Elevation and Entertainment

by Brett Beasley

Reposted from Curator Magazine


As the van headed out of the dry basin that holds Salt Lake City, we exchanged introductions. I managed to overhear some of my fellow riders’ careers—accountant, musician, pastor, web developer — but soon we fell silent and admired the mountains. At first they were just a darker shade of sky pinned to the horizon like a ragged strip of construction paper. Then the road began to wind, the van’s engine grew louder, and enormous peaks surrounded us. I yawned to make my ears pop and began to see snow and ski lifts. Eventually we veered south as we reached the east side of the Wasatch Mountains, and, 7,000 feet up, we entered Park City.

I soon learned that for the first hundred years of its history, Park City, which boasts the “greatest snow on earth,” was known not for its skiing, but for its silver mines. It’s strange to think that miners ascended the mountain and saw the shimmering snow-covered peaks only to be plunged day after day into darkness. Today, most visitors to Park City give little thought to the dormant network of tunnels beneath them as they hit the slopes. But for ten days each January things change. It is as if a piece of history flickers to life again. Visitors arrive in the city not to ski, but to file in and out of the darkness in search of something—but not silver. They are looking for something unique and fresh in the films premiering at the world’s largest independent film festival: Sundance.

That is why a group of nearly 30 of us assembled in Park City. We weren’t coming to Sundance as filmmakers or employees in the Entertainment industry. We weren’t there to buy, sell, or promote anything. Instead, we had all signed up to attend the festival as part of Into the Noise, an organization intent on approaching film, music, and art festivals as occasions for growth, transformation, and spiritual experience.

It might seem strange that people still travel to the mountains of Utah to see movies. After all, as early as 1936 the art critic and theorist Walter Benjamin claimed that film was the first medium of art that was completely reproducible. He pointed out that with film there is no “original” work of art the way there is an original Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo. A film screened in Los Angeles is the same film when it is screened in Chicago or New York or Singapore. So, for Benjamin, when it came to film there was no point in using old words like “uniqueness” or “authenticity.”

I think we would have to admit that Benjamin’s ideas hit even closer to home in the digital age, when services like Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video deliver content on demand. But, while Benjamin believed that film would make audiences thoughtful by making art more democratic, it seems often to have the opposite effect. With access to so many films at our fingertips, it is harder than ever to find what is valuable among what is merely available. We lump trite and disposable films together with lasting and profound ones—it’s all “Entertainment.”

That is why in 1985 the Sundance Institute began helping independent filmmakers tell different kinds of stories. Instead of highly consumable products created based on carefully calculated business decisions, they wanted films that provoked, challenged, and unsettled audiences. Nowadays, when the budgets of major Hollywood films regularly top $200 million, ideas like risk and failure aren’t on the table. But this year’s Sundance Film Festival included 26 films that relied on crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, as well as 54 premieres by first-time feature filmmakers.

In order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, the Sundance Institute held “Free Fail,” a day-long celebration of failure and its role in the creative process. Even Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, was able to relate: the first day of the festival news surfaced that Redford had failed to receive an Oscar nomination for All is Lost, the widely-acclaimed independent film he made with Sundance Lab filmmaker J.C. Chandor. When asked for his reaction to the “snub,” Redford said: “[All is Lost] was for me more of a pure cinematic experience. I love that. But also, almost more than anything, it gave me the chance as an actor to go back to my roots … [Hollywood] is a business and we couldn’t conform to that.”

Sundance provides a place for similar labors of love, like Boyhood, a film that was shot intermittently over a 12-year period, or the musical God Help the Girl, written and directed by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Murdoch wrote the songs for the film over a decade ago and slowly pieced together a script, then a cast, and managed to fund the film through Kickstarter, offering creative prizes for backers, such as a tour of Glasgow (where the film is shot) led by Murdoch himself.

This year’s festival also provided a place for experimental works. 52 Tuesdays, a film about a teenage girl dealing with the changes in her family as her mother undergoes gender reassignment operations, was written on a week-by-week basis and shot only on Tuesdays for an entire year. And, on the other side of the spectrum, They Came Together, a film directed by David Wain starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, parodies all of the conventions of a typical romantic comedy. They Came Together was shot in just twenty days within the space of a few blocks in Brooklyn.

One of the most profound films to come out of this year’s festival, Happiness, took the issue of the role of Entertainment in our lives head on. The film documents the changes in the lives of the citizens of Bhutan following an announcement from their King that he would allow television and internet access in the country for the first time ever. The people, most of whom live an agrarian lifestyle in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, are overjoyed. They happily descend the mountains with yaks to sell for the money to buy their TVs, which they then lash to horses for the two-day journey back into the mountains.

The film won a cinematography award for its exquisite shots of the remote Bhutanese way of life. We, the audience, are transfixed by the stunning surroundings, and as we look up at the grandeur of the Bhutanese homeland, we’re puzzled why they think bringing a television up the mountain could possibly increase its value. As we finally see them sitting in the roar and glare of the television as they watch pro wrestling, the world suddenly becomes a little flatter.

Watching Happiness, I couldn’t help but think of the song “That’s Entertainment” by the British punk band The Jam: “watching the telly and thinking about your holidays … feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away—that’s Entertainment!” Entertainment might feel like an escape, but it always leaves us back where we started, in the place we were trying to escape from. It even shows through in the word’s etymology: it means “to maintain or continue,” from the Latin word tenere, or “to hold.”

Isn’t that why a “mountaintop experience” like Sundance is more important today than ever before? Like Moses at Mount Sinai or Roy Neary at Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we are looking for an experience that—despite it lasting for a moment—transforms us permanently. Mountains help because they are the punctuation of landscape; they break up the boring prose of the plains and situate everything in a meaningful way. They are a marker, a signpost. But they also disrupt and dislocate our plans and pathways; if you’re going to go up on a mountain, you have to be ready for anything.

But you also have to go with someone who has your back. Not that we were in any danger at Sundance, but the environment is the product of hundreds of variables that are best navigated as a team. As I met with my fellow attendees for a few moments of stillness and reflection before we headed out in search of the dark rooms we would move in and out of for the day, we always practiced a mixture of rumination and strategy. Our experiences were part curation and part improvisation as we hurried to the films we had passes for and tried to see others along the way, using waitlists or finding individuals selling or giving their tickets away.

Each day we jelled for a moment, like an orchestra tuning up for a symphony. The violinist strikes a note, and then, from what feels like only noise, a single note emerges. And isn’t this what film is about in its purest form? Sitting together for a moment, seeing the same thing. Here. Now.

I often ask friends about movies—whether one is good, whether they liked it, whether I should go see it. Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of, Is this good? or, Should I see it?, I‘ll ask, What can we discover in this together? What truth does it lay hold of? What glimmer can we find in the darkness? What note can we, together, wrest from the noise?