The first thing you realize when attending the Sundance Film Festival is that there is practically no oxygen in the air. As a filmmaker, you go with big aspirations of selling your film or securing money for a future project--then quickly realize that you'll be lucky if you simply get to the top of a staircase without having a heart attack. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the thin air and arctic climate of Park City, Utah, quickly take their toll on out-of-towners, and by week's end everyone seems to be sick. Theaters get the addition of surround-sound sniffling, and exertion of any kind is dappled with long pauses for catching your breath.
Besides the low oxygen level, the thing that really sets Sundance apart is that everyone there has an agenda. Of the nearly 30,000 who gather for the festival, only about 40 are actually from Utah. Everyone you meet is there for some "very important" reason, whether they're with HBO, worked on the soundtrack to (insert unheard-of film title here), or did casting for a project that was a finalist to get in the festival but just didn't quite make it for some confusing reason. Nobody, it seems, goes just for the pleasure of seeing movies.
The importance of everyone's mission is staggering--especially when you see them later that night drunk on vodka and Red Bull and screaming "take it off" at the wannabe models wearing halter-tops in the sub-freezing night. This is when it becomes clear that the festival is essentially spring break for the film industry. Park City becomes the perfect substitute for Daytona Beach, replacing the beach with ski slopes and bikini-clad co-eds with Prada-covered film execs. Just about every introduction begins with "So, are you from L.A. or New York?" and everyone is very well-dressed in expensive, black-leather winterwear.
After a couple of days, your body starts to get used to the altitude, and as the fog lifts from your brain you are able to determine how completely insane the festival is. It's like satellite TV--but with no remote. There are simply too many things on at once, and you find yourself wishing you could sit back in some hovering couch and just channel-surf. But since this is impossible, your only choice is to scurry around town all day and night, trying to catch as many films, panels, receptions, cocktail parties and full-blown ragers as possible. It's not unlike a volleyball tournament where you pay attention to one thing, then catch a cheering roar coming from another direction and wonder what you just missed. There are obviously winners and losers, but sometimes it's hard to tell, because everyone is wearing the same uniform.
Insanity runs rampant, but two things particularly stuck out at this year's festival. The first was that a fight broke out at some industry cocktail party after some screening. I'm not really sure what happened. Main Street on the festival's first Saturday night has an extreme resemblance to Mardi Gras (just replace the beads with celebrities), and apparently some bouncer got mad and knocked a guy out or something. I wasn't that interested in the fight itself, just the fact that it happened. After being to film festivals around the world, I never thought I'd ever see a fight at one. Usually finding myself at more low-key artsy venues, I imagine how it would be to watch a couple dorky experimental filmmakers duke it out for hours--battling until exhaustion because neither was able to administer any form of a knockout blow, playing to a confused audience who thought they were viewing some form of performance art. But in this case, there was clearly a jock element involved, and someone who thought he was attending the festival for some important reason was actually just confused and really only wanted to be drunk and obnoxious. And while it really had nothing to do with the festival itself, it seemed to bring things down to a sad state.
The second thing that left a lasting impression on my brain was Oliver Stone's mustache. Now, a mustache usually makes a man's face handsome and bold, filling out the upper lip and giving a sense of strength and masculinity. But there are those who incur quite the opposite effect, in which the mustache becomes a black hole between the nose and mouth, giving the appearance that its bearer has in fact swallowed his nose. Unfortunately, there is no denying that Oliver Stone falls into the latter category. His new documentary, Comandante, was one of the early hits of the festival, with Stone's dreadful facial-hair mistake immortalized in what may be the most historically important interview ever made with Fidel Castro.
Not unlike Stone's mustache was the tangled and equally sprawling group of "alternative" festivals that have sprung up over the years--converging in Park City and borrowing just a little bit of Sundance's audience and mooching off its media attention while valiantly waving the flag of independent cinema. Alternatives such as Slamdance, No-dance, X-Dance, Digi-dance, Tromadance and others barricade themselves in vacant storefronts and second-story banquet halls. Park City may in fact have more film festivals than permanent residents, and they all take place in the month of January. These fests do offer a much-needed dose of independent/do-it-yourself ethos to the otherwise industry-driven scene, but they still harbor the unfortunate "I just need the right person to see it in order to make it big" mentality that I just don't get. It seems like hitting the road and setting up shows to screen a film to normal people is much truer to the sense of independent cinema than dressing up in a bumblebee costume and trying to draw in the crowds of passing film execs who couldn't get into the HBO party....
By the fourth or fifth day at the festival, you finally get the chance to see some movies. This year, there were some really good films showing, all cleverly situated between some really bad ones. The chatter and buzz on the streets this year seemed to strongly favor Catherine Hardwicke's film Thirteen and Matthew Ryan Hoge's The United States of Leland. But if you're looking for proof that horrible films can not only be made, but also get accepted into Sundance, the pathetically experimental Hollywood narrative Northfork makes the case. While I probably only wound up seeing about 15 percent of the films at Sundance, Sam Green's film The Weather Underground, a brave and incredibly timely documentary about the '70s radical militant group that bombed U.S. institutions to protest war and capitalism, was by far the best work at the festival and may prove to be one of the most important films of the year.
In all, there were a lot of odd things about this year's Sundance Film Festival: the unprecedented number of celebrity gawkers, a pro-peace rally nearly mowed over by snow-blind SUV drivers, and the aforementioned mustache. But for all the craziness, Sundance maintained its position as the world's single most important film festival, presenting a slippery but key stepping stone in the river between Hollywood Entertainment and Independent Cinema.