An absolute beginner’s guide to the Sundance Film Festival.
Shortly before my arrival in Park City, Utah for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I had finished a grim slog through the second season of Homeland. The first season had been a taught, simple story of obsession and deceit that was compellingly told, with two well-rendered characters set on a crash course. The second season chewed through a season worth of plot in three episodes and spent the rest of its run jerking between wild twists, to jarring effect. Sure, the creators seemed perfectly cognisant that Mandy Patinkin’s Saul and Claire Danes’s Carrie were favourites that viewers would stick around for. But, they didn’t seem to care much past that. They threw in a love story that was an insult to the soul-crushing realism of the first season. The CIA-material devolved into the realm of 24-world and became a Nicolas Cage thriller. By the end of the season finale I was livid. This was pathetic television that everyone was giving a free pass because the first season was good and they still wanted to like it.
I had abandoned the cinema somewhat in recent years as my only source of capital ‘S’ serious entertainment. I had bought too strongly into the idea that we were living in a golden age of television. But in the opening days of 2013 I had seen a new truth. Television will always disappoint you. Any idea worth its salt will more likely than not (there are rare exceptions) be too smart and subsequently cancelled, or stretched out and warped for however long there is commercial demand.
It was only too fitting that I was set to spend almost a fortnight bathing in cinema.
Park City is 30 minutes drive from Salt Lake City. For the casual American visitor, Utah isn’t on the everyday tourist path. But it’s a delight. Utah is mountainous and captivating. Salt Lake has a pleasant earnestness to it, like Portland with the ironic detachment switched out for religion. There’re really wide roads everywhere, supposedly so the founder of the Latter Day Saints movement Joseph Smith could easily turn his heard of cattle around if need be. My accommodation was in Salt Lake and I had a car rented for my daily commute, sidling up and down a significant mountain each day into Park City and taking in on each trip a half dozen of the best vistas I’ve seen for a good while. From my very first visit, when upon arrival into Salt Lake City I drove over the hill to pick up my media pass the day before the festival started, Park City never struck me as a place where you’d expect a major international festival to be hiding out. Which as Robert Redford would discuss at the opening press conference, was kind of the point. It’s an upscale, slightly sprawling ski-town in the mountains. There’s an old-timey Main Street that is a nod to Park City’s mining past, which Dumb and Dumber fans might even recognise. Sundance’s organisational apparatus is fairly informal, a vast team of volunteers that assembles on cue each year the day beforehand.
The press conference that opened the festival on Thursday, January 17 in the 300-seat Egyptian Theater on Main Street was as ‘Hollywood’ as my time in Park City got.
Redford, the proverbial Sundance Kid and a founding father of the festival, doesn’t look like any 76-year old you’ve ever met. His face is too taut. His hair—setting aside that no man his age has strawberry-blonde hair—has a disconcertingly full body and luster to it. He’s dressed casually, like a cool granddad type; the one who has an iPad and tries to stay up with the trends.
It’s when he talks that the ‘Redford’ effect kicks in. His responses are laconic and confident and his voice is so entrenched in your cultural memory that it’s almost as if it is not actually words you’re hearing but someone telepathically translating a message into your soul.
The press conference seems to have little purpose apart from rolling Redford out in public.
Expounding on Sundance’s origin, Redford waxes philosophically, “I was told that it wouldn’t work. You want to do it up in Utah? And I said, yeah! Make it weird… It wasn’t supposed to be commercial. I wanted it to be diverse… Nice thing is we’re still here. Diversity has proven commercial.”
Coming a month after the Sandy Hook catastrophe, several journalists pushed for Redford to comment on Hollywood’s role in normalising gun violence in America. Redford was clearly reluctant to throw his two cents in, but after considerable pressing he spoke a little about Newton and guns in Hollywood, referencing having seen guns prominently displayed on two movie billboards, side-by-side on Hollywood Boulevard.
“So I have a question for my industry. It’s not a criticism… Does my industry think that guns sell tickets? I don’t know. Maybe. You’d have to ask.”
His thoughts were trending online within the hour.
After the conference ended an old friend approached Redford and they embraced warmly, going about the intimate business of catching up while 50 people, including myself, took photographs of them at close range.
There’s an idea that abides about Sundance that it is where the everyman goes to interact with the A-list. But for the socially unconnected in Park City (such as myself) this thought needs to be quickly set aside. It’s the standard expectation versus reality conundrum implicit in any holiday. I’m going to call it the Entourage Fallacy i.e. you’re not going to see many movie stars here. In the crush of the festival’s first weekend, there’s a definite in-and-out vibe in Park City that you can’t ignore. Every place that seems plush and cosy and not packed to the gills is booked out for a swanky corporate event or premiere party. Every bar that has a long line out its door is where you’re going to be cramming into in vain to try and order a burger. Even as media, RSVPing to party and red carpet invites is the equivalent of entering into a draw, as publicists then parse through responses for the most important journalists willing to come and then decide which people they want to make it. Celebrities are stage-managed chips bought into promote movies. Because of the searing, sub-zero cold, red carpets take place inside tents in front of handpicked photographers. For the People magazine fan trapped inside all of us, Park City produces a lot of celebrity photos but they’re never taken where you are.
Think of it as a series of rooms and every one is more exclusive than the other and in the final room it’s just all of the A-list stars posing for pictures and waiting for a flight out of town. I spotted Edward Burns, Michael Cera, Jim Rash, and Daniel Dae Kim, but I was not afforded my dream Hollywood moment.
Which is not to say that the Sundance Film Festival doesn’t afford excellent people watching opportunities. The buying and selling of films and the networking parts of the festival make it as much of a trade show or a conference as a film festival. The media pass allows journalists access to press and industry screenings. In the early days, these screenings are packed out with film buyers. In the line to enter, there was as much passive aggressive networking, name-dropping and coy, keep-my-cards-close-to-my-chest small talk as I’ve ever witnessed. Business types walk out of each screening as soon as they feel like they’ve seen enough. At the end of the film, no one talks to each other, apart from making meal plans—a technique tantamount to a poker face so no one knows if the other is going to bid on the movie and to not drive up the price of purchasing it for distribution. It’s a jaded scene and after a few industry screenings, heading over to public showings, where you’ll find rapturous, delighted, and appreciative audiences, was a delight.
And then I guess, there’s the actual movies themselves.
Back in the day, when DVD stores were an actual thing, and not just an outlet for family-owned businesses to toy with bankruptcy, during the best of weeks I’d always go in for the six weekly rentals for $10 special, but never get through them all.
I wanted to clear 30 movies in my 11 days at Sundance. For the uninitiated, untrained festival participant, such as myself, this proved to be a large undertaking. It surprised me. Watching a movie is not a taxing feat. I needed to see three films a day, basically. This amounted to five or six hours each day in a dark room, sitting down. That doesn’t sound hard. Early time constraints meant that I fell behind: two films the first day, two the next. The early screenings were exciting. Sundance, baby, Sundance! Simply knowing that I was among the first in the world to take these movies in was enough to butter me up. In the early days of the festival, I was packing a lunch each day to keep myself from falling into a sickly candy vortex. I was clinical, making easy work of what I was sure was going to be a smooth, relaxing task.
On day three, I stepped up from two movies to three. Now, three movies on one day is no big thing. But then you do three the next day, the day after that and squeeze four movies in the day after that one just because you can. You start to flag a little. You find yourself waking up at 7:30am in Salt Lake City to jump straight into your car and fly over the hill to only just make the 9am screening of Adam Scott’s new comedy. The movies form the fabric of an alternative reality that you’re inside of each day, for almost as long as you’re out of it. You get weary. It’s a lot of concentration. You fall into that candy vortex you’ve been trying to avoid. Before you know it, you’re sitting down for movie 25 with a much crueler heart. Come film 31, Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs, you squeal a little with joy inside when you feel the audience start to turn on the film. From wide-eyed new inductee into this world, you’ve become a bit more like the industry guy you shook your head at 10 days ago. By the end, movie 32, I was ready for it to stop.
At Sundance, you sit down to each movie with few preconceived notions. You have a two-sentence plot summary in your head, maybe a star or two in mind.
It’s wonderful. I realised through these 11 days how thoroughly tainted the everyday movie watching experience is by advanced warning. My expectations weren’t set up by a movie preview. I hadn’t touched base with my favourite film writers for their take on it. There were no word-of-mouth reviews from a friend whose opinion I trust to set my mind one way or another.
I noticed two things. I became an excessively clinical film watcher in a few days. It gets bought home quickly, watching this many films back-to-back, how much story-telling falls around the same devices. Protagonist? Check. Conflict? Check. Foreshadowing? Check. And so forth. I became demanding as a watcher. What is this film trying to tell me? Why is it exceptional?
Watching this many movies, in this esteemed a setting, sadly drummed in to me that a lot of movies, even entertaining ones, are still pretty rote.
But in this line up, when a movie stood out, it sung. When your day is filled with escapism, you become inured to the concept, so when something could really take you away from where you were and why you were there, it was a thing of beauty.
At the end of my final movie the heavens opened and Salt Lake City was covered in six inches of snow. It was the scariest drive home I’ve ever had but it bought a little cold reality back to my silver screen lined world.
I had fallen for the movies again. Sure, I didn’t need to watch one for a week or two, but the spark had returned.