Let the Sundance Begin
Gripe if you like about Sundance—and believe me, people do (too much hype! too many celebs! too much talk about the zillion-dollar deals!)—there’s really nothing quite like it. Still the largest venue for Amer-indie films, Sundance has a cachet that separates it from other festivals, even if it is drowning in a sea of swag. Is the festival a victim of its own success? To quote the old Magic 8-Ball: “MY SOURCES SAY YES.” Friends and professional colleagues who have logged hours at the fest multiple times through the years often attest to how “it isn’t what it used to be,” and how the founding ideals of the Sundance Institute have been woefully corrupted, mostly by the influence of Hollywood ideology (on the films) and piggybacking product hawkers looking to cash in on the scene. Inaugurated 30 years ago, when it was known as the US Film Festival, the reputation of this now heavily branded and mega-corporate-sponsored 10-day event soared in 1989 when Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget, bare-bones relationship drama sex, lies and videotape premiered in Park City, where it won the Audience Award and went on to become an unlikely international sensation. The heady early days of Sundance and its growing pains under the stewardship of founding kingpin Robert Redford were eloquently documented in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, an outrageously dishy book that also regaled readers with the story of Miramax’s concurrent rise to becoming the most formidable U.S. distributor of independent film. What a time it must have been!
So where does that leave newcomers (like me) to Sundance, movie lovers with a sense of adventure who may be excited to discover a fledgling filmmaker with a distinctive vision, or a one-of-a-kind foreign film or genre oddity that may never get a theatrical release? If the past few years are any indication, there may be a minefield of mediocrity to wade through, generally speaking, with respect to the quality and seriousness of much Sundance fare. But with 121 entries all vying for attention (87 of those world premieres), there’s still plenty of room for discerning viewers with a program guide and a yellow highlighter to navigate past the obvious star-studded crowd pleasers (Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, playwright Martin McDonagh’s Opening Night film, In Bruges) and make a true find among all the offerings. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis’s rugged Daniel Playview in There Will Be Blood, scratching around in a vertiginously deep mine shaft looking for raw ore. One day he’s a dirt merchant, the next he’s a self-made oil tycoon with a vast empire of holdings. I may be showing up at the party a bit late, but I believe that with a bit of digging (this year especially), there’s a wonderland of priceless (not so much precious) images waiting to be found beneath the winter sludge.