1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #1: "The Sundance Experience"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 22, 1999

Going to a film festival - any film festival - isn't just seeing movies. It's taking in the sights, getting together with other movie-lovers and critics for impromptu discussions, and arranging schedules to fit in parties and Q&A sessions. When a festival is well-organized, it can be a wonderfully dizzy week-to-ten-days. However, when it's put together like Sundance, where not only doesn't the left hand know what the right is doing, but the pinkie is clueless about the thumb's activities, it can rapidly turn into a trial. Attending the Sundance Film Festival is not fun - it's work. Occasionally, the movies make it worthwhile, but not often enough to keep me from questioning why I'm doing this.

The answer is pretty simple. Sundance has become important. Over the years, it has developed from a pleasant little festival in a winter resort town into an unwieldy mammoth. Critics who have been attending for a lot longer than I have regale me with nostalgic stories of how they would ski all morning, then wander into theaters for late-afternoon and night screenings. These days, the idea of anyone doing anything but scurrying from theater-to-theater and elbowing their way through crowds is hard to comprehend. For film makers, Sundance used to be about having the chance to exhibit a movie; now, it's about having the chance to sell it and cash in on the flow of money.

There are some instances when snow and cold weather are nice. The middle of a film festival does not qualify as one of those. It can become very messy when slogging from one theater to another in this kind of weather. Few things are less enjoyable than sitting for two hours in a movie theater while dressed in wet clothing. And, since I'm not a cold weather person by nature, the climatological conditions in Park City serve only to amplify my ill-will.

Everyone tells me how friendly the people are in Utah, but, at least for 10 days in January, geniality goes out the window. Locals are understandably irritated by the influx of uncouth out-of-towners, and those who fly in bring their New York or Los Angeles mindset with them. Volunteers are more likely to snarl at you than offer any help. No one seems to care about seeing movies; it's all some sort of twisted game about one-upping the person next to you. It can be amusing - such as an instance last year when I watched a pair of low-level agents sparring with each other by name-dropping - but, for the most part, it's tiring. And then there are the cell phones... If you don't have one, you have no chance of being taken seriously by anyone. (This year, I brought mine just for show. I don't actually plan to use it, but it has a prop value.)

Of course, being a lowly Internet critic, I had no chance of getting press accreditation from Sundance (unlike at Toronto, where they seem to value the involvement of the on-line critics in the press corps). So I had to buy tickets like everyone else. That particular ordeal is emblematic of the entire Sundance experience - frustrating, time-consuming, and, in the end, not fulfilling. It starts out on a Monday morning, about two weeks before the festival. Screenings sell out fast, so not getting through on the first day means defaulting to second or third choices (at best). Calling in means getting a busy signal. *66 (auto-redial) doesn't work; US WEST in the Park City/Salt Lake City area doesn't support it. This year, when I finally got through after hours of trying, I was informed that the computer was down, so they couldn't process any orders - call back. Three hours later, when I tried, I was informed that all of the circuits were busy. Eventually, I got through, only to learn that there was a 20 ticket limit per order - not nearly enough to populate my entire schedule. That meant going through the whole procedure a second time. (In all fairness, the woman who took my order - someone named Heather - was both helpful and pleasant.) Whoever designed this process should submit themselves for a voluntary psychiatric evaluation.

When it comes to the actual films, Sundance has been lowering the quality bar for the past several years. When I go to a festival, I never expect a string of 4-star movies, but I like to see things that are different, challenging, and entertaining. With Sundance, the trend is towards banality and commercialism - after all, it's less of a festival than a marketplace. That's why a half-dozen satellite festivals (like Slamdance) have sprung up around Sundance. They feed off of its success, with organizers often pulling outrageous stunts to draw interest to themselves.

Frequently, the best films are found out of competition. Last year, a little-ballyhooed Spanish movie called Open Your Eyes turned out to be the best thing I saw (it's slated for limited North American distribution beginning this April). Things likely won't be any different this year. To start out, here's a look at two non-competition entries. Neither is extraordinary, but both are at least worth the price of admission. The first, Praise is a flawed but courageous film from Australia that will never find a major U.S. distributor. The second, The 24-Hour Woman is slated for national release in about three weeks.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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