Sundance 2016: At a new festival, a return to names of old

Kevin Smith

Filmmaker Kevin Smith poses for a portrait to promote the film, “Yoga Hosers,” at the Toyota Mirai Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24.

(Matt Sayles / Invision / AP)

It was just past midnight in Utah, and Kevin Smith was feeling nostalgic.

Dressed in his trademark oversized hockey jersey and backward ballcap, the raunch auteur took a stage at Sundance late Wednesday to introduce his new movie -- “Yoga Hosers,” a tween-centric Canadian satire filled with Nazis and sausages -- but soon found himself describing an earlier time.

Sundance Film Festival 2016: Full coverage | Photos of the scene

“Twenty-two years ago tomorrow we had our final screening of ‘Clerks’ here,” he told the crowd, launching into a profanity-strewn story involving a blood-stained contract, potato skins and Harvey Weinstein. “We were the second film ever to be sold [in Sundance history],” he continued, then quipped of his new critically panned work, “Magic happened to me once here. It ain’t gonna happen here tonight.”


Smith has hardly been the only personality at Sundance to evoke the good old days. The festival, which continues through Sunday, has this year seen a large number of old-timers, legends and veterans.

Known as a perpetual haven for the young and the upstart, Sundance is feeling a little...classic. Many of the filmmakers unveiling their films in 2016 first made their mark in these Utah mountains decades ago -- giving the festival either a reassuringly or awkwardly throwback feel, depending on your point of view.

Among the major names debuting new work include Todd Solondz (first Sundance feature: 1995), Whit Stillman (first Sundance feature: 1990), Kelly Reichardt (first Sundance feature: 1994),  Kenneth Lonergan (first Sundance feature: 2000) and Steven Soderbergh (first Sundance feature: 1989). In an election cycle characterized by  a Bush and a Clinton, these filmmakers are doing their best to make sure cinema has its own version of a wayback machine.

“Maybe it is that experience counts for something?” Stillman, who debuted a Jane Austen adaptation called “Love & Friendship,” said, when a reporter suggested the theory. But he went on to say he wasn’t so sure; sometimes a director’s best film, he said, is their first. (He did note dryly that “there do seem to be a lot” of contemporaries in Park City.)


There are, to be sure, also plenty of directors this year in their 20’s and 30’s, people at far earlier points in their career, bringing a youthful energy.   But the oxygen in this high-altitude town has largely been taken up by the veterans. With the exception of Nate Parker, the first-time director of the Sundance smash “The Birth of a Nation,” arguably no upstart filmmakers has broken out among the narrative films. Ground has instead been ceded to the elders.

That’s true in the case of Reichardt, who, 22 years after her piece of Florida-set minimalism “River of Grass” put her on the map, returned with “Certain Women,” a well-regarded tale of ladies in the Pacific Northwest based on the short stories of the author Maile Meloy.  (Reichardt does receive a boost from that most 21st-century of actresses, Kristen Stewart.)

It’s also true for Solondz, whose bullied-child drama “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” when it premiered at Sundance in 1995, helped define the brutally human, blackly comic sensibility that characterized the 1990’s indie movement.

Solondz returns to  the terrain of that film with his new movie, “Wiener-Dog,” which features the title character of “Dollhouse” all grown up. She is now played not by Heather Matarazzo but Greta Gerwig, and she spends her days in a vet’s office instead of being pushed into swimming pools. But she is just as lonely.

“It is a bit of an anomaly,” Solondz said of his very tangible if unlikely return to the past.  “But it’s always fun to throw a curveball.”

And it’s true in for Lonergan, whose debut feature, “You Can Count On Me” won the dramatic jury prize and the top screenwriting prize at Sundance 16 years ago.

Directors who won’t give interviews are as rare at Sundance as a 70-degree day, but Lonergan’s publicist declined interview requests. Still, his movie, a New England-set coming-home story titled “Manchester by The Sea” was one of the biggest buzz titles here, drawing acclaim for its subtle emotion and human weight.


Even veteran directors known over their careers mainly for European festivals, such as Spike Lee and Werner Herzog, came to Park City this year to premiere new movies (a Michael Jackson documentary and a nonfiction film about technology, respectively).

Herzog showed that age does not necessarily mean a dulled edge. When asked about his feelings on arriving at Sundance (where he also debuted his doc “Grizzly Man” in 2005), the director instead gave an answer about how he might leave it.

“I had a dream for Sundance that scared the festival,” he said. “In my youth I was a ski jumper. My dream was to become a world champion for ski flying. And when you come into Park City there are two Olympic ramps. And i said ‘prepare the ramp for me so I can leave the Sundance Film Festival ballistically.’ Flying. I want to fly.”

No one is sure why so many wizened types are suddenly populating the landscape. Business factors may be one reason.

“I think there are just so many more ways to get your films made and out now,” said Trevor Groth, the festival’s director of programming. “There are directors who would have struggled to get their films out in an earlier era that don’t have that problem now.”

Certainly that was true for Stillman and Solondz, two old buddies from the New York indie scene. Solondz’s new film was financed by upstart Megan Ellison, who in the past few years has shaken up the cinema world by writing large checks to quirky auteurs.

And Stillman’s movie, which sees him reuniting with past collaborators Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, was bought by Amazon, part of the streaming wave that has kept filmmakers solvent this festival. Ditto for Lonergan, whose movie also went to the Jeff Bezos-led company.

Meanwhile, Soderbergh, who helped canonize Sundance into the landmark festival that it is with “sex, lies and videotape” 26 years ago, is back with “The Girlfriend Experience.” In another sign of the times, it is a TV show, which he executive-produced based on his 2009 movie.


The return of these filmmakers may also be the result of directors itching to get back in a game in a way they couldn’t at an earlier point, when the indie world was less developed.

“To make my movies I look at younger filmmakers -- mumblecore filmmakers and others -- and I learn from them,” said Stillman, who took 13 years off before returning to work more prolifically in 2011, and whose new film is a bit of a switch by going to a prior literary work. “They very much influenced this movie.”

Many of the directors admit it’s tough to maintain your fastball, particularly in an indie world that prizes the latest trends; indeed, many of the movies can have the feel of the directors’ old work even as they seek to update with a more modern aesthetic. Indie film also requires working fast and cheap, generally thought of as a younger director’s game.

The presence of so many veterans has also been held up by some naysayers as evidence of how the indie world has not given us as many notable new voices as it once did; many of those candidates, the lament goes, are now working in television.

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But the idea that filmmakers making robust work a quarter-century later also shows the springiness of a movement that was itself built on resilience. To these directors, a changing world or sensibility is just one more challenge to problem-solve and duct-tape your way out of.

So, too, is the appearance of polarizing reviews -- something many of these directors received earlier in their career, when viewers weren’t sure what to make of their bold work, and can continue to receive today.

Smith in particular this year has taken it on the chin with reviews for “Yoga Hosers” -- when a good notice finally came in, he said his reaction was  “We got one!” citing a classic “Ghostbusters” line.

Solondz, who has also long taken his lumps thanks to his dark undertones, has drawn some backlash at this year’s festival too, particularly for “Wiener-Dog’s” grim ending. He said he has tried to maintain the same steady attitude he always has.

“For me [film] is much more of a creative instinctive project,” he said. “I leave it
to others to tell me how horrible a person I might be.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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