Swag the Dog 

Even with all the peripheral nonsense, great stories keep Sundance 2007 on track.

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“Focus on Film” read the ubiquitous pins adorning the 2007 Sundance Film Festival-goers wandering up and down Park City’s Main Street'but it was awfully hard to take the message seriously when it was attached to a swag-bag filled with enough cosmetics, electronics, jewelry and/or clothing to finance one of those films.


As the festival has exploded in growth over the last decade, Sundance staffers have done their best to maintain the impression that these 11 days in January are a rarified cinephile paradise. But in many ways, the beast is beyond their control. Boutique storefronts on Main Street are leased out to corporations by the score to allow a marketing presence among the elite. Distributors’ representatives prowl the screenings, desperate to score the next Little Miss Sunshine. And every time another movie featuring aberrant sexuality becomes an impossible-to-score ticket'the “horse sex” documentary Zoo; the “vagina dentata” horror-comedy Teeth; the controversy-magnet drama Hounddog, which at this point might as well change its official name to The Dakota Fanning’s Character Gets Raped Onscreen Movie'it becomes a little more difficult to pretend that the audiences here are infinitely more sophisticated.


It also gets more difficult to pretend that the jury awards are really about identifying the festival’s best films. If there is one truism of Sundance, it’s that the competition juries will use their powers to bring attention to a film that has not already walked away with a multimillion-dollar distribution deal. So forget about Grand Jury Prize honors for the Dramatic Competition’s most polished entries, Joshua and Rocket Science'the most they could hope for would be cinematography and directing honors, respectively'or for the stunning documentary My Kid Could Paint That. Instead, the Grand Prizes went to the New York immigrant drama Padre Nuestro and the corruption-in-Brazil documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)'both of them good, interesting films, and both of them still notably bereft of distribution after a festival where distributors were acting like the New York Yankees, throwing No. 1 starter money at the movie equivalent of career set-up men.


It would be easy to grumble at the juries for such behavior, but one could also see it as an attempt to hang tight to the Sundance mission of promoting the cinematic underdog. This was still a festival, after all, where you could discover a small piece of perfection like the Irish drama Once, the World Cinema category’s Audience Award-winner and the best of the 50 Sundance features I saw this year. The unassuming tale of a Dublin street musician (singer-songwriter and The Frames frontman Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglová) who begin making beautiful music together initially looks like a hundred other low-budget efforts, with its grainy imagery and naturalistic performances. But the relationship between the two unnamed lead characters blossoms into something wholly original and convincing, with the stunning original songs turning it into something closer to a musical. It’s pure, simple, lyrical storytelling'and it’s one of the reasons I find myself looking forward to what I’ll discover in 2008.


Indeed, storytelling itself came to be one of the interesting themes of Sundance 2007. The two best entries in the Documentary Competition'My Kid Could Paint That and Protagonist'could not have seemed more dissimilar on the surface. The former dealt with the strange case of a 4-year-old girl who may (or may not) be an impressionist painting prodigy; the latter tells the life stories of four men with no readily apparent connection between them. But both movies were fundamentally about the way stories shape the way we perceive the world'how the chaos of an individual life can become a narrative, and how those narratives affect the things we value. We need those stories, these filmmakers tell us, as much as we need “stuff”'and as long as artists at Sundance continue to create great stories, they’ll have a much greater value than any bag of swag.


My other random observations at the end of Sundance 2007:
n1. Every year, I find thematic confluences between the Sundance movies I see. Among the common threads this year: aging family members in need of care (Away from Her, The Savages, Starting Out in the Evening); the healing power of the blues (Black Snake Moan, Hounddog); fetishized video games (Chasing Ghosts, We Are the Strange); early-1980s nostalgia (Son of Rambow, Chasing Ghosts); and the immigrant experience (Ghosts, La Misma Luna, Padre Nuestro, Dark Matter). Perhaps the weirdest motif: Both Black Snake Moan and Grace Is Gone feature characters who synchronize watch alarms with loved ones who are soldiers.


2. Other memorable movie moments: Luc Besson’s Angel-A, which sweetly and appealingly re-imagines Wings of Desire as a romantic comedy; the darkly comic middle segment of the horror triptych The Signal; the too-cool-for-school French exchange student in Son of Rambow; stoner Anna Faris’ interior monologue linking her love of lasagna with President James Garfield in Smiley Face.


3. Best nonmovie moment: Starting Out in the Evening director Andrew Wagner finding himself too overcome by emotion at playing the 1,200 seat Eccles Center theater to finish his introduction to the film.

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