Eric D. Snider's 2006 Sundance Diary: Days 1-5
By Eric D. Snider
Posted 01/21/06 18:29:51
Day 1 (Thursday, Jan. 19):
For some people, Sundance begins on a Thursday. Those people are called suckas. Day 1’s activities are limited to one (1) screening of a specially selected “opening night” movie, in a big gala whoop-de-doo usually hosted by leathery Sundance founder Robert Redford. It’s an ordeal to get into the event, and the movie is seldom one of the fest’s better offerings. So why bother?
I couldn’t have attended the opening-night festivities this year even if I’d wanted to, because my presence was required for a meeting of Salt Lake City Weekly’s festival coverage team. For the first time, City Weekly is printing three special editions during the festival, and they’ve asked me to provide some content, mostly in the form of these daily diary things. (You may know that I always come to Sundance and do these diaries anyway, for free. So whatever City Weekly is paying me, it’s a waste of money.)
City Weekly has put us up in a charming condo near The Canyons ski resort. It has four beds, which is only two less than the number of people staying there. “Roughing it” is always part of the Sundance experience, though. Many Hollywood bigwigs spend the entire week in Park City without once snorting cocaine off a hooker’s chest. (OK, that’s not true.)
The necessary introductions were made, and the full-time staffers accepted me and the other freelancers with far more graciousness than freelancers usually get, considering most of us want to steal their jobs. Once we were settled, everyone retired to bed (or couch) before midnight. We had a big day ahead of us. It was literally the earliest I have gone to bed since I had the flu.
Day 2 (Friday, Jan. 20):
Contrary to my usual modus operandi, I not only intended to get up early this morning and catch a 9 a.m. screening, but I actually did it. Park City was beginning to buzz with activity as I shuttled to the Yarrow Hotel for the first press screening of the day. People’s eyes were bright, and their tails, as far as I could discern, were bushy. It was the first real day of Sundance! The air was cold, but the skies were blue and clear. Everywhere you turned, you could smell independent film. (It smells like Steve Buscemi.)
The driver on this shuttle bus had a serious case of the perkies. She chattered nonstop throughout the 10 minutes I was aboard her vehicle, giving a running commentary on traffic conditions, on the difficulty of a particular turn, on the proximity of the festival venues to each other. She did this regardless of whether anyone was sitting close enough to be listening to her.
The Yarrow Hotel is home to two venues, both of which are used almost exclusively for press screenings. In the lobby this morning was a sign that said “CONCESSION’S,” pointing to a maintenance closet that magically becomes a snack bar when Sundance is in town. Yes, “CONCESSION’S.” As a writer, I am more offended by the misuse of apostrophes than I am by reports of genocide in faraway lands. Unable to bear seeing this sign every day for the next week, I peeled off the errant punctuation mark and kept it as a trophy.
The 9 a.m. film was “Lucky Number Slevin,” a stylish gangster flick about a man mistaken by two different bosses for the guy who owes them money. It’s put together well, and it has a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley — the “Sir” is right there in the onscreen credits — but it doesn’t add up to much. I think it’s too impressed with its own cleverness. But I guess we’ve all been there.
After “Lucky Number Slevin,” I had just enough time to grab a slice of pizza from the concession’s stand before the next film. I asked the woman for a receipt, and she acted like it was the most bizarre suggestion anyone had ever made to her, like I had asked her to give me the receipt in the form of an interpretive dance. Now, I agree it’s silly to get a receipt for a slice of pizza. But when it costs $2.50, and when you’re being reimbursed for your expenses, you have to admit there’s a certain logic to it.
Anyway, the next film, in the same venue as the last one, was “Kinky Boots.” It’s about a guy whose father dies, leaving him to try to save the family’s factory — so it’s a total rip-off of “Tommy Boy,” only with shoes instead of auto parts. They wind up specializing in thigh-high boots designed for drag queens and transvestites, which is fairly unusual, I’ll grant you. But the movie is still one cliché after another, culminating in (of course) a fashion show/performance that aaaaalmost doesn’t happen, and then the star performer arrives at the last minute and saves the day!!!!!!!! I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called “Every Movie I’ve Ever Seen.”
Sitting behind me for this film was Roger “Three Stars” Ebert, the dean of modern film criticism and bestower of more thumbs up than a Palm Beach proctologist. (Thank you! I’ll be here all week.) I always enjoy listening to Ebert, a world-class raconteur, regale his seatmates with stories before screenings. Unfortunately, when the film began and everyone was quiet, Ebert said something out loud in regards to one of the characters onscreen: “She was in ‘Lovely & Amazing’!” And I thought: Am I going to have to shush Roger Ebert?! Because that would be awesome. I would regale listeners with THAT story for years to come. Alas, he was well-behaved for the rest of the film.
After “Kinky Boots,” I hopped over to the Holiday Village Cinemas, where the third press-screening venue is. In the doorway to the facility was a melee, an absolute brouhaha, a veritable donnybrook. You see, members of the press are supposed to sign in at these press screenings so that the films’ publicists know who saw their film, so they can track you down later and try to extract positive feedback from you. But instead of having a festival volunteer jot down your name and affiliation as you enter the theater single-file (as they do at the Yarrow), they were making everyone sign the list themselves, which led to this massive group of journalists clamoring around the table, scribbling their signatures illegibly. Some people were just skipping the sign-in process and walking in. Apparently the volunteers had held a meeting and had chosen the most inefficient means for sign-in that they could conceive.
Once we were signed in, we still couldn’t enter the theater because a movie was still playing there. Someone had scheduled a 164-minute film for a slot that only had 150 minutes in it, and now those additional 14 minutes were spilling over into our film’s slot. So we loitered in the hall, grumbling and swearing like an angry mob. Then, finally, we were allowed to watch the documentary about “Sesame Street.”
“The World According to Sesame Street” sure sounds nice, but it sure is too long and kind of boring. It should actually be called “Sesame Street According to the World,” because it’s about how “Sesame Street” is altered when other nations produce their local versions of it, like having a drug-lord Muppet in the Colombian edition, or whatever.
Now, I’m not usually in favor of teaching foreign children to read, but the “Sesame Street” people have their hearts in the right place. I just wish the film had focused less on the boring producers who conceive the shows and more on the local performers who spend their days with their arms up the plush backsides of monsters (which reminds me of another Palm Beach joke, but never mind).
I had some time before my next film, so I went to festival headquarters for the first time this year. I recognized many staff members from previous years, and even some publicists, with whom I generally try not to make eye contact. I bought a deli sandwich for $4.50 — a ridiculous price given its teeny size, but one doesn’t worry about such trivial matters when one’s expenses are being reimbursed.
Then it was up to Main Street for me, to get a taste of festival flavor amid the throngs of gawkers, onlookers and posers. I saw a man whose festival badge indicated his name was Ham Tram, and another whose first name was allegedly “Stash,” though I am skeptical of that one.
I stopped in at the Sundance House, which is a place for passholders to lounge, relax and revitalize. While I was clacking away on my laptop (which technically is neither lounging, relaxing nor revitalizing), I was accosted by my old friend Jamal, who has somehow risen to a level of some responsibility on the Sundance Film Festival staff and was helping to oversee the goings-on at the Sundance House. He indicated that boozemaker Stella Artois was hosting a party where I could find free food and drink; alas, Jamal’s intel proved faulty as ever. There was no food, and the only beverage was, um, Stella Artois beer. So it was Burger King for me!
My last film of the day was back at the Holiday Village, where they’d seen the error of their ways and had a much smoother sign-in process in place. The movie was “Wide Awake,” a rather fascinating documentary about a guy who can’t sleep for crap. I mean he’s actually a bad sleeper. You’d think it would come naturally, but apparently not. Anyway, it’s dangerous to show a movie about sleep deprivation to a theater full of people who are sleep-deprived, but this guy pulled it off, so my figurative hat is off to him. And speaking of sleep, it was now time to return to the condo and get me some o’ that.
Day 3: Saturday, Jan. 21
For some reason, I had it in my head that I would get up in time to catch an 8:30 a.m. screening today. Part of me knew this was sheer folly, but it wasn’t until my alarm went off at 7:30 that the rest of me was convinced too. If it had been a film I was particularly eager to see, I’d have managed it, but it was only a press screening of “Friends with Money,” which was the opening night film and which, according to custom, is probably only so-so.
I forgot to tell you about something that happened yesterday during the “World According to Sesame Street” screening. I was sitting in the back row of the theater, and next to me were three a-holes. They were men in their early 30s who are in the film industry somehow and who were so important that they couldn’t be expected to just sit and watch the movie. No, these a-holes were so important they had to fiddle with their BlackBerrys during the film, and talk to each other during the film, and just generally behave like the a-holes they were.
The light that emanates from a BlackBerry or other personal electronic device is very distracting in a darkened theater, as I’m sure you know. In fact, I’m sure everyone knows that — everyone except for a-holes, of course. They’re too important to know things like that. They have interns and assistants to know that sort of thing for them.
One of the a-holes left 30 minutes into the film, but only after much consulting with his BlackBerry and important chatting with his companions. This left the two remaining a-holes to ignore the movie and behave boorishly.
When the film ended, the a-hole immediately to my left stood up and, in the process, dropped his BlackBerry. It clattered on the floor and fell into the recess beneath the seats in front of us, whence nothing can return without a struggle. So be aware that the laws of karma are strictly enforced in Park City.
Anyway, back to today. It was a cold, snowy day, not good festival weather at all. But though the weather outside was frightful, the films were so delightful, like a shot of hot chocolate delivered directly into a moviegoer’s veins.
First up, at 11 a.m., was “Eve & the Fire Horse.” This is the kind of movie that reinvigorates a festival attendee, especially after the mediocrity of yesterday. I saw it not because the description looked interesting (it didn’t), but because the other films playing at the same time were distinctly UN-appealing. And what a swell surprise it was! Set in Vancouver in the 1970s, it’s about three generations of a Chinese family, the older ones born in China, the younger ones in Canada, all of them mixing their Eastern superstitions and traditions with Western ones as they search for happiness. The story is told with humor and grace, with enough characters to provide fodder for several inter-related subplots and tangents. So hooray for Eve and her fire horse!
While waiting in the Yarrow Hotel lobby afterward, I overheard two industry types discussing the festival. One of them said Sundance was like “Groundhog Day,” in that you wake up each day and do more or less what you did the day before. The other one said, “I love ‘Groundhog Day.’ Harold is a good friend of mine.” She meant Harold Ramis, of course, the film’s director. This led to a discussion of Harold’s other films, including 1996’s “Multiplicity,” which one of them felt was an overlooked gem but which neither of them could remember the name of. (I was going to interject and tell them, but I didn’t want them to know I was eavesdropping. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices like that.)
Thereafter, I met up with my pals from HollywoodBitchslap — Erik “The Movieman” Childress, Scott “The Angry Jew” Weinberg, and Collin “No Nickname” Souter — for a press screening of a Beastie Boys concert film. The Boys handed out video cameras to 50 audience members, and those frat boys and stoners provide most of the movie’s footage — hence the film’s title: “Awesome; I F*****’ Shot That!” I braced myself. When there’s a curse word right there in the title, you know the movie itself is bound to be effing full of it.
But the Beastie Boys put on a pretty lively show. Their beats are funky, their rhymes are fresh, their style is fly. What more do you want? Intelligible lyrics? Professional cinematography? That’s whack, yo.
It was snowing persistently after the film ended, which made it all the more pleasant when Scott and Erik spent the next 1,000,000,000,000 minutes arguing over whether the movie sucked or not. (Erik: sucked. Scott: did not suck.)
I left Siskel and Jewbert and wedged myself into an overcrowded shuttle bus bound for Main Street. I had my butt in some woman’s face, and my face was two inches from another man’s neck. So it was a typical Saturday, I guess. KA-ZING!
It turned out the narrow avenues of the Main Street district were as crowded as the bus was. If you had poured out a bucket of water inside the bus and then opened the doors, the water wouldn’t have spilled out, because the pressure outside was greater than the pressure inside. Since I am not water, however, I went against the path of least resistance, exited the bus, and inched my way down Main Street. This concludes the physics portion of today’s lecture.
There were no celebrities about, but there were hundreds of people milling around looking for them. The thing about Main Street is that the sidewalks are narrow, so walking arm-in-arm with your sweetheart, while cute, is also selfish and stupid, because it means no one can get past you. Let go of her for two minutes, for crying out loud! She’s not going to escape!
At the Sundance House, I saw famed marijuana addict and former actor Dennis Hopper. He was flanked by handlers and assistants, and they were escorting him somewhere important. This marks the second time in six months that I have been next to Dennis Hopper, the other time being at the CineVegas Film Festival last June. Who besides his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor can say that?
I eventually made my way back to the Yarrow, where the 5:30 p.m. screening of “Wordplay” was being delayed. It seems a panel discussion on film technology had run long, allegedly because it had started 20 minutes late, allegedly because they couldn’t find a phone book for Robert Redford to stand on so he could see over the podium. (Because he’s short, you see. Ahem. Is this thing on?)
Anyway, we eventually got in and watched “Wordplay,” a funny and upbeat documentary about the New York Times crossword puzzle’s legendary status among casual solvers and professional puzzlers alike. Like “Spellbound” (spelling bees) and “Word Wars” (Scrabble) before it, “Wordplay” culminates in a tournament, where victory and heartbreak for the crossword solvers are doled out in equal measure. What’s a 20-letter word for “nerds”? Thepeopleinthismovie.
Sitting next to me in this screening was Edge Publications’ Jason Salzenstein, who was wearing a designer yarmulke with a little Izod alligator on it. I note on Edge’s Web site that Jason is the style and travel editor, so if he’s wearing a designer yarmulke, it’s apparently OK, at least from a fashion standpoint.
After a short break, many of the same people were back in the screening room again, this time for “Somebodies.” Every year there is one film in the Dramatic Competition category that is so bad, you wonder if the festival programmers even watched it. “Somebodies” is that film for 2006. (At least, I hope it’s that film. I shudder to think there’s one that’s worse.) It actually starts out well, with a lot of laughs as we follow a slacker African-American college student through his days of drunkenness and womanizing. But 20 minutes in, the film loses steam and becomes an endless series of pointless, unfunny scenes and subplots. Rarely have I seen a film turn from good to evil so rapidly.
As a side note, I caught these two names in the credits: IronE Singleton and Nard Holston. IronE? Nard? Come on, people. If you’re going to be in a movie, you need to have a name. (I’m looking at you, too, The Rock.)
And that was it for the day: four movies today, eight total, about 40 to go. I caught a shuttle back to my car and, as I opened the door, broke the handle off in my hand. Apparently I don’t know my own strength! I felt like Ben Grimm in “Fantastic Four,” only without the shame of knowing I was in a terrible movie that had conned millions of people out of their hard-earned money. Of course, it’s possible the car’s age (10 years) and Park City’s temperature (well below freezing) had something to do with it, but I’m not going to question my superpowers.
Day 4 (Sunday, Jan. 22):
The skies were sunny and clear today, but the temperature was only in the upper teens, making it one of the coldest festival days I’ve experienced. It was so cold that photographers’ lips were actually freezing to Gwyneth Paltrow’s butt.
Prior to today, all the films I’d seen had been at press screenings, which are convenient and efficient but also rather sterile. If you want to truly experience Sundance, you need to attend public screenings, where industry types and Hollywood shmoozers and regular movie-lovers gather together. So I spent several hours today at the Eccles Theatre, where the high-profile movies screen and where there’s always something interesting happening.
Before the first film, though, I used the restroom at the Eccles and once again demonstrated my newfound super-strength. (See yesterday’s report.) When I pulled toilet paper from the industrial-size dispenser, the entire dispenser broke off the wall and clattered to the floor. As hack writers say, “As Dave Barry would say, ‘I am not making this up.’”
My first film, at the dreadful hour of 9:15 a.m., was “Steel City,” a sturdy, well-made drama (sturdier and better-made than that toilet paper dispenser) by first-time filmmaker Brian Jun. It deals with a young man whose father is in jail for vehicular manslaughter, whose older brother is a low-life adulterer, and whose job washing dishes at a restaurant is in jeopardy. So, you know, it’s really fun.
To gain access to public screenings at the larger venues (including the Eccles), members of the press need only show up an hour before show time and get a ticket. As luck would have it, they had just started handing out tickets for the next film when “Steel City” ended. So I nabbed one and dashed over to headquarters for a few minutes before returning to the Eccles for the noon film.
The noon film was “Come Early Morning,” the writing and directorial debut from actress Joey Lauren Adams, who you may remember from such films as “Bride of Chucky” and “The Haunted Mansion,” until you realize that that’s Jennifer Tilly you’re thinking of. Then you give up on Joey Lauren Adams and consult the Internet Movie Database to find out she was in a bunch of Kevin Smith movies and Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy,” which you totally saw but have little memory of.
Anyway, while “Steel City,” lacking any big-name actors (and showing at 9:15 a.m.), had played to quite a few empty seats, the Ashley Judd-oriented “Come Early Morning” was packed to the rafters. I sighed. Why would you go to Sundance just to watch an Ashley Judd movie? That’s like going to Monte Carlo and eating at McDonald’s.
Ashley Judd is OK in the film, which is another drama about another screwed-up character trying to make another change in her life. My City Weekly pal Scott Renshaw said something about “Sherrybaby” (another festival film) that applies to “Come Early Morning,” too: When it comes to these 90-minute dramas, you always know that at the 65-minute mark, the main character is going to backslide, relapse or fall off the wagon. And sure enough, Judd’s character, a reformed alcoholic skank, returns to her life of alcoholic skankery at an hour and five minutes into the movie, only to (spoiler!) triumph once and for all by the end.
Joey Lauren Adams was on hand for a Q-and-A after the screening, and she brought several cast and crew members onstage with her, including Judd. When someone asked her how she crafted her performance as the slutty barfly, Judd responded with an answer that included the words “vibrations,” “energy” and “organic.” So maybe she belongs at Sundance after all.
I should mention that before the film started, someone in the audience had a laser pointer that he kept shining at the screen. I thought: A laser pointer? Where does this guy live? 1998?
I should also mention that while the press screenings, attended by 300 people at the most, routinely start as much as 10 minutes late, both of these Eccles screenings — with crowds of 1,300 to wrangle — started only five minutes late. I’m just sayin’.
Immediately after the Q-and-A, I picked up a ticket for the NEXT Eccles film, due to start at 3 p.m. With another hour to kill, I hung out in the Eccles lobby, where two women asked a man I did not recognize if they could get a picture with him. They were excited, and I heard one of them use the word “celebrity.” But despite watching a lot of movies and a lot of TV, I had no idea who this man was. He didn’t look the least bit familiar. Yet these women, who surely cannot be more pop-culturally savvy than myself, knew him. What’s up with that? Am I slipping?
(It is times like that when I wish my cell phone took pictures, so I could run the guy’s face through one of those magic databases like they have on “24? and identify him. My digital camera would have been too obvious and tacky, I think.)
The 3 p.m. film was “Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out,” a documentary about 1970s and ’80s rock band The Police, culled from footage shot during those years by drummer Stewart Copeland. Predictably, this screening was packed, too; the ones about rock bands always are, even when the only band member scheduled to appear in person is the drummer.
After claiming a seat, I left the theater to use the bathroom, and on the way I noticed that three entire rows had been roped off for Copeland, his guests, and people connected to the film. I pointed out to one of the volunteers that it seemed like a larger number of seats than usual — typical, I guessed, of movies about rock stars, even former rock stars, who cling to their glory days by continuing to travel with large entourages. But the volunteer said that in fact this was FEWER seats than are usually reserved for the filmmakers and their guests. And just like that, the situation went from amusing to sad.
The girls who sat next to me, trendily dressed Californians, hooted like banshees when Stewart Copeland came onstage to introduce his movie. They also ululated through the first few minutes of the film, until they realized, as did the rest of us, that it was kinda boring. Turns out Stewart Copeland’s home movies are as dull as everyone else’s. Who knew?
I could not stay for the Q-and-A, as I needed to get to the Yarrow in time to eat some dinner before my 5:30 press screening. I ate at The Corner Cafe, the Yarrow’s little restaurant. I used to eat there frequently during the festival but for some reason had not in recent years. Now I remember why: 10 dollars for a hamburger and inattentive service. Up yours, The Corner Cafe. That’s the last $10 you’ll get from me, to be reimbursed later by City Weekly!
The 5:30 screening was “All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise,” a harrowing documentary about the time in 2004 that a couple thousand people were trapped on a boat with Rosie O’Donnell. Hundreds were devoured.
But I kid the bleating she-moose! The movie is an account of the seven-day cruise Rosie and her partner sponsored that was aimed specifically at gay couples and their children. There are gay cruises all the time, of course, as recounted in the Cuba Gooding horror film “Boat Trip,” but gay cruises designed for families (i.e., without rampant sex and booze) are rare.
This documentary suffered from the same problem as Stewart Copeland’s: Just because you have filmed an event doesn’t mean you have made a movie. Movies, even documentaries, have stories for an audience to follow. Showing random vignettes of people on a cruise ship is not a movie. That is surveillance footage.
My fifth (fifth!) movie of the day was “The Proposition,” written by creepy musician Nick Cave. If you love brutal violence and the buzzing of flies, I urge you to seek out “The Proposition,” which is set in Australia circa 1900 and features ample servings of both. It also has Guy Pearce and his 24-inch waist. I bet I could break that guy in half, even without my super-strength.
Day 5 (Monday, Jan. 23):
I began the day with being ripped off by a bagel salesman.
In the Eccles Theatre lobby, there is a makeshift franchise location for Park City Coffee Roasters, at which coffee, pastries and other goodies are sold during the film festival. I bought a bagel there yesterday morning for the posted price of $1.50.
Today, I bought the same kind of bagel from the same counter, though it was a different employee, an old man with a mustache. I handed him a $5 bill and he gave me back $2.50.
I said, “Isn’t it $1.50?”
“It’s $2.50 with cream cheese.”
“No, this one’s plain.”
“Oh, OK. Two dollars, then.”
“The sign says $1.50.”
“No, it’s $2.
“Then why does the sign say $1.50?”
“The sign is wrong.”
“I paid $1.50 yesterday.”
“Oh, no. No, it’s $1.50.” He said that as though he didn’t believe me that I had paid $1.50 yesterday, as if it were some preposterous lie I had made up.
“No, I really did pay $1.50 yesterday,” I said. “That shouldn’t surprise you, considering that’s the price on the sign.”
“No, it’s $2.”
In retrospect, I should have refused to buy the bagel for anything above the posted price of $1.50. But by this time, I was already handling the bagel with my sweaty mitts, and there were people in line behind me, and the man was so clearly uninterested in making his customers happy that I felt I had no choice but to pay $2 for the $1.50 bagel. Never again, though!
It’s kind of a hassle keeping track of all the establishments I won’t patronize because of their shoddy business practices.
The first movie of the day, again at 9:15 a.m. and again at the Eccles Theatre, was “Stay,” written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite. About 10 years ago, there was a trend for performers to remove all references to wild cats from their names, perhaps due to the feline AIDS epidemic (which is the number one killer of domestic cats in America). So we had the de-cougarization of John Mellencamp, and Mr. Goldthwaite started going by just Bob. He was introduced as Bob, and his festival pass said Bob, but the credits for his movie said Bobcat. So he’s still Bobcat as far as I’m concerned.
His movie is an attempt at randy sexual humor in which a woman has an embarrassing secret in her past that she believes will cause those she loves to shun her if they ever learn of it. (It involves a dog. That’s all I’m sayin’.) The movie is often raucously funny, but it’s really a one-joke affair. Imagine if “There’s Something About Mary” had been centered entirely around the hair-gel scene, rather than just including it as one component in a larger story.
Bobcast introduced the film very graciously and warmly, apparently genuinely humbled at being invited to the festival. “I once rappelled nude from the roof of the Oakland Coliseum during a Nirvana concert,” he said. “I’m more nervous today.”
Afterward, he told several amusing stories about the production, including finding his cinematographer on Craigslist, and breaking into an unoccupied home’s garage to film a scene. He’s a funny guy, that Bobcat.
Next I joined HollywoodBitchslap pals Erik and Scott at the Yarrow for a press screening of “The Descent,” a horror film that premiered in England last year and is due out in the States in a few months. It bears an unfortunate (and coincidental) similarity to “The Cave” — unfortunate because it’s a thousand times better, but will probably be thought of as a copycat.
It’s about six hot women who go spelunking and encounter danger and/or death. It’s a terrifying movie, I kid you not. Just like “Super Size Me” made some people stop eating fast food, “The Descent” will surely make people stop exploring uncharted caves where there are monsters.
I had a few hours before my next screening — which is to say, there were press screenings right away, but nothing I was particularly interested in seeing. You have to pace yourself at Sundance; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you watch movies for 12 hours straight without a break, you’ll burn out in a few days, no matter how much you love movies. I have learned this from experience.
So I headed up to Main Street. With the weekend over, the crowds had thinned somewhat; people do have jobs to go to, I guess, even during the Sundance season. I stopped at the Sundance House for a while and as I was clacking away on my laptop, a pretty blond woman stopped next to me and said, “Hello.” I returned the greeting, skeptical as to her intentions, as it is not often that pretty blondes speak to me without provocation.
Sure enough, she wanted me for my Internet: She needed to find out the name of some contact of hers, and she wondered if I would be so kind as to go to the company’s Web site. I was glad to be of service. I retrieved the necessary info for her, and to thank me, she gave me a yo-yo emblazoned with her organization’s logo: Animal Content in Entertainment (www.ace-tvfilm.com), a group that apparently wants to see more TV shows and movies about animals. They’re not PETA or anything crazy like that; their Web site says, “We hope that as writers, producers, and directors you will be inspired to find creative and compelling ways to portray animal issues in your story-lines, or to consider exploring a subject for a documentary.” In other words, they like animals, they like how animals are connected to all aspects of human life, and they want to help filmmakers tell stories relating to that. I wondered if the woman knew about Bobcat Goldthwaite’s movie, where a lady has a one-night stand with her dog.
Anyway, I have a yo-yo now.
After I’d spent some time writing, I realized I was hungry, tired, creatively exhausted, and a little out-of-sorts after having run into someone I once dated. (In a perfect world, of course, people would cease to exist once you broke up.) Sundance wears you out both physically and mentally, even when you pace yourself. And when you’re in your seventh year of covering it, there’s plenty of nostalgia when you’re in the mood for it.
I was in the mood for it. Hunger and weariness will do that to you. I walked up and down Main Street and thought about past festivals, about the pals I’d met here, about the friends from Salt Lake and Provo who had come to Park City to visit me while I worked. I have so many fond memories tied up in Sundance — in the movies, sure, but mostly in the experiences. “Sundance” isn’t just about movies any more than “college” is just about classes.
I wanted to eat dinner at Burgie’s, a hamburger place on Main Street that I discovered a few years back and have enjoyed every year since. It’s part of the Sundance experience for me. But I couldn’t find it. A subsequent Internet search revealed that it closed sometime in the last 12 months.
Now, if I were making a film, and if the protagonist’s discovery that his favorite restaurant was gone came at a time when he was already feeling nostalgic and melancholic, critics would say I was being too obvious in my symbolism. The only thing the scene lacked was for it to start raining.
Anyway, I ate dinner somewhere else and read a book for a while. Feeling much rejuvenated and refreshed, and no longer in my funky mood, I headed back to the Yarrow for a press screening of “Stephanie Daley.” This is a movie about a teenage girl who has a baby and either kills it or lets it die, and the pregnant psychologist assigned by the district attorney to evaluate her. It’s not nearly as funny as it sounds.
From there I went to the Eccles Theatre, home of the two-dollar dollar-fifty bagels, to get a ticket for the evening’s big event: “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme. Some members of the press were already in line for their tickets, some two hours before the screening. Civilians were queued up, too, eager to see the movie and Neil Young himself, since the old guy was scheduled to be in attendance.
You should know that in the soundtrack of my childhood, Neil Young plays a significant part. I’ve never paid him much attention, but he’s my dad’s favorite performer, and so his records were played often when I was growing up. In fact, my dad knew about this film already and has indicated his eagerness to see it when it’s released in theaters next month (after having its world premiere at Sundance).
So it was mainly for my dad that I wanted to see it tonight. There’s a press screening later in the week, but Neil Young won’t be there in person. I figured if Dad can’t be here tonight to be in the same auditorium as one of his idols, I can do it for him, as his proxy.
The theater was packed. Some 140 seats were reserved for Young and his people. (Now THERE’S an entourage worthy of a rock star.) The volunteer ushers were strict about not letting people save seats unless their friends were actually already on the premises somewhere, and a woman in front of me became very agitated. I didn’t get all the details, but I did hear her shout, “I can’t sit in two seats at the same time!” I thought: Well, not with that attitude you can’t.
Demme introduced his film by thanking about a hundred people by name, which was boring and a little pretentious. Then he brought Neil Young to the stage, to an enthusiastic standing ovation. Neil said a few simple “thank yous” and returned to his seat so we could all watch the movie.
Turns out it’s a pretty fantastic film. Demme’s style is unobtrusive: He lets Young and his band do their thing, and he stays out of the way. There are no tricky camera angles or cool editing tricks. It’s mostly long, unbroken takes and plenty of close-ups. The movie lets Young’s songs speak for themselves.
And what songs they are! How have I not paid attention to this before? Some of the songs are angry; some are sad; some are wistful; one is even about an old hound dog he used to have. But he sings all of them with conviction and heart. The lyrics are often poetic but rarely pretentious. The musical performances are world-class but not showy.
He sings one that he calls an “empty-nester song,” about his daughter being away at college and living her own life. He tells her the door is always open for her to come home and visit: “Yes, I miss you, but I never want to hold you down / You might say I’m here for you.” It’s so simple and sweet, and through the whole film, but particularly that song, I couldn’t help but think about my dad. I thought about how even if everything keeps changing, and even if Burgie’s isn’t there anymore, and even if what cost $1.50 yesterday costs $2 today — well, Dad and Mom are still there, at home, constant and unchanging.
Will the film make everyone want to call their dads afterward so they can talk about Neil Young? Probably not. I can only tell you how it affected me. After five exhausting Sundance days, it was nice to be reminded that movies can be more than just movies. They can be total experiences.
This feature is continued, with Days 6-10, here.