Sundancing cheek to cheek

Opening weekend at Sundance brings a flurry of packed screenings and parties, and a handful of early successes. But all eyes are on Robert Redford, golden boy under the gun.

By Heather Havrilesky
January 19, 2004 7:18PM (UTC)
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The story of Sundance, so often repeated, plays like a fairy tale, with magic and demigods and tragic figures and newly branded heroes. Our story begins when Robert Redford, basking in perpetual golden glow, strides through a snowy, idyllic town in faded jeans and cowboy boots, bestowing his Midas touch on a handful of fledgling filmmakers, turning their careers to gold. News of the miracles unfolding in Park City spreads quickly, and a host of pale young men and women with big dreams scramble like lemmings to this town 6,800 feet above sea level. Main Street is quickly haunted by these determined ghosts, scrappy but intense, grasping for some affirmation or sign from the golden god, all the while enduring a low buzz in their ears from years of frustrated creative urges and maxed-out credit cards. But despite the fact that they can't afford their room or the plane ticket that got them here, despite the befuddlement of family and friends, who treat their fixation on film as an unfortunate affliction that may eventually require treatment, these souls believe they might someday be chosen, anointed from on high, and offered a chance to make films with healthy budgets from this point forward, forever and ever, amen.

Of course, every celebrated myth has its own shadow story, formed from the mouths of talented but underappreciated lemmings, indier-than-thou artists, insiders, realists and rival Midases. The dark corollary to the Sundance story tells us that a celebration of film that was once intimate and charming and truly, you know, independent, has been poisoned by some combination of aggressive studio executives, relentless publicists, cutthroat economic conditions, obnoxious marketing blitzes, and the celebrity machine. Thus, instead of providing fertile ground for talented young filmmakers with inspired visions, Sundance has turned toxic and sick, so clotted it is with promotional events and celebrity appearances and fabled swag bags . As events centered around Skyy Vodka and Fred Segal and Volkswagen start to outnumber those related to independent film, and star vehicles like "The Butterfly Effect" draw bastions of the lip-glossed hoi polloi straining for a glimpse of Ashton Kutcher, the indie ghosts mumble to themselves, "Nothing gold can stay!" and skip the latest sold-out screening to soothe their hungry egos with ginger tea in their rented condos.


Naturally, there are a wide range of animals roaming through Park City during the festival, but most of them, who started congregating here on Thursday, share a knack for self-consciously incorporating both stories into their dialogue, choosing to tread the safe middle ground between starry-eyed idealism and a world-weary acknowledgment of the brutal economics of film, lest anyone brand them as naive or worse yet, bitter. Even as they hit the same marks -- the knowing look, the ironic tone -- each species has its own distinct cry. The publicists and distribution executives schmooze and network but sniff at all the schmoozing and networking, since they're just doing their jobs, while the others clearly relish glad-handing and brown-nosing. The aspiring filmmakers without films in the festival alternate between self-promotion and comparing battle scars, while those with films that have been rejected by the festival insist that Sundance won't make or break them, optimistically describing the experience as a rite of passage, or devoting most of their time to the smaller, indier Slamdance festival nearby.

The journalists size each other up, point out the star critics of their species like Elvis Mitchell or David Ansen, and occasionally trundle off to press screenings, trying desperately not to cry at anything too sentimental or to laugh at anything too pedestrian or clichéd. Sundance's crew and volunteers, which seem to outnumber all of the other groups, compare notes on this year's crowd vs. last year's, or share tales of rude behavior or snippy Hollywood attitudes. The filmmakers themselves are the easiest to spot, with or without their telltale orange passes, thanks to the dazed looks on their faces, the result of hours of interviews and panels and functions, all of which add up to a big question mark: Will anyone outside of Park City ever get to see my film?

Thus, no matter what their stories might be, the swelling mobs, likely to top last year's count of 38,000 by the week's end, share a strain of opportunism. No matter how jaded their take on Sundance, plenty of those who decry the three-ring circus have come precisely to ride an elephant or pack their outsize egos into a tiny clown car. Whether they're here to raise money for a film or to spot Paris Hilton at a crowded event, they're here in part because of the overgrown spectacle that the festival has become. After all, if watching films were the main draw, why not go to the Toronto Film Festival or any number of the hundreds of local festivals nationwide instead, where tickets are far easier to come by, restaurants aren't booked solid (many restaurants in Park City require an advance deposit for a reservation), and traffic doesn't make arriving on-time to a screening nearly impossible?


Even Peter Biskind, the latest dark lord of the Sundance naysayers, timed the release of his book, "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film," to coincide with the opening of this year's festival. It only makes sense that Biskind should promote his book this week, since it paints Robert Redford and Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein as misguided kings who've transformed the docile world of independent film into a cutthroat environment ruled by the bottom line. Redford has remained relatively quiet on the subject, telling the festival's opening crowds on Thursday night, "Our results speak for themselves." But David Poland, who runs Movie City News, a film site widely read in the industry, insists that the history of independent film is far more complicated and less sinister than Biskind's book would suggest. Eugene Hernandez, editor of indieWIRE, reports that Biskind's book is "thoroughly entertaining," but complains that it isn't fair to blame Sundance for the failures of independent film.

Despite the changing nature of the independent film industry, most seem to agree that Sundance is, on the whole, good for filmmakers. And while Biskind's book may be stirring up interest elsewhere, in Park City festival-goers are more concerned with the matters at hand, congregating in chatty circles, even in the 20-degree weather, to get a load of the fur-clad festival bunnies trouncing by and to compare reactions to the films they've seen.

Despite grumblings that this year's features are weaker, on the whole, than those of years past, a handful of films have already been snatched up by distributors. "Scrubs" star Zach Braff's first film, "Garden State," which also stars Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard, is one of the more sought-after films to see at the festival, and has already been purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Miramax. Reviews of the film are mixed so far. "Open Water," a torturously realistic nail-biter that has accurately been described as a cross between "Jaws" and "The Blair Witch Project," is based on the true story of a couple left behind on a scuba diving expedition. The movie was acquired by Lions Gate Films, and the company's president, Tom Ortenberg, says it plans to release the film this Summer, perfect timing to ensure that the lily-livered among us don't go anywhere near the water.


There's also a lot of positive talk about "The Motorcycle Diaries," a film by Walter Salles that focuses on a young Che Guevara's tour across South America on a motorcycle with his friend, Dr. Alberto Granado. The film has been picked up by Focus Features and stars Gael Garcia Bernal ("Y tu Mama Tambiin," "Amores Perros") and Rodrigo de la Serna. Other films with a lot of buzz are Nicole Kassell's "The Woodsman," about a former pedophile, starring Kevin Bacon; "Easy," an intelligent, realistic take on sex and the single girl written and directed by Jane Weinstock and starring reportedly endearing newcomer Marguerite Moreau; and "The Machinist," an "existential horror film" directed by Brad Anderson ("Next Stop: Wonderland") and starring Christian Bale and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Longtime festival-goers say that this is a particularly strong year for documentaries at Sundance, and after the success in the past few years of films like "Bowling for Columbine," "Spellbound," "Winged Migration," and "Capturing the Friedmans," distribution executives are scrambling to pick up the most audience-friendly of the lot. Big-wave surfing documentary "Riding Giants," which played to enthusiastic audiences on the opening night of the festival, was quickly picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Given the infectious charms of the film and the critical success of director Stacy Peralta's last film, "Dogtown and Z-Boys," it's not hard to believe this film will find a healthy audience among die-hard surfers and landlocked outsiders alike. Other notable docs screened thus far include "Born Into Brothels," about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta's red light district, "Super-size Me," about one man's experiment eating nothing but fast food for a month, and "DIG!" which follows the friendship and rivalry of Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. Another documentary to watch for is "Control Room," a sharp, disturbing entry in the "American Spectrum" segment of the festival, which focuses on the inner workings of Al Jazeera, and the Bush administration's manipulation of the press during the war in Iraq.


Of course, films aren't the only thing to see in Park City -- the streets are clogged with so many young partygoers, you'd think you were on the Sunset Strip if not for the piercingly cold weather and the suede and fur "Mountaineering Barbie" outfits. Those who've been to the festival for years find this drunken throng more than a little inconvenient. "My biggest frustration with Sundance is that it's become a sort of holiday weekend destination," says indieWIRE's Hernandez. "I'm looking forward to the middle of the week when some of the Hollywood people and the partying kids leave. It's selfish, but sometimes I just want to be like it was 10 years ago."

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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