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SUNDANCE TO SARAJEVO: Film Festivals and the World They Made, By Kenneth Turan, University of California Press: 182 pp., $24.95

June 23, 2002|TOM SHONE | Tom Shone is a film critic for the Daily Telegraph of London.

Every journalist knows the moment when it comes. The moment when opportunity beckons, when fate gathers in the wings, and life takes on that hard, gem-like flame of Manifest Destiny. For Michael Herr, it was in Vietnam. For Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was Watergate. For Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, it was the 2000 ShoWest film festival in Las Vegas.

It was there, amid the meditative calm which only vast imitation pyramids can induce, that Turan met with a theater owner who claimed to do for seating comfort what "Tarantino did for Travolta." There, that he met some Bavarian brothers who were "passionate about pretzels." And there--beset by the snarling forces of Mammon and the multiplex--that Turan discovered that there was "something inescapably exhilarating about this kind of joyful cacophony.... Somewhere in the world it's showtime every minute of the day, and what could be better than that?"

There speaks a true film critic--a member of that bleary-eyed and unblinking elect who think nothing of watching four Macedonian epics, back to back, with a break only for cheese sandwiches--and the only mortals on Earth with the constitution to withstand film festivals. As Turan says in "Sundance to Sarajevo," "no one seems to be exactly sure how many festivals there are in the world," but it is something like 500, ranging from the Switzerland's Neuchatel International Fantasy Film Festival, "the only Swiss festival devoted to the bizarre and the imagination," to the Hardacre film festival in Iowa, designed to answer the perennial question, gnawing at filmgoers everywhere, "... yes, but will it play in Iowa?"

It is in the nature of film festivals to lack coherence--they must, necessarily--so any book about the phenomena is bound to partake of that shapelessness; and indeed Turan's book reads very episodically, with little in the way of a central thesis or theme. Turan kicks off with the big cheeses--Cannes, Sundance and ShoWest--and from there moves on to such geopolitical hot spots as Havana and Sarajevo, which "open a window onto a wider, more diverse world," according to the dust jacket, and where the film festival becomes "a vehicle for understanding the world's most vexing dilemmas." Hmm. You mean like figuring out why the Yugoslavs, having survived the world's longest siege in modern history, might choose to spend their hard-earned freedom by waiting in line to see "Basic Instinct"?

The prize for best historical timing, though, has to go to the first Cannes festival, originally slated for Sept. 1, 1939, a date abandoned only when the Germans invaded Poland. Maybe because of this ignominious beginning, Cannes has grown into the happiest of festivals, salted with worldliness, totally at ease with its own chaos and the only place in the world, according to Tim Robbins, where you stand any chance of "walking into a room and meeting a great actor like Gerard Depardieu and then walking out and seeing this poster of a woman with large breasts holding a machine gun."

Unhappiest are those festivals weighed down by the sincerity of their own mandate--most famously Sundance, dedicated to nurturing cinema's most overlooked wallflowers, although you'd have a hard time pinning that label to such robust crowd-pleasers as "Reservoir Dogs," "The Usual Suspects" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral." These days, for the true spirit of independence, you have to delve deeper into Sundance's undergrowth--into the Slam Dance, Lapdance, Digidance and Son of Sam Dance festivals, where the ideal of proud unwatchability still reigns supreme. One poster in particular caught Turan's eye: "No stars! No action! No sex! In color!" Yes, but will it play in Iowa?

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