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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Is Once enough?

Another film festival that I have never attended in my life is Sundance. Not that I wouldn’t hop on a plane and be there in a minute if the opportunity presented itself, but I have never felt an attraction to it over any of the other hundreds of film festivals that are held throughout the world each year. Still, it is one that has the sheen of fame to it—mainly thanks to the association of movie legend Robert Redford.

Each film festival has its own idiosyncratic personality. Cannes exists to launch Important Films. Sundance exists to springboard diamonds in the rough. The idea of it is to showcase “independent films” and help them find “an audience” (which actually means find them a big name distributor). This is a win-win for filmmakers and studios. Filmmakers presumably make the movies they really want to make (although perhaps not with the budget they would like), and studios pick up a movie on a cheap that could reward them with profits in spades. As the cliché goes, everyone is looking for the next Sex, Lies, and Videotape, then-unknown Steven Soderbergh’s legendary 1989 film, which did exactly that. The more up-to-date cliché is that everyone is now looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine, which launched from Sundance last year to commercial success and Oscar notice.

So, if one goes to Sundance, presumably it is to see brand new stuff that one knows little or nothing about, the proverbial luck of the draw or pot luck. This is certainly one reason I go to film festivals, but it is not my primary, or even secondary, reason. Since the very first time that I bought tickets to the Seattle International Film Festival in the mid-1980s, my main motivation was to see films that I had been hearing lots about. These would be movies that I had been reading about, which had played and caused a stir at other film festivals. Or they might be foreign films that had not been released in the U.S. yet. Or, in some cases, they might be American movies that had been anticipated and which were having a premiere or sneak preview at the festival. From the very beginning, my idea of film festival attending has been largely about filling in the gaps of film viewing that couldn’t be satisfied by the local cinema. And, in these past few years, strangely, it has also sometimes been about catching American films that are slow to make it over to the UK/Ireland market. For me, seeing the totally unanticipated little gem (or not) by some unknown, struggling filmmaker, whose film was getting its first (and perhaps only) screening in front of an audience, was merely the icing on the cake. Frankly, my experience with the vaunted “independent” film has been that you have to sit through a lot of dreck to find the occasional heart-rousing surprise. And, of course, since these days every major studio has its own little arthouse division for the express purpose of producing and or acquiring those sorts of films, the term “independent” has become a bit tenuous anyway.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying that I never expect to know anything about the films that are shown at the Sundance Film Festival. At least not until one or more of them break out and becomes arthouse, or even mainstream, hits. Sundance is one film festival where the buzz on films seems mostly to come after the festival, as opposed to before, as other film fests. Sure, you do hear about some of the entries in the run-up to the festival. A sad case this year was a film called Waitress, which we knew about because we read about it in the obituaries of its writer, director and co-star Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered before she could learn that her movie had been accepted at Sundance. Another film, Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog, generated publicity for itself by featuring a rape scene (and lots other sexual provocation) involving then-12-year-old Dakota Fanning. (Young Fanning has certainly been through the ringer in her brief but busy acting career. One wag suggested that her success as a child actor has stemmed from her ability to scream convincingly, and that talent has certainly been in evidence in movies like Man on Fire, Hide and Seek and War of the Worlds.) But these are movies that we know about mostly or entirely because they are playing at Sundance. I never expect to hear that Sundance is showing a movie that I have actually already seen.

But it happened this year. Last Friday on National Public Radio, I heard film critic Kenneth Turan, who was at Sundance, tell Renée Montagne about a bunch of films that I knew about only because they were at Sundance. But then he mentioned the requisite sleeper audience favorite. This is a film that is popular with the audience, although not necessarily with the festival jury or juries. I have never figured out how these sleeper audience favorites actually get identified. Do entertainment reporters and/or film critics go around talking with every single attendee at the festival? Or do they conduct scientific opinion polls? Or do they just hash it out among themselves over a few drinks in a bar? At the Seattle International Film Festival, this is less problematic since the main awards are actually voted on by the audience. By I always wonder how rigorous the voting standards are since the ballot boxes are left out in the open and there is nothing to stop people from filling out as many ballots as they wish. (I still remember my surprise at the 1995 SIFF when the gloomy Irish film Korea got a prize, despite the fact that there was only a handful of people at the screening that I attended.) Then there is the complication that the core fanatical full-series pass-holders of the festival conduct their own tabulation of favorite films, and those results always differ from the general audience ones. If I sound cynical about critics and writers designating sleeper audience favorites, it may be because the ones they cite are rarely the ones that I like.

Anyway, the sleeper audience favorite that Turan cited at this year’s Sundance was “a little Irish film” called Once. Whoa, I thought. I’ve actually seen that film! It had its world premiere last summer at the Galway Film Fleadh, and I was there. Turan’s designation of it as the audience favorite was validated the very next night when the film received the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award. The irony is that, if this movie had arrived with a lot of hype and big stars, the critics who are now gushing over it would almost certainly have hated it. I suspect that it is the surprise of finding it that makes them more open to it. A dirty little secret of film critics is that they have a bias toward films that they themselves “discover” as opposed to ones that are foisted on them by marketers. But then that is true of all of us.

It is easy to see why Once would feel like a breath of fresh air at a film festival. A lot of film festivals are over-programmed with hard-hitting socially and/or politically significant fare or just generally edgy entertainments that are always trying to push some envelope or other. Once does none of these things. It is sweet-tempered, slow-paced, full of music and, ultimately, feel-good. There are a few scenes with people walking alone down dark streets in Dublin late at night and, it being Dublin and all, I kept bracing myself for a mugging or a crowd of rowdy, violent youths spilling out of a pub or something. But stuff like that doesn’t happen in this movie. This is Dublin in the same way that Just My Luck is supposed to be in New York and Match Point is supposed to be in London. But if there is something fairytale, or at least romantic, about this movie about buskers falling in love, it is reflective in a way of today’s Ireland. The presence of eastern Europeans is huge here these days, and there is something completely natural about Marketa Irglova’s Czech woman selling The Big Issue on Grafton Street. The fact that she and Glen Hansard are doing their own singing of their own songs only further lends, well, street cred. Hansard, best known for his band The Frames, has one notable prior movie credit. He was a member of the titular north Dublin soul band in the 1991 movie The Commitments.

As I noted in my original write-up, director John Carney told the Galway audience that hot actor Cillian Murphy was originally on board for Hansard’s role. Carney gave Murphy something of a break by casting him in his 2001 film On the Edge, a year before Murphy’s international breakthrough in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. I thought I detected more than a hint of resentment in Carney’s voice that, in the end, Murphy (who has since featured in Cold Mountain, Batman Begins and Red Eye, as well as dominating the Irish box office in Ken Loach’s Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley) did not return the favor. But in the end, it is just as well. The male lead in Once really required a singer who could act, not an actor who could sing. (And I don’t even know if Murphy can sing.) Besides, somehow I doubt that all those critics, who were falling over themselves to praise their discovery at Sundance, would have been quite so generous with someone as well-known as Cillian Murphy in the lead.

-S.L., 1 February 2007

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