Park City, Utah--
Introducing the world premiere of his concert movie Neil Young: Heart of Gold (which is lovely, by the way), veteran Hollywood liberal Jonathan Demme took the stage at Sundance and promptly hailed the festival for being "part of the solution"--that is, not part of the problem, as they say in the other half of that old lefty adage. Is he right? Is Sundance actually good for people? Speaking as a longtime and often merciless critic of this festival's contradictions, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not only tapping my foot throughout Demme's film, but nodding my head at his point: that Sundance, though it acts like a hooker, has a heart of gold.
Indeed, in a year when the festival buzz resulted in fewer distribution deals than usual, documentaries about Iraq, anorexia, U.S. voter fraud, global warming, and Neil Young more than made up for the requisite number of feature-length "indie" sitcoms about dysfunctional family members who come together in the course of long road trips through the heartland or whatever. Granted, Sundance programmers compromised every conceivable standard of taste in order to bring Alpha Dog costar Justin Timberlake to Park City High on closing night. But they also rolled out the red carpet for plenty of filmmakers whose work was certain to offend even the festival's own sponsors. To wit, Starbucks Coffee, whose free drinks kept everyone's reels turning here, couldn't possibly have appreciated the inclusion of the British Black Gold, which sternly points the finger at multinational java giants for exploiting Ethiopian farmers, or "Preacher with an Unknown God," a hilarious short doc whose holy man turns a Starbucks serving counter into a pulpit, calling on the congregation to "neutralize this cash register now!"
Of course, such radical fare is bound to compel a lot less media attention than the mere arrival of Jennifer Aniston on Park City snow to promote her role in the aptly named festival opener Friends with Money. But amazingly, Sundance managed to address that, too, in the form of "Where's the Media?"--a 90-minute panel discussion of journalism in the latest era of corporate consolidation, a monumentally depressing topic made somewhat more marketable by the participation of, you guessed it, celebrities.
"I think Robert Redford might be in the audience somewhere," announces panelist Stephen Gaghan, Syriana's writer and director, who cites the citizen-activist conclusion of Redford's 30-year-old Three Days of the Condor as an example of the sort of star-driven Hollywood optimism that he finds counterproductive in the current climate. (Gaghan, in case you're wondering, was right about the Sundance kid: He was indeed in the audience. I seem to remember that he was wearing a black beret.) "Okay--end of [Condor]," Gaghan says, "Redford is on the steps of the New York Times, holding this box of stuff [including evidence of a cover-up]. And Cliff Robertson is standing there and he says, 'What makes you think they'll listen? They're bigger than you.' And Redford goes up the steps. And you cheer. But that was 30 years ago. I was standing in [Time-Warner COO] Alan Horn's office recently--we were talking about [Condor]--and I said, 'It's bullshit, man. The media's not even there. There's no one around to take that box.' I mean, look at what has happened to Bob Woodward in the last 30 years."
Gaghan's fellow panelist Eric Alterman (altercation.msnbc.com) comes through with some helpful history--and a topic, perhaps, for further research. "The power of media corporations to get what they want legislatively is the single most undercovered story in America. And the reason is that the people who could cover it are the people whom the story is about and they don't want it covered. Another reason is that the story is boring. But the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is the most important law determining the media world in which we live: It deregulated radio; it set up the whole cable [TV] industry; it was a big, long fight, and the corporations won. The words 'Telecommunications Act' were never once spoken on the [networks' nightly news programs] during the entire year that it was being fought over in Congress. It was mentioned once by Ted Koppel on Nightline, and once on The Simpsons. How can people intervene in this incredibly important process if they never hear about it? Now [print journalists] are fighting for their own survival against the corporate people who are demanding this impossible rate of return. Doing their jobs in a First Amendment sense has become the second or third order of business."
Among other "Media" panelists, Matt Cooper--yes, the world-famous Time correspondent who wouldn't give up his White House source (I told you that Sundance is about celebrity)--laments that "personalities are news"(!) and praises the blogosphere for helping to create a "golden age for the media consumer." Farai Chideya (popandpolitics.com), in a pointed reply, says, "There has never been a golden age of media for poor people." She's right, of course, and the audience seems to agree. By the end of the discussion, Cooper and fellow big shot Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair are reduced to sulking; Control Room director Jehane Noujaim offers that high schools are an untapped market for oppositional docs (Get 'em while they're young!); and Gaghan, whose Syriana barely made a mark on the box office, earns repeated applause for coming across as the Hollywood version of a muckraker.
"When I was researching Syriana," he reports, "I met heads of oil companies--very powerful men, multibillionaires--and they all said the same thing to me. They said, 'Your movie will never be made. We bank with the same bankers as Time-Warner. We're bigger clients. And your movie will never be made.'"
The happy ending here, of course, is that Syriana was made. But Gaghan, as he's fond of pointing out, isn't one for happy endings as the world burns, and neither am I.
"I just thought, Well, this is bombast or whatever--these [oil] guys all have these huge egos and it's just talk. But I can tell you how [censorship] does happen, actually; I know it firsthand. Four times a year, Alan Horn has to go to New York and meet [Time-Warner CEO] Dick Parsons--he has to try to get [Parsons] excited about the movies he's making. 'Have you heard about this, Dick? It's gonna be a great film.' And Parsons just goes, 'Eight percent growth, Alan. Eight percent growth.'"