<strong>LOGAN—</strong> Of all my anecdotes, few are dearer to me than telling the story of when I first went to see “Star Wars.” It was 1977, right before my seventh birthday, and my father took me to a drive-in theater located in an ominously desolate part of Philadelphia.
It was a double feature, and the first film was the Joan Collins classic, “Empire of the Ants.” This film was about a pathetically stereotyped group of losers on a real estate tour who encounter a colony of large, predatory ants – made that way by devouring chemical waste dumped off the side of a ship.
But wait … there’s more!
The queen ant had made the local townspeople into her slaves who, in a zombie-like state, do the bidding of their ant overlords.
Whatever happened to “Star Wars”?
And so we come to the Sundance Film Festival. Every January, Park City, Utah becomes the film capital of America. And this year, Sundance has drawn the theocratic scorn of the Sutherland Institute.
Ah, Sutherland! Utah’s political La Costa Nostra. The Sutherland Institute is a political think tank run by Utah’s version of Don Vito Corleone, Paul Mero. Paul and the rest of his puritanical horde have taken a break recently from criticizing gays and beer drinkers to go after the real evil in Utah, Robert Redford.
Last week, Sutherland’s policy director, Derek Monson, put forth a press release suggesting that Utah should “end” its “complex relationship” with Sundance. The statement was filled with Sutherland’s usual moral tripe condemning the content of some of the films appearing at Sundance this year.
But then, Paul Mero, Sutherland’s president, released his weekly radio commentary a few days later where he backtracked from the moral dearth argument and spoke out against taxpayer money going to Sundance.
And this is where I scratch my head.
In Monson’s polemic, he argues that Sundance is an affront to “Utah’s culture”. He uses language strongly suggesting Sundance’s time in Utah should be put to an end. Mero back downs off of that argument. He states the content of the films is secondary to the taxpayer funding of the festival.
Monson seems to belittle and disqualify the $80 million Sundance brings into Utah. Then, Mero states it is only $25 million – but, he suggests that the $312,000 the state gives Sundance is an inappropriate and exorbitant amount of taxpayer money, despite the return that money brings being quite hefty, regardless of which reckoning is correct.
Have Monson and Mero ever met? Maybe someone can hook these two up so they can give one story. They work in the same building, it shouldn’t be that hard to arrange a meeting.
In the Monson manifesto, regarding the content of films showing at Sundance he deems to have sexually inappropriate content, he asks the following rhetorical question: “But what message does it send to society, especially children, when we try to teach them that sexual promiscuity is bad, only to turn around and endorse it if it brings in enough money?”
My response – it’s only a movie.
When it comes to the expression of ideas in art, especially film, I wrap myself in the First Amendment. For Sutherland to suggest that the content of these films are somehow perverse and should be cast, with the gay people and the beer drinkers, into Outer Darkness (Wyoming?) is a red flag against the freedom of speech that everyone should see flying in their own backyards.
To Monson, Mero and the rest of the Sutherland brood I ask this: Do I live in Utah? Do I have a right to determine if the films showing at Sundance, or anywhere inside the state I live in, are appropriate for me, or my children? Have I the mental aptitude to determine, on my own, if a film is trying to persuade me to ideas and persuasions that are morally wrong or dangerous?
If the answers to those questions are all in the affirmative, then possibly you can allow me and those who think like me the privilege of being included into the “Utah values” collective that you sanctify.
If the answer be no, then I must think of Sutherland as an enemy of the first right granted to us in the Bill of Rights – and thus, an enemy to the U.S. Constitution, which would make Sutherland one of the most egregious of un-American organizations.
The days of the stifling Hays Codes have long since died. The MPAA ratings system is an antiquated joke believed viable by movie studios that don’t know what else to do in appeasement of moral crusaders. The expansion of the Internet and cyber-networking has made the shunning and banning of artistic materials considered offensive by these moral crusaders, of both liberal and conservative ideologies, impossible.
I would laugh at Sutherland’s protestations against Sundance if it were not for the fact that so many Utah politicians go to Paul’s office, on bended knee, soliciting the Don’s blessing on their election to public office.
That makes Sutherland powerful. And that power, when wielded against something so simplistic and unobtrusive as a film festival, should be scary to any Utahan who might wish to put an idea in their head on to film or stage one day that runs counter to “Utah values,” at least as the Sutherland Institute defines them.