A comment on our Academy Awards post below asked our opinion about the controversies regarding this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s annual forum for what Hollywood types see as quirky and interesting films and what usually turns out to be a collection of rubbishy postmodern cliches. It’s a good question.

First, some background, from a Chicago Tribune article on the festival:

Child endangerment is nothing new to the movies; it’s just that audiences are more accustomed to shameless emotional peril and physical but non-sexual scenarios.

But the kids are definitely not all right at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Prior to its world premiere screening Monday, "Hounddog," starring 12-year-old Dakota Fanning as an incest and rape survivor in 1950s Bayou country, drew intense if uninformed criticism, mostly from pundits who hadn’t yet seen the film. . . .

Objections to "Hounddog" have focused on the drama’s theme of dangerously sexualized pre-teens; a rape scene, in which Fanning’s Elvis-loving Lewellen (shown only from the shoulders up) is assaulted by the local milkman, and the question of whether Fanning should have been allowed to participate at all.

"Hounddog" is one film among many in this year’s festival roster dealing with child and teen endangerment, mostly non-sexual but persistently grisly. In "An American Crime," based on a true story, Catherine Keener plays Gertrude Baniszewski, the Indiana mother who imprisoned the daughter of carnival workers in her cellar, burned her with cigarettes and allowed her children to participate in the torture. The film isn’t exactly tortuous, but it isn’t revealing, either: Despite valiant work from Keener, who keeps us guessing about the depths of this hard-luck woman’s capacity for viciousness, "An American Crime" settles for a drab visual and narrative recounting of a very, very bad situation.

"Weapons," a drama in which disaffected teenagers enact a chain of revenge killings while looking for something to do, may have been one of the festival’s early non-favorites, but it sold for a modest sum to Sony Pictures Classics.

Tuesday evening brought the world premiere of "Trade," a fact-based story like "An American Crime." It is described in the Sundance festival program notes as "an undeniably disturbing film set in a sinister world where young, virginal children are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery."

In addition to these interesting prize-seekers, Catholic League president William Donohue cites a film the Metromix writer didn’t mention (please skip the following description if you’re over sixty years of age):

Now that officials of the Sundance Film Festival, and those associated with the movie Hounddog, have been blasted for exploiting 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, they have tried to blunt the attacks by saying that the film contains a "carefully choreographed rape scene" that was done in an "artistic way."

Simulated child rape, then, is okay as long as it doesn’t offend Hollywood sensibilities. The problem is that no one knows what offends Hollywood save for a movie about the death of Jesus.

It certainly doesn’t bother Hollywood to feature a movie about a man having sex with a horse, which is what the Sundance entry Zoo is all about. Indeed, this movie was deemed by Sundance judges as a "humanizing look at the life and bizarre death of a seemingly normal Seattle family man who met his untimely death after an unusual encounter with a horse."

To be blunt about it, the movie tries to sanitize the sick death of an obviously deranged Seattle pervert who perforated his colon after he molested a horse.

Kenneth [Turan] of the Los Angeles Times was unhappy with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ because of its "almost sadistic violence," but he loved the bestiality in Zoo, calling it "an elegant, eerily lyrical film."

Well, I haven’t seen any of these films, but the descriptions here don’t surprise me at all. This is what all too often passes for wit these days, and everything happens in the Omniculture.

What I think is significant is that our culture has room for both Sundance explorations of depravity and the Heartland Film Festival’s celebration of "filmmakers whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life," as the annual event’s organizers express it.

I am not at all impressed by most of the films that garner adoration at Sundance, but there are more than enough movies out there that are well worth watching, so I’ll just continue to do my best to point people towards them.

Money talks, and if you really want to change the culture for the better, you should see more movies, as I argued in my Weekly Standard article on the subject. It’s better to be a customer than a scold.