Sundance Kid & Sundance Film Festival

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Robert Redford was voted out on the name of the Sundance Film Festival. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) was a money job for him. He didn’t want the festival to be associated with him and a big money picture. But he was out voted and the rest is history.

Despite Redford’s initial objections to the name of the festitval, I thought it would be interesting to write a review of the film by paralleling it with the film festival.

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Bolivia is where I’ll start. An hour and ten minutes into the film Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and their lady Etta Place arrive in Bolivia. They go there in hopes they’ll find riches, gold, and happiness, and live free and safe from any law enforcement. When they arrive they are surrounded by pigs and llamas. They find themselves in a very rural environment, far from their Wild West surroundings in Wyoming, and far from the New York City which they’ve just left behind. They are in a very foreign land with a language they don’t understand.

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If Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s art form is robbing banks, they must translate this art to their new life. First step, learn basic Spanish vocabulary: “Give me the money”, “Hand’s up” “Where is the safe? Open it.” Comparing the film to Sundance the film festival, the art form here is film, and the new environment is Park City, Utah, where the translation is fostering new film talent. “Filling the gaps” as Redford would say. This is a new environment for film to thrive that brings a new hope to the filmmaker.

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The use of music was a controversial point by using pop songs, like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head” for one of the scenes with Paul Newman and Katherine Ross. Redford was not a fan of this song being included in the film. But honestly I like it, it kind of reminded me of Altman’s western  McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) which featured a soundtrack by mostly Leonard Cohen.

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Even if the pop music wasn’t favored by some, I feel the music heightens the importance of this twist on the Western, and I feel revived it in some way, influencing new twists on the art form. Case and point, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) featured at the Sundance Film Festival, and brought attention to the film and the filmmaker that may have not received at any other festival.

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Regarding the cinematography (Cinematography done by Conrad Hall), three important aspects of how the movie was filmed represents what is important and what is necessary for a film to showcase at Sundance. First aspect is that there is a transition of sepia to full color, creating a western feel that brings us from the old into our present. Second aspect, Hall uses a long lens during the chase scene with the posse, creating immediacy without recognition, making the posse blurry and keeping the reality symbolic. And the final aspect, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid end the film in freeze frame when they jump out at the shooters, keeping them immortal in that frame.

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The key words here are present, symbolic, and immortal. These are the three things that are important for a Sundance film. A film offering some kind of  symbolism to our reality and creating something long lasting. Sundance is about featuring original films and new filmmakers to a festival audience, and exposing the real gems to the masses, like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995).

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So even though Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a big budget box office hit, there are gems in that film that I think represent what makes a good Sundance film. The originality, essence, and heart that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brings to the screen embodies what’s important to take away from each film I will see at the festival. And that’s what I’ll keep in mind.

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