Sundance 2014 Blog: The Exhilaration of Experiencing the Unknown
by Alex Billington
January 21, 2014
Late on Friday night, I walked into the Eccles Theater at the Sundance Film Festival to see a film called Frank. I knew nothing about it. All I had seen beforehand was the photo in the Sundance guide (seen here) - three people standing next to each other, one of them wearing a giant head mask. That was enough to sell me. I didn't know who the director was, I didn't even read the synopsis, I didn't know anything about it at all before. I walked out a few hours later in love with one of the most original, most entertaining films I've encountered at this festival. This is the greatest way to experience movies - without know anything going in.
Within these last few years, movie lovers have started to become very vocal about their concerns over movie studios showing too much of a movie before release. By the time it comes out, they've seen 5 trailers, 10 different clips, 4 behind-the-scenes featurettes, 6 posters, 15 TV spots and read enough about the movie that the experience is dull, no matter how good it may be. Even the most exciting films can be watered down by experiences like this. It builds up expectations way too much, and can also subconsciously put thoughts and scenes and images into the mind of the viewer that they're anticipating, just waiting to see while watching the full film. This is not the way to experience cinema. It's just bad, and moviegoers are picking up on this.
However, this is why I absolutely love attending the Sundance Film Festival, and all major film festivals (Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, New York). Only at film festivals is it possible to walk into a film that no one (and I mean no one) has seen before, no one has ruined before, no one has spoiled before, no one has talked about already, without knowing anything about it, and experience something remarkable for the very first time. The more I return to film festivals, the more I realize that this experience is what I revel in. It wouldn't be the same without it, which is why I'm concerned where things are headed. I've noticed that, for marketing reasons, some films have been releasing early trailers during the festival. But I always ignore this footage.
While almost all the films I've seen here I've walked into without knowing much about them, the other two films that I went into completely fresh (without even reading the synopsis) were Love is Strange and The Signal, and I loved both of them. There's just something exhilarating about having no idea what you're about to see, and letting the filmmaker present their vision, their story, and hoping that whatever they've come up with and created leaves an impression. I trust in Sundance, which is why I keep coming back to this festival, and I know that if a film is playing here it's going to be of a certain quality, and I don't worry much.
Of course, not everything playing at these film festivals is good, and it is very possible to encounter some duds (like White Bird in a Blizzard last night - terrible). But that's part of the exhilaration - taking a risk, walking into a film that could be terrible, or it could be the next best thing. I'm an optimist, I walk in hoping and wanting every film I see to be amazing and to leave me changed, whether emotionally or intellectually. I want to discover the gems, the breakouts, and I want to experience them firsthand before the studios and marketing teams have a chance to control what we're supposed to think about them. It's the pure cinema experience, and I wish everyone, every cinephile and movie lover, could watch movies like this all year long.
If you're looking to experience films fresh, before anyone has seen them, then I highly recommend attending a festival. Especially one as prestigious as Sundance or TIFF or Telluride or SXSW, where they usually show films that have never been seen before. You'll quickly come to realize just how much different it is to watch films like this, how eye-opening and enjoyable it is to not let any outside opinions or expectations alter your own true feelings. After eight years of attending Sundance, I can admit: I live for it. And I'll keep coming back to this snowy mountain town every January to continue experiencing cinema in the best way possible.
Here's an updated list of all the films I've seen at the 2014 festival so far with a quick reaction for each one.
Alex's Sundance 2014 Films:
1. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle) - LOVED It
2. Dinosaur 13 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller) - Just Okay
3. Locke (dir. Steven Knight) - Liked It
4. God's Pocket (dir. John Slattery) - Hated It
5. Laggies (dir. Lynn Shelton) - Just Okay
6. Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson) - Loved It
7. Ping Pong Summer (dir. Michael Tully) - Loved It
8. I Origins (dir. Mike Cahill) - LOVED It
9. Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs) - Loved It
10. Infinitely Polar Bear (dir. Maya Forbes) - Liked It
11. Fed Up (dir. Stephanie Soechtig) - Liked It
12. Life Itself (dir. Steve James) - Loved It
13. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater) - Loved It
14. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (dir. David Zellner) - Liked It
15. Song One (dir. Kate Barker-Froyland) - Just Okay
16. 20,000 Days on Earth (dirs. Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) - Liked It
17. White Bird in a Blizzard (dir. Gregg Araki) - Hated It
18. The Signal (dir. William Eubank) - Liked It