Sundance on Sunset By Lisa Wexton & Fawn O'Vey. “SUNDANCE BLAH BLAH,” “when I was up at Sundance yadda yadda,” “didn’t I see you at Sundance yadda blah yadda blah...
“SUNDANCE BLAH BLAH,” “when I was up at Sundance yadda yadda,” “didn’t I see you at Sundance yadda blah yadda blah.” Except for the naked white flesh offered up to West Hollywood’s early spring, the Gen X, Y and Z crowd could have been hustling wares in Park City. Sell this! Buy me! The operative word was hustle.
The Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival was billed as a “viable outlet for independent, shorts, and animation filmmakers.” Despite its name, however, the event wasn’t about film nor was it particularly “online.” The two-day confab felt more like a tradeshow. Digital technology was barely exploited in its presentations and not one of the events was cybercast on the Web. So you say you’re an online film festival, okay...
Rumor had it that fewer people went to the screenings than the panel discussions but both venues seemed to be completely overbooked as far as we could see. We waited on line (bad pun intended) about half an hour for people to sneak out of the short film program and even then we had to sit on the floor.
With titles like “Taking a Feature to the Net” and a ton of film, new media and Internet luminaries in attendance, it was easy to see why the panel discussions were packed. Guests included Doug Liman (the director of Swingers and GO, who was tellingly identified in the festival program as “founder and chairman of Nibblebox.com”), “South Park” co-creator Matt Stone, and Craig “Spike” Decker (of Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation). The discussions seemed the most promising opportunity to see something interesting. But the venues hosting them were too small to accommodate the crowds that the panels attracted.
Were they worth it? Hard to say. We hung around outside the “Taking a Feature to the Net” panel discussion straining to hear something interesting with the rest of those that couldn’t get a seat (and this amusingly included more than a few stunned-looking executive types), but didn’t hear anything other than the usual hyperbole and conjecture. One Internet company CEO managed to sum up everything that was wrong with the festival’s attitude and atmosphere with the jaw-dropping grand assessment, “That’s the future. People who can make pretty pictures move are going to be very, very rich.”
Even the coolest-sounding panel on the agenda, “New Media and the Underground,” wasn’t as interesting as it should have been. Moderated by Crap TV founder Jason McHugh, the panel was comprised of Matt Stone, music and new media producer Alexander Bard, digital filmmaker Abner Zurd, and a bunch of hot-shit new media types from companies such as Vidnet and iFuse. But, while some of the discussions on original content Web sites and the artistic freedom of the Net were interesting, nothing of any real substance was said. One couldn’t help but shake the impression that no one really knew what the hell they were talking about.
To be fair, some of the films in the festival did appear on its www.onlinefilmfestival.com website. (Not on Yahoo!, by the way, to make it even more confusing for someone trying to find the festival without knowing the URL.) Some twenty-four shorts simul-streamed on the site and were evaluated by the web public for six months prior to the fest then awarded prizes through this online popularity contest. But who wants to see postage-stamp sized movies when you can go down to the Directors Guild and see them on the big screen? Half the films were worth the wait. The other half wouldn’t have made it into Tromadance.
We particularly liked Race Speedster, the witty parody of ’60s anime fave “Speed Racer,” and Fishbar #10: The Delectable Peanut, a wacky cartoon featuring female fish buttocks and a stewardess who talks about giving the passengers head. Honorable mention to Vedma, a Gormenghastian stop-motion experience, as well as to the sweet homage to a departed grandmother, Babie. We were horribly annoyed at Sunday’s Game, a silly low rez bloodbath which sneers at its elderly cast, and the pretentious Men Named Milo, Women Named Greta, an overwrought film school special.
A handful of films (Doug Block’s Home Page and Rupert Wainwright’s The Sadness of Sex among them) were held aloft as examples of different ways films can break over the Net. But, short of the evening premiere of Mike Figgis’s Time Code, nothing seemed to make much of an impact among the festival attendees.
The film with the longest wait-line will not appear on the web anytime soon for very practical reasons: you won’t be able to see a damn thing. Figgis’ much-anticipated, thoughtful, overly schematic, jokey and sincere cinematic experiment Time Code premiered to probably his best-case scenario audience. Only a room of other digi-heads would appreciate it. Only techies would put up with the swirling madness of four audio channels haphazardly mixed from a four-way multi-screen. Only Yahoo! festival goers would ignore the fact that this movie had absolutely nothing to do with the Internet, let alone life.
For those who haven’t yet felt the shift in the film force, get ready. Even with the glitches, this screening felt like the start of something truly new-the first brave steps toward expanding film language. As one of the presenters remarked, it’s like the first talkie-a spot on assessment, when recalling that the first talkies were gimmicks. The early talkies neglected what had been learned about style and the language of cinema in their eagerness to embrace a new tech-toy. Likewise, Time Code seems to have forgotten some very basic story criteria-compelling characters, interesting dialogue, innovative plot-in its absorption with handling the four real-time cameras running simultaneously in side-by-side frames.
And can you follow all four stories at the same time? Surprisingly, yes. What Figgis realized is that he could set up elements one by one, establishing basic relationships and then directing the audience’s attention by raising the audio level in a given frame and lowering or muting the levels in the other. Strange combinations of out of phase voices and rising volumes sometimes enhanced (and other times distorted) the effect. Overall it worked, and occasionally it did so with breathtaking virtuosity, as when Jeanne Tripplehorn breaks from shrillness into deeply felt pain. After following her through a four-ring circus of sexual roundelay, suddenly she just cries, alone in her own frame. Your eye then moves back to the source of her pain. Then you glance quickly at the other two “background frames,” getting their message and returning to Jeanne. All emotion set to Figgis’s harrowing audio dance.
Of the rest of the starry cast, only Stellan Skarsgård and Saffron Burrows really seemed to be performing. Everyone else did the best they could with their caricaturish roles by doing Tuesday night low rent improv. Figgis should learn that it is not good to have actors come up with something cute on cue rather than to give them a great script. It is also not a triumph to have highly-paid actors master the ability to synchronize watches so they can hit physical marks if not psychological ones.
In the end, we’d rather see Figgis fumble with something than sit through another panel discussion about digital convergences and the paradigms of viral models on a metric basis. (Or whatever those nice little white boys were saying). Until then, we’ll be browsing for tips on how to marry a web millionaire on the festival midway...
For all the money being poured into the presentations and all the giddy hyperbole flying around, there really wasn’t much to see or do. That’s probably why the exhibitor booths were where most of the socializing was being done. The complimentary cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, promotional trinkets, and cool live-action and animated shorts playing on big fancy-schmancy flat-screen monitors offered lots of distractions. Just about every major or up-and-coming film, entertainment or new media Web company was on hand: AtomFilms, Reel.com, IFilm, Wildbrain.com, Shockwave, Amazon.com and the Internet Movie database, an on and on.
It was here that struggling filmmakers, studio execs, nineteen-year-old Internet CEOs and sundry industry types schmoozed like there was no tomorrow. Everybody was on the make, mostly trolling for investors-and they were there, too, with representatives from all kinds of non-film companies in attendance. And, with everyone getting liquored up on all the free drinks, there was lots of entertaining behavior going on.
For all its faults (and it had plenty), the festival had lots of potential, and with new technology changing the rules of modern filmmaking faster than anyone can keep up with, it’s definitely a timely and needed arena. But, if one thing was painfully clear about the event, it’s that it needs to figure out what exactly its purpose is. What audience is it trying to serve? Independent filmmakers? New media innovators? Web geeks? Film industry execs? The festival couldn’t seem to decide. One audience that didn’t seem to be taken into consideration, though, was film fans.
Although the festival gave some cursory props to digital filmmaking as an evolving art form, its focus was not what new technology and the Internet as a medium means to filmmaking as an art, but rather what these advancements mean to filmmaking as a business. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Okay, maybe there is. The unrelenting focus on profits and commercial potential rather than artistic innovation was appalling.
In the weeks since the Fest took place, it’s taken a beating from critics for its apparent eagerness to blow off art in favor of commerce. Hopefully, festival organizers will take the next year to think about what they want the focus of this event to be. Hopefully, next year it will be more like a festival instead of a glorified trade show.
Back to Issue 11