There are two particularly ironic slants to this whole gig. For starters, I despise the winter. I am certain that Hell is covered with snow, and if I can even see my breath, I get downright pissy. An even stranger twist to this, though, is the fact that I am not a journalist. Maybe by definition, but other than that, Journalism is a language terribly foreign to me, at least in the professional sense.
Nonetheless, here I am, packing for a trip into the mountains of Utah, where I'll be spending the next 11 days on assignment in Park City. Of course, this means that I'll be exploring the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and thus I am in no way complaining here. While I may know nothing about the business of reporting, my greatest passion is Film, and therefore I'm eager as a fiend to drop myself into this arctic Madness.
For as long as I can remember, movies have been the focal point of my life. Whether it was going to see Ghostbusters every other day of summer vacation, or wearing through three copies of True Romance on VHS (thank God for DVD's), I have maintained a powerful lust for Cinema. This exploded on my birthday in 1992, when I saw J.F.K. As I left the theater, still somewhat dizzy from the spinning courtroom scene, my mind was set- I will someday direct movies. With any luck, I'll be able to reach out and open as many eyes as Oliver Stone did with the saga of Jim Garrison.
This zeal is as old as Humanity, for since the Beginning, people have used stories to share thoughts with each other. An amorphous medium, Storytelling has developed with us through the years, evolving right alongside our intellect, and incorporating various forms of Art into the mix. As technology advanced, Film was eventually produced, and thus a boundless arena for Expression was discovered.
Given the incredible magnetism of Film, it's no surprise that it quickly drew the attention of the Greedy, and therefore movies quickly became highly profitable ventures. However, contrary to popular opinion, the quality of movies has never waned, rather it's continued to grow despite efforts to mold Cinema into a solid investment.
Still, the tricky part is the fact that a movie costs a good chunk of cash to create. Since I'm not wealthy by any stretch (this coverage is coming from a public computer, not one of those high-tech gadgets called "laptops"), I'd have to convince someone who is to front a possibly hefty bill, should I have a movie I want made. Since any professional investor will likely support only that which will return a profit, this can be a rather difficult task. And even if I get the flick produced, the only way it will be embraced is if the Masses are aware it exists. A common downside to Art, without Exposure, the greatest works can be overlooked. Still, incredible movies continue to sprout, and it's events like the Sundance Film Festival that support those films that have something genuine to share.
At least, that's what I'm told. All throughout my youth, I anxiously waited for the Academy Awards, in hopes to see what the best films of the year truly were. As I grew older, things started to seem off kilter with Oscar, and when Jim Carey wasn't even nominated for his spectacular performance in The Truman Show, my innocence was lost. Eventually, I've come to realize that the Academy isn't solely to blame for this type of atrocity, for in fact they deal with what they have, and award based on the opinions of hundreds of people. The truth of this matter is that there is not one person, group, or entity to point the finger at, but it's a combination of such, a Mainstream mentality, that permits deplorable acts like that.
Apparently, that's where the Sundance Institute comes in. In 1981, Robert Redford founded the Institute, citing a "mission of nurturing developing artists in a variety of disciplines and encouraging the independent spirit in both artists and their projects." A year-round operation, the Institute hosts various programs, such as Screenwriters and Filmmakers Laboratories, in which emerging directors and screenwriters work on their films with established cats, those who know the Ropes.
And then there's this thing called the Sundance Film Festival, which has become known across the globe as the United States' premier showcase for film of independent Expression. Its track record is quite impressive, with movies like Heathers, Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Shine, and Memento getting their boosts from the Festival. It provides a setting in which those who can afford to finance a movie get to see how the public reacts to these films that veer away from the Mainstream in one way or another.
On the other hand, this could eventually open the doors to Corruption, as Money often comes in the pockets of Snobs. Honestly, I don't know for sure if that's how it is now, but I swear that I'll hold nothing back, despite the outcome. Personally, I'd like to see this Festival live up to its glorious reputation; I'm not here to trash anything, for I'd rather proclaim what's great, as opposed to scorn what isn't.
That said, I'm stocking up on pepper spray, for this Daily thing here could get me in trouble, and since I plan to keep things Real, you never know what could happen. You never never know...
DAY ONE: Thursday, January 16
I never read Investing in Real Estate , but for some reason the title doesn't make me think "gripping" or "provocative." It must be, though, for I saw a guy in the airport yelling at the paperback, his curses telling me that this must truly be an intense dramatic novel. As they say, looks can be misleading...just like that lady who I thought was glaring at me on the plane. She was seated directly behind me, and when I stood up to head to the water closet, I noticed her staring right at me, with what appeared to be a viciously evil agenda.
This prompted me to stall in the lavatory, trying to figure out just what in the Hell was going on. Who was this creepy devil? What's her beef? As my mind raced, I suddenly realized that she looked a lot like Hillary Rosen, CEO of the RIAA. Now, I know that I can be somewhat paranoid from time to time, but the resemblance was freakish.
Right on, I'm more than ready for a showdown with that tyrant, so I relaxed and returned to my seat. As I sat down, I glanced back, ready to face the Enemy, only to find more proof that I am a terribly foolish jackass. This woman was not Rosen, nor was she watching me. She was sleeping with her eyes open and her face grimaced in a peculiar scowl, that's all.
Park City, Utah. Even though it's just as cold right now as it is in Ohio, this place is beautiful. Sure, Cleveland flaunted a bit of aesthetic, for as my flight left the airport the ice-covered Lake Erie grabbed my attention, but that was nothing compared to witnessing the horizon of the Rocky Mountains. The sight is absolutely gorgeous, and I was so amazed that I forgot to look for Hunter Thompson's Owl Farm as we passed over Woody Creek.
It is sensations like this that can be aroused by Film. Oddly enough, I saw one movie in a theater last year, despite my ardor for Cinema. You see, at least in Ohio, the only things offered at the multiplexes are silly blockbuster-wannabes, flicks that either have no substance, or no genuine creativity. The only theater that does play such features is the Cedar Lee, but that's easily an hour away from my abode. Hence, the local video stores make a killing off me.
Film's ability to flirt with the human Soul is not just restricted to magnificent epics like Magnolia, for a movie can have this effect simply through its musical score, like in The Virgin Suicides, its cinematography, like in Requiem For a Dream, or its writing, like in Donnie Darko , among other facets. This is certainly not to say that those films lack other dynamics, by the way...
So, hopefully the next few days will make up for my abstinence of theatrical glee of last year.& Tonight is pretty much uneventful, for the Fun doesn't really pick up until tomorrow. On the agenda are features tasting of everything from Documentary (such as The Murder of Emmett Till) to thrillers (such as 28 Days Later), to one about some Jewish super-hero who goes up against Santa's evil son, a villain bent on wiping out Hanukkah (The Hebrew Hammer ). That's just a few of the movies I'll be checking out, not to mention various panels, conferences, and all sorts of chatter with a myriad of people, in my quest to back up my claims of Film's current glory.
Tonight, I go explore the city.
DAY TWO: Friday, January 17
Want a twist of the stereotypical Norm? I saw two movies today, and I highly favor the feminist one over the adrenaline-packed one.
This morning, I checked out a Documentary Feature called The Pill, a brilliant look at the impact that medicinal birth control has had on American Society. Through a seamless onslaught of footage, ranging from black-and-white newsreel to shots gleaming of a delicate touch, The Pill gives a surprisingly unbiased lesson in a landmark of Freedom. The film shows how, after the FDA approved the Pill on May 11, 1960, the chains of tradition that had kept women pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen were broken for good. Women were suddenly viable assets to employers, since they no longer were forced to expect pregnancy leaves, thus putting women closer to a level playing field with men than ever before. The film also shows the initial negative side effects of the medicine, a downside boldly attributed to the same people behind this Revolution. Both sides are shown, as it were.
Then there was 28 Days Later, a film from Great Britain that I attended this evening. I was excited as a mofo about this one, for everything I read about it gave me the impression of something akin to 12 Monkeys. 28 Days Later begins with a ferocious pimp-slap, flashing horrifying riot footage right off the bat. It quickly goes into an animal-rights crusade that inadvertently unleashes a ruthless virus onto the public of England, and then "...28 Days Later" appears. For a while, it kept me intrigued, with unique imagery and a brisk yet morbid tone that begged for redemption. When a character, who was in a coma before all this Chaos went down, finds his parents decaying after self-euthanization, he pulls a picture from his mother's hand, on the back of which is inscribed "Jim, with endless yore, we left you sleeping. Now we sleep with you. Don't wake up." The special effects also deserve mention, particularly an explosion sequence that was nothing short of awesome.
However, 28 Days Later seemed to run out of energy, leaving me to ponder the other aspects of the feature before its conclusion. One thing that still bugs me seems to be typical of stories about people locked in a zombie-like mania: why don't they kill each other? This virus manipulates the human psyche into a permanent state of murderous rage, and within 20 seconds of exposure, the Infected (as they're called) are locked in Kill Mode. So, if they kill everyone in sight, why didn't the Infected kill one another, instead of banding together to hunt?
While there was a dish of intelligence in this movie, it didn't keep the pace it set with those intense first 10 minutes. Plus, the film was shot in digital format, which normally works great, but in this case left far too many tracers where they didn't belong.
And that's that. While 28 Days Later was kind of cool, The Pill was far superior. This seems to be a hint of the diversity offered at this Festival, and it's only begun. Of all the people on the Sundance Staff I've encountered thus far, not one has hesitated to ramble on about their love of Cinema, especially one fella who was wearing an Eraserhead shirt.
Now, I go to a party. While I'm having a good time, I must admit that I'm a bit trigger-happy, in a way hoping that I get a chance to use one of the canisters that I carry in my pockets at all times. Better to have the Spray and not need it, than to need the Spray and not have it, keep that in mind...
DAY THREE: Saturday, January 18
"Not a drop will go to waste."
Hmm. Fun party, for the most part, but after climbing my way to the liquor at Adolph's Restaurant, I began to feel like there must be some heavenly beings amongst the extremely dense crowd. It wasn't the fact that it took me almost a half-hour to get to the bar, a mere 20 feet from the tavern's entrance. After all, this was a celebration for Milk and Honey , a film that made its Sundance debut earlier in the evening, and therefore this overabundance of folks was to be expected, if not condoned. No, what gave me this eerie sensation was the overwhelming ass-kissing flooding through the place.
This was not coming from everyone, let me make that clear. But the sucking sound that came from those who were schmoozing up to everyone they could dominated my audio intake, despite how minute of a faction it may have come from. Every time the doors opened, it seemed like everyone instantly turned to see who was about to come in, and if they were Somebody or not. Still, most of the people were pretty cool, particularly those who the gala was centered around, and besides, free booze vindicates a fantastic lot.
I probably would have stuck around until Adolph's closed, had it not been for two young ladies wearing less clothing than what's appropriate for a Utah winter. I noticed them staring at me from the moment I ordered my first drink, and initially thought nothing of it. You see, I'm one of those guys who likes females, and although their skimpy attire didn't leave much to the imagination, they were both very attractive. Of course, they have nothing on my Dream Girl, but even though I am more than 100% content with Melissa, I still appreciate the Beauty that can only be found in women...
When I returned for a refill, they were still there, and I now saw that their gazes questioned of recognition. When I ordered my third drink, they both rose from their stools and stood next to me, giggling. Then the blonde one asked, "When did you cut your hair?"
"About five years ago," I replied, but it didn't seem to register.
The brunette then says, "I've always thought you were hot. I know it's kind of dirty, but I wanted you so bad from the first time I saw Home Alone ."
Horrible recollections came rushing back to me, memories of elementary school tauntings that I've tried to repress for years. Why, of all those seen in movies, did people have to think that I looked like Macaulay Culkin when I was younger?
"Yeah," added the blonde, "and you're even sexier now."
I started to chug my drink, in hopes that I could escape before the usual cursed request was tossed at me, but I wasn't quick enough.
"You know what?" the brunette purred as she pressed her body up against mine. "I used to get so worked up when you'd slap your cheeks and let out that cute little yelp. Will you do it for me, please?"
It's funny how jumpy people get when ice is unexpectedly dropped onto their bare flesh. When my drink fell from my lips onto her chest, she lurched back, knocking over an older gentleman wearing a cowboy hat, and a young starlet eating an appetizer. Since the place was so crowded, a commotion immediately erupted, giving me the chance to grab my coat and sneak out onto the street.
Without caffeine in the morning, things just aren't chipper. I'm slow and groggy, and the slightest bit of physical activity turns me completely sideways. But the press screening for Soldier's Girl was at 9am, and I simply didn't have the time to get coffee.
Based on true events, Soldier's Girl is a love story, but far from the romantic tales of the Mainstream. From the start, it's understood that the film's Romeo will not only die, but end up the victim of a brutally gruesome murder. However, when this atrocity is finally played out, it's not in the gratuitous manner that's so often incorporated. You do see what happens, but it's not glamorized with special effects, thus leaving your imagination to produce the Horror. Considering that this happens towards the end of the movie, I was quite sucked in, and therefore was especially disturbed. This, on top of my caffeine-withdrawal, damn near made me vomit on the screening room floor. But I held strong, and made it through the rest.
Restraint such as that employed in Solder's Girl lets viewers develop their own images, which are not limited by technology, and so they are usually more provocative than anything pasted on a screen. In fact, the entire story stays on pace at all times, never jumping to grab the audience with anything other than the story itself. Then again, this movie is one the Festival's premiers, and therefore came from a veteran of the Industry, the same Frank Pierson who heads the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He's been doing this for decades, and as everyone who saw the utterly disturbing Conspiracy knows, Pierson knows how to take a story and deliver its punch using fundamental Storytelling. Ron Nyswaner's remarkable screenplay was directed by one of the best choices for this task, plain and simple.
Moving along, I collected myself, and after getting some fresh air and a healthy dose of coffee, I checked out the Documentary The Weather Underground, a film that looks at a group of American radicals who, in the late 60's, took an aggressive step into the revolution that was underway in our country. From a shallow standpoint, this movie reminded me that impressive special effects are not just limited to Fiction, for The Weather Underground used, among other things, stock footage of the Vietnam WAR, full of spectacular explosions and beautiful, luscious Fire.
Deeper than that, though, is tale of a group of middle-class white kids who realized that their comfortable suburban lives were nothing more than facades, and unless they stepped into the Civil Turmoil of the times, alongside the likes of the Black Panther Party, their world would be entirely worthless. The film leaves you with an understanding of why this group decided to overthrow America's government- because they were the only ones who could pull it off. It also shows how violence in itself wasn't the answer, but destruction to an extent possibly was. Of course, politics of the U.S. government, coupled with Americans realizing the foulness of methods like those of the COINTELPROs, got U.S. out of the Vietnam WAR, but their efforts were nonetheless sensational, if not effective. "Bring the war home," as was their slogan...
I really want to go into this one, but I shan't. The Murder of Emmett Till is next, and I will be damned if I'm going to miss that.
DAY FOUR: Sunday, January 19
Emmett Till was 14 years old when two redneck hillbillies kidnapped him, relentlessly beat and tortured him for a few hours, shot him in the head, and then tossed his body into a Mississippi river. Tied to a piece of farm equipment via the string of barbed wire that was lassoed around his neck, Emmett's flesh had several days to decompose before someone found his teenage corpse. The swine that did this were apprehended, tried, and declared innocent by their Southern court. Not long afterward, they described their crime in detail to a magazine...and then that was it.
While no justice has ever manifested from this revoltingly heinous atrocity, Emmett's mother reacted in a manner that sparked something known as the Civil Rights Movement. When her son's decaying body was returned to her two weeks later, she somehow had the ovaries to demand not only that Emmett's funeral was open-casket, but that the funeral director perform no treatment whatsoever to the deceased. Thousands of people attended the ceremony, and saw the mutilated Emmett Till laying in his coffin, barely recognizable as a human being.
100 days later, Rosa Parks decided that she'd rather sit in the front of the bus she was on.
While this story has been told over and over again since 1955, the Truth has yet to sink in. Even though the pathetic brutes responsible for Emmett's murder have since died, they did so legally vindicated of this evil, and therefore the official verdict remains as an account which, among other absurd claims, declares that Emmett was never murdered. Therefore, this tragedy needs to be exposed, the story repeated until the case is reopened, and this deplorable nightmare is defined as just that.
Stanley Nelson has done a remarkable job in providing the next step for this in his documentary The Murder of Emmett Till . The film replays the incident, laying the background of a social explosion that a young boy ended up igniting. From a history of the town Money, Mississippi, to shots of Emmett's mangled shell, Nelson firmly presents this horrible injustice without the slightest flinch.
In the flavor of Revolution, the next film I saw was Civil Brand, a story which tells of a women's prison in which the inmates are forced to work as slaves, and are exploited as little more than animals. True, we've all seen this in Shawshank Redemption , where convicts are put to physical labor, but it's always been presented as an acceptable situation. A man robs a store and kills the clerk, so why not have him pound out license plates and working on road construction crews?
Civil Brand offers a fresh look at the Prison/Industrial Complex, attacking the issue from several different angles. For one thing, the inmates aren't working on roads or some kind of community service- they're making clothes for department stores. A more provocative approach, though, is the fact that these slaves are female, a scenario that folks are not used to considering. Outstanding performances by LisaRaye, Mos Def, Clifton Powell, MC Lyte, Monica Calhoun, Lark Voorhies, and the sensational N'Bushe Wright (the lady Panther from Dead Presidents who is one of the most talented people acting in Cinema today, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous), powerful cinematography, and brutal honesty come together to make Civil Brand not just a great movie, but an extremely important one.
The fire is in my veins, and I've finally concreted my presence at a panel called "Artists' Rights and Wrongs," which explores film censorship in the Digital Age. I still can't get that punk from Home Alone to stop haunting me, and to make matters worse, I forgot all my clothes pins at home, leaving me with terribly wrinkled attire. Hence, while I'm not going to be an official part of the Panel on Thursday, should I get the chance to comment on the matter with some goon who supports restricting Expression, it's suffice to say that a fierce battle could ensue.
Or, maybe my imagination is just getting the best of me.
DAY FIVE: Monday, January 20
About halfway through Spun, one of the Voices in my head got up on his soapbox and started lecturing me again. "You really need to get your shit together," he said. "Yeah, all the sleepless nights may have been a fun distraction at first, and for a while it felt like you were immune to the harsh side of Reality. But where are you now? You're even lower than you were before you started getting Numb, and in the meantime Life has flown by."
Then I realized that I haven't engaged in anything that warrants such rebuke since 1999. That's how good this film is- I was so sucked in, I took identifying with a character to a level I rarely achieve.
While Spun would be a great counterpart to a set with Requiem for a Dream, this is a very unique movie. It covers one of those days that lasts 80 hours, in which a myriad of characters takes you into the world of speed freaks. True, one of those is the phenomenal John Leguizamo, but his role of Spider Mike is not the central focus. Of course, any and all scenes with Leguizamo are completely fascinating, but that is a given. What I didn't expect was to see equally commanding performances by the rest of the cast. I mean, they've all certainly proven their worth- Mena Suvari in American Beauty, Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore , etc.- but I doubted that they would make good meth-heads.
Once again, I was horribly mistaken. Suvari is amazing as Cookie, Mickey Rourke KICKS ASS as The Cook, and even Patrick Fugit shines as Frisbee.
But it was Jason Schwartzman's portrayal of Ross, the main character in Spun , that caught me in the Time Warp. With an amazing script and Jonas Akerland's direction, Schwartzman carries his role with an uncanny ease, keeping the magnetism of the film constantly at full tilt. When he tells The Cook toward the end of the Trip, "I'm crashing pretty hard right now; I'm really tired. It's not good," you can feel your empty stomach twisting, your jaws aching from being clenched for so long, your eyes burning as they tend to do when you don't sleep for a couple days.
And to top it off, the musical score is untouchable...and it's composed by Billy Corgan. While a lot of folks may be attracted to that alone, I am not among that crowd, or at least I wasn't until last night. The music he provides for the movie is an intricate factor of the Experience, and I can't think of anyone except for Neil Young who could have done any better.
So, even though I left the theater grinding my teeth, you can bet your arseness that I'll be snagging a copy of Spun the first chance I get. Now, if you'll excuse me, I myself need to crash.
DAY SIX: Tuesday, January 21
Is this it? Could this be the moment I've been waiting for? Instinctively, my right hand dove into my coat pocket and gripped the canister of pepper spray, ready for action.
I was standing in the Park City Marriott, home to Festival Headquarters, when the Drama unraveled in front of me. After dropping by the Press Room, I had stopped at a pay phone to call Melissa, whose effervescent voice I was in dire need of. Next to the phones are two computers, courtesy units for Festival attendees. When I first dialed Missy's number, I noticed both pc's occupied, and a line of about five waiting their turn.
My Dream Girl answered the phone, and for the next half hour or so I faded away, lost in her Beauty, and telling her of my recent encounters. There was the strange incident with Mickey Rourke, an incredible interview with Neema Barnette (director of Civil Brand), and an equally cool meeting with Brandon Sonnier, director of The Beat.
Of all the films I've seen thus far, The Beat caught me off guard the most. The story of a rising artist is in itself nothing new, so I expected the tale of Flip (a superb performance by Rahman Jamaal) chasing his aspirations to make it big as a rapper to be nothing more than a fresh rendition, at best.
Wrong again. The Beat is anything but conventional, and its absorbing tempo has a touch of virtuosity that is normally reserved for the likes of Oliver Stone, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Terry Gilliam. The freaky thing about this is that Sonnier is but a Junior at USC, and therefore I can only imagine the brilliance that will come from him next. In The Beat, Flip quickly reaches an intersection on the road of Life, but where most films would have him choose one turn or the other to follow, this movie takes both routes. At one point he's on one path, then suddenly he's on the other, each transition being executed so flawlessly it's difficult to predict the outcome. You want it to go the way of the Dream, but the complacent avenue is just as convincing.
Flip is backed up by a sensational cluster of actors, from the always sexy Jazsmin Lewis as Tawanna, to Jermaine Williams as Byron, to Keith Ewell as Tony. Also in the mix is Steve Connell, who as Artis plays an energetic antagonist of sorts, occasionally unleashing his expertise in spoken word poetry.
This could very well be where the genius behind The Beat lies- it's a production that epitomizes Grass Roots. Practically everyone involved is playing themselves to an extent, as opposed to portraying characters foreign to their personal experiences. Jamaal is an aspiring musician, and it was hearing him rap that drew Sonnier's attention. Furthermore, Connell thrives in the Underground Poetry scene, so much that he helped establish the Underground Poets Railroad.
Yeah, I really liked The Beat, and thus I was rambling on about it to Melissa, when a woman waiting to use a computer approached a guy who had been staring at the monitor before him since I picked up the telephone. Now, although the pc's are there for community use, common decency would limit usage time, especially when there's people lined up waiting.
As it were, this guy didn't see things like that, and apparently figured the machines were there primarily for him. The lady asked him if he was going to be done soon, and without looking back he bluntly replied, “No.”
Another woman said, “Sir, there's a fifteen-minute limit on these, and you've been here much longer than that.”
The fella then spins around and snaps, “Well, I don't give a damn! Go use one of the computers downstairs!”
This is when I caressed my pepper spray, eager to represent...what, I'm still not sure, but never mind that. I told Missy what was going on, but in doing so didn't hear the second woman's response to this scumbag's outburst. Whatever she said worked, for he promptly stood up and freed the computer.
“You don't even know.”
DAY SEVEN: Wednesday, January 22
SKYY Vodka is one of the corporate sponsors of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Chances are this is why, at all the Festival Parties I've attended, the supply of vodka is seemingly unlimited. Considering the many groups that support the Festival, it's not too uncommon to find some of these companies also represented at shindigs not directly presented by the Sundance Institute.
For example, BMI held their first “Songwriters Snow Ball” this evening, which featured great performances by John Doe, Grant Lee Phillips, Rosanne Cash and Lou Barlow. The gala also had a makeshift bar, with plenty of SKYY Vodka for all to enjoy.
Why not? My car's on the other side of the country, and the free busses run until 2AM. Sure, I prefer rum, but UNFORTUNATELY Captain Morgan and Bacardi are not slated on the official Sponsor roster. So, grab the cranberry juice and hook me up, kind sir.
Everyone put on a fantastic show, especially Cash. In the flavor of giving props to up-and-coming artists, she even covered a song by Jakob Dylan, which made a wonderful compliment to her already enticing set.
As the fiesta ended, I began to realize that two worlds exist at this particular Festival. On one hand, the original Heart is still the predominating factor here; the “mission of nurturing developing artists in a variety of disciplines and encouraging the independent spirit in both artists and their projects” remains as intact as ever. These people genuinely love Film, not for where it can get them, but simply for the Beauty it offers. Every year, more and more films are taken in by the Institute, and the Festival has expanded to include international projects, a separate realm for Short Films, and even a showcase for online selections.
Since the Institute is a non-profit organization, the reason they've been able to pull this off is contributions from their sponsors. A growing Festival means a growing presence of sponsors; groups like SKYY Vodka, BMI, Hewlett Packard, etc. help Sundance thrive, providing them with the funds and resources necessary for the evolution of Film with Integrity.
The other world here is a byproduct of that, and although it's not a direct part of Sundance, it has become an intricate part of the Festival. This is the elitist factor, the disgusting underbelly of not only this Festival, but of all Expression. Movies draw big audiences, widespread recognition, and exploiting that is a sure-fire and rather lucrative venture.
This is why local taverns are glad to offer their facilities to the likes of Stuff Magazine, or anyone willing and able to host a party for a high-profile movie. Take Spun, for instance. Not only does that suggest that Mena Suvari and John Leguizamo might be there, but the host(s) will also invite cats like Ben Affleck, who's sure to bring J-Lo along. WHAM! Lines several blocks long, full of people eager to at least get a picture of such a celebrity, if not talk to them. Who knows? In that bar filled twice its capacity, with the music pumping loud as a concert, they'll surely ask you to come back to their condo for a little aristocratic debauchery, and then you'll become part of the Cool Crowd.
The bars go to the highest bidders, from the hosts to the patrons. In order to protect their investments, pub owners strive to keep the crowds at a minimum and as chic as possible, resulting in hordes of people lined up and down Main Street. But if you're not on the Super V.I.P. list, don't fret! More times than not, you can bribe the doorman for access. Sure, it may cost as much as $200 per person (the highest I've heard so far), but J-Lo and Ben are inside waiting!
Despite this repulsive Greed, the Festival has maintained its Integrity. When the Park City cleaning crew has piled the last remnants of the partiers into garbage liners, the fact will remain that the vast majority of the films featured in this Festival were genuine, authentic Expressions, more interested in Art than anything else.
DAY EIGHT: Thursday, January 23
“Hello, my name's Jake, and I'm calling from ______________ Research. I'm not trying to sell anything, I'm just wandering if I can get your opinions on a few questions.”
For almost a year I recited that 40 hours a week, working for an “independent” political and marketing research firm. Yeah, “independent” in this case means “mercenary,” for our clients were often of conflicting agendas, and were picked based solely on who paid more. Once contracts were signed, my employers would then devise questionnaires guaranteed to yield a positive response from 93% of everyone polled, no matter who they were or how they felt. Sometimes, I would even try to manipulate the responses to hinder this corruption, but their system was tight like nuts and bolts, and 93% of the time, they got the answer they wanted.
No, this is not an honest practice by any means, and this is why you should never take too much stock in any public survey published in any medium that has ever discussed politics. To this day, the company I worked for represents the biggest fish out there.
The reason I bring up this dark cloud from my past is that during my tenure there, I had trained myself to regain composure at a moment's notice, and in doing so muted my sense of humor. You see, I was 19 at the time, and I worked with several buddies, so it doesn't take Ms. Cloe to imagine how much we screwed around while at work. But when someone would answer on the other end (or a supervisor would walk by), we'd have to instantly switch to professional mode, and we were damn good. I personally held the national record for most surveys completed in an hour, my average usually double the next in line.
However, this forced calm became so ingrained in me, I've grown practically immune to laughter. My sense of humor never retarded (I guess that depends on who you're talking to), but my reaction to funny stuff became habitually reserved. So, although I can find even the crudest high jinx extremely amusing, I rarely laugh out loud, and when I do so in a movie, that means it's hilarious.
I laughed my ass off throughout most of The Hebrew Hammer, by far the funniest movie I've seen in a long time. A strange mixture of Shaftand Batman, this film stars Adam Goldberg as Mordechai Jefferson Carver, aka the Hebrew Hammer, a mack-daddy who's as kosher as he is slick. We are surrounded by gentiles, after all, and someone needs to stand up for us in the face of their ignorance...
The villain in this odyssey is played by Andy Dick who, as Santa's evil son Damien, hatches a ruthless plan to wipe Hanukkah off the face of the Earth forever. He is a cunning brute, going so low as to even flood the Jewish community with bootleg copies of It's A Wonderful Life, in a cruel attempt to infect Hassidic children with visions of Christmas.
In this time of grave danger, the Jewish Justice League call in their most fearless warrior- the Hebrew Hammer. With the help of Mohammed (Mario van Peebles, whose acting in this film has vindicated him in my eyes) from the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, Hammer sets out to save the World from this agent of Terror.
This movie incorporates every Jewish stereotype known to the civilized world, from their relentless thirst for money to the Hebrew woman's lust for fellatio. Mohammed greets Hammer as “my Kike,” to which Hammer retorts “my Nigga,” and they then explain to the White Accountant that it's O.K. for them to say these things, but not him. The sexy heroine Esther (Judy Greer) is even referred to as a “nice piece of toches.”
I imagine most studios would hesitate to invest in such an epic, for The Hebrew Hammer is potentially extremely offensive, at least to those who don't see the profound intelligence behind the slander. I mean, they go as far as stealing Tiny Tim's crutch, and while he may deserve it, this is not very “p.c.”
Extremities aside, Mordechai's mother reminded me of my grandmother, the Yenteh of all the great Yentehs. But the brilliance of this movie is much deeper than that. While it's an extremely fun ride, it also pokes at Ignorance from start to finish (see the Underground Railroad scene).
They call it "Jewxploitation."
Tonight's party was held at the Wasatch Brew Pub, which is housed on top of the Wasatch Brewery. This was to herald a film called American Splendor, and like the fiesta I attended at Adolph's last week, this one is apparently self-funded. In contrast, though, the crowd here was relatively small. Sure, that's more closer to my “scene,” but then again, I don't have a film in the Festival (that is, not this year).
So, while I certainly enjoyed the gathering (best party up to this point), I was surprised to find such a little assembly. Granted, I left kind of early, but considering all the ruckus this film has been stirring up, I expected everyone and their cousin to be there.
American Splendor stars Paul Giamatti, who did a breathtaking job as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's Private Parts. Sadly, that's all I can say about this one, other than everyone who I've talked to that's seen it praises the thing as a masterpiece. I haven't had a chance to see it yet, and with a full itinerary and the Festival winding down to close, I dread that I won't while I'm here.
This unfortunate business aside, the party was definitely a highlight in my expedition, and with all the chatter I've heard about the movie, I suspect that it will continue to ride its wave all the way to the Awards.
DAY NINE: Friday, January 24
Who would have guessed that little punk from Uncle Buck, also known as Kevin McCallister from his most famous role, was schooled in the Ways of the Samurai? Oh, the irony...
The fit hit the shan at a grocery store, shortly after the panel discussion “Artists' Rights and Wrongs.” Now, for me to explain the Panel, and thus how I became surly before I entered the store, would be a long-winded digression, and I think I should leave that for another time. So, let's just say that my day had taken a queer turn about a half-hour before I approached the register with my bottle of water, and leave it at that for now.
Yeah, I was not a happy camper, and I just wanted to get my water and go hide at the Eccles Theater, where I was due for a screening at 10:30. After debating between one of the king-size bottles and the smaller, 500ml one, I chose B, mainly because it was only 89 cents, whereas the other was $1.99. Every cent counts at this point.
My water rode the conveyor belt to the cashier, who ran it over her infrared scanner. Honestly, I didn't pay much attention to what she did, for I was quite oblivious to my surroundings, but when she said “$2.89,” I knew that she had fouled.
I looked at her for a moment, expecting her to realize the absurdity present, but she stood firm. I then thought that I must have heard her wrong, but when I asked she gave me the same figure.
Just to clarify, I'm not talking about a jug of water, but the smallest they had. In hindsight, it seems what happened is that she somehow rang up the price for a six-pack of these bottles...
At any rate, this conflict was too much for me to bear, so I drew my pepper spray and pressed the trigger. In the millisecond this took place, a foot came out of nowhere and punted my hand, diverting the stream into an upward arch, rather than a direct blast to this shrew's grill piece. Before the mist had time to settle and burn, I was on the ground being beat unmerciful.
Realizing I was under attack, I collected my wits and started to fight back. I grabbed the boot that was pummeling my ribs, jerking it and throwing its owner off balance, giving me the opportunity to get back on my feet. My hands found a nearby two-liter of ginger ale, and as I belted my assailant's head with it, I saw that it was none other than Macaulay Culkin. At the same time, the pepper spray I'd unleashed started its rampage, sending everyone running as their skin began to smolder along with their throats and lungs.
Everyone except for me and Culkin.
Clocking him with the soda had knocked him back a step, but he instantly retaliated with a roundhouse kick that caught my chin, sending me stumbling into a display of tortilla chips. Again he was on top of me, firing off punches faster than I've ever seen. Thankfully, the noxious concoction had taken its toll on us as well, and he started to hack uncontrollably as the irritant filled his air passage. As he began to stagger about, looking for relief through rapidly flooding eyes, I rolled away and made my way to the parking lot...but not before slapping him in the face with a bag of Tostidas.
By this point, I could barely keep my eyes open, my skin was on fire, and I was nearly convulsing, for I couldn't take deep enough gasps to cough as my body so desperately wanted. Still, considering the havoc I'd just initiated, I had no choice but to flee the area.
A couple hours and a cold shower later I could breathe again, but the whole ordeal had left me rather unsettled. All I could think about on my way to the Eccles Theater was Revenge, a yearning so intense I could taste it, albeit with a lingering tinge of sour mustard from the spray.
I walked into the screening room, and the Shorts Program IV was already underway. Swallow had just started, and its ferocious tempo made me feel like I'd once again lost my breath. It's only 23 minutes long, but director Frank E. Flowers uses every moment brilliantly.
For me, the timing for such a movie was not the best. It's like watching Angela's Ashes or Schindler's List when you're depressed. Luckily, the next feature of the Program resolved my broken state of mind, and without Climbing Miss Sophie, God knows I likely would have fallen into the Downward Spiral before midnight.
Liat Dahan has earned her seat at the table of Great Directors with this remarkable film, which tells a very genuine and authentic story that delivers a sincerely uplifting sensation, far more so than those “feel good” flicks of the Mainstream. The cinematography is immaculate, with a slightly weathered countenance alluding to Life in the 1950's. Dahan's portrayal of Strength and Perseverance revolves around Tomo, a ten-year-old orphan who is learning that Life is what you make it. Tomo's caretaker, Miss Sophie, constantly strives to teach him to “keep pushing,” despite adversity. No matter how grim things may seem, you should never give up, lest you get sucked into Despair. As Tomo begins to understand this, we also see Miss Sophie learning from him, a young boy who relentlessly insists that anything can be fixed, often finding potential treasures in what others throw away.
Fortified with an incredible score that blends elegant music with first-rate percussion, Climbing Miss Sophie is a powerful journey into the aesthetics of everyday Life that people tend to ignore and/or forget about altogether. Short films like this offer a direct look at the essence of Cinema. By definition they're not as long as a full-length movie, and therefore have a smaller amount of time to deliver their Expressions. However, this gives filmmakers the window to focus on a particular concept, and pull audiences in to that right from the start.
Another example of this is Olivia's Puzzle, a film directed by Jason DeSilva. Intertwining narratives from two little girls, one from Canada and the other from India, DeSilva shows how similar people are regardless of cultural differences. And he does so eloquently in only 12 minutes.
This is not to attribute Short Films at a higher regard than full-length ones. Rather, they're both equally important parts of Cinema, as is Animation and so forth. They each serve their individual purposes, and collectively they've established the medium of Film into the most provocative form of Art in existence.
Leaving the theater, the refreshing crisp of Utah's early morning air flowed into my lungs and through my body. This is a new day, and I need to "keep pushing," as Miss Sophie said. No more plots against Culkin, I need to focus on what's truly important. Besides, word has it that he kicks ass in Party Monster (another Festival Film), and who can deny Uncle Buck its due props?
DAY TEN: Saturday, January 25
Tonight's the big night- the Awards Ceremony. This event is just as meaningful for filmmakers as all the other benefits that come along with being featured in the Festival. By now, most of those who can afford to bring a movie from obscurity to the Masses have already made their pitches, gobbling up what they can as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that for the past 10 days, the atmosphere in Park City has consisted of primarily one thing: Exposure for these Artists.
The Sundance Awards are a whole nother ding job. They are not based on commercial value; the recipients are not picked as financial investments. Rather, they are chosen by movie buffs, industry gurus as well as audiences, who vote merely because they liked the movies, plain and simple. Three of these are strictly awarded from the general public, and the rest are bestowed with a bit more understanding of the fundamentals of Film, and therefore are decided by juries comprised of folks more familiar with such.
Indeed, a Sundance Award is a very special honor.
When I arrived at the Park City Racquetball Club, where the Ceremony was being held, I began to realize a humorous irony- those here with the most Integrity likewise have the freest spirits. And while the Sundance Staff seems to always have the proverbial Vision at the forefront, they also know how to throw one hell of a party.
As guests started to fill the anterior of the auditorium, we mingled about and enjoyed complimentary beverages, from water and soda to beer and martinis, while we waited for the show to begin. The announcement was made, and the procession went so smoothly it was actually ahead of schedule, so much that they had everyone in attendance rise and join them in a jig.
So, in case you don't already know, here are the winners of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival:
-Documentary Audience Award: My Flesh and Blood
-Dramatic Audience Award: The Station Agent
-World Cinema Audience Award: Whale Rider
-Documentary Grand Jury Prize: Capturing the Friedmans
-Dramatic Grand Jury Prize: American Splendor
-Documentary Directing Award: My Flesh and Blood
-Dramatic Directing Award: Thirteen
-Excellence in Documentary Cinematography Award: Stevie
-Excellence in Dramatic Cinematography Award: Quattro Noza
-Freedom of Expression Award: What I Want My Words to Do to You
-Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: The Station Agent
-Special Documentary Jury Prize: The Murder of Emmett Till
-Special Documentary Jury Prize: A Certain Kind of Death
-Special Dramatic Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance: Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Pieces of April, and All the Real Girls)
-Special Dramatic Jury Prize for Outstanding Performance: Charles Busch (Die Mommie Die)
-Special Dramatic Jury Prize for Emotional Truth: All the Real Girls
-Special Dramatic Jury Prize for Emotional Truth: What Alice Found
-Shorts Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking: Terminal Bar
-Shorts Jury Honorable Mentions in Short Filmmaking: Ocularist, Earthquake, Pan With Us, Asylum, The Planets, The Freak, Fits & Starts, and From the 104th Floor.
-Online Film Festival Viewer Award for Animation: Broken Saints
-Online Film Festival Viewer Award for Short Subject: One
-Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award (Europe): Waiting for the Clouds
-Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award (Latin America): Whisky
-Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award (Japan): 100% Pure Wool
-Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award (United States): The Motel
-Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: Dopamine
Hmmm… I guess this would be a good time to mention that Holly Hunter was awarded the Tribute to Independent Vision earlier in the week.
Moving along, from there we took shuttles (no other transportation allowed, thus minimizing congestion) to the Silver Mine, an old factory that's been renovated to a museum. Outside, there was a group of professional pyromaniacs performing for those waiting in line, spitting fire and blasting flames all over the place. It was absolutely beautiful.
Inside the Silver Mine, there was another performance, some cat pounding away at buckets, pipes, barrels, and other such materials. Then, on the far side of the building, on the upper floor, there was yet another performance, a trio consisting of a DJ, a sexy young lady on keyboards and violin, and another vixen on vocals.
Then there's the food. There were five or six different stations providing grub, from ribs to pizza to chicken chili, and I never saw them empty for more than five minutes. And of course, there was plenty of Drink, two bars downstairs and another upstairs.
This was easily the best party of the whole Festival, and that's the funny thing of it all. This was not put on for any other reason than a celebration, and none of the other galas drew as many people.
After a few hours the place grew fairly crowded, and although I could still move freely pretty much everywhere (except near the bars, of course), it was a bit too packed for a recluse like me. So, I hopped on the next shuttle back to town. Once there, I decided to see what Main Street looked like on a Saturday night without the Festival throng. I was surprised to see a decent amount of pedestrians, but the majority of them were locals, out to reclaim their village. One thing in particular that I noticed was that the only empty taverns were the same ones that had drawn the largest lines by exploiting the Festival. The residents of Park City were keeping things Real…
Turning into an alleyway to cut over to Park Avenue, I ran into a young hippie named Amber, who was struggling with several hefty bags. I'm not speaking metaphorically here, I literally ran into her, knocking her clear off her feet. Luckily her bags were filled with clothes, and they protected her from otherwise slamming face-first onto the concrete.
Feeling like a complete buffoon, I helped her up, and after apologetic introductions I learned that she was on her way to the laundromat less than two blocks from my hotel. Considering how jive-headed and rotten I viewed myself, I gladly offered to help carry her load.
Amber and Tony, her husband, are among the group of Park City folk who welcome the Sundance Film Festival, simply because they love movies. "Sure," Amber said, "Main Street gets pretty crazy, but it doesn't last long enough for the excitement to wear off, so it never really bothers me."
Our stroll ended with an invitation to dinner tomorrow evening, a delightful suggestion in light of the fact that, for the past week, most of my food has come from parties, and since it looks like they're all over, I was facing starvation. In addition, Tony is supposed to be some kind of phenomenal chef. Thank God.
DAY ELEVEN: Sunday, January 26
"Look out, mama, there's a white boat coming up the river
With a big red beacon and a flag and a man on the rail
I think you better call John, 'cause it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail."
Wait, is that...OH HELL YES! IT IS!!!
I'm sitting in the café section of the Chateau Apres Lodge (my home since January 16), working on this Thing before you, along with a letter to Melissa. Then out of nowhere, suddenly the great Neil Young is permeating the room with "Powderfinger."
That was one of the strongest throes I felt when I first headed out here- how was I going to make it without my cherished selections of Music for so long? Sure, there was likely to be plenty here (especially with BMI and ASCAP helping out), but I had no way of ensuring a consistent dose of Neil Young, nor The Roots, nor System Of A Down, nor Miles Davis, etc. etc.
Then this, Yoda himself sneaks into the air, via the tape player in the kitchen.
"Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger."
Although damn near everything mentioning the Festival claims that it runs "Jan. 16-26," the multitudes have already vanished from Park City. Today is mainly a day of reflection, and to give props to last night's winners, screening each one final time. On the other hand, the Digital Center is no longer available, which is where I was hoping to explore the Online Festival.
Lucky for me, today's hippies are computer junkies.
It was around 4:20 when I knocked on the front door of Amber and Tony's house, but already it sounded like a rambunctious revelry was going down. However, I soon discovered that all the commotion I heard from the porch was actually some video game Amber was immersed in, which was running through their extensive home theater system.
As we ate, our talk mostly revolved around the Festival, especially since they too had spent the last nine days in the wonderful clutches of a Cinema Frenzy. Amber mentioned the Online participants, suggesting we check them out, but I declined, for I cannot handle staring at a computer screen for more than five minutes. This is when Tony slapped me across the face with a piece of asparagus and said, “No, fool! We got it all set up proper,” and then mentioned a bunch of terms that I couldn't comprehend, let alone remember. Basically, their computer system was part of their home theater setup, and therefore we could enjoy the Online Festival like some healthy Americans.
There are 31 different features in this arena, some only a few minutes long to Broken Saints, a film that boasts of 10 hours in length. While we didn’t watch everything therein, the ones we picked were spectacular finds.
For starters, there was the high-octane animation of MutafukaZ that intertwined pounding action with a political consciousness. Kind of like the Spawn cartoons, only smarter. Plus, it was refreshing to see some ferocious gunplay void of the shame that is all too often seen in the so-called action flicks of the Mainstream.
And of course we watched One, a brilliant film that tells a beautiful and powerful story- with no dialogue whatsoever. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to go wrong with a musical score produced by James Levine, but that was not the only reason One took this year’s Audience Award. It’s just a really good movie.
Then there’s The Big Abandoned Refrigerator Adventure, a completely warped fairy tale that is as disturbing as it is funny. This one follows Billy and Sally around as they engage in horrendous mayhem to appease their boredom, all the while being narrated like the most jovial of tales. They drink glass cleaner. They play with their father’s loaded pistol, not to mention a discarded fetus. Good fun, and we laughed so hard, we watched the thing three times.
Heading back toward the Chateau, I was ready to face anyone who claims that “movies just aren’t as good as they used to be.” I now have an arsenal of examples that proves otherwise.
So Now Then...
trend / trend/ n. general direction and tendency (esp. of events, fashion, or opinion).
Thank you, Oxford University.
While the 2003 Sundance Film Festival was taking place, so were an assortment of others, operating at various locations throughout Park City. Events like NoDance, X-Dance, DigiDance, Tromadance, and Slamdance (notice a pattern?) were available for a wide range of offerings from the community of Independent Cinema. In fact, since the U.S. Film Festival became part of the Sundance Institute in 1985, hundreds of similar ventures have sprouted across the country and around the globe, all inherently feeding from the same passion- their love of Film.
As this is to be expected, given how Sundance has flourished through the years, so is the inevitable mudslinging, a frivolous ploy often used to disguise the reality of following a road already paved. Especially since this particular path was carved away from conformity to the Mainstream, it seems that the purveyors of these spin-offs feel like they have to talk smack about Sundance in order to qualify as "independent." In doing so, they not only betray their immaturity, but their superficiality as well. From the same lips that curse Sundance for "selling out" come party and screening invites to studio executives, in hopes that they too can share in the Exposure.
Of course, not all of these descendants of Sundance are like this, and even those that are have made strides for Cinema, despite their hypocrisy. The likes of NoDance, for example, don't seem to worry about wasting time on such petty matters, for they realize that Sundance has fortified a platform for independent artists, and thus they are basically on the same Team. Likewise, all the people I talked to from the Sundance Staff seem to respect the other festivals, for they are all fighting for the same thing, and when it's all said and done, the evolution of Cinema is all that truly matters to these folks.
In short, the 2003 Sundance Film Festival was a spectacular event, one that upholds the Institute’s persistent legacy of dedication to Film of genuine Expression. The fact that their footsteps are being followed by a growing number of collectives just goes to show that this is a very important and true Mission, and as the Art of Storytelling continues to evolve, movies will keep getting better.
EPILOGUE: Monday, January 27
I took one final hike around Park City this morning, getting my last taste of the mountain air before heading back to Ohio. On the covers of several newspapers I noticed a picture from somewhere along the East Coast, showing a person walking on the frozen Atlantic shore. I’ll be damned. The whole time I’ve been in Utah, I saw no more than six inches of snow fall, and it’s actually been unseasonably warm for the past couple weeks. The skiers and snowboarders who traveled here from all around the world (I met cats from South Africa, Israel, Columbia, Germany, and Michigan, here solely for that purpose) weren’t very happy about this, for the weather apparently inhibited even artificial snow from being produced, thus leaving bald patches miscellaneously on the slopes.
Aside from my burning eagerness to see Melissa and my personal Killa, I can’t say that I’m really looking forward to leaving. In fact, as I was nearing my hotel, the mountains before me didn’t seem to present much of an obstacle, and for a sincere moment, I was tempted to keep on walking. California is just over yonder pass…ok, so it’s 440 miles without the mountain factor, but that’s a lot closer than 1,700…
Actually, it’s not just my longing to live in Cali, but also the whole spectrum of the Festival, especially the Sundance Staff. You see, these are people who not only have a very innate passion for Film, but are aggressive and selfless enough to do everything they can to make it grow. These are the true Fiends, and this arena that they strive to produce every year is paradise for addicts like me.
Thus, while I truly look forward to seeing those I love and have missed like crazy since I left Ohio, I now have a better sense of where I feel at Home, and I can’t wait to settle in.