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Thursday, May 03, 2007

MYTHS OF SUNDANCE #3

In all my discussions about the American indie film festivals, people often like to throw out plithy statements that fail to appreciate the conplex history and evolution of the festival. And common recant among critics goes like this:

MYTH #3: SUNDANCE ALWAYS PLAYS IT SAFE

If anything Redford deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Sundance despite it's inability to serve his interests and follow the course he'd set for it aesthetically and politically. Often what conspiratorialists and simplistic paranoids fail to appreciate about the success of a cultural phenomenon that reaches critical mass is that as an organism its vitlaity often transcends individuals, supersedes best laid plans and takes on a life of its own far, far beyond the founding visions or masterminds behind them.

In order to maintain a pure conspiracy, there must be a vigorous denial of the truth and the truth behind Sundance is that it never had a cohesive plan that gelled into a controlled form of power. Redford could favor a film or a filmmaker, a script or a project but that never assured it of success either in the arena of Sundance itself or in the outside world of distribution, box office or financial success. Likewise, a filmmaker who saw success emerge from Sundance, Soderbergh for instance, could not easily return favor to Redford or any other minion or passionate loyalist in the Sundance family. As it should be in the world of dynamic and changing artistic expression, it's never that easy.

Before 1992 Sundance tried to promote a culture where artists could be protected from the mean and brutal world of business suits, lawyers, powerbrokers, shady dealers, and blood sucking bottom feeders. However, due to their open door practices and the onslaught of success the festival only served to attract these types more. What people fail to realize, is that the studio system in Hollywood, that everybody rebelled against for their creative survival, was originally established as a West Coast sanctuary for creative artists or, at least, the idea of it in the minds of Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Marcus Loew, William Fox, and Samuel Goldwyn, and all the studio bosses that proceded them. But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The years 1991 and 92 were big turning points for Sundance when its reputation shifted from the crunchy granola soft 70s-styled PCness that was in its founders hearts to what some would term the cell phone era. Did Sundance promote and conspire to create a "cell phone" culture ? -- No, the cell phone transformed Sundance at a time when it was at its weakest.

While in the midst of staff shake out and hugely changing times Sundance did NOT play it safe. In 1991 the New Queer Cinema movement arrived at Sundance with a young semotics deconstructionist from Brown named Todd Haynes and his producer Christine Vachon. This producer/director duo brought to the festival in Utah a film that was anything but safe called POISON. Haynes previous movie SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY had raised a considerable controversy, first with its funders in the Lynn Cheney NEA era, and then with Mattel the makers of Barbie doll. Haynes Karen Carpenter film has been banned in the U.S. but has become available on the internet. Haynes, with an artist grant support from the Jerome Foundation, and Vachon led a troop of new gay filmmakers with an activist agenda.

Greg Araki THE LIVING END, Tom Kalin, Christopher Munch's THE HOURS AND TIMES and the doc PARIS IS BURNING are all militant gay films that made the Lands End, dockers, and mountain boot Sundance establishment uneasy. Sure, Sundanistias could happily have their heart-strings pulled with films like PARTING GLANCES and enjoy the antics of a film like THE BIRDCAGE but POISON drove them from the theater in fear.

In one scene from POISON, men spit in each other's mouths, a horrifying evocation in the post-HIV trauma era of the early 1990s. More than just a shocking depiction of rape and violence (topics not commonly appearing on the Sundance screen in the early years), Haynes film intercuts three stories of completely different genre, one staged as a documentary to challenge the very conventions of film itself. While most film institutions and certainly the funders were narrowing their aesthetic to narrative "golden mean" storytelling, Haynes was producing avante-garde cinema one could only rarely see on folding chairs in dank warehouses below Canal street or in European cinematheques.

Haynes was experimental and an exception to the simple narrative trend in American indie film. While the expectations at Sundance that year were that Hal Hartnley's TRUST or Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST might take home the Grand Jury Prize from Sundance, the surprise was Hayne's shocking deconstructionist film POISON came away the winner and Vachon's thumbprint would stamp many Sudance seasons to come.

The Sundance of 1991 could not be termed safe and it radically shook the foundation and shifted the direction of the festival for the future.

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