Wednesday morning arrived quickly; after a series of anxious nights and days spent working my way through a portion of the films sitting on my desk, I dragged myself onto the frozen street, hopped into a car filled with colleagues and headed for the airport, off to Park City, Utah for Sundance. This year’s festival seems as though it came more quickly than ever before and I don’t know if I was ready to commit myself to the annual crush of people that crowd the sidewalks and shuttle busses here. On the plane, I decided to give myself over to the festival and, in between quick naps and the occasional beverage from the ever-dwindling complimentary airplane service, made peace with the trip.
Landing in Salt Lake, we were greeted by temperatures some 30 degrees warmer than New York, and suddenly, things weren’t so bad. A new place to stay, but as always, the new at Sundance is balanced by the rush of familiar faces, old friends and colleagues, and a mastery of the landscape, of the venues, of the shuttle system; There is something comforting about this annual event, probably because it feels so familiar now. The community that is so often discussed among people involved in independent film is a real, physical thing and the annoyances and trials of a big event like Sundance are pretty much erased by the collective experience of watching and talking about the films, of being here together and working our way through the program with the hope of discovery, of finding something special. Why else slog through the snow, slide across black ice, stumble up and down Main Street? Say what you will about Sundance, but this festival continues to give to the film community in ways that only seem possible in Park City, in January, here, now. This is how the year begins.
So far, my film-going experience has been a mixed bag and only a few films have moved me to feel something new, something exciting. Maybe it is the overwhelming sense of grief that has been dominating the films on my screening schedule; death, depression, the loss of children, suicide and murder have been at the heart of almost every movie I have seen. The same issues were prominent in Toronto back in September and, with the real-life problems that seem to be dominating my own every-day thinking and the optimism and hope I found in becoming a new father, I have taken it pretty hard so far.
To backtrack, I should say there is no real science to how my colleague Holly and I set our schedules. There are some titles that we have been tracking for a few months, some that we have heard about from colleagues and some films made by friends and alumni of our own festival that we were eager to see. For us, choosing films is a little like the NBA Draft; we look at the time to day, see what’s available, and then each pick something to see (rarely the same film). We fight for films we want to see, make concessions so that both of us are seeing things that need to be covered and pretty much hope for the best. It is the same for every festival; in order to maximize our coverage, we head off in different directions and try to see as many films as we can. This year, real life seems to have staged an intervention; there is a subdued sense of celebration and an increased sense of purpose here, fewer people, thinner crowds and a general feeling that things are tightening up everywhere, for everyone.
This year, for whatever reason, my screenings have almost all been focused on loss. It is easy to see three full days of sad movies and want to make proclamations about the national zeitgeist, about the thematic “state” of film, but in truth, there are several different “festivals” within every festival, each experience a combination of the luck of the draw, the timing of screenings and the intersection of personal experience and the movies you see. I don’t think there are conclusions about the world to be drawn from a random sampling of films (a recent review declaring Toe To Toe as the first film of a “New Obama Cinema” is a cringe-inducing example of overreaching), but then again, after experiencing so much punishing sadness in such a compressed period of time, it is hard not to take it all personally.
There have been some bright spots among the pain and an equal number of duds thumping their way into my days, but as the big everything of this festival rolls its way through the weekend, I am simply feeling introspective, in touch with my own life and feelings, looking to find something true.
Sunrise in Park City, UT, 1/15/09 (taken with the iPhone)