Sundance Film Fest 1990s: Trends

As the country’s prime showcase for indies, Sundance has been instrumental in displaying new trends, new paradigms and new styles in American cinema. Though there are half a dozen series in the festival, the main event–what really draws Hollywood to Park City–is the dramatic competition, which this year consists of 16 features.

The festival’s goal has always been to celebrate the maverick, not-for-profit vision of indie filmmakers. Programming director Geoffrey Gilmore has repeatedly stated that the aim is “quality and diversity, not commercial viability.” Showcasing the work of women, black and other minority directors follows from the agenda that was set by Sundance’s guru, Robert Redford. For Redford, “the narrowing of the main part of the industry opens up the other part of the industry, which is diversity, which is what independent filmmaking is all about.”

Diversity is not an issue anymore. Every year, about 3 or 4 films in the dramatic category are directed by women, 2 by African-American, 2 are gay and lesbian-themed, and so on. The more relevant question is to what extent the Sundance selection reflects the best of what’s submitted for consideration.

Are Sundance Films Representative

To be sure, there is no shortage of films to choose from. As a result of the boom in indie production, more films are made than ever before. In 1997, 700 features were appraised by Sundance for the two series: 500 in the dramatic and 200 in the documentary. This makes the programming fiercely competitive, but does it guarantee high-caliber movies

Year after year, Sundance observers are raising the question of to what extent the competition films are representative of the large pool of movies submitted To what extent Sundance spots and promotes the best of the crop “The only way to find out,” says L.A. Times’ critic, Kenneth Turan, “is to establish a shadow committee of blue-ribbon critics and to see whether the critics’ selection matches that of the programming committee. This is an admittably impractical, if not impossible task.

That said, Turan and other critics hold that it’s possible to describe a distinctive “Sundance sensibility,” a unique “Sundance aesthetics” that often mark the kinds of movies shown. How else can you explain that year after year the dramatic competition exhibits a disproportionately large number of coming-of-age movies.

Sundance in the 1980s

Coming-of-age movies have been a perennial theme in the dramatic series. According to Newsweek critic David Ansen, the stereotypical Sundance film in the 1980s could be described as “a sad, dewy, decent and deadly story about the coming-of-age of a sensitive Midwestern farm girl.” In the 1990s, Sundance is still dominated by youth fare, though, reflecting the zeitgeist, the prevalent images have become urban rather than rural, multi-racial rather than all-white.

Sundance 1991

Along with the coming-of-age genre, it’s possible to detect other trends in the competition. In 1991, the festival was buzzing with the emergence of African-American directors: Matty Rich’s painful chronicle Straight Out of Brooklyn, Joseph B. Vasquez’ comedy-drama, Hangin’ with the Homeboys, Julie Dash’s poetic evocation, Daughters of the Dust.

Sundance 1992

The year of 1992 was marked by radical queer cinema, with an unprecedented number of gay-themed movies that showed little concern for positive role models. Three such films grabbed the attention: Tom Kalin’s elegantly chilly Swoon, a contempo examination of killers-lovers Leopold and Loeb in the context of 20s homophobia; Gregg Araki’s road movie about two HIV-Positives, The Living End; and Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times, a lyrical meditation on a weekend spent by John Lennon and his manager in Barcelona of 1964. The 1992 queer wave continued the trend set by the 1991 grand prize winner, Todd Haynes’ Poison, a provocative exploration of deviance.

Sundance 1993

The 1993 crop produced little excitement. The film that generated the loudest buzz but won no prize was Rob Weiss’ crime meller, Amongst Friends, which owed its entire existence to Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The jury split the grand prize between veteran filmmaker Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise, a chronicle of the interior odyssey of a young Tennessee woman, imbued with a distinctive sense of place, and newcomer Bryan Singer’s weak melodrama, Public Access.

The real story that year was the renaissance of first-rate documentaries. Always in the shadow of the more glamorous dramatic series, nonfiction fare finally took centerstage. Documentaries fail to grab the attention of Hollywood agents, but for riveting dramas and timely issues they left the feature films in the dust. The 1993 jury split the award between Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family, about the culture of poverty in a Palermo slum, and Silver Lake Life: The View from Here, a wrenching video journal of two AIDS-inflicted lovers.

Sundance 1994

Since a generation gap prevails between the jury and the filmmakers, the top prize often goes to “unlikely” and “unrepresentative” movies. In 1994, the highlights in the narrative series included Rose Troche’s lesbian romance, Go Fish, and Kevin Smith’s rude comedy, Clerks. But the prestigious award went to Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was, probably for the same reason that Sunday was honored: It was a well-written, well-acted, emotionally mature drama about two middle-aged misfits.

Sundance 1997

If there was a unifying theme to many of the 1997 films, it concerned young people having to face maturity and adulthood. At least half a dozen films addressed those issues, including the familiar and flawed Arresting Gena; the sensitive lesbian meller, All Over Me; the gay drama, The Delta; the bleak Southern gothic, Eye of God; and of course, Hurricane, the picture that swept three awards, including a directing nod to Morgan J. Freeman.

Hurricane (which MGM will release later this year) also won cinematography award for Enrique Chediak and split the audience award with Love Jones, a glossy romance set among a group of sophisticated African-Americans. An urban melodrama about the dreams and anxieties of a sensitive boy growing up in a rough New York environment, Hurricane was a Sundance movie par excellence.

The protagonists of other films last year, such as Going All the Way or Strays, were not adolescents, but they too were immature men who needed to grow up and gain a better sense of their identities and their lives.

In all of these films, the values, concerns, and worries of the younger generation are explored by directors who are themselves twentysomething. Notes Turan: “A sizable portion of directors are first-timers in their 20s who display the tentativeness and anomie that go with that age. Their films seem fearful of feeling too much, of engaging the viewer on an intellectual level.”

Not surprisingly, the 1997 Grand Jury prize went to Jonathan Nossiter’s Sunday, one of the few films to deal unapologetically with concerns of middle age. This story of misunderstanding, hope and despair centers on a frustrated British actress who mistakes a destitute resident of a homeless shelter for a famous filmmaker. Critic Turan speculates that the jury was “reacting perhaps against the relentlessly juvenile sensibility and subject matter of most of the films in competition.”

Sundance 1998

As for the 1998 competition, after years dominated by serious dramas, there seem to be a larger number of comedies, including Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, a romantic comedy about a gay photographer; Hav Plenty, a screwball comedy set in a middle-class black milieu; High Art, a comic lesbian romance; How to Make the Cruelest Month, a quirky film about New Year’s resolutions; Slam, a humorous look at prison life; and Wrestling With Alligators, a 50s-set comedy about a household of women. Based on this menu, one might get the impression that comedies are on the rise among indie directors.

It’s debatable whether the competition represents in quality or thematics the numerous indies submitted for consideration. One thing is beyond dispute, however, as Turan observes: “Sundance elevates the visibility of whatever fare it picks.” Is there any better indication of the power and impact that a film festival possesses.