Portraits of the artist on the big screen

Movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival include portraits of Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joan Rivers.

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The Sundance Film Festival opened with a Howl. A sold-out house applauded the premiere of the film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which turned the clock back to the 1950s, when Allen Ginsberg published the experimental poem of the same name, and subsequently weathered a trial in San Francisco on charges of obscenity. If there is one theme that stands out at Sundance 2010, it is cultural archaeology. A biography such as Howl, innovative in its blend of live action and animation, celebrates cultural heroes, something Sundance has always done.

Other films re-examine cultural figures. Tamra Davish's documentary The Radiant Child revisits the life of the 1980s graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose career soared and crashed before he died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 in 1988. (The writers who died young in Ginsberg's crowd survived until at least their forties.) The son of a Haitian accountant, the Brooklyn-born Basquiat gave a film interview in 1982, when he was 22. The conversation became a 21-minute film that has circulated around museums and cinema societies.

At the time, Basquiat was a rising star in the art world, noted for his ascent from street art to the rarefied galleries of Soho in New York. Today's interest in Basquiat is logical enough. Collectors are vying to acquire his paintings of skulls, dogs and crowns, one of which set an auction record for the artist in 2008 at $14.6 million (Dh54m) - higher than the prices for paintings by his peers such as Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring. Now an ensemble of interviews with Basquiat and those contemporaries has been assembled into a portrait of his life and times.

A series of portraits is also created in Smash His Camera, Leon Gast's reversal of the lens on the paparazzo Ron Galella. Marlon Brando famously broke the photographer's jaw in 1973. Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance festival, was another actor who figured among Galella's targets. At the Egyptian Theater in Park City on Thursday, Redford grimaced and then described trying to outrun the intrusive photographer. Redford recalled wearing a wig and a moustache disguise during the filming of Three Days of the Condor in Manhattan in 1974 to throw Galella off his trail. "That one time," Redford said proudly, "it worked."

Another veteran of media culture comes under scrutiny in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Rivers is notorious for her sharply barbed observations on the careers and clothes of celebrities who walk the red carpet at awards ceremonies. Stern and Sundberg show in their documentary that this has been a long march for Rivers, now 76, who toiled in comedy clubs before she found niches on television, in Las Vegas and on pre-awards shows.

The wisecracking Rivers, who would find much to ridicule in the clothes filmgoers wear to keep warm in Utah, may seem like an odd subject for the documentary duo, who previously investigated a man wrongly convicted of murder in North Carolina and the Sudanese government's role in the wars in Darfur. Rivers has "a misunderstood story that has never fully been told", the co-directors say. "And she's funny." Not to mention solidly commercial.

In the festival's dramatic competition, Obselidia, a first film written and directed by Diane Bell, deals with a librarian's struggle against progression. George (Michael Piccirilli) dresses in vests and collarless shirts, types out an encyclopaedia of obsolete items and records interviews with Luddite mentors on a video camera that "cost $50 and still works". Living in an apartment that resembles a museum, George stands alone against the passage of time, even admitting that libraries such as his are now frequented mostly by people who check out DVDs and use the computers. In a festival fuelled by hi-tech sponsors, Obselidia represents a step in the other direction.

Sometimes archaeology is just archaeology, however improbable it may be. In the documentary Wasteland, directed by Lucy Walker, the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz travels from Brooklyn to the world's largest rubbish dump, Jardim Gramacho, outside Rio de Janeiro. There, Muniz enlists rubbish pickers, called catadors, to salvage trash. He photographs them and their works of arte povera, objects created from materials that were thrown away. Muniz creates photographic collages that incorporate depictions of the rubbish pickers and the rubbish itself.

"The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment," he said.