THERE’S LITTLE ARGUMENT that, as far as industry heat and the possibility of exciting discoveries of new talent are concerned, the Sundance Film Festival now ranks second only to Cannes on the annual calendar of events. With the emergence of such names as Steven Soderbergh, Nancy Savoca, Reginald Hudlin, Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino from Sundance in recent years, Hollywood has clearly taken notice. Every January it now collectively packs up its winter coats, skis and cellular phones, rents a fleet of 4x4s, makes reservations at the Barking Frog and hies up to the Wasatch Mountains, which this year were mostly brown until midway through the festival.
But having now traveled to Park City for nine consecutive years, I can testify that it wasn’t always this way. Festival veterans can look back nostalgically on the mid to late 1980s, when it was always easy to park on Main Street, the River Horse served wine for free because it didn’t yet have a liquor license, and the awards ceremony included a sit-down dinner for all guests.
Glancing at the lists of films the festival presented in those years, however , what’s striking, and very sad, is how utterly forgotten most of the films and their makers are. The perennial story about independent filmmakers, of course, was always how hard it was to raise the money, how many years it took to get the films on the screen, and then what a struggle it was to find a public. The screenings at Sundance (when it was called the U.S. Film Festival) usually represented the happy destination after a very long journey.
All too often, however, they also marked the end of the road. Similarly, first or second films that appeared to be works of some promise frequently wound up being the most exciting and notable (or only) accomplishments in their directors’ careers. It’s amazing to peruse the dozens of titles at Sundance prior to 1989 and realize that virtually no one from those years ever graduated to the big time, or even made any feature films since.
My favorite film at the 1986 festival, for instance, was Bill Sherwood’s pioneering gay feature “Parting Glances.” Shot in New York in 16mm on a minuscule budget, it looked great, was lively and witty, introduced Steve Buscemi to the screen and was one of the first fictional American pictures to deal with AIDS. Unfortunately, Sherwood got bogged down in ultimately meaningless writing projects at the majors, was frustrated in his attempts to launch another independent production, and died of AIDS in 1990 without having made another film.
Other notable entries that year were Donna Deitch’s “Desert Hearts,” Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk” and Eugene Corr’s “Desert Bloom,” and while these directors have been active in various areas, it’s not been in big-screen features. The filmmakers behind the numerous other entries have hardly been heard from again in any commercial context.
In 1987, the big pictures included Jill Godmilow’s “Waiting for the Moon,” Lizzie Borden’s “Working Girls” and Gary Walkow’s “The Trouble With Dick.” If the two women have not been able to break through with important new projects, it has not been for lack of trying, and I’ve no idea what’s become of Walkow or most of the other directors from that year. Tim Hunter, whose “River’s Edge” was shown then, continues on his way, but he was already an established talent by that time.
PROBABLY THE LOW POINT was 1988, when Rob Nilsson (whereabouts currently unknown to me) won the top prize for his black-and-white video transfer “Heat and Sunlight,” a work of considerable integrity but extremely limited appeal, as was the case with nearly everything else that season.
Then “sex, lies & videotape,””True Love” and “Heathers” all emerged from the 1989 festival, and nothing has been the same since then. Every year, there are a handful of films (actually an unusually large number this year) that get picked up for distribution, and a couple of directors who go on to make another film within a year or two.
But it’s much more difficult to make a second feature than a first, and the sheer number of filmmakers who have managed the considerable feat of placing one film at Sundance but have never come up for a second at-bat is staggering.
I WAS A BIT MORE RESERVED this year about the competition entries than some of my colleagues. I can’t really argue with the jury, which awarded its top prize to Tom Noonan’s precise, elegant, well-acted “What Happened Was.” I also liked the lewd, irreverent grunginess of Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”; the energy and acting , if not the intent, of Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh”; the visual elegance and shrewdness of Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s “Suture”; the compressed intensity of Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven”; the vibrant performances of Renee Humphrey and Alicia Witt in Rafal Zielinski’s “Fun”; the sweetness and evocation of milieu in Rose Troche’s too-slight “Go Fish”; and the regional specificity of Paul Zehrer’s “Blessing,” which was the only reminder this year of the farm and ranch pictures that used to fill the screens at Sundance.
And, uniquely, there was Steve James, Fred Marx and Peter Gilbert’s epic documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which does what only young documentarians can afford to do — follow their subjects for years, thereby conveying a sense of lives being lived and destinies being carved in a way that few dramatic features can ever hope to achieve.