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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Has Sundance Lost It Soul?

This is a question that is annually asked and only answered in service to the interests of the current wave of festival participants.

I must say, this year when I received my Sundance gift catalogue, nearly a hundred pages of clothing, jewlery and gift items you can purchase with a "branded" Sundance identity I though to myself, "Okay, this is the end. I give Sundance three years"

The thing about the Sundance catelogue is that it very accurately reflects the "old soul" of Sundance. The products, especailly the clothing and jewelry, are classic vintage Sundance cowboy western hippie wear.

In the last few years it has become fashionable to wax nostalgic for the old Sundance, "When John Sayles and John Cassavetes films were shown there." In truth there is no idyllic past for Sundance. Even in the early days when Redford tried to impose a somber, politically correct and boorish aesthetic it failed miserably. There were all kinds of factions trying to define "what type of film" should be shown in Park City. This lead to stratification, infighting, and charges of control by a tight knit group of insiders operating in their narrow self-interests.

There was a saying that in order to get into the labs or have an indie film considered for the festival, the characters had to be wearing bib-overalls, chew straw out of the side of their mouth, be downtrodden and oppressed by the man and more simply reflect Redford's passion for the western rural vision he looked at through rose colored glasses.

If those waxing nostalgic for that time and want that aesthetic, it is a good thing the festival spun out of control.

What we've seen evolve since the early days of 1978 happily widely diverge from these narrow restrictions and show more different types of films than Sayles and Cassavetes. What Sundance has showcased in those years is hugely desperate movements from gay militant cinema by Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, and Gregg Araki to pulp film movement of Quentin Tarantino to "Half Nelson", and Craig Brewers' "Hustle & Flow." Despite the stereotype by some who've never been to Sundance that it is made up of only "coming-of-age" movies, its dramatic features and documentaries each year are widely diverse even if the buyers don't want to buy them.

What is probably more disappointing than the few than a dozen films that get theatrical distribution with major releasing companies is that out of Sundance and all the other film festivals showing new indie films, a distribution channel hasn't opened up for the 250+ films at Sundance that could be marketed in a variety of fashions to niche audiences. People like to herald Slamdance for being alternative when there are more alternative films inside Sundance than Slamdance could ever hope to unreel.

Let's hope Sundance has lost the soul of the late 1970s when the narrow, boring and misguided mission was still in its infancy. The best thing Sundance can hope for is to be a reflection of the unproven talent of new and emerging filmmakers around the country and the world. Each year Sundance should begin with a open slate and try to capture the mood of the indie filmmakers in the time. Frankly, that's the only choice it has because seeking a nostalgic past can never inspire a film about filmmaking today.

Redford's hippie cowboy western aesthetic is dead. RIP!

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