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Leaving Sundance 2010: Parting Thoughts

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It took me a couple of days to figure out the peculiarities of the pretzel-shaped shuttle-bus routes at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival -- and by the time I did, I was on a Delta cattle-car-in-the-sky back to New York.

At the end of a festival stay, the temptation is to make sweeping judgments and generalizations, but those are inevitably based on a tiny sampling of films. Even if you stayed the entire 10 days (a prospect that makes my eyes glaze over) and saw six films a day (ditto), you'd still see fewer than half the films that were on display.

Buzz? Buzz is meaningless, the efforts of pundits to spin public opinion. There was lots of talk about the film Blue Valentine before Sundance, based on a cast that was headed by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. But after people saw it, suddenly it no longer seemed like the hot-out-of-Sundance title it was touted to be.

By contrast, I hadn't heard a word about Catfish before the film played, other than from the publicist who was urging me to see it. But 24 hours later, it seemed to be the one film everyone either loved or was dying to see.

The festival's theme this year was rebellion, with Robert Redford himself saying the festival needed to get back to its roots. What nobody seemed to talk about were two very salient facts: first, that the roots of Sundance were acres of granola-flavored films about people in small towns or women in crisis or something that was equally high-minded but was consistently bemoaned as not being particularly commercial. And second, that while it's nice to champion those films, the audience for them seems to be shrinking, not growing.

The roots? That's where you get the pejorative term "a Sundance film," not to be confused with "a festival film." A festival film is something that lights sparks within the highly flammable atmosphere of a festival but which can't translate that combustion to actual audience appeal in the real world.

A Sundance film used to mean the same thing, except with a heaping dose of self-righteousness and/or social conscience. Then something happened: specifically, sex, lies, & videotape. The 1989 title showed that independent films didn't have to be dull and well-meaning. They could be smart, sexy -- and have audience appeal.

So I interpreted all the "back to the roots" talk as an effort to rediscover that pre-sex, lies sensibility: before Miramax and the other long-gone indy labels blew independent film up into something more goal-oriented, before independent stopped being a state-of-mind and became just another commercial category.

This article continues on my website.