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My coverage of the first Sundance Film Festival, held in *July* 1981

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July 5th, 1981

The 1st Annual Sundance Festival

By Roger Ebert

Robert Redford's experiment: a struggle for independents

Sundance, Utah--Up here above Provo, in the resort he has carved out of a little mountain meadow, Robert Redford is conducting an experiment that Hollywood regards with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. He has selected 10 low-budget films that are in the middle-to-late stages of preparation and invited their directors to spend the summer at Sundance working on their scripts in the company of established directors, writers and editors.

On the surface, this seems like an admirable and uncomplicated idea, a cinematic summer camp at which you bring home a screenplay instead of a woodcarving and an Indian belt. But the movie industry is not so sure. Rumors float around that Redford is starting his own studio, that his dream is to be a major producer of independent features, that just as Francis Ford Coppola wants his own major Hollywood studio, so does Redford want his own mini-¬studio here on the mountain he is developing.

The truth is apparently somewhere in be¬tween. Redford says he has no desire to produce personally any of the movies that are under construction at Sundance. But he might hope that eventually the Sundance Institute, a non¬profit foundation headquartered here, will be¬come a clearinghouse for independent film¬makers working outside the studio system. There are countless summer writers' workshops nestled away in the wilds of Vermont and Iowa - why not a workshop for filmmakers?

There is one difference: The filmmakers at Sundance did not pay to attend. After their projects were selected from more than 100 entries, they were invited to settle down in residence here at the expense of Redford's institute and several foundation grants. The facilities are spartan. The filmmakers are guests in several condo-cabins squirreled away in the hills above Sundance. Meals are served buffet¬-style in the small lodge building, and movies are scrutinized in a garage that has been converted into a screening room. There are videotape facilities at Sundance, and some of the film¬makers are conducting trial runs of their mate¬rial by taping some of their scenes.

None of the footage shot at Sundance will turn up in the finished films. It's all preparation, rehearsal and deep thought up here, reflecting Redford's personal belief that independent fea¬tures will not make greater inroads at the American box office until they are (hold your breath) of higher quality.

This is probably true. Most independent American films are made on very low budgets (from a rock bottom of $20,000 for "The Whole Shootin' Match", through a middle range, of $75,000 for "Return of the Secaucus Seven", up to a high of $1.2 million for "Heartland"). Most of them lack well-known actors, although very occasionally a famous actor will lend himself to a project. Most of them have limitations on locations, special effects, costumes, period de¬tails and scenery - because film is the most expensive art form except for grand opera.

But most of all, Redford believes, most of them could benefit from more intensive pre¬production work - things like script revision, close analysis of the story, and an occasional pointed question about the worth of it all. Because independent filmmakers are often the only people who believe in their projects (or even care about them), they are sometimes inclined to treat a film as a crusade rather than as a work in progress.

This first summer at Sundance is highly tentative. Redford and his associates say they are uncertain about exactly what they hope for from the experiment. "We started this with no rigid expectations," Redford said over lunch in his small office at Sundance. "They say I'm starting my own studio, I'm challenging the studios... Actually, I have no idea what this will turn out to be. I know that it's getting increasingly hard to get a movie well distributed in this country unless it has the potential to make millions of dollars. I think these projects here have a lot of promise, and I guess the idea is that they'll turn out better if the filmmakers have the opportunity to work on them with some experienced professionals."

Independent filmmakers got a boost here in Utah three years ago with the founding of the U.S. Film and Video Festival, which is held every January in another ski resort, Park City, and specializes in independently produced fea¬tures. Now maybe Sundance will help generate independent films to be shown at Park City.

The problem, however, is not getting a new low-budget movie shown in Park City. The problem is getting it shown anywhere else. Two weeks ago, as part of his summer-long institute, Redford held a weekend conference of most of the major exhibitors and distributors of "specialized" films - a category that includes independent U.S. features, foreign films, "art films," cult films, revivals and almost anything else that isn't a big-budget, first-run standard Hollywood production.

Most of the independent exhibitors and dis¬tributors accepted Redford's invitation, and it was astonishing, seeing them all together in the same place, to realize how few of them there were. The big studios and the big movies dominate play dates on most of the nation's movie screens, and there are only a handful of houses in most cities that will even consider booking a "specialized" film. Some 45 theater owners, bookers and distributors sat in the bright sunlight in the meadow at Sundance and agreed, almost without discussion, that:

-There are only seven or eight cities in North America in which a "specialized film" can get a decent booking and have any chance of a good run. They are New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and, surprisingly, Seattle, which is the best city in the country to open a movie that's out of the ordinary.

-College campuses used to supply large audi¬ences for foreign, art and underground movies, but these days the kids go for action blockbust¬ers like "The Empire Strikes Back", just like everybody else.

-Big chains are completely uninterested in booking offbeat films. Like supermarkets, they're concerned only with the turnstile. Chains with four- or six-screen multiplex the¬aters don't even consider booking one of the screens with specialized films.

-Unless it's a rare breakthrough like "La Cage Aux Folies", foreign films are up against a wall at the American box office. There are only about 100 theaters in America that will book a serious, subtitled film, even if it's by Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini.

-There is still a market for specialized films among local and campus film societies, but the backbone of that market, rental of movies in 16-mm. prints, is being under-minded by the widespread and illegal practice of videotaping movies and then showing them on video cas¬settes instead of renting them again. (Almost every campus in the country rips off films that way, it was agreed; even, though they're break¬ing the law.)

-Exhibitors talked about the "strong want¬-to-see" factor that fuels blockbuster hits like "Superman II", contrasting it with the curious "desire not to see" that handicaps specialized films. The average moviegoer is under 25. Ten or fifteen years ago, young moviegoers were more enthusiastic about offbeat, anti-establishment independent and foreign films. Now they are much more conformist. More sophisticated big-¬city teen-agers who once attended films by Jean-Luc Godard have now regressed to the level of "Friday the 13th, Part II". Today's young filmgoers have a herd instinct and are reluctant to take a chance. In a sense, they "wear" movies like they wear clothes, attend¬ing a movie that their fashion-sense suggests will look good on them.

The outlook, everyone agreed, was gloomy. Various alternatives looked just as, gloomy. Public television stations like New York's WNET have attracted large audiences for prime-time telecasts of quite esoteric indepen¬dent films, but TV exposure, an exhibitor complained, removes the aura of a "special event" that a movie must have for a theatrical booking.

The brightest ray of hope at Sundance came from Seattle, where there are 13 theaters successfully showing specialized films. (By contrast. Chicago has only two first-run houses, the Biograph and the Sandburg, two showcase operations in Facets and the Film Center, occasional specialized bookings at the Three Penny, and several reper¬tory theaters.) Seattle used to be a lousy town to open an art film - everyone agreed - and the secret to its success was creative exhibition. Audiences were lovingly nurtured, leafleted, mailing-listed and cajoled. Lacking effective coming-attractions trailers, some exhibitors sim¬ply got up with a microphone and told their audiences what was coming next week, and what they thought about it.

No firm conclusions were reached at Sun¬dance. Various visionary schemes were suggest¬ed to establish a national support network for independent features - but without a steady supply of good movies in the pipeline, it would have trouble supporting itself. Success stories were recited about the few breakthrough films like "Secaucus Seven", "A Woman Under the Influence", "Penitentiary", "Gal Young Un" and a handful of foreign hits. Everyone agreed that if there were more good films, there would be larger audiences. But statements like that tend¬ed to lead into winsome silences.

Meanwhile, up in the hills in their cabins, Sundance's filmmakers-in-residence were work¬ing on their scripts. They were consulting every day with experienced professionals such as director Sidney Pollack ("They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"), screenwriter Waldo Salt ("Midnight Cowboy"), cinematographer Caleb Des¬chanel ("The Black Stallion") and actress Amy Robinson ("Mean Streets"). Would 10 really fine independent films come from their labors? Maybe. Maybe five. At least it is a noble experimentt ¶

I was there before the Beginning, in January 1981, for the third annual Park City Film and Video Festval. I wrote Sundance before it was Sundance .

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Greatest Films of All Time: Where's the funny?

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The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.

I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?

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The best greatest movies ever list

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UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.

Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.

Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)

Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.

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#115 May 16, 2012

Marie writes: Behold a truly inspired idea...Age 8: Eileen's pink creature It started with a simple idea: to make a recognizable comfort toy for her 4 year-old son Dani, based on one of his drawing. His school had asked the children to bring in a toy from home; an emergency measure in the event of a tantrum or crying fit. Fearing he might lose his favorite, Wendy Tsao decided to make Dani a new one. Using a drawing he often made as her guide, she improvised a plush toy snowman. Five years later, Wendy Tsao has her own thriving home-based craft business - Child's Own Studio - in which she transforms the imaginative drawings of children into plush and cloth dolls; each one handcrafted and one-of-a-kind. She receives requests from parents all over the world; there's 500 people on waiting list. Note: kudos to club member Sandy Kahn for submitting the piece.

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The best damned film list of them all

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Long-suffering readers will have read many times about my dislike of lists, especially lists of the best or worst movies in this or that category. For years they had value only in the minds of feature editors fretting that their movie critics had too much free time. ("For Thursday's food section, can you list the 10 funniest movies about pumpkin pie?") Now their value has shot way up with the use of slide shows, a diabolical time-waster designed to boost a web site's page visits.

In a field with much competition, Number One on my list of Most Shameless Lists has got to be Time mag's recent list of the "Best 140 Tweeters." How did the magazine present this? That's right, on 140 pages of a slideshow. Considering that the list had no meaning at all except as some hapless intern's grindwork, I'd say that was a bold masterstroke. I say so even though I was on it. Do you think I would click through 140 pages just looking for my name? You bet I did. And then stopped clicking.

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Top secret leakage from my 2010 Muriels ballot!

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It's a wrap for the 2010 Muriel Awards, but although the winners have been announced, there's still plenty of great stuff to read about the many winners and runners-up. ('Cause, as we all know, there's so much more to life than "winning.") I was pleased to be asked to write the mini-essay about "The Social Network" because, no, I'm not done with it. (Coming soon: a piece about the Winkelvii at the Henley Gregatta section -- which came in 11th among Muriel voters for the year's Best Cinematic Moment.)

You might recall that last summer I compared the editorial, directorial and storytelling challenges of a modest character-based comedy ("The Kids Are All Right") to a large-scale science-fiction spectacular based on the concept of shifting between various levels of reality/unreality -- whether in actual time and space or in consciousness and imagination. (The latter came in at No. 13 in the Muriels balloting; the former in a tie for No. 22.) My point was that, as far as narrative filmmaking is concerned, there isn't much difference. To illustrate a similar comparison this time, I've used a one-minute segment out of "The Social Network" (Multiple levels of storytelling in The Social Network). You might like one picture better than the other for any number of reasons, but I find their similarities more illuminating than their differences:

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It's the End of the Cinema, as we know it (then and now)

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In the summer of 1981, Robert Redford gathered novice and veteran filmmakers together for the first of what has become known as the Sundance Institute's Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Eleven projects were chosen for the workshop (there are 13 for the 2010 program) -- which, over the last 29 years, has included such films as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight," Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," Tamra Jenkins' "Slums of Beverly Hills," Darren Aranofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Kimberly Pierce's "Boys Don't Cry."

That's the old news.

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Name That Director!

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Click above to REALLY enlarge...

UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...

Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.

In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)

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Close-Ups: A free-association dream sequence

View image Marlene Dietrich, "The Scarlet Empress" (Josef von Sternberg, 1935). A pivotal moment of (re-) birth after providing her country with a male heir -- though not one fathered by her husband, royal half-wit Grand Duke Peter.

View image "Scarlet Empress": "... one of those extraordinary women who create their own laws and logic..." Beds, dreams, filters.

Memory starts one image pinging off others across time and movies. Ruminating upon the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at the House Next Door (which, obviously, I can't stop doing), I see close-ups flowing into and out of one another, dreams within dreams within nightmares, on themes of memory, loss, identity, the process of consciousness and the end of consciousness -- you know, the stuff movies are made of.

View image "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Sergio Leone, 1968): Mrs. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in Sweetwater to find her family slaughtered. After the funeral, she is alone in a big bed in a small room in a vast new land.

View image Final shot, "Once Upon a Time in America" (Sergio Leone, 1984): David "Noodles" Aaronson flops down in an opium den to smoke away his pain and drifts off into a narcotic dream...

In the Godardian spirit of making a movie as a critique/analysis of other movies, here's a free-association visual essay/commentary on close-ups (with inserts, jump cuts, switchbacks, flashbacks, flash-forwards...) that got synapses firing in my brain as I flipped through shots in my memory -- and my DVD collection. Looking back, most of them seem to be filtered, obscured, freeze-framed or reflected faces of characters reaching an impasse or a reckoning -- largely from the endings of some of my favorite movies. I wish I could actually cut the film together, so that I could show them in motion, control how long each shot remains on the screen and fiddle with the rhythms (flash cuts, match cuts, reversals of motion), but I don't know have the technology or the know-how for that at the moment. So, imagine this as a (sometimes perverse) little movie, a "found footage" montage sequence... Kuleshovian, Rorschachian, Hitcockian, Gestaltian, however you want to look at it. I suppose it's also a look in the mirror.

Hope you can see the associations, juxtapositions, oppositions, contradictions I was going for, although I'm not sure I consciously understand all the leaps myself. They just flowed together this way. Feel free to make your own connections. (And, of course, be aware that you may find spoilers surfacing. With a broadband connection all 38 enlarge-able images should load in about 10 seconds.)

View image Final shot, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (Robert Altman, 1971): The camera moves in on Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), in an opium den while snow drifts outside.

View image Flash cut to final shot of "Petulia" (Richard Lester, 1968): Petulia (Julie Christie), in labor, feels the hand of someone (husband? lover? doctor?) on her cheek just before she blacks out under anaesthesia.

View image Flash cut to final close-up, "Le Boucher" (Claude Chabrol, 1970): Drained and devastated after a long and harrowing night-trip to the hospital, Helene (Stephane Audran) drives herself to a dead end and stares across the impassible river in the cold light of dawn.

View image Flash cut to final freeze-frame close-up, "The 400 Blows" (by Chabrol's New Wave compatriot, Francois Truffaut, 1959): Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) reaches the ocean at the edge of the continent. Where to go from here?

View image Flash cut to final moment of final shot: "Nights of Cabiria" (1957) (Federico Fellini): Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) pulls herself together, puts her game face on, looks into the camera and smiles through tears in a tender moment of quiet triumph. Another of the most famous movie-ending close-ups.

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