At the awards ceremony of the U.S. Film Festival here last weekend, as a Sundance Institute executive was indulging in some understandable public pride over the festival's growth and strength, someone yelled from the back, "Keep it small!"

In a nutshell, that dichotomy is the doughty little festival's chief foreseeable problem--once they finally fix their focus and aperture snarl-ups. For a festival that was almost on its way out, the entry three years ago of the Sundance Institute and the year-round collaboration with the Sundance workshops have brought the event fresh vitality. In addition to being Woody Allen's favorite spot to premiere his films, Park City has become mecca for the independent film maker worldwide.

This year, the business ramifications of that fact became even clearer: Crowding the screenings and the snowy streets of this upscale ski resort were not only the small development and production companies who've reveled in the place over the years but dozens of developers from Hollywood studios, looking with avidity at American independent films en masse. People from Amblin Entertainment were shoulder to shoulder with the dedicated folks from Appalshop, who make 16-millimeter ethnographic films on endangered ways of life in the rural South.

The message they got was mixed--like the prizes awarded. From what was here to be seen, it's safe to say that American independent films, both documentary and dramatic, are on the simmer, not the boil.

Ironically, the festival's buzz-movie was one of its major premieres, "The Big Easy, " which already has a distributor and a foreseeable release date. A relaxed and very sexy cops-and-corruption thriller with a New Orleans backdrop, directed by Jim McBride from a script by Daniel Petrie Jr., it is, at last, a real showcase for Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid (who have deserved one for ages) and a welcome return for McBride . . . (ditto).

There was no head-and-shoulders best dramatic film in competition, as there had been last year with Joyce Chopra's "Smooth Talk" or the year before with the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple." And to choose a runner-up documentary film, the judges had to leap over the fence of American-only films to chose an Australian gem, "Chile: When Will It End?" The dramatic jury split the award between Jill Godmilow's brilliant and slightly uneven "Waiting for the Moon," an "imaginary biography" of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas performed with exquisite subtlety and tenderness by Linda Basset and Linda Hunt (respectively), and a rattlingly funny--if slight--first film, "Trouble With Dick," written and directed by Gary Walkow. His subject was a young would-be science-fiction writer whose exhausting love life begins to threaten his concentration, if not his very existence.

Overlooked here was the engagingly deadpan "Living on Tokyo Time," an owlish cross-cultural love story by Steven Okazaki about a beautiful, determined 19-year-old Tokyo girl and her marriage of convenience to a dim, sweet would-be musician at odds with his American-Japanese family.

The two most hotly debated dramatic competition films were the honorable-mention winner, Lizzie Bordon's "Working Girls," one day in a busy Manhattan brothel, and Tim Hunter's sobering "River's Edge," which is likely never to elicit a middle-of-the-road reaction anywhere. This disturbing look at young middle-class American teen-agers has not yet opened commercially in Los Angeles.

There was a clear documentary film winner, "Sherman's March," Ross McElwee's engaging, indomitable pursuit of love under troubled world conditions, which returns to Los Angeles next week, mornings at the Monica. (The good news: McElwee's romantic problems have cleared up nicely since he shot the movie some six years ago. The bad news: The captivating film is still two women too long.)

One of the losers among the documentaries was "All-American High," the most cheerfully terrifying movie I think I've ever seen: Life at Torrance High as seen through the eyes of a Finnish exchange student and a particularly devastating film maker--Keva Rosenfeld. A sampling of the curriculum includes: the Young Decorator; mock-marriage and creative divorce classes and S.O.S., Survival of Singles. It makes the worries of McElwee (see above) seem thoroughly well-founded.

Using Park City audiences as their sounding board, some film makers are reportedly returning to the editing room--one of the benefits of the festival-as-microcosm. "Waiting for the Moon" is a case in point: A Sundance project, it emerged in its present felicitous form after an exhaustive series of adjustments and tryouts. Park City's mix of down-home and sophisticated filmgoers is enough to turn "Hoosiers" into one of the resounding highs of the premiere section on one hand and to create passionate devotees for Robert Gardner's "Forest of Bliss," an elegiac, mysterious, wordless portrait of the holy city of Benares, on the other.

(Gardner came as close as film makers get to being mobbed in Park City; for days after his screening, people came up to congratulate him, or to stammer their awe of the film--another small irony since the 1986 documentary programmers inexplicably turned the film down for competition.)

If the festival had real dark horses, they came from Great Britain's indefatigable Channel Four. Under the catchall title of the Atilier Konick were four short puppet animation films with the bracing effect of wasabe in sushi. English-made by the identical-twin Quay Brothers, Stephen and Timothy, produced by Keith Griffiths, they have the craftsmanship of Joseph Cornell's boxes; Czech animation style with more than a touch of Kafka; "puppet" characters like preying mantises and a rich sensuality that is dark, utterly original and not a little creepy. Amazing stuff.

From Britain's sterling Ken Loach came "Fatherland," a look at the options of an East Berlin singer of protest songs after he emigrates West in search of a long-lost father. Done in the patented Loach style of fiction-that-looks-like-documentary, it was biting, marvelous and absorbing, with photography by Chris Menges and a screenplay by Trevor Griffiths.

One of the festival's more interesting qualities is its stance toward Hollywood: On closing night, keynote speaker Peter Coyote suggested that independents had too much to lose to turn their backs on the heritage of Wyler, Hawks, Capra and Ford, and that while Hollywood has its excesses and errors, so do independents. Understandable in a festival whose father-figure is Robert Redford (who was a little more visible this year than last), it's a far less combative stance than a few other festivals of note, whose seminars are built around recitations of the evils of Hollywood while its significant guests are, or were, Hollywood linchpins.

Park City's atmosphere seems still tangibly open and hospitable. If it's not yet perfect (there are still technical and organizational glitches), there is at least the sense that the festival organizers will work on the problems.

The real danger it seems to face is overdiscovery. It has happened to the gem-like small festival before; many Park City-goers also are veterans of Telluride, and the comparisons were not charitable. You could hear horror stories about Telluride's ticket lines, which require you to leave one film 20 minutes before its close in order to stand in line for the next one, and stories that pointed to a tightening air of elitism.

It could still happen here; at "hot ticket" screenings, there are already elaborate seat savers who block out whole rows for studio chums, and for two years now the closing-night entrance crush has been an unmitigated disaster. But there's still a chance to rework these relatively small problems before they spread. And what is positive about Park City--its warmth, its intelligence, its maverick and far-ranging programming and its mix of film makers--is too vital to be marred by less-than-perfect machinery.

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