Arts Desk

Fare Assessment: Ann Hornaday Goes to Sundance

There are plenty of reasons for an arts critic to leave town—say, vacation. OK, OK, all critics should see what's animating the national conversation from time to time—it can broaden and inform their perspective. But sometimes it feels like The Washington Post's reviewers are spending a bit too much time consuming art in other cities, especially New York Park City, Utah—this despite the Post's 2009 reorientation as a paper focused on politics and local news. With editorial budgets tight and plenty of in-town art that escapes the Post's eye, we offer this regular series, in which we determine how much of the Post's travel budget ought to have gone to an individual review. At one end of the budget spectrum: Acela. At the other: Hitchhiking.

Reviewer on the Road: WaPo film critic Ann Hornaday makes her first appearance in Fare Assessment as she gets out the ski gear and heads to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. In today's Post Hornaday runs down the highlights of the festival so far: the screenings, sightings, breakout hits, and unforeseen collapses. And there's more! She also gives us a sidebar with the festival's hot documentaries.

Invoice Argument: Sundance is the leading American film festival and the first opportunity to see the coming year in independent and prestige-division movies. Who doesn't want to be one of the first people on the bandwagon of films like recent Sundance babies Winter's Bone, Little Miss Sunshine, or sex, lies and videotape? And as a major metropolitan broadsheet that wants to provide a cultural guide to its readers who could just as soon read The New York Times for global arts coverage, the Post should have someone there.

Budget Hawk: Hornaday's dueling articles today are her first dispatches from Sundance, which opened last Thursday. By comparison, TBD's Ryan Kearney has been reviewing movies and interviewing filmmakers since he touched down in Utah last week. Yes, it is a difference between online-only and the scramble for more column inches, but early takes on titles that may be important later this year—i.e., Hobo with a Shotgun—are a welcome addition to festival coverage. Hornaday begins her main column today with quick glimpses of two Georgetown graduates—Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij—who directed and wrote (with the assistance of a shared co-writer and another Hoya) competing science-fiction pieces. She's quick to point out that Zal Batmanglij is the older brother of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij. (Though if she wanted to do a true indie-rock shout-out, she could have mentioned Discovery instead.) The documentary column, however, is not as solidly justified. Yes, Sundance is an important launchpad for films such as the freshly-Oscar-nominated Restrepo. But it's not the premier destination for documentaries. That distinction goes to Silverdocs which, while not until late June, is in Silver Spring, just 7 miles from 15th and L Streets NW.

The Verdict: Hitchhiking, but it's conditional. Our scale is specific to the Northeast Corridor, so after the 7-hour flight to Salt Lake City—assuming a departure from Reagan National with a stop-over in Dallas-Fort Worth—Fare Assessment recommends Hornaday stick her thumb out for the 30-minute drive from SLC to downtown Park City. Look, we don't have rental cars or airport shuttles on the menu. But Hornaday's lead article on Sundance spent only a few paragraphs on the dueling features made by a pair of emerging local filmmakers before focusing her attention on Kevin Smith's blowup at the premier of his horror flick Red State (recapped here by New York's Vulture blog with all of the Rubenesque director's profanity intact) and a few purchases made by the studios (old news for Deadline Hollywood readers). The documentary sidebar is more troubling. Once again she opens locally, in this case with The Redemption of General Butt Naked, a film by National Geographic about the attempted redemption of a Liberian warlord. The rest is a hodgepodge of fleeting recaps of half a dozen other entries that offer only a hint of the films' potential. But glaringly absent from Hornaday's documentary piece is Living for 32, a short that follows Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre as he takes on the powerful gun lobby and attempts get answers from Congress on its lax approach to firearms policy. TBD's Kearney saw Living for 32 and landed an interview with Goddard. Sundance is worth the flight, though in Hornaday's case the resulting articles don't cover the final leg from the airport to the mountainside. But at least she'll get a blast of that refreshing high-desert air and open views of the breathtaking Wasatch Front while sticking her thumb out for a lift.

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