New Frontiers: The Future of Filmmaking?

New Frontier at the Sundance Film Festival
One of thousands of digital snapshots that make up “We Feel Fine,” an installation at New Frontiers’ headquarters

With Sundance billing this year as its 25th anniversary, Robert Redford today was asked the expected questions about the festival’s past vs. present, but he resisted nostalgia and instead focused on the festival’s future. Sundance hasn’t changed much, he insisted. “What’s changed, of course, is the world around us.” The changes in the “product”—the production and distribution of films—simply reflect our changing world, he said, “but the mission remains the same.”

To that end, he pushed Sundance’s New Frontier programming, described in the film guide as “a platform for innovations in cinematic culture at the crossroads of art, technology, and film.” (Decoding the jargon, I think that means “unconventional, and often technologically adventurous, films and art installations.”) Redford said he feels there’s something “dead” about technology, an absence of “an artistic element.” That’s why, he added, “fusing art with the new technology is a very exciting thing for me.”

The conversation shifted to other aspects of the future—some hopeful (Obama), others less so (the economy, stupid)—but an hour earlier, when I dropped into the New Frontier headquarters, I had glimpsed what Redford was referring to.

It was an overwhelming experience at first. The space was incredibly dark, with low ceilings. Crickets whirred overhead. Meanwhile, several video installations battled for attention. One of them, a blurry time-lapse of nature images projected onto black walls, made me dizzy. Another, a digital video of a radioactive-looking buck foraging in the woods, recalled the episode of The Simpsons in which Mr. Burns emerges, a glowing green extraterrestrial, from the forest.

Those installations were interesting only in passing, but as I walked around, trying not to trip on anything or bump into anyone, I found other fascinating works (like “We Feel Fine,” pictured above) that sustained my interest—so much so that I’m going to return there (when I don’t have a Redford press conference to run off to) before reporting back on them. For now, I’ll leave it at this: Some of the most interesting, provocative art at Sundance may not be up on the movie screen, but down on the basement floor of 333 Main St.