Editorial: The real wild West is … Sundance | ParkRecord.com

Editorial: The real wild West is … Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival, shown in 2020, is slated to return as an in-person event later in January after two consecutive coronavirus pandemic-forced cancellations of the live events. | Park Record file photo

In his wickedly entertaining book “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and The Rise of Independent Film,” Peter Biskind describes the Park City that the young Steven Soderbergh finds when he arrives from his California home in 1989, lugging a print of his first movie, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”:

“In those days Park City was a struggling, sub-Aspen ski resort, a huddle of drab buildings ringed by a dark necklace of high-priced condos splayed across the snow covered hills …A mining town in the previous century, it was well on its way to becoming a theme park, with faux Wild West wooden facades … The restaurants bore names like the (Grub Steak), the Eating Establishment, and so on, spelled out in Gold Rush signage that featured the faces of scowling men in bowler hats and stringy handlebar mustaches… It looked like the set of ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller,’ directed by Walt Disney instead of Robert Altman.”

If we knew whom to thank for sparing us the fate of being and becoming that place — just the faux Wild West horror of it all; there was no gold rush here and there was nothing quaint about our mining days — we would. We would even momentarily overlook our current challenges that come from not having become it, like too much traffic and upscale development.

There is no one party to credit, but on a short list, along with the operators of ski resorts and the organizers of the 2002 Winter Olympics, must be Sundance, the institute, and the film festival, which opens Thursday, in-person for the first time in three years.

The film festival, with all its democratic and elitist components, has added to our patina, to our culture and excitement. It helps make us more than just another ski town. Park City today is also a place where movies come from nowhere and turn into huge things, as one early booster crowed.

There were approximately 16,000 submissions for this year’s festival, programming director Kim Yutani told National Public Radio last weekend. “We have a team of programmers who watch every single film that we consider, and we get to the point where … we end up with 110 feature films, 65 short films. The competition is incredibly tough.”

In 1992, the festival thought it had burgeoned with between just 300 and 400 submissions. That year, another young filmmaker arrived in Park City from California with his first film in tow, “Reservoir Dogs.” It flew in the face of what some organizers and attendees thought was the Sundance spirit then, socially conscious and non-violent (some would have said dull as well).

But Quentin Tarantino made it into the competition.

Biskind describes what happened next:

“At the last screening of ‘Dogs,’ the big one at the Egyptian Theatre that Tarantino ever after referred to as ‘the Faye Dunaway screening,’ because she was in the audience, a man stood up and asked, ‘So, how do you justify all the violence in this movie?’ The director replied, ‘I don’t know about you, but I love violent movies. What I find offensive is that Merchant-Ivory (crap).'”

We almost ought to have a monument to that moment. Because what it shows is that, like Park City, the film festival is and has been many things. And that messy multiplicity itself gives us bragging rights.

There will always be some people who prefer a tasteful period piece set in Edwardian England to the next “Pulp Fiction.” At Sundance, you don’t have to choose.

And upstart brashness will forever be in the festival’s DNA. That’s good for Park City because more than ever, we need things that will startle the horses and the bourgeoisie.

We look forward to even less fake Wild West and more Tarantino-esque moments.

Thanks in part to Sundance, our real wild West is now.


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