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The Best Film Fest in the West

By Craig Froehlich

PARK CITY, UTAH: Where the world comes to see the latest in independent film and out-of-town snowboarders come to die.

Grab your black turtleneck and hone your chopsticking skills, because it’s Sundance Film Festival time! Thanks to the celebrated independent film festival, there is no place to park in Park City, Utah at the end of January. However, the mining-turned-resort town and the festival share more than just hype, traffic snarls and an over-burdened infrastructure. They also share the same independent spirit.

Long ago, the silver mining berg we call Park City became known for its bad lighting, no-name miners and the esoteric dialogue heard at local dining lodges. “When someone wanted to know where in Utah you could hear the coming-of-age story of two gay Brazilian teens back-packing across the Western United States, all they had to do was mosey in here and listen to one of Jeb Cooter’s yarns over a plate of hash and biscuits,” said octogenarian and Park City native Uriah Heap. “He’s been optioned to IFC Films, may he rest in peace.”

The festival, once called the Utah/US Film Festival, started at Utah’s lower altitudes. It was hoped that by moving the festival to wintertime at a ski-resort town, one could watch Roger Ebert slip and fall on an icy sidewalk or, perhaps, the change would attract Hollywood types with a taste for Winter sports. You’ll know they made the right decision when you see a movie star swishing to a stop on custom-made skis, tossing his or her scarf across his or her shoulder and announcing, “Dah-ling! I have never felt more wonderful! Come kiss me.”

What purpose does the Sundance Film Festival serve? Why, it’s the only place money-strapped independent film backers such as Fox Searchlight and Miramax can hope to discover affordable but well-made films.

In turn, aspiring directors and actors are given a chance to display their work in an arena untainted by the evil, uncreative behemoths of corporate film. In reality, most filmmakers long for a good tainting and all want to win a festival award, even the one picked by the audience. (Disdain for the audience begins early in a film career.)
Because the films at Sundance are all made by earnest and committed filmmakers, each having weathered a highly competitive selection process, everyone who screens a movie is considered a winner. It’s as if they were retarded.

“But I want to dress up my Chihuahua and sashay around town, too!” You can. Sundance is devoid of the pretensions and exclusivity of other festivals. Any moron can get a ticket, and they do so in droves. This is where the “I wasn’t born in Utah” T-shirt comes in handy.

Mingling with out-of-town professionals are the star-struck yokels often seen standing at their seats, facing the rear of the theater, waiting in vain to have their pitiful lives validated by the sight of a second-tier star. “Omigod, is that Calista Flockhart, she’s sitting ten rows behind me!? Omigod, doesn’t that lady play Janice in ‘The Sopranos?’ Is that a latté? I drank a latté once! Omigod! Omigod!” In the off chance that they spot Paris Hilton or Billy Bob Thornton, heart defibrillators are available in the lobby for a nominal fee.

Dreams become reality at Sundance…“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten either said this at the end of the Sex Pistols’ disastrous 1978 US tour or while leaving the theatre after watching the “Blair Witch Project.”

The maestros behind 1999’s surprise smash horror hit played Sundance like a presumably easy to play musical instrument ( i.e. a kazoo). Innovative use of both electronic and word-of-mouth promotion created such a stir that “Blair Witch” became the must-see movie of Sundance. The film quickly found a buyer and eventually took in $250 million. It became the ultimate Sundance success story. It was quite a feat for “the little movie that sucked.”
“Blair Witch” was innovative because all of the film’s protagonists were such loathsome little pricks that the average viewer couldn’t wait for their inevitable demise to come to fruition. “My favorite character was that whiny bitch,” gushed a Sundance attendee. “I only wish her death had been more graphic, maybe a nice and bloody evisceration.”

The off-camera deaths didn’t make people sick, but the camerawork sure did. The filmmakers shunned steady-cams and choreographed scenes and simply strapped a flashlight to a three-year-old’s head and had him run around a wooded area with a video camera/toy wagon combo.

Did I mention they spoon-fed the three-year-old sugar? Absolute genius.

The camera technique made “Blair Witch” more realistic because when we pay eight bucks for a movie, we want to see something filmed with the same technical ability that a drunken uncle at a rained-out barbecue is capable of. Sure, it was definitely a “must see…” picture, but they forgot to complete that sentence: “…if you want other people’s opinions to lack credibility the next time you plan a night out at the movies.”

See the future of film, today, at Sundance. Well, that is certainly a depressing thought. How about next week after the crowds die down?

The first real breakout hit from Sundance was “sex, lies and videotape.” Imagine if all movies today were like that self-indulgent exercise in video-conferencing. Why, I’d probably spend my time being creative and paying reasonable amounts of money for popcorn.

Imagine this scenario: It’s 1989. You’re a newly pubescent boy and you have a chance to see a movie called “sex, lies and videotape.” Is it unfair to expect a couple things from the title—namely “sex” and “videotape” in a titillating variety of combinations? Instead it only delivers the “lies.” Please show me just one boob, for God’s sake. Erotic? You must think Barbara Walters specials are downright pornographic.
If I had kept in mind that Steven Soderbergh was responsible for this movie and not just “Traffic,” I would’ve never bothered to rent “Solaris.”

But I digress. The 2006 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19 through January 29 in Park City, Utah. Tell Paris I said hi. She knows a little bit about low-budget movies, I think.

craig [at]


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