It took me a couple of days to figure out the peculiarities of the pretzel-shaped shuttle-bus routes at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival – and by the time I did, I was on a Delta cattle-car-in-the-sky back to New York.
At the end of a festival stay, the temptation is to make sweeping judgments and generalizations, but those are inevitably based on a tiny sampling of films. Even if you stayed the entire 10 days (a prospect that makes my eyes glaze over) and saw six films a day (ditto), you’d still see fewer than half the films that were on display.
Buzz? Buzz is meaningless, the efforts of pundits to spin public opinion. There was lots of talk about the film “Blue Valentine” before Sundance, based on a cast that was headed by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. But after people saw it, suddenly it no longer seemed like the hot-out-of-Sundance title it was touted to be.
By contrast, I hadn’t heard a word about “Catfish” before the film played, other than from the publicist who was urging me to see it. But 24 hours later, it seemed to be the one film everyone either loved or was dying to see.
The festival’s theme this year was rebellion, with Robert Redford himself saying the festival needed to get back to its roots. What nobody seemed to talk about were two very salient facts: first, that the roots of Sundance were acres of granola-flavored films about people in small towns or women in crisis or something that was equally high-minded but was consistently bemoaned as not being particularly commercial. And second, that while it’s nice to champion those films, the audience for them seems to be shrinking, not growing.
The roots? That’s where you get the pejorative term “a Sundance film,” not to be confused with “a festival film.” A festival film is something that lights sparks within the highly flammable atmosphere of a festival but which can’t translate that combustion to actual audience appeal in the real world.
A Sundance film used to mean the same thing, except with a heaping dose of self-righteousness and/or social conscience. Then something happened: specifically, “sex, lies, & videotape.” The 1989 film showed that independent film didn’t have to be dull and well-meaning. They could be smart, sexy – and have audience appeal.
So I interpreted all the “back to the roots” talk as an effort to rediscover that pre-“sex, lies” sensibility: before Miramax and the other long-gone indy labels blew independent film up into something more goal-oriented, before independent stopped being a state-of-mind and became just another commercial category.
There was lots of talk about taking risks, about focusing on movies that were about the art as opposed to the commerce. Not that there weren’t commercial films in the “Sundance” lineup (“The Runaways”?). But the dramatic category – which produced “Precious and “(500) Days of Summer” last year – was loaded with films with more challenging styles, less obvious appeal, more artistic risk.
But here’s the thing: If that’s what Sundance wants to do, that’s fine – but it comes with a price. It’s great to nurture talent and artistic striving. I try to highlight and applaud it as a critic whenever I can.
But I also have come to recognize that, no matter how much I champion a small film with no stars or a documentary about an obscure subject, I know that the audience for those films is limited, at least in terms of theatrical release. I know they’re out there and that’s who I’m writing for. Obviously, I also hope that, if I make the case convincingly enough, someone who might not otherwise choose that film will take a chance on it.
But I don’t kid myself. Ultimately, audiences want what they want – and the mass audience wants mass entertainment. Hence the success of “Transformers” and “Avatar,” which, the disparity in the quality of their story-telling and level of intelligence aside, are still two sides of the same coin.
By contrast, a film like “Catfish,” one of the most surprising and moving films I saw this year, will never appeal to a mass audience – even if you gave away free tickets that included a raffle chance at dinner with Brad and Angelina. It’s not that the mass audience is made up of cretins; it’s that the vast majority of people don’t go to the movies (or the theater or turn on their TV) to be challenged. Life is challenging enough on a daily basis; entertainment, they believe, should be entertaining. That’s not a judgment; that’s just a fact.
In most ways, the best films I saw at Sundance 2010 shared the same qualities as the best films I see anywhere else: intelligence, wit, heart, emotional honesty and a sense of character and story.
The importance of the latter two cannot be overstated. Visual imagination is always nice, as is a new way of telling a tale, whether it’s in pieces like “21 Grams” or in reverse like “Memento.” But you need something to connect with; yes, Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” is visually stunning, but it would just be another perfume commercial without Colin Firth’s beautiful performance as its anchor. By contrast, the films of Wong Kar-Wai usually leave me cold (if not out cold) because the guy regularly ignores story and, to an extent, character, because he’s so enamored of his camera.
So, Sundance 2010 and the spirit of rebellion: If you have to tell people that you’re a rebel, well, how revolutionary are you – really? It’s a nice slogan but here’s the reality: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Same as it ever was.