Sundance Film Festival Final Post

by Sonja Flores

The Sundance experience was incredible but odd. There were plenty of stars there, but unlike during past festivals, trying to talk with them was difficult. Also, getting into some of the events was impossible unless you had a special pass, knew a celebrity, or knew someone in the film business. I walked up and down Main Street to see which ones I could get into and there were many that I couldn’t. One of my classmates waited outside in the cold for an hour to be let into a club she’d RSVP’d to, only to be turned away in favor of the press. There was a clear class divide at the festival. The elitism even affected who could get into the films! I was lucky in that I didn’t get turned away from any films because of this, but I have heard of people who have been; even ticket holders. If the films featured A-list actors, it was the first weekend of the festival, and the Sundance staff had to choose between letting in the press and the ticket holders, guess who won out? The festival’s evolution had gone from it being independent in every way, to co-existing between its egalitarian side and its elitist side. When the festival first began, Hollywood wasn’t interested in Sundance at all and it had no corporate sponsors; the festival’s focus was making sure that indie filmmakers had a chance to show their art and get their films picked up. While the festival’s focus is still that, it’s also working to make sure that the films get enough press attention and that the festival keeps its sponsors. While this contrasts to the spirit of the festival, appealing to the press and sponsors is understandable, since sponsors are one of the reasons that the festival can continue, and the press makes it possible for phenomenal films to be picked up and distributed.

Some of the films that are shown at Sundance deal with subject matter which mainstream films won’t ever consider dealing with, so independent films at Sundance need the buzz from the press to have good chance of being picked up. Some of topics that independent films deal with are mental and physical health, grief, and technology addiction; these aren’t topics that mainstream films want their stories to revolve around. One reason being that mainstream U.S films get a majority of their profit from the foreign market, and so want films that will appeal to a large audience. Film studios whose goal is to make the biggest profit they can, won’t want to pick up films which they believe won’t appeal to a broad audience. Luckily, since the Sundance Film Festival has become an incredible success, for a lot of the films that make it to festival, there’s a good chance that they will see release; either in theatres or through Netflix. One film which was picked up the second day of the festival was “Whiplash”. This film dealt with a young musician, Neil’s, self-destructive ambition to become a phenomenal drummer. His abusive professor at his college exacerbates his obsession, to the point he plays until his hands bleed and he eventually gets into a violent car accident. “Whiplash” was a film that forced the audience to question the effects of blindingly and ruthlessly following your dream. It completely ensnared you with its intensity; I felt like someone had thrown me in a blender and pressed ‘on’ for an hour and a half.

While “Whiplash” is an independent film in regards to the amount of actors that were in it and the extremely individualized story line (no friend character is introduced to show Neil’s jovial side and the female character who Neil initiates a relationship with is gone early on from the film because of Neil breaking it off), the film dealt with the theme of someone trying to, even to the point of risking his own health, achieve his dream. The idea of the American Dream is portrayed as one of the U.S’s attainable goals which require hard work, but in no way portray the pursuit of the Dream to the public as something to sacrifice their health for. “Whiplash” portrayed the dark side of sacrificing in pursuit of your dream, questioning if people can go too far in the pursuit of their happiness.

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Sundance and Independent Film

​Sundance first appeared in September during the year 1978 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The founders: Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle, and Cirina Hampton created the film festival with three primary purposes. The first being to draw the attention of important people from the film industry, the second was to enrich public appreciation of film by introducing panels of people who make up the film industry to talk about the films and their processes, and the third reason for the film festival was to create a competition between the mainstream films and independent films. From the very beginning Sundance had the vision of bringing together Hollywood and the independents, as Lory Smith states in his book A Party in a Box:
​“For the independents, Hollywood could provide financing, technical, and ​marketing expertise, casting options, and worldwide distribution ​capabilities. The independents could teach Hollywood about passion, ​efficiency, cleverness, and how to open up a new world of film subjects, all ​the while absorbing most of the financial risk”

This ideal continues to saturate the experience of the Sundance Film Festival; its prestigious reputation makes it the most important marketplace for filmmakers looking to sell and buyers looking to buy. While Sundance remains to be the portal for independents to Hollywood it has however, lost its grassroots charm for the general audience. It began as an ultra-indie, donor-funded project that turned into what seems like a corporate partnership. It was the overwhelming marketing of sponsors, and it felt very commercial. Even Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford would agree with me. In an interview for The Hollywood Reporter he claims:
​“But those earlier years felt best. [Corporate and marketing forces] are ​taking away some of the textures and qualities that were here that gave it ​a kind of intimacy. It’s no longer the place it was. I don’t like what’s ​happened”.

This new corporate look also added to the dynamics of the crowd at Sundance. There was an elitist quality in the air with a sense of competitive credibility. And as someone who went purely for my love of film, I was beginning to feel like a very small fish in a very big pond. However, I clung to the notion that I along with the Hollywood big wigs and the aspiring if not already established industry workers were all tied together by a shared passion for independent films.
​Enough about the vibe, let’s talk about the platform. Sundance as a showcase of independent film is quite remarkable in size and efficiency. In Park City alone there are nine different theatre venues and a total of 14 screens that play films from 8:30 in the morning to 2:00 the next morning. The ticket process is on a first come first serve basis and the eWaitlist works at random when the names of those who have entered are pooled and distributed numbers randomly. This egalitarian way of doing things creates for a more diverse crowd and even more interesting Q and A afterwards. Another great component to the Sundance platform for independent film is the Filmmakers Lodge where they host panels of professionals from all sorts of avenues involved with film—they are highly informative and comfortably intimate. The only downfall I noticed was the distant between the audience and filmmakers, it seemed as if after every Q and A the directors, actors, etc. were being rushed away to what I imagine are the press tents. Which seems to be forcing a wedge in-between what once was a beautifully constructed community built on a love for film and turning it more into a circus sideshow than learning process. This however, did not reflect the independents films themselves or the creative minds behind them. I walked out of all 21 films awe-struck by the amount of originality and authenticity portrayed on screen. Independent film as an art form still holds the highest potential (for me at least) in teaching the viewer something. I left Sundance with 21 new lessons learned that I did not have to make a mistake to get. The most powerful connection I as a viewer has is my humanity and watching the screen as the characters reconstruct that for me does not compare to any other art induced experience.
​Where there is, there is always room for improvement, so, although Sundance may have its weaknesses I am grateful for its existence as it continues to display and assist in the release of some of the best films I have ever seen. And as long as Sundance exists, independent film will continue to thrive as a powerful art form. May they both continue to live happily ever after.

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Final Thoughts of Sundance

When the Sundance Film Festival began it was meant to be a place for independent filmmakers to showcase their films. Since then, it has become a place for independent filmmakers to get the chance to have their films picked up by larger distributors and possibly compete against the Hollywood films that dominate mainstream cinema. On the whole, I thought that the films at Sundance epitomized the anti-Hollywood nature of independent cinema, but the festival itself held much to be desired in terms of its split-natured culture and pseudo-Hollywood elitism. I definitely was aware of how little I mattered to the festival, with the multitude of VIP parties I had no chance of getting into, or the bus system that was designed for us plebian movie-watching folk rather than the patricians of the more successful films who rode around in shaded limos and towncars. It was really nice that the celebrities who did attend would stop and take pictures with their fans, however I found that the lesser known movie people were much more willing to talk about their film. I got to take a picture with Elijiah Wood, which was ridiculously cool, but he didn’t actually seem willing to talk to me beyond how long it took a picture. On the other hand, I had the opportunity to speak with Brandon Bell about not only his film but its likelihood of getting distributed, his acting career, and how he was enjoying the festival. Because he was a lesser known person, he was way more interested in talking to a fan and getting more people talking about his movie. In terms of Sundance elitism, he was a little bit higher on the scale than I was, but neither of us was even in the same playing field as Elijiah Wood, who is a total A-lister.

Despite how negative that introduction might sound, I still really enjoyed Sundance and getting the chance to mingle with people from across the country, as well as listening to the director’s Q&As at the end of almost every film. It was more than just an experience in celebrity – it was so interesting to get to learn about why volunteers would give up their time in the twelve degree weather to just usher people into and out of movie theaters and around bus stops. Far from begrudging the cold, the volunteers were the most informational and helpful people around, plus they were ridiculously happy almost all the time. It was surprising how many volunteers there were at the festival. Obviously volunteers are helpful, but the books barely give an insight into the full role of what the people who actually work the festival are doing. The books are concentrated on the history and the movies that made the biggest impact on the progression of the festival, but the volunteers made up the heart of the independent movie festival for me. They were all people who cared so much about getting the chance to be at the festival, even if it wasn’t just to be there to watch movies. They wanted to be a part of the experience for people who were going to just watch movies as well. To me, the volunteers really represented the independent nature of Sundance; they were willing to give up time in the cold to do what they loved.

I would highly recommend Sundance to anyone interested in films, and not just to those specifically interested in the independent genre. The films ranged from the truly independent to the not-so-independent, but there were a wide variety that I feel like could appeal to any kind of audience. The main point of most of these films is that the actors and the directors are new and they bring fresh perspectives to their art. It isn’t just the expectation of going to see this actor or that director – there is the anticipation of not knowing what you’re going to get that really makes Sundance special. With such a large variety of filmmakers and films all brought together in one place, everyone is bound to find something that appeals to them, or multiple somethings. I didn’t get the chance to watch every film, but I did get a good understanding of the film genre pool that applied specifically to me. The beauty of Sundance is that there are so many varieties of genres all under the larger category of independent, so even if someone wasn’t fond of the label “independent” it is still possible to enjoy their independent film festival experience.

Dear White People was definitely one of the funniest films I had the chance to see at Sundance. In his introduction, director and writer Justin Simien set the light-hearted tone for the film, encouraging the white people in the audience to feel free to laugh along with the black. This film had the potential to be a huge disaster if left in the wrong hands, but the mixture of irreverence and sincerity that Simien displayed left no doubt that, while a serious matter, he wanted his audience to feel comfortable laughing at the characters and their situation.

 

This film follows the ongoing revolution of Samantha White, a black student with a radio show entitled “Dear White People,” where she addresses the constant state of being wronged that black students must endure on their mostly white campus. While she is insistent in keeping black culture pure at the black house that she lives in on-campus, she is faced with the pressures of the white authority figures who are trying to force more integration throughout the houses between students of different races. Meanwhile, a younger black student named Lionel is trying to deal with being gay and black in the white alpha-dog house on campus, and black prodigy Troy is dealing with the pressure from being the black poster boy for his father, dean of students, when all he wants to do is get high and write jokes in the bathroom. The film culminates in a riot at a party that the white house throws where students are encouraged to come in blackface and get their “purple drank on.” It’s a funny and enlightening film because it really does reflect how minority students are treated at white colleges, tackling the subject of racism that is still prevalent in even today’s culture. The credits of the film even featured article clippings from cases where colleges actually had blackface or brownface parties, where students would dress up in the most exaggerated stereotype of a minority they could think of.

This film had a couple of B-list actors that I recognize from smaller works, but no really major actors. The main characters are technically people on the fringe because they are black students attending a predominantly white institution, but they are still attending college which is an opportunity not a lot of people have. It was a very stylized film that contained highly stylized shots and edits done to pull it together and I think it could appeal to a lot of people who watch the film. For these reasons I would give it a three or a four on the independent film scale.

 

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Me with one of the stars of Dear White People!
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My Final Thoughts on Sundance 2014

       In participating in the Sundance Film Festival class we learned a lot about the festival before attending. I had not consciously watched independent films before taking this course. By saying this I mean that I had watched indie films before, but I either didn’t realize they were independent or I didn’t know what made them so. By watching independent films and reading about the history of the festival, it became clearer what aspects of myth were involved in creating an indie film. This also helped me understand what to expect when attending the festival to an extent, but of course there were still some films that were even more “indie” than I was expecting.

            Now, before attending the festival we learned about myth, and explored the different myths in the 12 independent films we watched prior to the festival. I explored the American Dream as myth through many of these films, and personally noticed there were a lot of spiritual and sexual elements in a lot of the independent films we watched. This was also true for the films I saw at Sundance 2014. For example, Blue Ruin was a movie about revenge but the main character, Dwight, was not the typical protagonist in a revenge flick. It was difficult to know whether you as the audience should root for him or not because his actions were not completely morally right or wrong. The more the film unfolds, the clearer his personal myth becomes.

            Something I found interesting was that I enjoyed the documentary films at the festival more than the ones I watched before class. I’m not saying any of them were bad films, but I mean that the presentation was different. At the festival I saw The Overnighters, Case Against 8, Lambert and Stamp, and The Battered Bastards of Baseball. All four of these films felt more like narrative films rather than the “play-by-play” timeline format many documentaries follow. I felt these films embodied what it means to be an indie film because they were stories about people who were somewhat alone in what they pursued. By this I mean, they didn’t follow the mainstream way of living or thinking, and had to struggle to achieve their ultimate goal. All of these films showed strong people who fought hard for what they wanted, but not all of them necessarily achieved their objective. Not resulting in a cookie-cutter happy ending is also the hallmark of an independent film, because they often illustrate that life can be cruel and not always fair.

            On a different note, there seemed to be a lot of events that were difficult for everyday people to get into (like ourselves). There were private parties and events going on during the festival, and this gave Sundance a “Hollywood” feel than it’s supposed to have. The whole point of Sundance, as mentioned in Smith’s book multiple times, is to get away from this Hollywood sense of exclusion. The Hollywood environment is very much centered around the elite groups and keeping people out because it’s focused on the business side of things. Sundance is supposed to be about the art form, telling the stories that are important for people to know, and helping the artists that need help. The exclusive parties and turning away ticket holders from movies in order to let in a group of publicity people is very much against what Sundance is about.

            That would be my biggest issue with what I saw at Sundance. The films themselves felt more independent than mainstream. I saw a number of films with A and B-list actors which would tend to scream “mainstream!” in some cases, but I felt these films were indeed indie. I saw actors like John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Dan Stevens, Michael C. Hall, and Anne Hathaway in films I would have never expected them to be in. These actors played roles that opened them up on screen and made them appear raw and vulnerable to the audience in ways I haven’t seen before or in a long time. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange played a gay couple that gets married, and in this film were characters that were gentle, smart, but very average people at the end of the day. Usually I see them playing very cunning men with an agenda as a protagonist or antagonist. In this film they were just every day men in love, and it was quite refreshing.

The Girl from Nagasaki

Michel Comte, Ayako Yoshida

Michel Comte, Anne-Marie Mackay, Ayako Yoshida

            The film The Girl from Nagasaki is a retelling of the opera Madame Butterfly. It shows Colonel Pinkerton talking to Madame Butterfly’s old maid and friend, Suzuki, when they are both very old and Madame Butterfly is already dead. The story flashes back, illustrating to the audience when Butterfly and Pinkerton fell in love, made love, and Butterfly is left alone giving birth to their child. Pinkerton claims to return, but never does. We find out he had a wife in the United States, who is also pregnant. Butterfly goes to several different people for help, but to no avail. Eventually she dies of a broken heart, and I felt it was implied she committed suicide in this retelling.

            In this film version, the narrative elements are shown amongst pieces of modern dance, classic opera images on a stage with Japanese costumes, and modern expressionistic elements using altered Japanese costumes. Due to the modern and expressionistic elements that are left to the audience to interpret I would say this film is very independent (8 or a 9 on a scale of 1-10). It didn’t seem to have a small budget, but then again not a large one either. Ayako Yoshida was part of the filmmaking process as well as a supporting actress, stated in the Q and A that she and her costume designer were sewing and painting untraditional kimonos days before production because their original costumes never came. The painted costumes in the movie gave the film a very indie feel, and most of the costumes were very symbolic of Japanese traditions (although they may not have been clear to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture).

            The images of women coming down from cocoons to the floor, covered in blood and bound with plastic and strings of fabric were extremely symbolic to the female culture of Japan. The oppression and limitations of women was a prevalent theme in this movie, but was never said outright in the film. It is because of this and the modern elements I felt the film was very independent. The story of Butterfly and being a woman in Japan was the mythical focus of this film. Being a woman in this film meant heavily relying on a man’s proposal, especially a man from America. Carrying his child meant taking his word that he would return because there is nothing else a woman could do if she had already been sexually intimate with a man. She would have been “spoiled goods” and therefore could not be married off to anyone else. Illustrating the struggles of being a woman in the Japanese culture was extremely prevalent in this film, and was made clear through the classic narrative as well as the expressive artistic pieces within the film.

 

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Doing Sundance 2014

While at Sundance I have learned that Independent means much more than low budget films with story lines that are far from mainstream; Independent films allow for a playing field where anything goes and the writers, directors, and actors have the freedom to create works of art that many be very different than they normally create. It also gives the novice in the film industry the opportunity to show case their work for the first time and gives them the opportunity to be seen by many who are passionate about film. The Sundance Film Festival encompasses all these aspect of independent film and much more.

Before leaving for this trip, we were assigned movies to watch and books to read in order to prepare us for all that is Sundance, which was very helpful. But reading about something in a book and seeing picture is very different than experiencing something for yourself up close and personal. The Sundance Film Festival surpassed all my expectations, and it is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lives, for those who want to go into the film industry, to those who love to watch films in their past time.

Sundance showcases a wide range of films from vampires and zombies to thought provoking documentaries. When asked by our professor which film I would give the Grand Jury Prize, which is the highest award given to a film at the festival, I had a very hard time deciding because there were so many fantastic films at Sundance both documentaries and narratives. There were many narrative films I loved at Sundance, which was not a huge surprise to me because Sundance has the reputation for showcasing amazing films. Though I was pleasantly surprised that some of the best films I watch at Sundance were documentaries. Normally when I think of documentaries what comes to mind is Morgan Freeman’s voice telling us a particular set of facts, whether it be about the life of a former President of the United States or the great plains of Africa. The documentaries at Sundance were like none I have ever seem before, they left me thinking and talking about them long after they were over and their message will stay with me forever. I feel one could attend Sundance for the documentaries alone and be fully content with the experience, but for the full Sundance experience you must see both narratives and documentaries for the full spectrum of independent film.

One particular aspect of Sundance that made the experience special for me was the question and answer sessions they had at the end of most films. This normally consisted of the director/writer of the film, the cast and occasionally members of the crew. They would then answer any questions the audience may have about how the storyline for the film came about, their inspiration for writing the film, or specific questions for the actors or song writers. This question and answer period gave you the opportunity to see the film through the eyes of those who worked so hard to create it.

The atmosphere at Sundance is like nothing I have ever experienced and there is no one word that can be used to describe it. There is no place where you can be an ordinary college student watching the premiere of a movie all while sitting next to your favorite person in the film industry, whether it be a famous actor or director, or the songwriter to your favorite film. I think one thing that makes Sundance different from anything else I have experienced, is that everyone is passionate about film or some aspect of film, and being in an environment where everyone shares a common interest makes for a place where most everyone is friendly and open to meeting new people.

I will look back on my experience at Sundance with fond memories, not only of the films I saw, but the opportunity to share the experience with a great group of people I may not have had the pleasure of meeting otherwise. I hope to visit Sundance again some time in the near future to experience independent film in a way that can only be experienced at Sundance.

 Song One: Film Review

            One film in particular that spoke to me was a film entitled Song One, written and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland, staring Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn. Song One tells the story of Franny, who has been in Morocco researching for her PhD in anthropology, when she finds out that her college drop out turned would be musician brother has been in an accident and is in a coma. Franny travels home to be by her brother’s side and soon finds herself immersed in the New York music scene her brother wishes to be apart of. It is by chance that Franny finds a ticket to her brother’s hero, fellow musician and songwriter James Foster. Franny and James find themselves in a relationship shaped by love and grief, hopeful that her brother will wake again.

Not only was Song One a fantastic film and one of my top favorite films at Sundance, if not in my personal top five favorite films of all time, it was a great drama that shows you the importance of being present in life and not just an observer who watches life go by. The sound track for this film was fantastic. All the songs featured in the film were written for the film and sung by Johnny Flynn. This film was very mainstream, not only did it have big named actors, but in my opinion it would do very well if it hit theaters, which I believe will happen some time in the very near future. I would say on a scale of 1 being very mainstream to 10 being very independent, Song One would be a 3. Though it did have some mainstream actors, Johnny Flynn is not an actor that is widely known in the film industry and Song One was his big film debut. Song One was also Kate Barker-Froyland first feature film, which was not evident by the quality of the film.

The mythic aspect of this film lies in Franny’s discovery of her brother’s world of music. Before the accident Franny has no faith in her brother’s hope to become a musician, but as the film progresses you see Franny’s eyes open as she grows to respect her brother’s dream. She becomes apart of the mythic world surrounding music and songwriting, and grows to have an appreciation for the natural sounds created by our everyday hustle and bustle.

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Unglamorously Realistic

At the start of January I had no idea what was in store for me at the Sundance Film Festival, and now looking back on it all I wish that I could go back and experience it all over again.  Bright eyed and eager we landed in Park City, all of us with a general/textbook understanding of independent film and the origins of the festival.  In a months time my entire outlook on this subset of the film industry has changed. I was able to experience the varying levels of independent film making, and I was able to hear the directors speak of the different ways he/she stayed low budget and true to their story. Sundance is refreshing in the sense that it is a creative outlet for films that may not be “well received” by the general public, and it gives these films a somewhat open-minded audience.   For example the film I saw, The Foxy Merkins, is the story of a newly hooking lesbian who picks up work outside Talbots all the while being both overweight and asthmatic.  This movie is clearly not mainstream, its audience is very specific and yet out of the 4,057 submissions it was selected.  Independent film is not categorized simply because of budget, it is also due to its content/nature.  In my little skewed perception I would say that independent films are much more real.  I know that real is a broad term, I mean real in the sense that what I am watching on the screen mimics/or is real life.  As unglamorous and unfabulous our every day lives are, to me being able to personally relate to what I am watching sucks me in. I jokingly always tell my friends that “life is not all unicorns and rainbows,” what I mean by this is that not everyone pops out of bed in the morning with perfect hair, teeth, outfit, face, and so on and so forth.  Children have unrealistic expectations of their hair and bodies because of Barbie and Disney Princesses, and after going to the Sundance Film Festival you are able to see that there are movies that capture the imperfections of real life.  I love the imperfectness of it all.  Yes, I am aware that this may sound completely corny and cliché but that is a risk that I am willing to take.

The media has an immense impact on every industry, and this fact becomes painfully obvious at the festival.  The press have their own badges and they are allowed into movies before ticket holders, which to me signifies that both big bucks and public influence can get you farther in this festival than just being a passionate movie goer. The passionate movie goer is not on equal footing with the movie critique for The New York Times, although this shows the importance that society puts on the media it also goes against what independent film stands for.  How can one stay true to their art form and audience when they are trying to appease the masses? The answer is that they cannot.  This is why people gravitate towards the big box office hits like Twilight it is a known quantity, the book series was bestselling and it already had a major following.  This right here, plus the added bonus of having a big budget is the recipe for a box office smash.  These are not the movies showcased at Sundance, although some of the actors may be the same, the feel of it all is completely different. Sundance created an outlet for actors and directors to showcase their creative freedom, a freedom that is experienced when less people are breathing down your neck.  This year at the festival Ryan Reynolds, the Green Lantern himself, played a mentally deranged serial killer who speaks to the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders but in the form of his cat and dog.  This is a far cry from the super hero that has super powers bestowed on him from his super lantern, it is much less “super” and much more real.  With that being said, my experience at the Sundance Film Festival was incredibly inspiring, not just artistically, but also in demonstrating the importance of staying true to oneself.

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The Foxy Merkins

Director/Writer: Madeleine Olnek

Writer: Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan

The film is centered on Margaret, played by Lisa Haas, who is an overweight, asthmatic, new to Manhattan, and new to the world of hooking.  Jo, a seasoned lesbian hooker, helps Margaret find her footing in the industry.  The film showcases their adventures on the streets of New York servicing the needs of the closet lesbian socialites and their budding friendship.  In comparison to the films I have seen, both at the festival and prior to it, I would say that this film would be a 9.5 on the mainstream vs. independent spectrum.  The film was not only extremely low budget, but it also focused on a subject matter that isn’t touched on a lot in mainstream media.  It pays tribute to and also pokes fun at the iconic male “hustler” films. Margaret as a character is a mythic characteristic of the movie, she is the complete opposite of the vision that pops into your mind when the word hooker is muttered; she is short, unconfident, overweight, pale, inexperienced, homeless, and the list continues. We all have a very specific view of hookers, because of television and movies, but never before has Margaret been the hooking standard.  This is where we can see some of the stabs at male hustler films, the men are always hard bodied and overly confident in their abilities, think of the movie Magic Mike.  When comparing a movie like Magic Mike and The Foxy Merkins, you can see absolutely no parallels.  This is because The Foxy Merkins has the “real” element, hookers are not all Barbie dolls! They are people that are either doing it for the money, like Margaret, or they are doing it to escape their reality, like Jo.  Either way, this independent film shows a more realistic view of the lesbian-hooking scene, showing the unglamorous side to the profession.

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Sundance 2014 – A Conversation

This first independent film I ever watched was Thirteen.  I was in middle school when it came out and secretly watched it on my dad’s old laptop.  After watching it, I had a lot of questions.  More than anything, I wanted to talk about the story and characters I had just seen.  Considering my friends were still into Disney movies and my parents had no idea that I had just pirated an independent film, I was left to keep my thoughts and ideas about Thirteen locked up in my head.  Conversation and discussion would have definitely helped me break down this film.  But at age twelve, I had no idea what independent film was.  I dedicated my life to Harry Potter and that covered me in both literature and film.  To me, Sundance was the name of the catalogue of expensive jewelry and clothes my mom subscribed to but never ordered.  I was so naive to this world.

Through this Jan Term class, I have discovered that the power of independent film comes from conversation.  When audience members discuss a film with their peers, they are helping market that film.  Conversation fuels movie’s build up or hype.  Whiplash had buzz before Sundance even started.  Once we were a few days into the festival, I was told Boyhood and Hellion were must-sees.  Even within our class, we talked about our favorite films we had seen.   There was plenty of time to talk about what was going on in the world when returned home – we dedicated our time to the movies when at Sundance. 

The Q&A sessions gave directors, cinematographers, producers, and actors a chance to provide answers or elaboration to the film they worked on.  These key players are open for discussion regarding their work.  At the Q&A for Happy Christmas, I learned that their script was merely an outline.  Director Joe Swanberg wrote a paragraph summary for each scene and managed to squeeze it into twelve pages.  The rest of the dialogue was improvised by the actors.  For Ping Pong Summer, director Michael Tully explained how he wanted to create a movie that appeared to be from the 80’s.  Instead of making a movie that mocked this decade, his aim was to create a film that would serve as an time-piece or artifact.  Dan Cohen, a social worker featured in Alive Inside, revealed the progression of his project.  While the documentary ends promising change, Dan Cohen elaborated on the success of his social program.  These little factual add-on’s are not necessary to understand these films.  Instead, the Q&A sessions help viewers gain access to where the actors, directors, and producers are coming from.  These ten minute sessions are far from interviews – instead, they are like flowing conversations, with the film evolving in front of both the key players and the audience members.  The audience is given power to applaud, attack, or critique the film and the key players are given power to explain or rebuttal.

I found myself chatting with strangers more than ever at Sundance.  I was bold and unafraid to invade conversations about The Sleepwalker on the Theater Loop bus.  I reflected upon the real-life aftermath of the events depicted in Fruitvale with a techie from Austin, Texas while in the ticket-holder line for Whiplash.  I was outgoing and friendly when I had to squeeze myself between waitlister #123 and waitlister #121 .  For the record, waitlister #123 was a kind woman named Carol who was missing her son’s winter formal to be at the festival.  Waitlister #121 was a hipster named Dan who had a YouTube channel featuring comedic videos of people with cancer.  I would not know these little details from these strangers’ lives had I not introduced myself and initiated conversation.  Talking about movies, life, and everything in between made two things that would seem tedious in everyday life extremely enjoyable.  Public transportation and long lines usually turn people off but I looked forward to the people I would meet and the conversations we would have.  

Sundance is a conversation.  Is it cliché to say that these films speak to you?  Most definitely.  I will be even more metaphorical to describe the festival as a giant coffee shop (not Starbucks.  That is too corporate.  Maybe a Peet’s coffee or a mom-and-pop shop.)  At Sundance, everyone meets up to discuss what they want to see and what they’ve seen.  Actors and directors are given a chance to talk to their audiences.  While the audience views the Q&A sessions as a chance to tap into the director’s mind, the director looks at it as a chance to figure out what his or her viewers are thinking.  We are given elaboration and they are given feedback.  These conversations always leave with us as we exit the theater.  We carry them back on the busses and bring them to Main Street or even to another theater.  Time passes in the waitlist line by nonstop chatter about the films.  The internet is heavy with recommendations, critiques, and praise by movie-goers.  Our thoughts and ideas surrounding the Sundance films are carried back by car or plane to our homes as well.  The Sundance 2014 Festival may have ended on January 26th but the conversation it has created will continue to grow louder and louder.

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Escape From Sundance

When the Sundance Film Festival, or the U.S. Film Festival which through a number of name changes would eventually become Sundance, began it concerned itself with what it called “regional films”, a sort of precursor term for independent film. These small films made outside of Hollywood along with classics formed the backbone of the selection of the Utah film festival of many names’ early years. Now 36 years after the little festival that could had its debut in Salt Lake City things have changed rather a lot.

            From the moment of dragging an exhausted shell to the box office line it’s made clear that the once strained festival has gotten at least its financial problems in some order. The first thing one notices as their heavy eyes pan over the box office is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Box Office for preferred Chase Sapphire members who don’t have to trouble themselves with the line of people waiting in a line that wraps at maximum thrice around the large room at least since 6AM for the main box office to open. Below the elevator up to the preferential people’s ticket option for pass holders and users of certain credit cards is the Brita clean water dispenser to go with the free Brita water bottles being handed out to people in line who wouldn’t dare give up their space to walk the few feet to fill up at said dispensaries. As this scenario presents Sundance is rich in sponsorship and grueling for the average attendee. All of Main Street is found coated in sponsored locations from the Sundance Channel lounge with its free potato chips and health bars down to the Youtube lounge with its amiable platter of free fruit. Still for every free Kind brand healthy snack there another sign of how exclusive Sundance has become from its humble roots and goal of spreading the appreciation of film. Look to The Hollywood Reporter and the entire bar they cordoned off for their private events or the festival itself doing much of the same with its priority access for the Filmmaker’s Lounge to credential holders.

I don’t doubt that even in its early years Sundance had its exclusive spaces and events but the advertising of that exclusivity is disheartening. In growing up to be the preeminent display of independent film in America Sundance has had to pay for its achievements in the way most festivals, conventions, etc. have to: through this creation of a hierarchy of attendees. For every person waiting to join the e-waitlist so they can wait in line at the real waitlist, there’s someone with strings to pull that has an all access pass and can walk into every theater and probably get to the various exclusive parties. It’s an unfortunate system that hampers a number of people’s Sundance experience but there are worse ways to conduct such a festival.

The rampant sponsorship and merchandising at the festival though is only arguable as bad from a perspective of ethics. Sure, it goes against the spirit of independent film and influences the course of further Sundances but the festival needs to pay for itself and free health snacks are delicious.

Now concerning the films of Sundance themselves: as critics have stated there doesn’t seem to be an outstanding film of Sundance this years that will go out to thrust itself into the mainstream spotlight. There’s no Beasts of The Southern Wild or Precious both Sundance films that garnered Oscar buzz and rose to box office success. I would argue that that may be for the better. In the pre, and most of the post, Sex, Lies, And Videotapes years of Sundance there were festivals without a star film and instead a better sample of the independent film was reviewed. Without a breakaway star of Sundance there’s less of misconception that the films of the independent field are all up to that caliber and that the nature of Indies creates both the Hollywood level productions like The Guest or Lilting along with say Killers and its shoddy special effects.

            All that aside the Sundance Film Festival is still clearly set on the goal its held to for over 30 years of variously named festivals to be a venue to present indie films that likely wouldn’t go nowhere near a big screen otherwise. Of course the rich numbers of interesting films that clearly have other avenues of reaching an audience, specifically the premiere category, hinder the publicity of the truer independent films. The worry with this is how multiple of these films might occupy the spotlight where once a single star of Sundance shined still keeping eyes away from less noticeable films leaving them to the worry of not having any sort of public release.

 

Film Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.

7 out of 10 on the Indie Scale

Bad City, the setting of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is exactly what it sounds like. There are pimps, prostitutes, drug trade, vagrants, a desolation of barren land being sucked of the oil beneath, train tracks with no right side, a ditch full of dead bodies, and a vampire. But before that last one there’s Arash a young man with a greaser style, cool 1950s car, and a large cat he happens upon that steals the final scene of the film. Bad City has made life pretty rough for Arash with his junkie father and his lousy gardening job. Simultaneously there is the aforementioned vampire in Bad City, a young appearing woman in a striped shirt that looks particularly cool on the black and white film along with an intimidating chador that flows as a bat-like cape and gives her a frightening silhouette not seen since Persepolis. As Arash goes on to try and take control of his life and The Girl attempts to find meaning in hers leading to them having the most brilliant of meet cutes and so begins their charmingly subdued romance.

As a film it defines itself as part of the Indie genre by the many choices Amirpour makes that distinguish the film but would alienate to the mass mainstream audience. The film is shot entirely in black and white with its actors speaking in subtitled Farsi. The former the director addressed in Q&A as specifically a stylistic choice after realizing how much she like the look of black and white and the latter is effective in conveying that the film is meant to take place in Iran contrary to it occasionally giving away that it’s shot in an industrial town outside Bakersfield, CA. That location probably gives away something about the films budget and how that relates to how independent the film is. More than those points though AGWHAAN justifies itself as an independent film by what it says with its vampire. As aforementioned The Girl’s most iconic item is the black chador she wears granting her a ominous presence appropriate for what she is but it also has a lot to say about Iranian, specifically Islamic, roles of women as The Girl asserts uncontestable power over others due to the fear conjured by her gothic presence.

The mythic quality of the film is also prevalent in The Girl. Of course there’s everything already said about the (possibly) young lady’s chador but to be more general the background or rules of her vampirism are never outlined, instead the film relies on the well established archetype of a vampire in the common global myth so that once The Girl flashes fangs the audience instantly understands the gist of her character, which is more Carmilla than Dracula. By that same logic Arash is never explicitely called a greaser but his jeans, white t-shirt, black leather jacket, slicked back hair, and 1950s car make him unable to be regarded as anything else.

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My Farewell to Sundance

Coming into Sundance, myself and the class were armed with the knowledge of Lory Smith and Peter Biskind and our preparatory list of films, I was excited to dive into a historic gathering of artists and consumers. It was an exhausting journey of wait lists, bus trips, and the scavenge for free food as to save money for tickets. Sundance has been something that I have been looking forward to since I was in middle school and I can say that it did not disappoint.

Now my initial knowledge of Sundance was limited to “I know there are independent films there” and what the Official Sundance Selection logo looked like. I did not know the history of the festival. The conflicts within the festival coordinators were unknown to me. I also was not familiar with the big names of Hollywood that were important to the growth of the festival like Robert Redford and Roger Ebert. As I type this out, I wonder how those people in 1978 would think of the festival if they were brought to this year’s festival during the time they were setting up the first US Film Festival. Would they expect that Sundance be what it has become today? What would they say about companies like HP, Chase, YouTube, Acura, or Morningstar putting on lounges for festival-goers?

To think, for years, this festival did not make a profit until 1982 but now has become one of the biggest economic contributors to Park City. Films that had relative no-names to becoming a showcase for big stars to do films that the mainstream audiences would never expect them to do. This festival gives more creative freedom to not only the filmmakers but also to casts and crew. The films of Sundance are made from budgets ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to at most a little over a million but you can see big name actors like Ryan Reynolds, Kristen Stewart, or Aaron Paul in these movies, where some have starred in movies that had budgets way bigger than any Sundance film budget. Sundance, however, does prove that a big budget does not mean a better movie. I have seen films at Sundance that I would have rather seen than most movies that have shown in the nearby theater or that had trailers showing during commercials.

This film festival allows filmmakers to create films that they want to create in hopes to be picked up and distributed. Although getting the Precious or Little Miss Sunshine treatment would be wonderful for these filmmakers, getting distributed would be an amazing opportunity for them. If a film is not distributed to major theaters like Beasts of the Southern Wild, being bought and distributed to limited release and through other film distribution avenues would be also beneficial. There were many films at Sundance that I am hoping comes out on DVD or Netflix because either they were very good or I could not watch them due to scheduling issues or ticketing issues.

Ticketing has be an experience during Sundance. As someone who has been to conventions like San Diego Comic Con, getting tickets and wait list numbers for films that I want was not unfamiliar territory. However, the cold did not help the waiting (neither did the Southern California summer heat). The new e-waitlist system was implemented this festival and I have to admit it was a valiant effort. Previous years would have had patrons line up hours before a film for a wait list number. This new electronic system allowed patrons to sign-up for a number two hours before a film. Now, this had some of its downfalls. The system could not handle the mass amount of activity by the simultaneous pressing of the “Join the Waitlist” button. Many (especially myself) were stuck in a state of loading, missing out on getting a number. At one point, the entire system crashed. Now, this system did not constantly fail but it did fail for the bigger films. My proposal: use the old-fashioned method for films with a lot of buzz (for example: the Skeleton Twins), as the old-fashioned way for big films seems more fair than hoping that the system does not fail on you.

These problems with the new system seem to be from the first weekend, where all the industry people come in (and the second half of the festival is mainly film lovers, as it was described by one of the volunteers at the intro of a film showing I was in). This was made apparent by a lot of the venues on Main Street were gone by the time the first half of the festival was over. This shows the festival’s importance as a market for independent filmmakers as people who only go for the second half would not notice some sponsored venues missing. This dedication to the industry was apparent in the priority pass holders for those in the industry like distributors, press, and the people close to the cast and crew (leaving people with tickets and wait list numbers out in the cold, so to speak). But that is what Sundance is for the first half: a market festival.

It is interesting to see what categories are at Sundance. Beyond the expected documentary and dramatic categories, NEXT and Spotlight are interesting categories. NEXT is dedicated to films that are sort of different in terms of storytelling and these films were some of my favorites like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Appropriate Behavior. Spotlight showcases films that have already premiered but the programmers felt like these should be shown at Sundance and I am glad this category exists because I would not have stumbled on to most of those films without this category.

Overall, Sundance was exactly how I expected it to be: hectic, fun, and exhausting. As I told my friends about my opportunity, they were telling me that I was lucky to be watching movies all day. I can say with full confidence that it is not as glamorous as it seems. This illusion of glamor can be traced back to the struggles the festival endured during its early years to be what it is today. A more modern struggle becomes “Can I see this film?” or “Do I have enough time to get from the Redstone to the Library?” or even “Will my wait list number be less than 30?” If someone thinks doing Sundance will be a walk in the park, then they are very much wrong. Although I say that, I would not have passed up this opportunity, even if I could.

Frank

One-hit wonders usually define decades of music like Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” Starship’s “We Built This City,” Hanson’s “mmmBop” or Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” With the growing use of YouTube, viral videos create more of these pop culture flashes in the pan with Psy and “Gangnam Style” or the group that made “What Does the Fox Say?” The film Frank is very reminiscent of this new source of musical fame through social media.

This film follows a man name Jon (played by Domnhall Gleeson), an amateur musician and aspiring songwriter that, through an odd series of events, joins an experimental band led by a strange man named Frank, who is never seen without wearing his big, fake head. As Jon and the band create a new album, Jon tries to catapult himself to fame by being the band’s social media coordinator. As the band progresses in making the album, Jon creates more buzz for the band. Soon, fame begins to hit Jon and then the band deals with being in the public eye for the first time.

The subject of this film is very relatable to the young generation that grew up with YouTube and Twitter, as they are heavily implemented in the film but are very appropriate. The social media integration was not overdone and fit the film perfectly, with Jon’s Twitter feed acting as a kind of narrator. If someone were to look up the cast for this film and see the name Michael Fassbender but do not see him in any stills of the film, then there is only one logical explanation: he is Frank. His performance as Frank was brilliant. He is such a strange character but does have that charisma that makes him a very likable person with a genius talent for music. Jon portrays that person that wants his fifteen minutes of fame and is very much like the current generation with his overexaggerated tweets and his secret recordings of the band’s behaviors. The film uses several locations from around the UK to Austin, Texas for SXSW (South by South West), and then to a suburban neighborhood. Given the cast and the various locations, as well as the very relatable subject matter of the film, this film can be considered in-between independent and mainstream (a 5 on a 1 to 10 scale). It is a very accessible film but the audience that will understand the references would be of the young adult persuasion. The myth of the fifteen minutes of fame is explored in the film (which is not obscure and exists in mainstream fiction too). It explores it in terms of the growth of social network and the nature of viral videos. This film shows the reality behind web fame and what those thousands of views and retweets really translate to in real life. This film also compares natural talent to fame achieved by a fluke. These ideas are fairly broad to those who are in the social media loop. People not totally into social media will be lost in the film. And that is who I recommend this film to: people who spend time on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter and know about going viral. Being familiar with experimental music and the jokes surrounding it would be a plus to enjoy what this film has to offer but it is not necessary. To people like myself, I feel like this film will resonate and be an enjoyable ride, as I believe we all have been Jon at one point in our life, growing up with social media.

 

 

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As the Sundance Sets…

            The 2014 Sundance Film Festival was a trip to remember and has left me with many aspirations and a yearning for a plane ticket next year. Before leaving for our excursion to Utah, I truly did not know what to expect other than a festival in a famous ski resort town. Established in 1978, the film festival went through five different name changes before becoming the famous Sundance Film Festival, after Robert Redford’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (one of my favorites). You know it’s funny, after speaking with many people, lots of folks first inclination is to think of Robert Redford as the founder/main contributor. But, upon reading Lory Smith’s Party in a Box, the class and I have learned so much of the history, gossip, feuds, struggle and strife everyone involved has been through to make the festival what it is today.

            The goal of Sundance is to promote and debut independent filmmaking of any sort. From animation to short film to documentaries and feature films that dare take the risks mainstream filmmakers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Taking risks such as Talal Derki’s Return to Homs, a documentary following a well known rebel in the fight against Assad and his regime in Syria and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a feature film about a boy’s life from elementary school to college that took 12 years to film because they didn’t want the audience to feel a disconnect by the changing of characters. It is a chance for nobodies to become somebody or sombodies to truly test their skills through an expression and art everyone loves, film. This year alone over 12,000 films were submitted and only 120 were selected to screen at Sundance. Of those I was able to see 15 films in ten days, which is actually quite draining as fun as it is. I know what you’re thinking; boo hoo, Brett!

            I have learned so much in the past month or so, but something that will stay in my head and will buy is Jason Campbell’s book, The Power of Myth. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading. It encompasses so much it is hard to explain, but he begins with the meaning of life. I know, a tough thing to begin contemplating, but it is much more than that. Myth is everywhere and it affects life, not just in films. It has been around for thousands of years and is still prevalent in everyday experiences and stories. This book not only opened my mind to new and bigger conceptions, but also has helped me understand independent films in a way I could not before. You do not need A-list actors, Beasts of the Southern Wild proved that. You don’t need a multi million-dollar budget. All you need is an idea and the will to make that subject matter real with what you have, without the buzz of haters and protestors in your ear (that comes later).

            To my understanding, The Sundance Film Festival is and will always be an independent film festival. But you cannot always believe in the stories people share, because everything changes, it’s only a matter of time. I found meeting and hanging out with celebs at ease to be untrue. Though I did meet a see a few, I believe the press has changed the festival in a way that goes against Sundance’s philosophies from the beginning. Everything is now very exclusive, which I understand due to the popularity Sundance has gained over the years. But not everything needs to be treated like a VIP party, like the local restaurants and bars. Other than the exclusiveness, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Sundance and would highly recommend this as a January Term class or as a vacation. Overall this class has changed the way I perceive all types of movies.  The opportunity to see groundbreaking films that you may never see make it to the mainstream theatres is a thrill, yet at the same time depressing. Sundance is a portal and an archive for filmmakers and moviegoers all over the world to enjoy. The class takes you for a ride from the beginning to end and will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

Secondary Review: Young Ones

Directed by: Jake Paltrow

Screenwriter: Jake Paltrow

            Many critics and others around the festival did not enjoy this movie as much as I did, but they weren’t using their imagination. Maybe they were comparing it to other futuristic films, but there’s something about the meshing of a sci-fi and a western that intrigues every young one.

            Sometime in the near future, the United States has turned into a drought wasteland. Only few have decided to stay in the devastated area in hopes of the replenishment of soil, while others flee to the nearest big cities. To survive in this environment, you must be stubborn and very good at hiding your conscience. Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is one of these hardened men who protects his hopeful land from thieves in search of water. As everyone prays for rain, Ernest and his son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trek back and forth through the dry deserted hills to trade with the government workers of the water pipelines. The movie is unclear how or where Ernest is able to get supplies (mainly liquor) to trade with the workers, but his generosity only stems so far, not reaching to the character Flem (Nicholas Holt). Grudge-ridden Flem believes he and his family were taken advantage of when the government portioned part of their land to the Holms. Flem is also dating Ernest’s daughter, which tenses the rope even more. Jake Paltrow uses chapters and great visuals as a transitional pass along from protagonist to protagonist to protagonist. Three times the spotlight is overtaken by characters in search of vengeance, jealousy, lies and violence.

            This film has many mythic features in which provoke each protagonist to search for deeper meanings, that in return will amalgamate the proper wisdom needed to survive in the dog eat dog environment. Each character’s journey brings forth the stages of life through passages and thresholds. This film is not for everyone, but I believe there are bits and pieces that are accurate depictions of what lies in our future. From the advancements in machinery (robots and guns) to the dying water supply, humans must evolve in order to survive. This thought-provoking movie has recognizable actors and was shot in the scorching deserts of South Africa, but on a low budget. For that reason I put Young Ones at a 4 on the spectrum of 1 being ultra mainstream vs. 10 as ultra independent. This film opened for release on January 14th at the Sundance Film Festival, but will open in Tucson, Arizona on January 30th, 2014. 

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