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Reflections On A Sundance Virginity Lost

Reflections On A Sundance Virginity Lost

A day or two has passed as I transition comfortably from the dry, snowy cold of Utah to the wet, not-quite-as-snowy cold of Ontario (and on Saturday, the wet, not-quite-as-snowy, but definitely more cold Quebec), and I figure its time to consider the past two weeks…

Its kinda perfect that my Sundance soundtrack consisted of a never-turned-to-another satellite radio station playing 80s new wave in the SUV rented my colleagues. Because the kind of false nostalgia I always got when I listened to The Smiths or The Cure or watched Heathers… I knew where it came from, I knew what it all meant, but I was never there to experience it and thus was sort of at a loss in comparison to those who did… was the same false nostalgia I felt when listening to – or worse, attempting to engage in – the constant reflective thought expressed by pretty much everyone I was around. As a Sundance virgin, my only real nostalgia was for what had happened in the days prior to that one.

This reflection was usually surrounding two topics: The first, and less personally interesting, involved Sundance as a new-found clusterfuck. My colleague Eugene sent me a random post-Sundance article from a blogger I’d never heard of that kinda summed up all the talk exactly:


There are two Sundance Film Festivals. One hosts several thousand film enthusiasts, movie industry professionals and others with passion for and/or professional interest in independent films. The other Sundance plays hosts to thousands of guests who have marginal interest in films or even relevance to the independent film community. While hundreds of stars turn out for Sundance, only a handful actually attend the screenings, and then it’s usually only for the films they have direct involvement in. Several dozen corporations host clients for skiing the Deer Valley slopes, drinking at hospitality suites, expensive dinners and overly-hyped parties featuring “B” list talent.

To me and my experiences, this has always been any major festival. Toronto, Cannes.. in their own way, present that same dichotomy in their own unique and varying formations. Smaller fests, of which I would have never considered Sundance anyway (I who was 8 when Reservoir Dogs played there), have always fulfilled that first notion (almost) solely, and I’ve enjoyed them for what they were. Personally, for someone sorta new to all of this, the second “Sundance” presents a really interesting study in the state of celebrity culture; the state of humanity; and the state of those with a bit of money. I found it fun to attend Paris Hilton’s publicity dinner or watch as hundreds of Utahians desperately roamed Main Street in search of celebrity. Maybe in five years, I’ll sing a more bitter tune… But it seems to me that the first Sundance needs the second Sundance to thrive financially, and that they both exist just fine as long as people from either side mind the other’s motiviations?

Either way… the second nostalgia was a bit more specific. I’m currently doing my thesis on queer film marketing campaigns post-2000… so I obviously made a point to take in all the GLBT festivities, whether panels, films or etc. I won’t go into the specifics of the queer festivities (because I wrote about it here), but in general: There were a lot of queer films at Sundance this year, many of them by directors who were present during Sundance’s “new queer cinema” moment in the early 1990s, and thus a “reunion” was sort of make-shiftingly created and there was a lot of talk of the past.

Tom Kalin spoke at one of the panels and pinpointed my position:


I can only see the early 90s and that first wave really coming out of a very specific historical moment.. the movies coming out of a specific moment. Its difficult to conjure for people that weren’t alive or around during the time what it was like without AIDS medication and that kind of atmosphere of despair and frustration that people had politically and socially in their lives.

Christine Vachon, a the same panel, seconded it:

I mean I do think that term did come out of a sense of urgency that’s very hard to reconstruct for people that weren’t there and Im not trying to be like one of those people who was at Woodstock…

Its amazing to me that I can even say it with a smile now cause honestly at the time it really felt like it was such an atmosphere of death and despair.

Honestly, be around all this talk gave me a twofold emotional high: One of extreme amazement in watching these people – Kalin, Vachon, Gregg Araki, Bruce LaBruce, Isaac Julien, etc – in action.. These people whose early 90s films were my adolescent homosexual education and occasionally even brought on seminal autoerotic experiences (LaBruce…). These people – these artists – played a considerable role in assisting in my own identity, as well as the identity politics of the world I eventually came to exist in as an young, queer adult.

This was most notable during a screening of my “favourite” Sundance film (though, I must admit, there only were seven – and before you hiss, please note my actual job did not require me to see films and thus this is understandable)… Isaac Julien‘s Derek. At its core a poignant documentary about an artist whose life was cut too short.. the film intertwines archival interviews Derek Jarman with thought provoking prose written and performed by the goddess Tilda Swinton. Swinton was just as reflective in her words as anyone at Sundance: She spoke of today as a time of too much talk and not enough action. She spoke of too much focus on numbers and not enough films. She spoke of how Jarman wanted to evaporate with his work and how paradoxically this didn’t happen – and given today’s societal state – also did.

Though during the screening I was pretty much engulfed in Julien’s artful representation of an endlessly charming, interesting and unpretentious man.. After I wiped away my supergay tears and left the Q & A, I was left feeling a bit like Kalin and Vachon suggested in that panel – clueless and ignornat. Just like 80s new wave or the Sundances where Paris Hilton wasnt running amuck, I never got to experience any of this firsthand. I never saw what Derek saw. I was never there to see the beginnings of AIDS or Reagan or riots or emotional despair I personally can’t even fathom. What was I really the survivor of? What story did I really have to tell? I can get gay married. I could come out in high school to minimal fanfare. My parents wouldn’t even flinch at the sight of me kissing another man. AIDS, though present, is something I’m educated on to the point that I can resite the components of an HIV replication cell. And while I realize I’m uniquely privileged, even in Western society… And thank god for that.. but lets accept: “We” don’t have that urgency, and as Kalin & Vachon suggested, we will (hopefully) never know its horrors. But many of us seem to be ready to sit down an accept that this is as good as it may get. And thats maybe why the nominees for the GLAAD Media Award for best feature film this year were Stardust, Across The Universe and The Jane Austen Book Club.

I just wonder if this relative spoil is to blame for my potentially lesser generation of queer artists. Maybe its time that “we” just step out from under some queer niche and realize “we” have less sexual-identity specific stories to offer? Or maybe its not? Maybe “we” need to find our own voices, our own less urgent, but still necessary, voices.

Now I know I’m generalizing a generation, and especially generalizing a generation that hasn’t even been given a chance yet.. and really all I’m saying despite my longwinded rantiness is that all this nostalgia just left me wondering..

I’m not going to go any farther in that regard (I have four months of thesis writing for that), but essentially, thats where my Sundance mind wandered.

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