Judge Bill Gibron was puzzled by the fact that the only grotesque alien activity in this documentary was Roger Ebert eating lunch.
A celebration of moviemaking outside the mainstream.
It's the dream of every independent filmmaker. Just the name alone sends shivers up indies' shot schedules and editing equipment. Like the Holy Grail at the end of outsider cinema's journey, being accepted to the Sundance Film Festival is like movie manna from Heaven. But just getting into the screenings is not enough. No, the goal of every glorified geek and grim genius who puts lens to life story is to see that most rarified of Hollywood business events—the bidding war—take place. To know that you created something that Miramax, Lions Gate, and First Feature are all fighting over, while you simply sit back and count the over-the-title gross profit points, is the light at the end of the talent tunnel. For many, it's just a short hop, skip, and a jury prize away from the local Cineplex, with audiences destined to enshrine their self-indulgent sincerity.
Thankfully, Sundance is not just freely handing out passes to pain-in-the-ass status; many filmmakers have to earn the right to spoil their semi-sick psyches. And thanks to years of more or less gluttonous habits, Tinseltown takes a far tamer approach to the touting of untried talent than back when independent film was actually about story and style. It's safe to say that without Sundance, we wouldn't have Tarantino, Soderbergh, and dozens of other darlings currently making mincemeat out of the motion picture medium. Sundance is indeed the starting point for many an illustrious career. It is also the critical pin letting the over-inflated air out of several baneful bravura balloons. Just like everyday is Christmas for dogs, every Sundance is Independent's Day for young filmmakers.
It was Stranger than Paradise that started it all. Though the canon of exploitation and drive-in movie merchandise belies this conclusion, when the auteurs of modern independent filmmaking point to the single slice of cinema that jumpstarted the current craze for personal motion picture making, Jim Jarmusch's celebration of deadpan reality is cited time and time again as the benchmark that all struggling cinemaniacs strive to recreate. Such sensational insights are just one small part of the engaging information we retrieve from the horse's half-drunk mouth in Independent's Day, Marina Zenovich's amazingly poignant and pointed documentary about the annual ritual of riches and ridicule called the Sundance Film Festival. Featuring many famous faces (Steven Soderbergh, Sydney Pollack, Roger Ebert, and Neil LaBute, just to name a few), along with several dozen dreamers and wannabes, this wall-to-wall talkathon is as wise as it is wicked in its depiction of the hopeful highs and the demoralizing lows experienced by writers and directors who've been invited to play in Park City, Utah's annual game of wish-squishing.
While young film freaks who pray that Redford's roundup results in a distribution deal, and maybe even an exclusive contract with a studio, are the overwhelming majority of the cynical faces followed in Independent's Day, it's really the old pros that are the revelation here. Neil LaBute, whose In the Company of Men wowed the world after its Sundance splash, discusses how narrow-minded it is to think a single instance of acceptance means you've made it. Indeed, he adds that whenever a movie fails, it's like a personal attack, leaving the auteur to wonder just what he or she did wrong.
This is the mantra for Independent's Day, the individual ideal running throughout the film. Soderbergh argues that, just six short years after he introduced his classic sex, lies, and videotape to the festival, he is dead convinced it would not be accepted today (1996). Roger Ebert argues against the attitude attributed to most independent moviemakers that, since they've created a film, it must, somehow, be seen. He also marvels at all the upstart competition surrounding Sundance, believing that other competing festivals can only strengthen the original. In some cases, those already players, like Kevin Smith and Eric Schaeffer, seem incredibly self-satisfied (even though he dismisses his studio involvement, Schaeffer wears a near-constant smirk of "looks like I made it"), while Parker Posey and Martha Plimpton dismiss the majority of the entries at all such festivals as hedonistic bullshit.
By presenting all sides of the story—the success and the failure, the fools and the realistic—Zenovich paints a very stark and bleak image of independent film. Most outside the genre view the participants with a clubhouse mentality, like a strange kind of Boy Scouts who get together to create those wacky wonders that big name studios only begrudgingly acknowledge after the fact. But the truth is that most outsider film artists are mindless mercenaries, only in it for the riches—either financial, personal, or both—that they can achieve for themselves. While clips from some of the films discussed are presented (none onscreen long enough to register), we are lost in the imaginations of the creators themselves, and it's a sometimes shallow, always spooky place. Self-deprecation abounds. So does a healthy dose of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.
But Independent's Day is not a perfect profile, and here's the downside: this documentary is over eight years old (the interview subjects constantly refer to the 1996 festival), and for all the changes Sundance has gone through, the last five years (1999 to 2004) have been even more monumental for the movie mover-and-shaker mainstay. In fact, the backlash experienced and illustrated by Slamdance and Slumdance (barely given real in-depth mention here) has resulted in even more off-the-beaten path presentations. There's Tromadance, Slamdunk, Nodance, Digidance, Slimchance, SCAMdance, Dunsdance, X-dance, and—a personal favorite name—Lapdance (come on, you knew it was coming…), all hoping to siphon off some of the treasures from the regular festival to bolster their own rather low profile. This entire subject would make a great juxtaposition to the numerous nail-biting ninnies just waiting for the cell phone sellouts roaming the coffee bars of Park City to distinguish their luminosity and offer the cash advance.
The selection process, now a next-to-impossible task at which to succeed (apparently a couple dozen films out of several thousand are accepted every year), would also add to the narrative. It is discussed a little, but not nearly enough. Indeed, everyone in Independent's Day has long since forgotten that being nominated actually means something. To them, the festival will not be a success until they see their name on a Sho-West itinerary or publicized as a potential award nominee. Keeping the focus narrow does help Independent's Day tell its tale in terrific fashion. But this is a dated, not-up-to-snuff look at the pleasure and pitfalls of the Sundance Film Festival. Luckily, several of the speakers save the saga from wallowing in self-pity.
Docurama presents Independent's Day in a very nice, fully fleshed-out edition that contains many magnificent bonus features. Equally as evocative as the film itself is the commentary by Zenovich and editor Stephen Garrett. Full of talk from beginning to end, these people really appreciate the struggle represented in the film. The inspiration is discussed. They point out the historical significance of some of the otherwise unknown entities speaking. They discuss how many of the major interviews were captured (Ebert was standing in line at the library, eating his lunch as he waited). But mostly, they reminisce about how wonderful it was to be part of the Park City scene circa '96 and '97. Bubbly and effervescent, this duo drives the narrative track with a warmth and a wonderment that really indicate the effect the subject matter had on them. Indeed, they constantly repeat that no film fan has truly lived until he or she has experienced Sundance at least once.
The disc also has other interesting information to offer. There are several extended interviews, a chance to hear more from Soderbergh, Pollack, LaBute, and X-Men's Bryan Singer (who discusses the Sundance effect on his The Usual Suspects). It's obvious from the clips that these people were presented because of their insight and intellect. We also see several attempts by Zenovich to make this movie, three short films featuring mostly similar scenes strung together in differing edits and designs. By and large, they are intriguing in a stop-start kind of mentality, seeing how the filmmaker shapes her craft and attempts to create a narrative.
On the transfer and auditory issues, Docurama also does a fine job with what it has. Zenovich is employing a handheld High 8 and Beta camcorder (internal mic included) to capture the vast majority of her footage, and the fact that it looks and sounds halfway decent is a credit to her and to the company that mastered this title. Though presented in Dolby Digital Stereo, the majority of the movie's mix is flat and frenzied. We hear as much background noise as we do direct dialogue. Visually, there is a great deal of grain and noise in the outdoor sequences, and the lighting is very catch-as-catch-can. But overall, the 1.33:1 full screen image is clean and crisp, with only occasional soft passages.
Some argue that the era of the independents is over. When Sundance can no longer produce a single evocative title, and all the artists are looking for studio support, the lone wolf ideal of moviemaking has finally sold out. It would be interesting to see what some of the speakers back in 1996 would make of the gang over at Speed Freak Productions or the savants at Sub Rosa, all riding their HD cameras to new heights of no-budget. Independent's Day signifies a time when Sundance was still about art and attitude. As a look back, it's fascinating. But it's also the end of the age of innocence: a chance to see the final fleeting moments where autonomous moviemaking mattered. And what an intriguing, entertaining time it was.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Marina Zenovich and Editor Stephen Garrett
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