Preview: Sundance London

The heyday of American indie cinema is long gone – but as the Sundance Festival visits these shores, Jonathan Romney detects life in the old dog yet ...

Later this month, the legendary Sundance Film Festival comes to Britain for the first time, with a four-day jamboree of film and music at London's O2 arena. Cynics might say it's two decades too late. For years the words "American indie" carried an almost magical charm in film circles; today many feel that the US independent scene is a demure shadow of its once pugnacious self.

In its glory period, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, American independent cinema bubbled with energy and innovation, its history a succession of startling breakthroughs and emergent movements. That history was for a long time virtually synonymous with Sundance, a history that properly began when Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took over the management of the US Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in 1985 (the festival was officially renamed Sundance in 1991). What we now think of as the independent spirit in US film-making goes back decades – at least as far as John Cassavetes's Shadows in 1959 – but the film-makers who emerged at Sundance really defined the US independent style of the late 20th century. Theirs is a history of sudden revelations and surprise breakthroughs, taking in names such as the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino. The Sundance era brought movements and generational trends: the birth of New Queer Cinema, the rise of popular documentary, several waves of women film-makers (most enduringly, Kelly Reichardt and Lisa Cholodenko), a short-lived but powerful explosion of African-American talent. And there was the occasional genre-bending one-off (Brick, Donnie Darko ...).

A series of critical and popular hits helped put Sundance on the map: the Coens' Blood Simple in 1985, Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986), Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), and, in 1992, Reservoir Dogs, the film that reshaped the audience's, and the industry's, ideas of what indie genre films could be. More than just showing films, Sundance cemented a reputation as a meeting place for film- makers, audiences and industry people; it also played a key part in developing films and nurturing careers through its labs. Its reputation may fluctuate, but, says US critic Amy Taubin, a regular visitor since 1989, it's still an essential date: "Sundance doesn't always make the right calls, but it does seem absolutely necessary, in the way Cannes is necessary, if you're going to be aware of the state of American independent film."

Today there are still discoveries, but the breakthroughs aren't coming thick and fast as they once did. It's been a while since we saw a new US film-maker as challenging as social satirist Todd Solondz (Happiness), as individual as the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), as politically challenging as Spike Lee. In fiction, too much is simply good-natured or passive-aggressive. The big news (in a small way) in the last decade was the strain of diffident micro-budget fiction known as "mumblecore" (particularly associated with the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas). Some names associated with this trend have established themselves in the mainstream. The Duplass brothers' imminent Jeff, Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel, has its charm but is almost militantly insubstantial. Then there's hyphenate of the moment, writer-director-actress Lena Dunham, whose likeable if hardly revelatory comedy, Tiny Furniture, is released here this week; she's now made a TV series for HBO, Girls, under the aegis of Judd Apatow.

It's natural that the best talents should be absorbed by the mainstream. Everyone, sooner or later, wants to work on more than a pittance: Steven Soderbergh once commented: "What we should all want is for the smartest directors around to have the resources that the dumb directors have." But the days may be gone when the smartest turned instinctively to film. Once, everyone fresh out of high school wanted to make the next Pulp Fiction. Now, says Amy Taubin: "If you were 18 years old and an enormously creative person, you would be interested in other media, not the movies. The people who still want to be film directors think, 'I'll make Hollywood lite – then I'll be able to make Hollywood heave'."

The people behind Sundance beg to differ: they believe the US indie scene is as strong as ever. John Cooper, the festival's director since 2009, feels American fiction film is in rude health: "I've seen the bar raised in the past 10 years. I've seen independent film-makers become better in general – better storytellers, more inventive with craft."

While critics lament a dearth of innovation in fiction, it's generally agreed that the documentary scene is consistently strong. One title widely tipped as unmissable – you can catch it at Sundance London – is Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In, by all accounts a politically radical and hugely provocative analysis of the US "war on drugs". Cooper says documentarists are raising their game: "With documentaries, we haven't even got there yet, we're on the verge of an important movement."

Fiction features continue to yield excitement, but in bursts rather than entire waves. Last year, Sundance brought us Sean Durkin's extraordinary Martha Marcy May Marlene, and now Durkin's production partner, Antonio Campos, has made Simon Killer: like Durkin's film, it's said to be very Euro-flavoured. And this year's winner of Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for drama is reportedly as eye-opening a debut as we've seen in some time: Behn Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, about the world as seen by a small girl living in the Louisiana marshes.

You'll have to wait till other UK festivals bring us Beasts; meanwhile Sundance London offers a diverse taster menu. Even if it's only to take a sceptical reading of the indie sector's vital signs, Sundance London will be worth a visit – and you won't need parkas against the Utah snow.

The Sundance kids

African American cinema

Spike Lee started an explosion with She's Gotta Have It in 1986. But the often-overlooked godfather of new African-American cinema is Charles Burnett (1977's black-and-white realist study Killer of Sheep). Female directors made epoch-marking features such as Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), for one.

Signs of life: Hipster-experimentalist Terence Nance is in Sundance London with his freewheeling, self-reflexive, animation-laden An Oversimplif-ication of Her Beauty.

 

New queer cinema

This wave shook things up in the 1990s thanks to Todd Haynes (1991's triptych Poison), producer Christine Vachon, and film-makers Tom Kalin (Swoon) and Gregg Araki (Totally F***ked Up). Lesbian breakthrough film was Rose Troche's 1994 comedy Go Fish. All of which paved the way for hits such as Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right.

Signs of life: Cheryl Dunye made jaws drop in Berlin this year with her Mommy is Coming.

 

Slackerism

Since Richard Linklater's 1991 Slacker, much US indie film was about goofing off, not least by the voluble Kevin Smith (Clerks). Opinions divide on the "mumblecore" generation.

Signs of life: Lynn Shelton follows her porn-bromance comedy Humpday (2009) this summer with Your Sister's Sister, with Emily Blunt and mumblecorist Mark Duplass, co-star of Sundance London romcom Safety Not Guaranteed.

 

Digital breakthroughs

US indie mavericks challenged celluloid in the late 1980s, when Sadie Benning and Michael Almereyda tried the Pixelvision toy camera. The Blair Witch Project (1999) worked genre horror and the internet to pioneering effect.

Signs of life: 2010 faux-or-no docu Catfish is one of the numerous projects thriving on the web.

 

The eccentrics

Auteurs who don't fit in any bracket: from master misanthrope Todd Solondz (Happiness), to patrician dandy Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), whose long-awaited return is Damsels in Distress. Then there are the film/art crossovers, such as cult narcissist Vincent Gallo.

Signs of life: Jake Schreier and Christopher D Ford cheered Sundance 2012 with the futuristic buddy film Robot and Frank.

 

Sundance London is at the O2, 26-29 April (sundance-london.com/ 0844 858 6754). Lena Dunham's 'Tiny Furniture' is out now. Whit Stillman's 'Damsels in Distress' is released on 27 April. 'Jeff, Who Lives at Home' and 'Your Sister's Sister' are out later this year

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering