Film Studies: Hey Bob, where have you been? Your little baby's all grown up...

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The Independent Culture

Every child, nearly, in America seems to know what "Sundance" is, and I suppose that's because nearly every child in the nation has plans to make an "independent" movie. If you ask them what an "independent" movie is, you get some odd answers - like do it yourself, keep all the money, sell it to a video-game manufacturer, and be like Quentin Tarantino. I exaggerate a touch, but still there's no point in expecting sighs of respect from kids when you tell them that the Sundance Film Festival - this year's began on Thursday - is 25 years old. Twenty-five is a pensionable age in their thinking, a point at which they reckon to be zombies or dead. After all, stick with anything for 25 years and you may end up looking like Robert Redford. Except that it's not really worth making that point because kids would have no more knowledge of who Robert Redford is than Mr Redford himself.

Of course, you who are reading are old enough to recall Redford, and let's hope you are wise and sad enough to see the joke this year in the way that Messrs Paul Newman and Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) may be the only two people around who do not see the ties between their hit movie from 1969 and this year's favourite "independent" film, Brokeback Mountain. Just see what can happen to two cowpokes if they stay out on the range too long! You may remember from the original film that the boys' girl, Etta (Katharine Ross), said she'd stay with them only so long as things didn't get too bad. Well, now we know what she meant.

Still, the legend goes that in 1980, somewhat pleased with himself, Robert Redford set up the Sundance Institute to help make the kind of films that were - well, unlike the films Mr Redford made. He was a handsome fellow and a big star, much drawn to the western life and the ski country of Utah, and he had learned that Hollywood was a tricky and noxious place where art, creativity and the natural sweetness of movie-making turned sour. So he would make a place where veterans would speak words of truth to the young and there would be this festival of films unlike those made in Hollywood. No one really had the label "independent" yet. They meant different, cheap, outsider, high-minded - and they were often boring, awful and hopeless.

The festival was at Park City in Utah, and at first it was called the US Film Festival. It was without competition or excitement. But then slowly, it became an event in the film calendar. It was called Sundance.

And in time the films - some of them anyway - became much better. They became sex, lies and videotape, Reservoir Dogs, Welcome to the Dollhouse, I Shot Andy Warhol and Shine. By then, its first incarnation as a kind of hippy retreat was eclipsed. All of a sudden, Sundance was the meeting place for serious, competitive distribution outfits with money to spend and cell phones to talk on during the screenings. It became a market-place, out of which it was clear that the old genres of musical, western, adventure or women's pictures had been joined by a new genre, the "independent".

Robert Redford aged visibly in this rush of success; he was a confused man, who had already launched his catalogue to sell western clothes, art and back-scratchers. And in the years during which his festival helped re-define American movies, he personally kept on making that archaic genre called mainstream movies, whether he was acting, directing or producing - Out of Africa, Legal Eagles, Havana, A River Runs Through It, Sneakers, Indecent Proposal, Quiz Show, Up Close and Personal, The Horse Whisperer, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Last Castle, Spy Game, The Clearing, An Unfinished Life. You may say Quiz Show was OK, but still that list is clinching proof of why a young filmgoer would not have heard of Robert Redford today.

And any historical appreciation of Sundance over the years finds it hard to escape admitting that he, the Bob, the founder and "onlie begetter", has always been the biggest problem the place has had. He likes to "meet people" and "exchange ideas", but he hates to take decisions. He has a scheme - like a string of Sundance theatres or a film production company - but then he goes away on location and never returns calls. And he seemingly has been nonplussed by the revelation that there may be some DNA in American film-making that ensures that, even when the budget is low and the fantasy of Butch Cassidy stripped away to reveal a startling emotional reality, the behaviour of those trying to make films is nasty, grasping, treacherous, and mercenary. You may be a young genius today, as natural and unspoiled as a beautiful colt (the horse, not the gun), but you'll be ready for Miramax tomorrow.

I have suggested before that a great satirical novel might be written about a place and an adventure like Sundance: it would be a study in lofty sentiments and filthy tricks and Lord Bob would preside over it all, his weathered blond head always shot at magic hour, a man who ends up talking to horses but not humans. As you may gather, it is my estimate that Sundance has harboured about as much hype, hypocrisy and humbug as any American institution on the other side of the Potomac.

And yet, something has happened. One way or another, the mainstream film is nearly dead, and under cover of the "independent" revolution we have had minority film-makers, a greater range of subject matter and a tougher notion of human truth, as well as modest budgets. In a year when the awards are likely to be shared among a respectable group of independent pictures, we have to admit that the comic ineptness of the Sundance experiment is not without achievement. I can already see a moment when the Academy itself turns to Bob for a Life Achievement award in recognition of all the things done in his name and the fine old horse nods slowly and wonders if he is dead or alive.

Of course, the shift was going to occur anyway: it was certain as soon as the general audience elected to watch TV instead of movies. And we have lost a lot, notably that age in which everyone in America saw the same movies. Now, we pick and choose like people in a book store. And Bob is nearly the last actor left who has not been in an independent picture.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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