Reviews

Sundance Feels the Burn

There are two Sundance Film Festivals. The made-for-television, glamorous, Los Angeles-chic Sundance can be seen on Entertainment Tonight and Extra: Hollywood stars walk red carpet lines; former Vice President Al Gore presses flesh with average moviegoers after taking in a showing of Born into Brothels; Paris Hilton gives an impromptu stage performance at the Blender party at Harry O’s on Main Street; and fresh-faced auteurs are anointed with seven-figure distribution deals with ancillary rights to come.

But what about that other Sundance, the gritty, ground-level festival out in the Park City mountain cold, where the shuttle buses are packed with hot, smelly bodies, and the common filmgoer shows up three hours early to wait in line for a screening, holding a cup of coffee and a ten dollar bill (in case a ticket is indeed available)? Chances are, that lonely waitlister is carrying something to read. And at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, the book in hand was often Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures [see review on page 49], an unflinching, sometimes shrill account of the parallel rise of Sundance and Miramax Films.

Biskind’s book made several of my waits more enjoyable, and I hadn’t yet read a single page. I heard lots of the juicy bits, though. Readers in line often called out to each other "Listen to this!" and then let fly another sad story of betrayal and innocence lost. Most of these stories cast either Robert Redford or Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein as antagonist, villain, or Scrooge. When I finally read Down and Dirty Pictures for myself, it became clear that the book’s organizing principle was dirt, dirt, and more dirt on Harvey and the two Bobs.

There was something else, though, an underlying reason for the resentment. I heard it in whispers at Sundance venues, and in great, loud, questioning howls at Slamdance and the other concurrent, alternative festivals. Had Sundance lost its way? Had Redford’s grand vision of a forum for truly independent voices in cinema been submerged beneath an ocean of sponsorship and marketing and Hollywood bridge-building? Had Sundance relegated independent film to a minor league farm system from which directors, writers, and actors could be promoted to big-league studio work?

Two summers ago I produced a short film with a small crew of non-professionals. Only the director, the cinematographer, and a veteran character actor playing a supporting role had worked with actual film stock before. The crew was strictly volunteer, mostly local college students and eager tradesman recruited from the director’s church. We shot nearly an hour of raw footage in two twenty-hour days, and a few months later enjoyed premiering Stranger Things, a sixteen-minute slapstick comedy, at a few film festivals, and, more importantly, at two special showings for the people in the small town that had provided us with thousands of dollars worth of free products, services, and sweat equity.

Why did we make the movie? We all had our own reasons. The director and I both wanted to make features, and the short film was both cheap film school and a substantive achievement to show potential investors. The cinematographer wanted the director to hire him for paying work in direct-to-market, long-form music videos. The principal actor needed a reel. Our executive producer, who worked in the sporting goods department at Wal-Mart, simply wanted to be part of something interesting, as did our crew.

And it worked. We all got what we wanted from the film. The biggest winner was the principal actor, who used the film to enter the Groundlings system near the top rung, and there were other surprises. Our dolly grip found a new career in film and video after the cinematographer, impressed with his work ethic, began hiring him for regular work and recommending him to others in the regional film community. A man who allowed us to use his house for a location struck up a friendship with the director and together they created a direct-to-market video project, which is now in pre-production.

Stranger Things was not a Sundance film; nor was it an intentional overture to the Hollywood establishment. Independent filmmakers make films for myriad, often quite personal reasons. But the short film is done, and it has run its course through the tiny festivals and private screenings and a small self-distributed DVD printing. Now, my nearly every waking thought concerns my feature film, which begins production in June, and my wants have escalated. I want audiences, scores of them, to see this film. With limited contacts and a minuscule budget for marketing, I need a gatekeeper, a powerful one with a loud voice. I want Sundance.

According to Peter Biskind, a sort of mission creep set in at Sundance, beginning with the breakthrough commercial success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape after the director won the 1989 Audience Prize. As the festival, then known as the US Film Festival, became more prestigious, sex, lies went on to win Soderbergh the Palme d’Or, the highest prize at Cannes, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And Sundance’s films, thanks in part to the aggressive distribution and sales tactics pioneered by Miramax, became more lucrative for distributors. Sundance became less engaged with the fiercely regional independent spirit that had informed its early vision, and more beholden to the businessmen on both coasts whose increasing influence was making the festival more of a market with each year, and, in the eyes of many purists, less of a forum for truly independent voices who lacked the resources (and in many cases the desire) to make the kinds of films that growing distributors like Miramax were seeking.

Even in the midst of the commercial boom, ultra low budget pictures like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Rose Troche’s Go Fish were given tremendous release platforms, despite gritty production values and the lack of a major star. But Biskind implies that even these victories for previously marginalized voices, especially in the case of the Weinsteins’ Clerks acquisition, were something of a smokescreen to obscure the direction in which Miramax was leading the market—away from the nurturing of small, personal films and toward major releases featuring bankable actors and targeted toward expensive, wide releases with the potential to make the kind of money studio films had been making. At the same time, Biskind says, Miramax was engaging in business practices intended to squeeze underfunded competitors out of the business.

Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson in Kevin Smith’s Clerks.

The studios began to catch on, starting their own pseudo-independent divisions for the purpose of producing and distributing films with low budgets helmed by directors plucked from the Sundance scene. On occasion, the studios themselves would bankroll material that previously would have been made as an underfunded independent. The predictable result was that directors like Todd Haynes, Alexander Payne, and David O. Russell began making slicker films with a more commercial sheen, and these films—Far From Heaven, About Schmidt, Three Kings—were often superior efforts, in some ways fulfilling the promise of a commercial cinema that brought with it many of the virtues of the independents.

Still, it is telling to note that directors like Todd Haynes, whose earliest film Poison was difficult both thematically and structurally and shot in black and white without the benefit of star actors, would be least likely to benefit from Sundance if they were starting out today. Consider some of the buzz films from this year’s festival. The Butterfly Effect, The Clearing, Saved!, Dogville, Chrystal, November, and Garden State feature Ashton Kutcher, Robert Redford, Mandy Moore, Nicole Kidman, Billy Bob Thornton, Courtney Cox, and Natalie Portman respectively. Open Water, which benefited from a backstory involving actors ordered into shark-infested water while the producers threw bloody chum at their heads, and Primer, which concerns time travel, are both high concept enough that I have told you all you need to know about them in this sentence. The sole exception to the studio-friendly rule among the films that most benefited from this year’s festival is Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, a film owing enough to the sensibility of Rushmore director Wes Anderson that one could say it has a track record to lean upon.

But is it really a problem that Sundance has empowered a group of independent filmmakers to recruit actors with name recognition to star in their films? Although there are, among the buzz films, a few pieces of studioesque drivel—the Kutcher film, for example—there are also films so challenging that even the presumably sophisticated Sundance audience did not quite seem to get them. Lars von Trier’s Dogville, for example, was staged on a nearly bare soundstage, with white chalk lines representing a Colorado mining town’s streets and walls and even the dog. The narrative took the form of a fable, which by movie’s end pretty clearly critiqued the American response to poverty and injustice, both at home and abroad. But at the film’s premiere at the Eccles Theater, the largest Sundance venue, the American crowd identified so strongly with Nicole Kidman’s troubled protagonist (who, ironically, was meant by von Trier to represent them) that they applauded her when she responded to the hatefulness of a near-Third World town by ordering it burned to the ground, all inhabitants to be killed. This may not have been what von Trier had in mind, but it certainly proved his point, and Dogville is clearly not the sort of film that an American studio would jump at the opportunity to finance at the script stage. Its sensibility reeks of the idiosyncratic, the personal—dare it be said—the indie.

If there are poster children for what Sundance can do for young, unconnected filmmakers, they might be David Sampliner and Tim Nackashi, co-directors of Dirty Work, a documentary about a bull semen collector, a septic tank pumper, and an embalmer, all of whom feel pride and even passion for work that society deems most undesirable.

Nackashi had been involved in the making of music videos, and Sampliner had a background in photography, but neither had any experience in documentary or narrative filmmaking. They did things wrong by the standards of commercial filmmaking. They shot on digital video, using the 4:3 aspect ratio associated with television programming. The boom mic occasionally made unwelcome appearances in shots. "We were making this in a vacuum," Sampliner says. "In Athens, Georgia (where we made the film), there was a tremendous arts scene but no film scene."

Despite the film’s technical limitations, the co-directors submitted the film to Sundance, holding out some hope that it would be accepted. "I was under the impression that Sundance was still interested in taking films that were rough around the edges," Sampliner says.

Dirty Work has its charms. The film is passionate, for one thing, and Sampliner and Nackashi were able to coax unselfconscious performances from three characters unlike any filmgoer had likely seen. Darrell Allen, the nearly illiterate septic tank pumper, was particularly beguiling. Dirty Work captures his insecurities, his deeply felt need to justify his own intellect despite his sixth-grade education; but the filmmakers also amply document the transforming power of his facility with septic tanks upon his life. The film is a remarkable study in human dignity, and its stories are unexpectedly moving. In a late night Sundance press screening, I watched an audience of skeptical writers slowly give in to the film’s gentle rhythm. We departed the theater in more open conversation than I had been accustomed after a week in Park City.

The invitation to Sundance thrilled the filmmakers. "The selling of your film becomes important if: A. You want to sell your film, and B. You want to recoup your costs," Sampliner says. "Sundance was one of the few places we could sell our film. And it gave us a venue. People could see it. Our film is proof that they’re still honoring content. [Being accepted into the festival] felt like an important affirmation that we were a part of a larger community of filmmakers."

Ultimately, the question of whether Sundance has sold out to the forces of commerciality and abandoned its original vision is moot. As Biskind makes clear in Down and Dirty Pictures, there might never have been a clear, distinct vision for Sundance, even in the earliest stages when Redford was creating the Sundance Institute and greenlighting the first incarnation of the festival. In those early days, there seems to have been only a problem: How can independent voices best be given an opportunity and a platform? The answer to that problem might be seen less in a singular Sundance vision than in a multiplicity of visions evolving over the last twenty years along with the festival. This seems in keeping with the spirit of independence so often trumpeted by independent filmmakers.

In making his case for the collapse of the Sundance dream, Biskind inadvertently praises its great successes. The studios finance and distribute more challenging films than they did in the 80s, and those films consistently find an audience broader than anyone would have expected at the outset of the Sundance experiment.

And, perhaps inspired by Sundance success stories (and by the growing availability of more affordable technologies) more independent voices are making films than ever before. Entire catalogues are now dedicated to the hundreds of film festivals exhibiting independent films, and Sundance no longer has to scrounge for films as it did in the early days. Last year alone, over 6,000 films were submitted to the festival. Around 200 were accepted, so there are (no doubt) plenty of sour grapes to go around.

But as my experience with Stranger Things illustrates, albeit on a very small scale, Sundance is not the only way to build an audience for a film. Independents have been self-distributing for years, as well as taking advantage of channels of distribution like public television; cable; the direct-to-video, educational, and foreign markets; and the hundreds of festivals, which can be an end unto themselves. A brief accounting of the last few years yields non-Sundance gems (and this list could be twenty times as long) like Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Christopher Nolan’s Following, and this year’s Big City Dick, directed by a trio of unknown filmmakers from Seattle, which won the Audience Award at Slamdance and is clearly destined for a future as an underground cult classic. But there is no denying that Sundance, for American independents at least, is the most prestigious way to begin reaching that audience.

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