In the way that the first robin can be a harbinger of spring, so the arrival of the season's first swag tells us that Sundance is just around the corner. Mine came 10 days ago. It was an invitation to one of the many lounges of Sundance. But the invitation, in and of itself, would have been just an invitation, had it not been accompanied by a gift, by a piece of pre-swag: thank you for receiving this invitation! The gift in this case was a chewy crunchy bar. [I. Eat. Your. Crunch. Bar. (Slurp!) I eat it up!]
The Tao of Swag is that anyone who wants it, shouldn't get it; that anyone who needs it would just defile it. (Then it wouldn't be swag, would it?). Swag only goes to those with no desire for it. And to induce you to further swag, here's a small gift, a token, if you will, of our generosity. We'd so much like it if you considered taking our free gifts first -- before accepting those other, lesser free gifts.
The fact that art paves the way for commerce is not something new. Anyone who's ever lived in what was at that time a dead, funky downtown knows that one. (As an old friend used to say, artists are to realtors as missionaries are to slave traders.) Museums these days are but front end to gift shops. (Churches, too: have you been to the new one downtown?)
But the typical art-opens-the-door-and-Hummers-drive-through operates in a different way at Sundance. Because here, the point isn't to get the celebs to buy. The point is to get them to accept. And festivals are ultimate sorting boxes: efficient machines for separating Elect from Preterite. If you're chosen, you will be gifted; if you are not chosen, you will leave this world as you entered it. Think of Brecht's holy city of Mahagonny, but with snow-capped peaks, and Ugg boots.
In one of the Sundance films I wrote, August, a character gives out gifts to celebrate the success of his dot-com start-up. Not just any gifts: that would be crass. But Buddhas. The gift of enlightenment. Even then, though, there's an A-list Buddha (large) and a B-list Buddha (not so large). Because even enlightenment doesn't really work unless it comes in at least two sizes, one for the very special clients, one for the rest of us. The true purpose of swag is to make you wonder whether, just down the street, someone else isn't getting better swag, at a swag suite just a bit too exclusive for you to gain admittance to.
But to every thing there is a season. Just as summer follows spring, soon, after Sundance, after the Grammys, after the Oscars, we just might enter a season when all of us, including the most special and wonderful and talented and astonishing of us, will have, in small ways, to fend for themselves. As Bob Dylan didn't quite say, "Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to pay retail."
Revised and expanded from the Los Angeles Times.