January 19, 2007

Doc Legacy, Independence Duly Noted as Sundance Launches

Redford, Morgen note festival's influence; inaugural New Frontier installation stuns and surprises

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Robert Redford at Thursday's opening press conference for the 2007 Sundance Film Festival (Photos: STV)

Documentaries, history and that old stand-by abstraction "independence" were the talking points Thursday as Robert Redford introduced the 2007 Sundance Film Festival at the Egyptian Theater in Park City. Joined eventually by festival director Geoff Gilmore and filmmaker Brett Morgen, whose quasi-doc Chicago 10 was this year's opening-night selection, Redford clutched a cup of coffee and bounded from his World War II-era upbringing in Los Angeles -- threaded by the searing black-and-white newsreels preceding mainstream films -- to the political and professional awakening influenced in part by the documentaries of Emile de Antonio, Robert Drew and the Maysles Brothers.

Ever low-key (but flirting as always with his uniquely charming immodesty), Redford leaned forward in his chair and recounted the festival's early pro-documentary mandate. "Once this thing got going and it looked like we were going to survive," he said, "and we had a platform to work from, we then had the chance to expand this so-called 'vision,' if you want, and I saw documentaries as something that should be promoted -- or that we should use the festival to promote documentaries heavily, because the mainstream's not really allowing them any space except to go into some academic area. I honestly believed that documentaries would reach a time when they would be equal to theatrical -- that they were getting better and better and were getting closer and closer to narrative and theatrical films. I wanted us to be sort of on the vanguard of that be leading that cause.

"Tonight's film is really kind of a coming to that point, and by opening the festival with that film, we really are making a statement about how we feel about the importance of documentary."

Chicago 10 doesn’t so much challenge Sundance's historic documentary tradition as much add an incendiary burst of color to a fabric already interweaving the groundbreaking likes of Paris is Burning, American Dream, Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans and Murderball among others. "There's very little separation at this festival between fiction and nonfiction, which I think is important in terms of Chicago 10," said Morgen, whose archival/animation combo details the upheaval of the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent political, legal and personal crises that followed). "I think that Chicago 10 is very much a hybrid in mixing archival footage with some wonderful performance by some great actors. I think the reason documentaries have penetrated the marketplace as deeply as they have is because of what these two gentlemen have created here. ... When I conceived Chicago 10, I had my mind set on the Eccles Theater from day one. Five years ago today, I premiered The Kid Stays in the Picture in that same theater; it was a really magical moment. And for the last few years, going from (his family's home in) Oakley to Park City, I pass it every time and sort of look over there and smile."

For his part, Gilmore invoked the "American independent film" mantra with typically funk-faking disproportion, brandishing his official festival-swag "Focus on Film" button with all the patronizing acknowledgment you'd expect. "I don't know that I've ever had a greater anticipation over what's going to happen at our film festival than I have this year," he told the crowd, noting the "newfound self-awareness" that he perceived in Sundance's growth. "I'm really excited about it, and a lot of it has to do with that evolution." (You have to love the guy, though; in propping up the genuinely cool New Frontier installation across the street from the Egyptian, he dropped the classic Gilmore-ism: "The avant-garde in American cinema has always been a difficult subject to talk about. It's usually been very marginal, often times marked by a certain kind of formalism." Those documentaries marked by realism have fared much better, of course.)

TOP: Redford and Sundance programming director at the New Frontier reception. BOTTOM: 1944 Oscar-winner Going My Way compressed into one minute in R. Luke DuBois' New Frontier selection Academy

Redford also emphasized what he described as the festival's commitment to "new artists" and "new ideas" -- no matter how the "fashion and ambush marketers" haunting Main Street have sullied the event's mythologized aesthetic austerity. "Now, that means that it's probably not going to be commercial," he said. "We never intended on that. We were more relying on the idea of diversity being the attraction more than commerciality. Who wants to be in a position of deciding what's commercial or not? But what happened was that as things changed, the success came and brought another element. Which, as I said, is fine. But we would like to try and remind people about why we're here and what we're about. ... Despite what the festival's become in a larger sense, in our mind, we program it like a festival, and not a market."

Back across Main Street, the inaugural New Frontier section was launching with an afternoon reception; the subterranean space features work from experimental filmmakers and visual artists in an installation setting. Among the New Yorkers in the section, R. Luke DuBois strode to and from the microcinema showcasing his work Academy and the nondescript brushed silver wall frame in which his video Play was mounted. The latter piece, a riveting compound of 50 years of Playboy playmates in 50 seconds -- cropped to their faces only, centered at the eyes -- was hypnotic, sublime.

"Playboy's a really interesting thing," DuBois told me from my anchor point in front of the piece. "Really, it's one man's sexual tastes or one man's idea of beauty is exploded under a massive corporate enterprise. And as projected, it has had all these ramifications about how we think about beauty over, basically, generations of men now raised on Playboy Magazine who have this idea that this is what they're supposed to be looking for. But it's not a static image, so one of the things I wanted to show was how that weird, idealized, eroticized, corporate-ified beauty has evolved in different ways."

The guy's brilliant; you have to see this work to believe it, which I guess doesn't help a whole lot here. Anyhow, check for more from DuBois later in The Reeler's From NYC to Sundance series of director interviews. Now, off to screenings.

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