“This won’t offend a mother will it?” asked the woman in front of me while we waited in line at the Prospector Square Theater last Friday for a screening of Todd Haynes’ “Poison.”
She clearly had no idea what she was getting into and I, certainly, was not about to inform her that the film we were about to see had been the succees de scandale of the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered both the Jury Prize and more than a little controversy for its explicit depiction of gay desire. Festivals, after all, are about discovery. They're about taking a risk on an unknown quantity and coming across something that, hopefully, will surprise you, move you, enrage you, make you think, or, simply, make you laugh. And while they may mostly be a place to discover new work (or what's "next"), they can also be a place to (re)discover the classics and to engage with cinema's rich history.
Along with Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" (1990) and Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude," "Poison" is one of three archival films screening at this year's Sundance, part of the festival's commitment to "safeguarding the tradition of independent cinema" (as the festival representative who introduced the screenings put it) by presenting new prints of films from the vaults of the Sundance Institute. Each of these films proved a discovery for me and and I relished the opportunity to see them on the big screen and to fill in some important gaps in my film education. More than that, though, they also offered the filmmakers a chance to reflect on their work and careers with the benefit of hindsight, as well as on how the industry has changed.
Indeed, "Poison," a touchstone of the New Queer Cinema movement, and "Metropolitan," a sharp-tongued comedy of manners set among Mannhattan's young "urban haute bourgeoisie," were watershed films for both Sundance and American independent cinema when they premiered at the festival in the early 1990s, a time when those two things were, arguably, synonymous. And "my how things have changed" seemed to be the prevailing sentiment at the Q&As following both screenings.
Watching "Poison" in the same theater ("with the same carpet" as Festival Director John Cooper joked during the Q&A) that it premiered in 20 years ago, felt like a throwback to a time when, as the film's producer James Schamus put it, "you could imagine a career that wasn't leading from here to the Golden Globes." According to Haynes, the biggest change watching the film at Sundance 2010 was seeing the slew of corporate sponsorship logos that now preceded it.
"I'm not sure if tarted up this way and improved this theater will make our film look good," said Whit Stillman introducing "Metropolitan," on screening his film in the renovated Egyptian Theatre and getting at the way that the festival had changed by commenting on the physical transformation the place had undergone. "Maybe we need the old, threadbare theater." Stillman dedicated the screening, appropriately, to "old fashioned film houses."
Vital, independent film making continues, of course, to be showcased at Sundance (I saw plenty of new work that excited me while here) but it has, as these veteran filmmakers described, been obscured by a glossier veneer. Viewing these older films at the festival that launched them and the careers of their directors 20 years ago was an invaluable chance to get a taste, then, of the "old Sundance"--one I never knew and, probably, romanticize. Still, these were the films that helped start the conversations that today's crop of independent filmmakers carry on today. In the case of "Poison," the wave of queer films it helped launch has, in the last decade, moved to the forefront of the independent cinema scene, while Stillman's witty, urbane comedies laid the groundwork for the cerebral, hyper-literate work of directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. We revisit these works because they remind us of where cinema has been and hint at where it's going. We also watch them because they're just damn good movies. "Wasn't that just great?" said the man sitting next to me as the lights went up following the mid-Monday screening of "Harold and Maude," and added, "I had never seen that one before." And it was just great.
As for the woman concerned about having her sensibility offended: I don't know if she was among the several who walked out of the screening of "Poison" I attended. It is, to be fair, a challenging film--a raw and fevered reworking of Jean Genet's writings for a post-HIV generation. I hope, however, that she stuck it out and discovered what I did: an almost painfully beautiful portrait of queer identity that feels as stunningly fresh as it must have in 1991. When the lights went down and the film began to roll, those 20 years collapsed. I felt the joy of discovery and, for a brief moment, it was 1991 all over again.
Editorial Assistant Andy Lauer is part of the indieWIRE team covering the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
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