Smith announced he would be distributing Red State through his own company, most likely in October. No doubt this was the plan all along, but suffice it to say, he generated quite the stir in building up to this news.

Oh, and the craziest part of all: Red State proved to be perhaps the strangest, most eccentric and outlandish movie at this year’s Sundance Film Festival -- hardly what you’d expect from the director of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. In the introduction, Smith warned that this was not a comedy. “It’s a full-on horror movie,” he said, before pausing and -- in a nice, self-deprecating flourish -- adding -- “like Jersey Girl.”

He wasn’t kidding, but he wasn’t quite telling the truth, either. The movie begins as a Porky’s-style farce, about three horny teenagers seeking a prostitute. Then it becomes a Hostel-style thriller, when the teens are kidnapped by the Phelps-inspired religious sect leader. Later, it turns into a surreal revisiting of the Branch Davidian tragedy, with a series of shootouts and explosions and chases that stand far, far apart from anything Smith has ever done before.

The movie doesn’t really work. Scenes carry on too long. The tonal shifts are abrupt and confusing. The bloodshed is so random and graphic that many viewers will be immediately turned off. And yet, you've got to give Smith at least some credit. Red State is made with passion and determination, by an artist clearly fed up with the cultural, religious and political hypocrisy he sees all around him.

You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through this deeply confused movie again. But I can only be thankful to Kevin Smith for staging what has proven to be the ultimate carnival of Sundance 2011.

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