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Sundance 2010: Change you can believe in?

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In the world of independent film, as in the world of politics, the buzzword, more than ever, is “change.” If you’re not about change, goes the mantra, then you’re yesterday’s news — or yesterday’s candidate, or yesterday’s world-class American independent film festival. Change is adaptation, and adaptation is survival. But after 20 years of hipster cachet, of deals and headlines and celebrity starlets in fur-collared parkas, of fabled career launches (Kevin Smith! Parker Posey! Darren Aronofsky! Gabourey Sidibe!) and game-changing, paradigm-shifting influence in Hollywood, is the Sundance Film Festival ready to change its own game? Or, more to the point, is it capable of doing so? Or maybe even more to the point, does it truly, deep down want to?

A year ago, it was announced that Geoffrey Gilmore (pictured, above right), the director of the Sundance festival for the past two decades — that is, for the entire time that it’s enjoyed a seismic effect on the movies that get made, and seen, in the real world — was stepping down, quite voluntarily, from his post. To anyone who isn’t a kneejerk Sundance basher (“Those movies — they’re not really independent!” “God, I hate shuttle buses!”), Gilmore had a great run. He oversaw Sundance from its sex, lies and Tarantino dawn-of-the-new-age-of-independents roots through the rise of John Sloss and studio specialty divisions through the crossover dreams of Big Night and The Usual Suspects and Pi and Thirteen and Napoleon Dynamite through the crossover follies of The Spitfire Grill and Happy, Texas through the is-it-just-a-sitcom-in-quirky-clothing ultra-success of Little Miss Sunshine to…well, the last couple of years, when the image of Sundance as a place of record-setting purchases and director-in-wool-cap-as-Cinderella three-picture deals gave way to the new, more splintered and sobering indie-film world, with a lot less cash sloshing around and more and more tiny companies offering fewer opportunities for major distribution.

Of course, Sundance was still a place where anything could happen. One need look no further than last year’s breakout Sundance smash, Precious, to see the definition of a true independent triumph. I’ve always believed in Geoff Gilmore’s programming; last year, four movies that ended up on my 10 Best list were first shown at Sundance — Precious, (500) Days of Summer, The Girlfriend Experience, and Adventureland. Yet I admit that I’ve had my days of griping about the programming, too, sniping at the proverbial overload of cutesy-cruddy dysfunctional-family comedies and earnest, good-for-you identity-politics docs. I wondered if, in different hands, Sundance couldn’t be even more of an adventureland.

Now we have a chance to find out. With Gilmore’s departure, the festival’s overseers (by which I guess I mean Robert Redford) had a fundamental choice to make: Would Gilmore’s successor be a wild-card outsider, someone to shake up the festival with a bold and bracing new vision? Or would Sundance, like so many institutions, go forward by promoting from within — which, almost inevitably, would mean the elevation of John Cooper, the festival’s head of programming, to the position of festival director? It came as no great surprise when the position went to Cooper (pictured, above left) — a shrewd and trusty tastemaker, to be sure, but his promotion almost had to raise the question: Was this really the person to give a now middle-aged behemoth like Sundance a kick in the pants? Especially at a moment when the new desperation of the indie world may demand it?

Cooper, it’s already clear, has savvy antennae for the signifiers of change. He has outfitted the festival with new bells and whistles: a retooled opening night that features three premieres instead of one, a handful of films that will instantly be available via video-on-demand (that may be a glimpse into the real future), and the addition of a high-profile new section called NEXT, which will showcase eight low-budget features — how low? no one’s saying — that, in theory at least, take independent filmmaking back to its do-it-yourself-and-answer-to-no-one roots. The NEXT section even has its own nifty proletarian-chic power logo, , which means: less than equals greater than. That’s a great slogan for independent cinema in the age of economic peril.

In Moviemaker, Cooper was quoted as saying, “These are not just the films that have been labeled mumblecore or dogma or even guerrilla. They are an emerging counterculture within our counterculture.” But forgive me if, as a critic hard-wired with circuits of professional skepticism, I ask: What’s really new about NEXT? Has the festival in recent years somehow failed to include super-low-budget films? (Answer: no.) Has the festival not talked, year after year, about getting back to its indie roots? (Answer: no.) Are the eight features in NEXT really something different, or are they, in effect, an advertisement for difference by a festival that thrives on the image of progressivism, of always reaching for the next little big thing? There’s been chatter, as well, about the movies this year being — I will put this bluntly — less whorishly celebrity driven. I say, I’ll believe it when I see it. (Besides, does anyone here really want to see fewer stars?)

Okay, skepticism aired — and now placed back in its box. The real test of whether a John Cooper Sundance will be qualitatively different from a Geoff Gilmore Sundance doesn’t hinge on whether there are fewer marquee names, or more sections or premieres or movies flaunting their independence from the Independent-Industrial Complex. It comes down to something more basic — and potentially exciting: Out of the 3,724 features that were submitted this year, will the 112 movies selected by Cooper, his programming right-hand man (Sundance veteran Trevor Groth), and the rest of their team reflect a zingy and different new taste/vibe/aesthetic compared to the 112 films Gilmore’s team would have chosen? Because think about it: You could program a lot of different Sundance lineups out of 3,724 films. I’ll be blogging on the festival every day for the next week, and I hope that the movies I see and write about will, indeed, break out of the mold of the past. With the world of indie film in an increasingly nervous and fragmented state (a situation that some renegades will tell you is healthy — don’t believe them), the shock of the new, more than ever, is just what Sundance needs to sustain its mission: keeping the dream of movies alive by re-inventing what that dream can be.