From my very narrow perspective — covering mostly world cinema and just a few American documentaries and narratives — my vision of this year’s festival is largely skewed. I can’t say whether “Stay” or “Wristcutters: A Love Story” were near-masterpieces or misses; I can’t say whether this year’s American films were uninspired middle-of-the-road endeavors or tell-tale signs of a new renaissance; I can’t say whether this year’s award winners were misguided or appropriate. But here are a few things I learned from Sundance 2006.
1. The Eccles and Racquet Club Theaters can be death to a small film. Last year, I remember the world premiere of “Forty Shades of Blue” amid the non-studio seating of the Racquet Club; heads blocked my view and the cavernous space swallowed the film’s beautiful images. This year, the new high-tech inclined studio-seating rafters produced loud clunking noises when people skipped out of a movie early. I heard complaints of light leaks, and that wide open space does little to help reproduce the intiimacy of a small, character-driven film. Similarly, the Eccles may be fine for a big comedy, but “The Night Listener,” Patrick Stettner’s menacing little take on fakery and vulnerability, was devoured at the world premiere by the enormous space. The movie played much better, according to the director, at the smaller Library theatre.
2. News travels fast. Traveling circuitously at 35 mph along shuttle-bus routes and at lightning speed between attendee’s mouths, a film’s fate is sealed within minutes after its world premiere. No matter that half of the people speaking about it didn’t even see it, a movie gets tagged hit or problem picture nearly instantaneously. I liked “The Hawk is Dying,” despite the mixed reviews and negative talk. No matter how much I tried to think fondly of the strange, poetic, morbid fugue, festival chatter kept getting in the way. When has there ever been a movie where the protagonist’s beloved hawk attacked the face of his beloved, dead child? I hope the film gets a chance to be seen again in a fresher atmosphere, unburdened by hype, snap judgements and commercial expectations.
3. World cinema still doesn’t matter. During the festival, I wrote four columns about world cinema: the first looked at a couple of high profile world premieres, along with jury prize winner, “13 Tzamati“; the second examined international documentaries; the third at some international innovators; and the last picked out a few gems from first-time filmmakers that traveled under the radar and screened towards the end of the fest. Despite my best efforts, I don’t believe that these films drew much attention outside of the festival. Savvy critics felt compelled to cover the American films, because of editorial necessity, and out of 120 features, I wouldn’t expect nothing less. But I can’t expect international filmmakers to really enjoy being second-class citizens.
4. Frontiers still doesn’t matter. I heard during the festival the rumor that Sundance Director Geoffrey Gilmore had said he wished Kelly Reichardt’s Frontier film “Old Joy” — praised by a small number of estimable critics — should have played in the Dramatic Competition. And he’s right. Maybe if it had, I would have seen it. But with my own assignments clouding my judgement and my time short, the few American films I saw were in Premieres and the Independent Film Competition. Sundance should figure out a way to better situate more experimental films at the festival, lest they be forgotten on the fringes. Some more experimental films obviously don’t belong in the Dramatic Competition, but I wonder if something else should be done with them rather than putting them in the avant-garde ghetto. Since most of the Dramatic Competition films are so bland, maybe these films would be just the thing to shake up the section.
5. Don’t Rush. They’re just movies. Both myself and indieWIRE’s other critical correspondent, Stephen Garrett, suffered as a result of the slippery snow. Poor Stephen sprained his ankle, and by the end of the festival was hobbling on a cane. During my first day, I slipped on the ice running for a shuttle and couldn’t sleep on my left side for a week, and continue to have a nice black-and-blue mark as a symbol of my stupidity. While this reflects on Sundance correspondents’ own out-of-whack sense of urgency during the festival to get to the next film or party, it is also says something about the inconvenience of the festival. It’s no Telluride. No matter how many shuttle buses they’ve got going, Park City’s sprawling venues are not conducive to the size and scope of this festival. I’ve never been a fan of the multiplex, but for a festival with so many films and competing agendas, a more centralized film exhibition center seems necessary.
6. Ruthe Stein is still crazy. While no one took my seat at Sundance 2006, I did spot last year’s offender Ruthe Stein at a screening at the Racquet Club, haranguing some poor volunteer about the film’s running time and directions to the bathroom or the food or something. For me, Stein still represents the type of walking ball of neurosis and nervous energy that I tried to avoid at this year’s festival. And for the most part, I succeeded.