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Sundance, day four: All shook up over nothin'

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 22, 2007 11:53 PM

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At last: Deborah Kampmeier’s “Hounddog,” which world-premiered tonight. I’ll leave some for Ty, when he arrives. But, yeesh. Christian groups and conservatives have vociferously objected to this movie over a rape scene. And the rumors of death threats were real enough for the festival to hire security. I can’t say I have anything in common with the outraged folks at the Christian Film and Television Commission, who love to protest the idea of film and television. But trust me, CFTC, Dakota Fanning running around in her skivvies for an entire picture, singing Elvis Presley is a better – or worse – movie in your imaginations.

All you’d actually get is a movie set in the 1950s about a girl who does mean versions of Presley songs, but needs a wise black neighbor to tell her that the King is just a white dude singing black music. As a form of education, one night, she finds Big Mama Thornton (played by an inventive Jill Scott) singing her bluesy original “Hound Dog,” inexplicably, in the neighbor’s house. (You know, because black folks all know each other.) The little white girl will get a galling speech from her neighbor about how the n-word applies to her, too. And by the end, she will, at least in the director’s mind, have earned the right to sing the blues. Please.

Before tonight’s screening, Kampmeier called the film “personal.” When asked after the film what inspired her to tell the story of a pubescent Elvis fan and her rape, Kampmeier said, in a righteous, poised tone, that she would never divulge. For her, autobiography and fiction are too intertwined to untangle. Her secrets are her creative engine. If that’s true, she ought to see a mechanic or get some better secrets because the ones she has now are clichés.

“Hounddog” is the other hugely anticipated movie about a southern girl, her sexuality, and the trusty black man who helps her right herself with the blues. Trudging away from the theater, a buddy and colleague called it “White Snake Moan.” Kampmeier is a humorless filmmaker, and her movie is a stultifying experience. It could use a whiff of the electric insanity of Craig Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan,” which premieres later this week.

She’s going for gothic Faulkner and ends up with the movie equivalent of one of those pseudo-provocative posters you find on the walls at a social worker’s office. To that end, during the Q&A Kampmeier brought out someone from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) to spout various disturbing statistics about how often women are sexually assaulted. It was a crassly defensive act that obscured the real issue: that Kampmeier had just put more than 600 people under aesthetic assault.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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