The movie Compliance, based on the true story of a perv who mutated prank phone calls to fast food joints into sexual assaults, became the talk of Sundance this year when, as the Q&A started, a woman stood up and cried out ‘Sundance, you can do better than this!’ She, like some other members of the audience, were upset at the film’s depiction of the humiliation and assault of a fast food employee.
The movie V/H/S, a found footage horror anthology, became the talk of Sundance this year when, during a violent sequence, a young man became faint and had to leave the theater. He was treated by EMTs in the lobby.
These stories are from this year’s Sundance, but recent festivals have included stories exactly like these, year in and year out. To people at home, reading about the festival, it sounds like these films are edgy, confrontational and possibly punishing experiences. In recent years films like The Woman and The Killer Inside Me have also benefited from this sort of in-fest hype and drama.
But when the movies are released there’s no more controversy. The nation isn’t taken in a wave of theater faintings, and people don’t flip out at screenings. So what’s the story?
It’s important to note that these sorts of things don’t just happen at Sundance, but Park City’s elevation (which leaves people winded and woozy without realizing it) certainly does play a role in the fainting/vomiting that happens at these screenings. And Sundance’s status as the premiere American film festival also means the spotlight is brighter here; a contentious Q&A might break out at a smaller regional fest, but the press won’t be there en masse to cover it.
The real root of these faintings and fightings is the very nature of film festival public screenings. People who come to Sundance as ticket buyers - ie, they’re not press or industry and they’re not such film fanatics that they buy an expensive pass - find themselves in a unique situation. Many of them are older, and they’ve traveled to Park City for a bit of a getaway but also because they want to see movies in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine. They’re looking for quirky or touching or Oscar-bound indie films, the kinds of movies that rarely play the multiplex. But the popularity of Sundance makes it hard to get tickets, and so people very often simply buy tickets to whatever is available. And I mean that literally - they buy tickets to any movie that still has seats left, even without knowing a single thing about it.
So what you have here are people who have some money (because Sundance ain’t cheap), are probably sort of respectable NPR-lefties, who want to see ‘unique’ indies or issue documentaries. And they’re picking tickets at random, often from the Midnight section of horror and strangeness. They often have literally no idea what they’re going to see. And so they sit down hoping for Alan Arkin as a lovable smack-addicted grandpa but instead get Gossip Girl’s Dreama Walker being strip searched and subjected to extreme cruelty. This is how a conservative Christian woman I know ended up seeing Bruce LaBruce's explicit gay zombie movie Otto; or Up With Dead People, which you can imagine really, really upset her.
It’s a unique film festival scenario. In the real world people seeing Compliance will know what the film is about, and they will be prepared for what they see onscreen. The people who yelled at Compliance or The Woman or who got sick at Grace simply won’t see these kinds of films in the real world (or if they did they’ll have New York Times reviews giving them some sort of warning about the content). Similarly, V/H/S is going to play to horror audiences, who will love the violence and won’t faint at it.
There are some cynical people who think these things are all set up. I know the folks behind V/H/S, and I don’t believe that they faked the sick guy at their screening. And I’m pretty certain director Craig Zobel wasn’t psyched about the reaction to Compliance. In the end both of these things added to the meta narrative of the movies, making them more attractive to buyers, but they weren’t faked. They were, however, easily predictable. And next year we’ll see it again - a high profile movie that includes rape or violence against women will result in a heated Q&A and one of the midnight titles will send someone to the lobby feeling faint or sick. Festivalitis will strike again.