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PART II: FILM FEST ’85: SUNDANCE TAKES OVER

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 29, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: The 2016 Sundance Film Festival winds down this weekend, so to add some historical perspective here are excerpts from my 1985 Deseret News coverage of that year’s Park City fest — the year Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute took over the 7-year-old event but a few years before calling it the Sundance Film Festival.

Grand prizes awarded to documentary, dramatic films (Jan. 27, 1985): A darkly humorous tale of murder and a documentary film that was banned from PBS took the grand prizes at the United States Film Festival. The prizes, which include $2,500 each, were handed out during an awards banquet Saturday night.

“Blood Simple,” an offbeat cross between James M. Cain and Alfred Hitchcock, won the top dramatic prize. The documentary winner is “Seventeen,” originally produced as part of the “Middletown” series on PBS television, but yanked when the program’s sponsors and PBS officials objected to the film’s frankness.

Special jury prizes were awarded to three unique dramatic films, “Almost You,” “The Killing Floor,” and “Stranger Than Paradise.” On the documentary side, special jury prizes went to five additional competition films, all excellent choices – “America and Lewis Hine,” “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” “Kaddish,” “Streetwise” and “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

To call this year’s festival a rousing success seems to understate. The 1985 United States Film Festival made more money and brought in more people than any recent year.

One of the things that contributed to that, and which the new Sundance Institute sponsorship is responsible for, was the widely distributed program guides, along with generally better marketing techniques, including posters and advance sales.

Total attendance at this year’s festival was estimated at 14,700, more than twice last year’s attendance of about 7,000. The box office take was nearly $67,000, compared to last year’s $38,000. During the 10-day festival that began Friday, Jan. 18, there were several notable events, but the two that brought the most notice nationally, and which really put this year’s festival on the map, were Robert Redford’s seminar on directing drama, and the premiere of the newly restored version of D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East.”

Independent films that had already developed strong reputations like “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Blood Simple,” “A Flash of Green,” “Brother from Another Planet,” “The Times of Harvey Milk,” “America and Lewis Hine” and “Seventeen,” helped give impetus to the competition this year, and unknown quantities among the premieres, such as Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and John Schlesinger’s “The Falcon and the Snowman,” and the highly touted “Paris, Texas,” by Wim Wenders, drew more attention than otherwise might be expected to this year’s festival.

     

Robert Redford address a Sundance Film Festival audience

And, of course, the country’s movie industry sat up and took notice simply by virtue of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute taking over sponsorship of the festival.

Film festival has left pleasant memories (Jan. 27, 1985): The United States Film Festival is in the last throes of its seventh year. Soon, the past 10 days will simply be a memory. But a very nice memory it will be.

Don’t think I’ve gotten soft, though. I still advocate that it be held in Salt Lake City instead of Park City, and I have a few gripes about this year’s fest.

But for the most part I’m convinced this was one of the best of the seven festivals so far.

FOR ME, THE MOST memorable event, and one I will remember a very long time, was the premiere of the restored “Way Down East,” a film I had never before seen in any version.

And to see it as close to D.W. Griffith’s original vision as possible, with a beautifully orchestrated accompaniment by the Salt Lake Chamber Ensemble (using the score originally created for the film), was the best of all possible worlds.

The circumstances of the screening certainly enhanced the event, but the film itself was astonishingly moving, considering it is 65 years old and, as one must expect, a bit creaky here and there. Lillian Gish’s performance remains a standout, as subtle and graceful as the camera could ask for, and she was so eloquent and moving that even the most cynical members of the audience were won over before the first half was over.

IT SHOULD BE mentioned that Robert Redford’s presence did a great deal to legitimize the festival as a whole, and his personal appearance at the “Way Down East” showing, the opening-night premiere of “The Falcon and the Snowman” in Salt Lake City, and his own workshop last Sunday, gave a tremendous boost to the 10-day event. Here’s hoping he maintains that high profile as the festival’s chief advocate.

Lillian Gish, portrait, left, and on an ice floe, 'Way Down East'

AMONG THE FILMS, especially when there is this wide a variety, there are bound to be

disappointments, but happily, for me at least, there were few of those.

Nearly all of the independents I viewed, dramatic and documentary, were tremendously impressive, my personal favorites including “The Times of Harvey Milk,” “A Flash of Green,” “Blood Simple,” “America and Lewis Hine,” “Seventeen,” “The Roommate,” “Vamping” and “Stranger Than Paradise.”

ONE OF THE WORRIES in festivals like this one is that things will go wrong on the technical end, and there were occasional problems, such as the screening of “Secret Honor,” delayed 25 minutes because the film broke during the opening credits.

Worse, however, was what happened during the first Park City film, an independent competition entry called “Vamping” that built a number of bizarre plot twists right up to a shocking climax. The film broke during the last five minutes, which completely broke the tension necessary to the shock ending.

The problem, however, proved to be a bad splice placed in the film by a previous exhibitor, something no one could have foreseen.

Despite such occasional gaffes, however, the technical end was generally quite smooth. The problems were the exceptions, not the rule.

AS FOR PARK CITY. … Someday I’ll probably get a nasty letter from the Park City Chamber of Commerce about my annual harping on this subject, but it is still less convenient for the average Salt Laker to get to a movie in the festival when it takes place entirely up there.

I’ve said it all before, but with the inadequate parking, the smaller facilities and the long drive it requires, Park City is simply not conducive to the widest possible audience.

A nice compromise might be to tie up just one Salt Lake theater during festival week and show only the competition films there, maybe one screening for each film.

And though it was better this year than in years past, I’d still like to see more critics’ screenings in advance, so the Salt Lake newspapers can actually review movies that will be shown in the festival before they play.

STILL AND ALL, those things that prompted my complaints this year were overwhelmingly overridden by the things I thoroughly enjoyed, and I look forward to next year’s festival being even better.