It’s midnight and I’m doing my laundry with just enough time to pack a battered carry-on and catch an REM cycle before jetting out of Los Angeles on a crack-of-dawn flight to Park City. 12 hours ago –scratch that, 6 hours ago — I had no idea whether or not I’d go to Sundance this year.* I have no schedule, no plans; I didn’t buy tickets or even crack open their lushly laid-out program to obsess over the films — at most I’ve heard some titles in passing, Filly Brown and Simon Killer, and I’m personally looking forward to Stephen Frears’ Lay the Favorite and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. But I didn’t try to RSVP for any cool parties, compile a list of recession-flaunting gifting suites, hit up any friends for premiere tickets. Well, I am about to annoy a couple of publicist pals with midnight queries for tickets. (Still, they’re publicists at Sundance. Sleep’s a wouldn’t-it-be-nice theoretical proposition for them, like an LA subway system.) I don’t even know how I’m getting a ride out of the airport, though some girls on a wine-run may give me a lift. And all I can help thinking is: this is how you do Sundance.
It’s not how I did it last year. I had the flashy press pass for a glossy website that turned my inbox into a high-end spam stew of offers for beauty products, lists of celebrity appearances and links to red-carpet photo libraries. I meticulously researched and planned my itinerary, leaving not an iota of time for basic functions like eating or sleeping, let alone the festival’s notoriously slow shuttle system. Basically, I RSVP’d to anything that sounded even remotely like an open bar. Granted, I saw some great movies (Take Shelter and The Guard) raised my eyebrows at some crowd favorites (Martha May Marcy Marlene, Like Crazy) and slept through some “interesting ones” (sorry, Red State). But by the end, I was in a Stella-Artois-fueled haze of blogging madness that left me unsuitable for cinematic catharsis. My low point was wandering the halls of the Yarrow in search of a wifi signal, nearly running over Jason Reitman. Robert Redford would not be proud; that is not how you do Sundance.
Sundance is a victim of its own success; it’s supposed to be a frozen fortress of solitude for eclectic, indie film. The weather alone demands devotion; one must negotiate the black-ice sidewalks like medieval tests of faith straight out of The Last Crusade. However, like any institution, its success long ago imported Hollywood’s heat-seeking hierarchy of agents, film distributors and their very pretty hangers-on. They descend on hippy-dippy Park City and a wide-eyed flock of excited filmmakers in search of the Next Big Thing. Last year, apparently everything was The Next Big Thing, and indie distributors splurged buying a crop of films that didn’t turn much profit. But it’s the very definition of irony, because the entire ethos of Sundance is to see films that’s can’t or won’t guarantee a profit — the garage-band-esque passion projects, the weird labors of quirky love, the documentaries!
That’s what Sundance is about: swapping movie tips with a Midwestern couple on the shuttle; watching LA glitterbugs shiver in the cold waiting to get into after parties; hanging out with wide-eyed filmmakers as excited about the eclectic selection as their own films. (In fact, there’s nothing like going to Sundance for a friend’s film: the real reason I’m going is for my friend Michael Mohan’s Save the Date. I’m more partisan than a South Carolina Republican but I’ve seen it and loved it.) Sure, party when one can, but overall rejoice in the fact, that although the studio system may be in the grip of permanent paralysis as it gets dragged kicking and screaming into the Brave New Digital World, the filmmakers — the people who actually go out and put their lives, love and passion on the line — are still trying to give us something we haven’t seen before, films we’re not likely to see anywhere else. That’s what Sundance is about: a jazzy, occasionally enervating stream-of-consciousness encounter with cinema that wouldn’t otherwise be seen. Oh, and lots of free Stella.
*Okay, I confess, I did buy a plane ticket in advance; however, it was at such an embarrassingly low oh-my-god-how-can-I-be-this-lucky Internet fare that I was prepared to just eat it if events conspired to keep me in LA.