Sundance ’06: The big chill

Commentary: Chaotic fest offers little elbow room, too few pix to savor

Going into the Sundance Film Festival, fest topper Geoffrey Gilmore spoke about this year’s lineup as a “back to its roots” event filled with films “as independent as we’ve had in many years.” The way the fest turned out, “roots” and “independent” must be read as code for small, visually unambitious and socially concerned about the same sorts of issues Sundance entries have been addressing for years.

Sundance managed to score its requisite big sale and headline-making event with the world premieres of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” respectively.

However, the heart of the festival, the dramatic competition, very seldom made anyone’s pulse race, as the majority of the 16 entries were either drearily reminiscent of previous films in their earnest presentation of “significant” subject matter or, in a few cases, so amateurish as to hardly rate a place in a competitive festival.

Many industryites rate Sundance and other film festivals on the basis of how many films they imagine will be picked up and become commercially viable. For some time now, I’ve looked at Sundance titles in a different way, judging them on whether they would stand up artistically at any other major international festival, such as Cannes, Venice or Toronto, the sort of company in which Sundance likes to think it belongs (and in which it does at least in terms of number of new films premiered and the amount of industry scrutiny it receives).

By this standard, the only dramatic competition picture I saw that could hold its own internationally was “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” Croatian-born helmer Goran Dukic’s delightfully mordant, wryly funny look at an alternate reality exclusively populated by suicides. It’s a modest film, to be sure, but one with its own distinct personality, and altogether the best ’60s-style Eastern European film (via the California desert) I’ve seen in quite a while.

What “Wristcutters,” which was shot on the ubiquitous Sony HD camera, also points up is the startling lack of visual style or ambition in most Amerindies these days. With the exception of So Yong Kim’s highly camera-wise “In Between Days” (like Dukic, Kim is also foreign born, in Pusan, South Korea), and Chris Gorak’s apocalyptic suspenser “Right at Your Door,” which is professional looking, most of the other competition films were visually clueless.

Ever since the first wave of film school graduates washed into the industry, complaints have been heard about how the youngsters knew all about cameras but nothing about story or acting. Now I wonder if even the first part is true.

It’s certainly the case that visual virtuosity has never been a hallmark of Sundance titles, although the arrival of real filmmakers has been evident over the years with such pictures as “sex, lies & videotape,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pi” (none of which, of course, won the top jury award).

I don’t know if working on video instead of 35mm film has anything to do with the lack of visual adventurousness on the part of the young filmmakers today, but I see no one who even aspires to work in the imagistic or poetic vein of Coppola, De Palma, Cronenberg, Spielberg, Scorsese, Malick or any of the other directors who came up from the low-budget ranks to become virtuosos of the camera. No matter how dramatically unsatisfactory, derivative or pretentious films by many young European or Asian directors may be, they usually have a degree of visual panache. We’re simply not seeing it here.

The most widely agreed upon sentiment this year is that Sundance has become the most user-unfriendly festival of any significance. Compared with covering war zones and natural disasters, attending film festivals is the cushiest gig imaginable, and no self-respecting journalist would want to beg for public sympathy over matters like parking problems or too many useless scenesters clogging up the town.

But the fact remains that, after several years of fully acknowledged overcrowding, the situation passed the breaking point this time.

The president of one of the top specialized distributors told me that things were so bad that he intends to lobby Sundance to organize more comprehensive and centrally located press and industry screenings (possibly at the multiplex on the road toward Salt Lake City) on the Toronto model, just so work can get done efficiently.

This sounds good to me, as does beginning screenings on time; you can set your clock by the announcement of “la projection commence” in Cannes, and even the perennially tardy Venice got its act together last year.

Over the first weekend you could scarcely get near Main Street, and driving from Deer Valley to most of the venues took up a half-hour due to gridlock. There was no parking at the largest theater, the Eccles, and often at the distant Racquet Club, and the parking structure that serves Main Street was accessible only if you forked over $300 for a week’s pass.

When I called prior to the festival to book a table at one of Park City’s better restaurants, I was greeted by a recording such as I had never heard before: “Leave your name of you wish to reserve for the 19th, but be advised that, if you are coming for the Sundance Film Festival, we are completely booked for Jan. 20th, 21st, 22nd …” and on through the entire week.

The theater loop buses ran at capacity, but depending upon your destination you couldn’t rely upon them to get where you wanted when you wanted. This, coupled with screenings that usually started inexcusably late, meant you couldn’t reliably schedule screenings back-to-back. And when you’re stuck at the more remote Eccles or Racquet Club for successive screenings with an hour or so in between, there’s nowhere to eat or even wait comfortably in the vicinities.

This was my 20th consecutive year at Sundance and I thought I knew all the tricks. Well, the tricks don’t work anymore, and the bottom line for critics and acquisitions executives is that all the logistical problems — from being unable to get quickly from one screening to another or to make your way past a dozen Paris Hilton wannabes wherever you go — makes it very difficult just to do your job.

The one thing that was great this year was the skiing; there was plenty of snow, with periodic fresh dumps during the week. Unfortunately, local ski operators bemoan the arrival of Sundance, as no one coming for the festival skis any more. Too busy.