Sundance for the masses

See the Sundance Film Festival while you can. Like a mythic beast in its last spasms, the altruistic nature of the event is being suffocated by the influx of Hollywood and its beautiful ilk. But it still lives on, it’s still a blast, and it’s still accessible to the average movie-lover.

The festival grew out of workshops organized for filmmakers. The Sundance Institute included a competition to highlight less mainstream films.

Hollywood, however, comes to the festival with big bucks, looking to buy. They come in droves, and someday may drag the whole festival out to California, and then to sea. So go see it now, while some of the romanticism remains. It is still possible for the average, honest, movie-loving American to see films at the festival.

The films still, to a great extent, represent some of the best in independent cinema. It ranks as one of the more respected film festivals, with Toronto and Cannes, and so the films are generally of a high caliber.

Sundance has fostered great and popular films like “Hoop Dreams,” “Whale Rider,” “Garden State,” “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” and last year’s “Hustle and Flow.” Despite the prevalence of industry types, the Sundance Institute is certainly doing worthy work in its 25th year.

The heart of Sundance is Park City, Utah, where any large, available space has been converted to a screening room. Since the festival is in January, there is a rough, friendly equality between all the blue-toed, numb-nosed festival-goers. Celebrities came and tried to shed their fame, to walk with the people. These commoners normally left them alone, and were able to walk from film to film. Now, the celebrities take refuge from what they expect would be fawning fans (I expect they would be disappointed). The sponsors have rented out buildings and titled them “lounges” and “retreats,” for celebrities only. The great democratic festival is changing, so before it goes too far, this is how you should Sundance.

Wait-listing is the phrase on everyone’s lips. It’s supposed to work like this: show up an hour or two before the screening, and get in the line. The line is a chance to buy a ticket to an empty seat in the screening. The past few years that I have gone, this has been quite a viable option, and in 2004 I only failed to get into one or two films (one was the solidly sold-out “Motorcycle Diaries”).

This year was different. Not only were the lines for premieres out the door, but screenings for obscure documentaries and early screenings were packed too. Too many people, maybe, but the bigger problem is this: no matter how big you were, no matter how much money you had, if you weren’t in your seat half an hour before the show, tough cookies. This year, the festival gave in to the pass holders and stars, and they held their seats until after the film started. I waited more than four hours and failed to get into a film, and ended up staying in line for another four to see a mediocre star-studded gangster film.

Sundance has become a mixed bag, sure, but if ordinary people stop going out there to see the movies, the sinkhole will open up and swallow the whole shebang. The glamorous and glassy parts are not worth going for, so don’t expect much more than fool’s gold. If you go to see some films, meet some fun people, and have a laugh at how silly Scarlett Johanssen looks in her snow get-up, Sundance still offers the rich promise of the American West.

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