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The sunny side of Sundance

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Since its inception, the Sundance Film Festival has gone from "Who are those guys?" to "This could be the garden spot." Robert Redford's little shirttail showcase for independent films is now a trendsetter for the nation. It has become a driving force in the American film industry.

Such success speaks well of Redford's gifts and the talented team he has assembled, of course; but it also speaks to the astounding — some would say alarming — role that movies have come to play in American culture. They dominate.

So much in America is splintered today. Race, religion, politics all tend to carve the country up into factions. But movies have proven to be a great equalizer. When a blockbuster like "Lord of the Rings" comes along, distinctions between red states and blue states, white people and black people, rich and poor, old and young disappear. In the dark anonymity of the movie theater, America finds common ground.

And that magic is both a great burden and a grand opportunity. "In dreams begin responsibilities," wrote poet Delmore Schwartz. Some would say that movie-makers today have shirked that responsibility, choosing to flaunt and pander to personal tastes and cater to shady motives. And, indeed, motion pictures and their makers can be very self-indulgent.

Yet, more than newspapers, magazines, sermons, political speeches and other forums, movies in recent years have brought into high relief aspects of human suffering. Mental illness ("A Beautiful Mind"), bigotry ("Mississippi Burning"), animal cruelty ("The Electric Horseman") and dozens of other issues have been thrown on a big screen for all to see. And once there, they have galvanized the thinking of Americans about the concerns of our time.

And that, in the end, is the special role — and responsibility — of Sundance. The true essence of the festival is not in the celebrities, the money it commands or the posh parties it generates. The core of Sundance can be seen in the details — a small film about a Mexican Indian tribe, a story about beadmakers in China or an underappreciated author. The star-sightings and boozy receptions are all window dressing. The true windows are the films, artful creations that, in the best movie tradition, show the world aspects of its common humanity, then display that humanity in darkened theaters where superstars and supermarket checkers sit together and — for a couple of hours — find something to cherish and take to heart.