Sundance with Cronkite

A few days after I returned from Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival JanPlan, the wonderful professor who took our class out West, Phyllis Mannocchi, asked me into her office for an interview-style final exam. She greeted me with a pleasant “How are you adjusting to life back at Colby?” An adjustment indeed it has been.

Over the course of a short nine days at the festival, I saw John Cho grocery shopping with his girlfriend, listened to a film director “tripping out” (his own words) during a panel in front of a thousand audience members, and watched a movie in which a quadriplegic man visited a gloryhole.

Designed as a study of American independent film, the class began with a series of on-campus classroom sessions before we flew out West. Once a day, 19 of us gathered to watch and discuss a single independent film, often selections from previous years at Sundance. Before travelling together, the two week period allowed us to get a sense, not only of one another but, perhaps equally important, of one another’s film sensibilities.

The nature of the films at Sundance of course is that they are, by and large, new and unknown. Decisions on which films to see, then, are based upon crowd buzz and friendly recommendation, often from classmates. There’s a good bit of fun to be had going into a movie relatively blindly, with knowledge only of the prior work histories of the actors and filmmakers involved; this method tends to lead one to a rather eclectic collection of films viewed over the course of a week or so.

Lacking the pre-purchased bulk ticket passes of the more experienced Sundancers, our group of student filmgoers by and large trudged into premieres and panels by way of the wait list lines. The queues, several hundred viewers strong, are in fact one of the hallmarks of the festival. Populated as much by industry insiders as by laypeople, the crowded line areas are veritable Roman fora of cinematic discussion. While waiting—and hoping— to get into a supposedly fantastic documentary about Mexican drug cartels, I was invited to submit a student film to the Mallorca International Film Festival (MIFF). The woman who invited me, MIFF’s founder and director, seemed uninterested in my protestations that I do not, in fact, make student films.

Waiting in lines, reconvening with fellow Colby Sundancers at the end of the day, and sifting through the instant-reaction blogs that popped up from professional reviewers, we got the sense that this year’s festival was a strong one. There was a handful of films that, in a few days, seemed to be universally regarded as worth waiting in line for, and a smaller handful to be avoided. Where the crowd buzz system of movie selection becomes interesting is, of course, the mid-tier movies upon which the crowd can disagree.

After seeing one documentary I found particularly strong (an interview-driven perspective on the treatment and rehabilitation of sex offenders in Florida), I recommended it to a few friends. In return, one of my classmates suggested a movie he had seen the night before and found to be one of his favorites thus far at the festival.

The film he suggested was a horror film in competition, meaning that each audience member was given a ballot to rate the film on a four-star scale upon egress from the theatre. Though my referring classmate had, I felt, by and large quite good taste in movies, I made a decision about 45 minutes into the movie to tear off the one star corner of my ballot and walk out.  A Sundance volunteer politely told me that they could not accept a ballot from someone who had not sat through the entire movie and made a fair judgment. So, on principle (both of respecting the legitimate concern of fair voting and of my desire to cast my derogatory vote), I sat myself back down, endured through the rolling of the credits, and recast my one star vote  one grueling hour later.

I had as much fun debating with the aforementioned classmate the merits and demerits of the horror flick as I did sitting in the front row of a wonderful Hungarian satire film about dogs and getting to ask questions to the director about his cinematic vision. (It certainly did not hurt that the director brought the canine star of the film to the premiere, and said star chose to come directly to my seat for a flurry of furry greetings.)

The final exam, such as it was, fit into the spirit of the festival. I did not know much what to expect going in, but upon arrival found an intellectually enjoyable but challenging discourse about film with similarly interested participants. Professor Mannocchi, as with the Sundancers I met in Utah, is passionate about and well-versed in film, which makes for the ideal environment for a week plus of pure cinematic immersion.

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