If I had to sum up the buzz at Sundance this year in a single sentence, it would be this: Independent film is back. On a literal level, that sounds like the most trumped up of buzzy catch phrases — a lurch for positivity at a festival that, each year, needs a hook, a scenario, on which to hang its identity. Independent film, of course, never went away. That big blue snowflake on the right was the Sundance logo this year, and before each screening, a looped animated version of it revealed that it’s made up of a hundred tiny images: icons like the Blair Witch wood-cross and the rabbit from Donnie Darko and the pie from Waitress — a testament to all the movies, and not just the breakout smashes, that have emerged from this festival over the last two decades and found a place in the culture. Even during the supposed “lean” years of 2009 and 2010, the flow of art never stopped. The 2009 Sundance festival gave us Precious and An Education and (500) Days of Summer; last year gave us The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Let’s be clear, though: The full-tilt injection of energy and optimism at Sundance this year wasn’t just hype. It was about a new, evolving vision of the independent film world that is starting to take hold, and that’s making the future of that world look more and more rosy. Here, I think, are the factors driving the born-again boosterism:
The excitement over movie sales is — finally — in tune with reality. Remember the good old days when companies like Miramax and Fine Line routinely plunked down 5, 6, or even 10 million dollars to buy an obscure Sundance movie that they thought would rock the world, and sometimes did? That shoot-the-works spirit, and the whole jackpot economic thinking behind it, may now be mostly history, but the truth is that for a long time it exerted such a powerful hold — on distributors, on filmmakers, on the media, on the mythology of the festival itself — that even when those sexy mega-deals disappeared, people missed them. Starting a few years ago, the new, economically stripped down Sundance took on a glum, eat-your-spinach vibe, one that reached its nadir in 2009, just after the economic crisis hit. (The sale of Precious that year to Lionsgate, with Oprah Winfrey as the sale’s guiding angel, was idiosyncratic in the extreme — it seemed to be the exception that proved the rule.) Now, though, just as America itself is starting to take major steps toward adjusting to a new, common-sense frugality, the landscape of modest, non-bank-breaking, medium- and low-profile deals at Sundance no longer seems so…disappointing. In this newly responsible atmosphere, the $4 million that Paramount shelled out for Like Crazy suddenly sounds like a lot of money again. Here’s the real bottom line: The deals haven’t gotten cheaper — they’ve gotten smarter. And that’s a happy thing.
It’s official: The programming now rocks. Last year, when John Cooper took over as festival director (a position that had been held by Geoffrey Gilmore since the indie world was in its crossover infancy) and Trevor Groth moved up to director of programming, the films at Sundance were so strong, and so consistently so, that every bone in my body told me these two had made a difference. But maybe they just lucked out, right? Maybe they simply had a bumper crop of quality to choose from. Wrong. This year’s tasty, vibrant selection of films makes it clear, I think, that Cooper and Groth have re-energized the festival, heightening its quality and organizing the movies with a tempting new shape and vision. They’re a stupendous team. And they have made a difference in the way that a lot of people (including the highbrow snarkers who like to dismiss Sundance as a commodification of art) regard the possibilities of American independent film. Here’s hoping that Cooper and Groth rule at Sundance for a very long time.
VOD is the new ancillary safety net. Video-on-demand is now in the middle of its key transitional — if not transformational — moment, as it moves from being a novelty to one of the principle ways in which people consume independent movies. And why not? I will always go to bat for the primacy of the theatrical moviegoing experience, but calling up a film on VOD is no different, really, than watching one on DVD — you just get it faster. And now that VOD is becoming a routine habit in people’s minds, indie distributors have begun to look upon it (and upon other new technological viewing platforms) in much the same way that Hollywood regarded video cassettes in the ’80s: as an economic cushion for any given movie’s release. (The studios figured out that even a bomb could ultimately become profitable via VHS sales and rentals.) And what this gives distributors, in a word, is confidence. In the new world, there is less risk to any given sale. Hence, more motivation to buy. That trend is only going to escalate.
The most important reason of all: the audience. In a capitalistic society, the rules are simple: The marketplace, if it’s working, should deliver what the people want. But at that crucial moment when studio specialty divisions began to fold, one after another (Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent), in a kind of decimation-of-the-small-film-world domino effect, it looked, for a while, as if the renaissance era for independent film was over. And that perception, however inaccurate, took on a life of its own. It merged, in the media, with big-studio demagoguery to result in the following formulation: The indie world had its moment, but that moment is fading! Sundance movies are marginal! They’re not mainstream! It doesn’t matter, really, if they go away! But here’s the thing: It does matter. A lot. To a great many people. It’s true that on a Hollywood tentpole scale, the vast majority of independent films will never truly compete. When a marvelous, acclaimed, zeitgeisty, award-laden Sundance hit like The Kids Are All Right makes less money in its entire domestic run than Resident Evil: Afterlife makes on its opening weekend, that can give you some sense of the economic scale we’re talking about. Yet the audience that does want to see The Kids Are All Right, and a hundred other films like it, is passionate and stubborn and, I would argue, growing gradually bigger as the technology to see these movies expands. The Oscars, which remain a definitive media yardstick of movie-world visibility, have become a testament to the central place that Sundance movies now occupy. These movies aren’t going away, and that’s because the audience for them isn’t going away. And everyone now gets that.
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Who can resist the mystery of Bobby Fischer? The greatest chess player who ever lived, he was a brooding, bow-lipped genius-geek — handsome in a gangly, disheveled way, and famously eccentric, a kind of Glenn Gould of the chess board — who found himself, in 1972, thrust into the unlikeliest position that anyone could ever have imagined a chess player would be in. Overnight, this awkward, socially solipsistic Brooklyn Jewish game-board wizard with the shy smile became the superhero of America, as his World Championship 24-game showdown with Russia’s Boris Spassky turned into a battle as symbolically grand as Jesse Owens’ appearance — and victory — at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
In each case, what was at stake was a war of values, of national spirits. The Russians poured limitless resources into the training of their chess champions, with the idea that if they could beat the Americans at chess, it would definitively prove the superiority of the Communist system. Liz Garbus, in her haunting, avid, and beautifully inquiring documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, does full justice to the surreal drama of how a chess match could become a Cold War power event of such intensity that it took over the nightly news. Fischer’s bizarre antics — the endless delays and negotiations and demands, his refusal to show up until nearly an hour into the first game — upped the drama, of course. But there’s a special reason that his flakiness had such resonance: As Fischer began to settle down and play, his chess technique became as unpredictable (at times, even self-destructive) as his behavior. And that’s why he won. He didn’t play according to a plan, and that made him, in his half-crazy way, a quintessential American, not a disciplined chess robot but a rock & roll improvisor, outmaneuvering the Russian with his disdain for tradition and rules.
Bobby Fischer Against the World features more footage of Fischer, young and old, than you ever knew existed. We see him as a crewcut kid in the late ’50s (when he appeared on national television), at which point he already possessed the ability to glance at a game diagram in a chess magazine and play out the entire game in his head in a few seconds; as the driven, ambitious competitor who built himself up physically, as well as mentally, to prepare for his match with Spassky; as the victorious celebrity who popped up, like some astronaut from Planet IQ, on Dick Cavett and The Tonight Show; and, finally, as the bitter, troubled, mentally unstable crank-misanthrope who refused to defend his title and soon disappeared, in effect, off the face of the earth. It strikes me that Fischer’s fear of losing was demonic. (That’s why he could barely bring himself to play Spassky.) Garbus interviews many of the people who knew him, and the closest thing that the film comes up with to an explanation for what happened to Bobby Fischer is that he began to apply the labyrinthine strategizing of chess to the real world. He started to view life as a series of moves, and this meant that if you truly understood the moves, everything about them could be “connected” in a nearly schizophrenic way.
Fischer became a raving anti-Semite, a reclusive, dislikable person, and a possibly mad victim of his genius. In the startling footage that Garbus has unearthed of Fischer in his later years, when he had effectively vanished (though, really, he was just living in Pasadena), we see a man who became a saddened wreck because his one and only devotion was to the lunar landscape of his mind. It’s that devotion that possessed him, drove him to greatness, and then destroyed him.
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I went into Life in a Day, the we’re-all-one-world compilation of more than a thousand videos, all shot on July 24, 2010, and submitted by citizens around the globe, a little skeptical that a movie sponsored by YouTube would be anything more than a novel/tedious cell-phone-camera curiosity. But the film is so freshly edited, the clips selected so free of the usual YouTube look at me! Stupid Human Tricks coyness, that after a while I got addicted to the movie’s clear-eyed celebration of the rituals and dislocating comedy of life in the 21st century. Yes, it’s our era’s equivalent of that ’80s kaleidoscope Koyaanisqatsi, but what’s original and transporting about Life in a Day is that this movie, a product of the technological revolution that Koyaanisqatsi prophesized and celebrated, feels so much less technological and abstract than the earlier film. Near the end, a young woman sits in her car, in the middle of a rainstorm, and talks about how she wanted to film something great for the project, but alas, nothing great happened that day. Her words become transcendent when you realize that she has just articulated the key to the movie and maybe even the secret of life: that every day just is. And that’s enough.