"I Told You Not to Say Anything. You Can't Go In There, Brazenly Flaunt the Rules and Then Think I'm Gonna Share With You."
Pajiba's been banned from Sundance.
Actually, that's not really accurate, but it's more entertaining and alluring to put it that way. The more accurate statement is that, for at least one year, Sundance has denied press accreditation to Pajiba's critics.
Now I'll explain more in a moment (and buckle up, as this has turned into a rather long piece) but, up front, I should probably let you know that this isn't going to be a fiery rant. This piece isn't coming from a place of anger nor is it intended to be a hitpiece against Sundance. Rather than anger, I feel unsettling disappointment because I wanted to be spending the last week freezing my ass off in the Park City press tent (which, as Film School Rejects' Kate Erbland accurately describes it, is really "a warmish, drippy, cattle pen-like enclosure"), waiting to see some 20-odd movies in five days and going through marathon review-writing sessions. I disagree with Sundance's decision, but I also understand it. Anyway, you want to know what happened.
Part I -- BANNED!
Over the holidays, myself and another Pajiba critic got e-mails telling us we weren't getting credentials this year because our applications were incomplete. Sure that my application was complete, I sent some e-mails and left some voicemails to see if I could figure out what happened and whether there was any way to fix things. Truthfully, I never expected to hear anything back because I've heard that the Sundance media/press people don't really talk to folks much when it comes to explaining press accreditation decisions.
A few days after Christmas, which I spent in Maine with Dustin and his lovely family, he and I drove down to Boston for an early morning screening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Towards the end of the movie, my phone started vibrating and I snuck a look to see who was calling, just to make sure it wasn't some type of emergency with my real world job (god damn lawyers). I saw that the call was coming from Utah and, assuming it was someone from Sundance and not knowing if I'd get another chance to talk, I quickly darted out of the theater.
Which is how I learned that there had been no application error. Rather, after having a lengthy discussion about Pajiba, the Sundance press group had decided that they could not give us credentials. This was explained to me by a woman who we'll call Wendy (not her real name, obviously). Wendy was surprisingly nice and cordial as she told me that she and her colleagues had decided we couldn't come play in the snow. Naturally, I asked her why it was we had been denied credentials, and Wendy asked me if I was familiar with a review we ran during last year's Sundance, Dustin's review of a flick called The Woman.
And then I understood.
So, The Woman. I've never seen the film, but my basic understanding of the flick is that a dude finds a feral woman in the woods and brings her back to his secluded house where he and his family try to civilize her by methods which include, among other things, copious amounts of rape, torture and, at one point, power washing her. I think it then turns into one of those rape-revenge flicks that, in theory, is supposed to be feminist and empowering but, in practice, comes off, at least to some, as exploitative and misogynistic. It's written and directed by Lucky McKee, a controversial horror film guy who, by all accounts, has also made some very good (or at least interesting) flicks.
Anyway, I remember being in the hotel when Dustin got back from this screening, and our late-night conversation went something like this:
Seth: So, how was it?
Dustin: ... ... ... Fuck that movie.
Seth: So you didn't like it?
Dustin: Jesus Christ. It wasn't a movie. It was a two hour abortion. Fuck that movie.
And with that, Dustin hopped on his computer and posted his review of The Woman, one of the shortest reviews Pajiba has ever run.
The title reads: "Here's Your Movie Poster Blurb, A**hole."
And when you click through, the review succinctly states: " 'Go fuck yourself.' ... Dustin Rowles, Pajiba.com."
There were quite a few comments to the review, which included many defenders of Lucky McKee (who actually tweeted about the review and may have even commented on it, if I recall correctly). The next day, Dustin reviewed a documentary we both saw, Miss Representation, which is about how the mainstream media depicts women. In his introduction to that review, Dustin explained:
I was exhausted and bleary after The Woman. I had planned to discuss it more fully in the context of this movie, but I was also pissed off enough that I wanted to say something about The Woman before passing out and starting it all over again. I touch upon Lucky McKee's movies more below.
He then added a link to this piece in his original piece about The Woman.
Finally, a week or so later, after hearing so much about Lucky McKee, Dustin decided to learn more about the director. He watched McKee's debut film, May (which he loved), and read various interviews with McKee and came away with the conclusion that he had misjudged McKee. As for The Woman, Dustin wrote:
But in light of his own defense of The Woman and, now, having seen McKee's debut film, the cult hit May, I'm ... convinced that McKee's intention was not to create a misogynistic film, but to use misogyny to demonstrate a point about the men/villains in his film. For me, it doesn't redeem The Woman, but it does allow for more thoughtful consideration than my knee-jerk, "Go fuck yourself," reaction
But it was that knee-jerk reaction which got us got us banned (at least for one year) from Sundance.
As Wendy explained it, their media team had a long discussion about the issue, which she said was not about trying to censor negative reviews. (And I believe that, considering some of the other scathing reviews we wrote which they don't seem to care about, see e.g. the aggrevating HERE and the embarrassing The Ledge.) But they ultimately came to the conclusion that the The Woman review essentially amounted to an ad hominem attack of McKee without any critical thought or substance.
They were aware of the follow-up commentary offered by Dustin in his Miss Representation review (I don't know if they knew about the follow-up follow-up piece regarding McKee and May as I had actually forgotten about that one), but they felt that they had to look at the posted review of The Woman as it stands on its own (even though it links to the Miss Representation piece). And they ultimately decided that they have to show their filmmakers that the Sundance Institute protects them.
That's the boiled-down version, because Wendy and I actually talked through all of this for a good ten or fifteen minutes. And again, to Wendy's and Sundance's credit, Wendy was very honest and forthcoming about how and why they had reached this decision. In fact, she essentially acknowledged that they normally don't reach out to folks but that she wanted to call me specifically to explain all of this in light of the fact that Pajiba has generally run an extensive amount of well-thought of coverage and reviews of Sundance films.
But nevertheless, she explained, they didn't think it would be right or fair to allow us to attend (as press). They have to show the writers and directors and artists that submit films that Sundance has their back, and they felt the way to show this was to deny press credentials to Pajiba for this year's festival.
Part II -- Do Filmmakers Need to Be Protected From Critics?
As I see it, that question is really what this is about. Again, I truly don't believe that we're being "censored" because of this one negative review. I think there are two things, instead, at play here.
One is the question I've just raised, that of whether filmmakers need to be protected from critics. Sundance appears to believe the answer is yes. As you might gather, I disagree.
When a filmmaker releases her film, I believe she is putting herself out there with her film. Now this isn't to say that an attack, particularly one that has no relation to the movie or other public comments of the filmmaker, is warranted. But I do believe it means that the kid gloves come off. This is particularly true in the case of someone like McKee, who surely knows he is dabbling in controversial stuff. Even if the view that The Woman is worthless, misogynistic drivel is wrong, even if McKee disagrees with that, he knows some folks will think that. And will vocally express their outrage. Some folks want and welcome that type of controversy but, even if McKee isn't one who tries to be controversial simply for the sake of being controversial, he chose to put The Woman out there and I do not believe that he is entitled to be protected from the responses that come back to him.
Some might be inclined to say that my position comes from the fact that I'm a critic, so of course I would think this. But that's not really where this comes from. It comes from the fact that I've put my own art "out there" for over 20 years, from plays and musicals, to several bands, from newspaper writing and speech presentations to this here Pajiba. There have been many, many instances when I have received the harshest of criticisms. Criticism often stings, and particularly hurts where one is emotionally tied with what's been put out there. But I've never felt that I needed to be protected from that criticism. Because it was my choice to invite the audience in.
I once performed a sketch on stage which, as a co-writer and co-director, I wholeheartedly believed in. Others in the group did not, and it turns out they were right because my God did this thing bomb. It was cut after the first show, but half-way through what would turn out to be the skit's only live performance, I had to deliver a controversial line to an audience that we had already lost. There were hisses after my line, and it is the worst I've ever felt on stage. (And this is coming from someone who felt the embarrassing laughter of 1,000-odd people after a make-out scene in his tenth-grade performance of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" left him sporting a full-on boner.) After the performance, I was told in no uncertain terms that some found my line offensive and thought the skit as a whole was terrible. I still believe it was a good skit. But I get why some found that line offensive, and I understand why an audience might not get it. And I don't take offense at any of it, because it was my choice to (co)write it, and my choice to step on stage with my fellow performers.
Anybody who performs, who writes, who creates films, who puts some piece of art or work into the world, they're putting themselves out there with it. And if they want to be protected from what comes next, they shouldn't be doing it in the first place.
Now I suspect that Sundance's response to this (and I don't know for sure, as my conversation with Wendy didn't fully go down this path) would be that it's not about protecting McKee from negative criticism, but from unadulterated attacks, and that Dustin's review is not a valid critical review. That it lacked substance and conveyed no thought and that this is what their filmmakers need to be protected from.
And that, to my mind, is the second thing at play here, namely, that there is a fundamental disagreement as to the "merit" or "value" of a review that simply says "go fuck yourself." As Dustin himself readily admitted at the time, his first review of The Woman was a "knee-jerk reaction." But because it's knee-jerked, short, and vulgar, does that mean it has no critical merit? I don't think so. What you got was a brief but honest reaction from a movie critic to a film he had observed. You basically got his raw emotion. Dustin was angry and offended and his review made that pretty clear.
Over time, our readers learn the peculiarities and tastes of many of our critics, and that's particularly true when it comes to Dustin, who's written so much for this brainchild site of his over the last half-plus decade. And that familiarity with Dustin colors how many read his reviews. So being familiar with Dustin's work and the fact that he generally tries to give a fair shake to any film that has any redeeming qualities, and particularly to smaller indie films, his brief "go fuck yourself" becomes all the more telling.
I was recently telling the story of Pajiba's Sundance banning to someone who happens to be a movie producer, and her response was something along the lines of "well, why should Sundance be obligated to give you access if you're only only going to post a one sentence diatribe?" This is an interesting point, the idea that there are expectations that come with the access we were given and, in the abstract, that's a completely legitimate point. Of course Sundance doesn't have to give us credentials, essentially giving us free access to film screenings that other festival-goers pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for. But context matters. Even putting aside the two follow-up pieces Dustin wrote (which I don't think should be put aside or discarded from the conversation), you have to look at this in context. Hell, take away the context of Dustin's years of reviews, and just put it in the context of the 31 films we reviewed for that particular festival. Dustin and I both put a lot of time, thought and energy into our reviews, and I don't think you can say we abused the access we were given or took advantage of it.
This is a point I did raise during my call with Wendy, which she said she understood. In fact, she explained (and as I mentioned above), it was because of the extent and depth of our coverage overall that she called in the first place. But, again, Sundance is coming at this from a different perspective, and there was simply a fundamental disagreement that certainly wasn't going to be resolved during that phone call.
Part III -- The Irony of It All
But here's the real kicker, in my mind -- Sundance needs us more than we need them. This is not to say that Sundance needs us. Of course Sundance doesn't need Pajiba.
But we don't need Sundance, either. What I mean is, we really don't make any money off of Sundance. The reviews we post from Sundance (and just about any other film festival we cover) get minimal traffic, because the average reader is not that interested in reading a review of a film they've never heard of which they may never get a chance to see. Because the traffic is minimal, these reviews have no impact on the ad revenue we generate, nor do they serve any promotional merit. At best, they give us some "credibility," I suppose, and they allow us to have a review already in the gates to re-run should a Sundance film get a later theatrical run or distribution of some form.
So why do we go to Sundance? Because we love it. This year's trip would have cost me upwards of $3,000 (and burned a week of hard-to-find vacation time from my real job). This is money which was coming entirely out of my own pocket, not out of Pajiba's nonexistent coffers -- while the site would love to pick up the expenses for our critics to go to festivals, that's just not an option, so every critic travels to these festivals, when we go, on our own dime. And that's exactly what Sundance does need, people who love film, people who love and promote small, independent films that may otherwise go unseen. As the Sundance mission statement says:
Sundance Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and audiences. Through its programs, the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film and theatre artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work.
Yes, the statement talks about supporting independent film artists, which is what Sundance thinks it is doing by denying us credentials. But it's also about introducing audiences to these works. And when a movie we've seen at a film festival gets distributed later, and when it's a move we love, we are vocal as hell about it. Last summer, I told everyone I could to go see Attack the Block. And The Guard. And Another Earth. We re-run our reviews and otherwise try to pimp the films on the site. We love good movies and love getting the word out on those Little Films that Could.
A lot of the critics who go to Sundance, a lot of the critics who have been posting reviews over this last week, are the same way. We're not the only ones, by any means. But every voice helps and, at least for this year, Sundance chose to silence once of those voices.
Part IV -- Will Pajiba Cover Sundance Again?
I don't know. Towards the end of my discussion with Wendy, I asked whether this meant we shouldn't bother applying for credentials in the future. I was told that we should absolutely submit applications again next year, which carried the implication that this isn't a lifetime ban but, instead, simply a one-year message by the festival to its filmmakers. Schedules permitting, we will certainly apply next year and, if we're given credentials, Pajiba will cover Sundance in 2013.
Now when I mentioned to a few folks that I was going to write this piece, they asked whether I was worried that this might give Sundance the impetus to make the temporary ban into a lifetime ban. In fact, Dustin wondered whether, by running this piece "we might have to give up hope of a future credential." Frankly, I can't be concerned with that.
First of all, if I didn't publish this piece solely because I didn't want to risk pissing Sundance off, that would go against one of the core foundations of Pajiba, which is to publish reviews and pieces without regard for the PR firms and machinery of Hollywood (to our continued financial dissatisfaction and suffering). So that wasn't really an option. Second, I don't think that Sundance is petty. From my discussion with Wendy, my impression was that they were very reasoned and thoughtful in coming to this decision. I disagree with the decision, but not with the approach they took to get to that decision. So I don't think they would decide to disallow us forever solely because of this piece. And if they do, well again, that would be disappointing, but there's nothing I can do about that.
So anyway, if we're given credentials, we will definitely cover Sundance again. And if Pajiba winds up banned for life, frankly, you'll still likely see coverage from future Sundance festivals. Last year was the first year we had press credentials, but not the first year we covered the festival. We've done Sundance the same way the schnooks do it, by planning and saving funds and buying tickets or passes, and we would surely do that again. Because, again, we love the shit out of it.
But for this year, like the rest of you, all we know about Sundance is what we've read elsewhere. In the meantime, South by Southwest is right around the corner, and Pajiba will once again be on the ground in Austin, getting drunk, getting debaucherous and maybe even writing some reviews.