New York Diary: Sundance rides into the sunset

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The Independent Culture
"DID YOU go to the festival this year? You should have." This was this week's New York independent film-makers' mantra. The festival was the Sundance Film Festival, so far from these film-makers' homes in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Ever since Reservoir Dogs, Robert Redford's expanding, deal-crazy Utah film market has been under attack for becoming a celluloid bazaar. Redford's dingy cradle of "indie" film is now a Hollywood- on-skis.They call it the Cannes of the West. I've always stayed at home, though, and I imagine that Sundance is like Prague now.

This year, Redford turned permissive parent, both blaming the media for the festival's corrosion and saying he would tolerate the event as long as it was good for the film-makers. The hot film was Happy, Texas (1999's titles alone are cliches of American independent film: Twin Falls, Idaho - My Own Private Twin Peaks - and Happy, Texas - Paris, Texas meets Happiness). A major New York critic tells me that Happy, Texas is "sucky", but the film still reaped $2.5m from Miramax.

Nonetheless, this week critics and distributors and producers defended the fest. They've reconciled themselves to the fact that independent films are just commercial films with denser scripts and characters. They've put to rest that nagging sense of betrayal when so many of these films turn out to be flops.

These festival-goers tell me that we should appreciate this event for its new directors, that we have Sundance to thank for finding Tarantino, and Boogie Nights's Paul Thomas Anderson and Slacker's Richard Linklater.

But was it Sundance's boozy bonhomie and the seductions of the hired entertainers Duncan Sheik and The Violent Femmes that made attenders praise the prizewinner Judy Berlin, a film about suburban melancholy, that from all descriptions sounds tedious and lardy? And is the new Stephen Dorff, Steve Zahn, such a great find? Last week, I was at home in New York so I missed the Sundance hot ticket, a doc about a porn star/college student who sleeps with 251 men in 10 hours, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. (Annabel Chong's publicist had to say silly things all festival, like "Tickets to Sex?". She calls the film's star "an overachiever".) Perhaps the film's star had escaped from this year's new counter-Sundance Festival, Lap Dance, a porno film festival in Utah, like Slam Dance and the now defunct Slum Dance.

Suzanne Fedak, an indie film promoter, says she wanted to go to Lap Dance when she was at Sundance, but instead she was busy getting blessed by Native Americans. Then she danced to DJ Spooky. New York after Sundance she calls "post-coital". "You should go next year," she murmurs.

Owen Gleiberman, film critic, has one complaint, that the festival was "overrun with anonymous hangers-on". He then says: "That's not to say that hangers-on don't belong there." Do those hangers-on, pressing into lighted Utah ski cottages aflutter with Afflecks (Casey and Ben), watching a film about the Beats and then listening as the film's director praised the Beats for bringing blue jeans to the work place - belong? If not, why not? I am told that a mark of a non-hanger-on at Sundance is screaming amounts of money into one's cellular. One producer was caught in the aisles of a Park City supermarket - unaware that the film-maker on the receiving end was talking on his cellular phone in the aisle next to him. Maybe next year I'll go to Sundance and be appalled by the stillbirth of independent film. I'll auteur/messiah-watch, only to return to New York with a long list of the year's worst "buzz" films.

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