Bright Nights, Big Mountains

The Sundance Film Festival may have a hard time maintaining its indie credibility, but as a magnet for celebrities there is little doubt about its powers. After a few days of film in Park City,our writer looks back.

Monday, 12 p.m.

Right before the plane descends into Salt Lake City, mountains poke through the cloud cover, massive and snow-capped, like the world’s most deserted islands.

Later, I tell a friend how cinematic it was, what heaven might look like.

‘Those aren’t clouds,’ he explains. ‘That’s smog.’

‘Oh,’ I say, rather deflated. It still looks pretty, anyway.

1 p.m.

‘So this is your first time to Sundance,’ says a good-looking MBA type beside me on the shuttle bus to Park City. He tells me Sundance has changed. In fact, almost everyone says that. Independent filmmakers wrinkle their noses at Sundance’s mainstream success, the way true music fans shunned REM after they went Top 40. In the past decade, other less-commercial festivals have cropped up in response—Slamdance, No Dance—and any critique of the 20-year-old Sundance, much like Peter Biskind’s new book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, would have to question how ‘independent’ this festival actually is.

‘It’s at capacity, you know?’ continues the MBA type. ‘Too many people know about it now.’

Like so many things I’ve romanticized—Europe, rock music, James Dean—Sundance is officially dead. So last century. No longer the remote anti-Hollywood affair that launched the career of Stephen Soderbergh, it is now where Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher mug for the camera on opening night.

Which is awesome.

Purists may detest how the festival allows celebrity to trump cinema, but it’s my favorite part. Look, I love a great movie as much as anyone, but the best films here will get distribution eventually. Every industry hack in the country is pissing in his Pradas to find the next Sex, Lies, and Videotape. By the time I arrive in Sundance, four movies have been bought, including The Motorcyle Diaries, in which Gael Garcia Bernal—star of Y Tu Mama Tambien and hotter than August asphalt—plays Che Guevara. Still, knowing Bernal’s in town for the event, the question must be asked: which would you rather see: Gael Garcia Bernal on a movie screen, or Gael Garcia Bernal, close enough to shove your tongue down his throat?

According to the experts, this makes me part of the problem with Sundance. Recently, Biskind’s book slammed the 20-year-old festival for artistic compromise and catering to celebrity. At least, that’s what I think the book says. No one has read it yet; we’re all waiting for the movie.

‘So what do you do?’ I ask the MBA type. He’s wearing an expensive down jacket and Ray Bans nestled in his black hair. He keeps his cell phone at the quick.

‘I help package films.’ I’m not sure what that means, but I hope it involves Saran Wrap.

Although I regularly write about entertainment, I’m not here on assignment. My boyfriend, L., won a free trip to Sundance from a radio station, which we both find rather hilarious: he and a friend, R., made a short film one weekend, submitted it to a radio contest, and four months later, the three of us are packing our sunblock and our warmest wools. The contest paid for our flights, hotel, and a couple film tickets. We even got $300 mad money. The only bad part—if I’m even allowed to complain—is that the trip lasts less than 48 hours.

‘That’s enough time here,’ says the MBA type. ‘I was at Cannes for six days.’ He gags. ‘By the end, I was so sick of the whole thing. Partying till 5 a.m., screenings at 10 a.m.’

God, I know.

The MBA type has been at Sundance for three days, and he’s returning from a respite. I ask what movie he liked best so far.

His tanned face reddens slightly. ‘I actually haven’t seen any yet.’

2 p.m.

The center of Park City is Main Street, a strip of souvenir shops and bars and restaurants that stand in relief against the mountains like a movie set. L. and I walk up and down, trying to decide which mediocre, overpriced restaurant to choose for lunch.

Kyle MacLachlan passes, talking on his cell phone. His hair is heavily streaked with gray. I want to grab him and say, ‘Oh my God. Aren’t you the guy from Showgirls?!’

2:30 p.m.

We eat at a place called Wasach. It is mediocre and overpriced. We both have a beer. Maybe it’s the altitude, but we’re a little tipsy. This is the drunkest we will get.

3 p.m.

L. and I are leaving a fudge shop when a pair of young black girls beat past us, shrieking. This is the sure sign a celebrity is within sight, and everyone stops eating their caramel apples and chocolate-covered Oreos to rush outside. Could it be De Niro? Pacino? Redford himself?

‘Who is it?’ I ask.

‘DMX!’ yells a little girl.

‘Who’s that?’ asks an older woman.

‘A rapper,’ I say.

All the adults groan and go back inside.

3:10 p.m.

Judging by the number of full-length fur coats, Park City must be where minks go to die. It’s like a town full of Liberaces.

3:15 p.m.

As far as I can tell, there is no poverty here. No panhandlers shiver outside the bar, holding out their leathered palms for change. No musicians busk the streets. No dredlocked, dead-eyed kids with nappy dogs sit around, scoring beer money.

What Park City has, however, is Save the Children volunteers.

‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ asks a bright-eyed blond, smiling politely and holding a clipboard to her chest.

Dammit. They always get me.

I sign up for Save the Children. I request a child from Africa, preferably a very cute one.

‘Twenty dollars a month?’ L. says when we walk away. ‘That’s sorta steep.’

I point out that we just spent $12 on fudge.

4 p.m.

We meet R. at the hotel. He’s staying with family outside Salt Lake. The boys want to hit the town, but I need a nap. I snuggle in bed with the Dan Brown bestseller I brought to put me to sleep. By the way, I think I’ve cracked The Da Vinci Code. It’s S-U-C-K-S.

6 p.m.

Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys is in our hotel bar. Sadly, no Paris Hilton.

6:30 p.m.

I take a crowded shuttle back to Main Street.

‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ asks a wholesome 20-something with a goatee, holding a clipboard to his chest.

‘I already signed up this afternoon,’ I say. ‘Hey, you probably see a lot of celebrities here, huh?’ I ask.

‘Oh yeah,’ he says. ‘You just missed Al Gore.’

Al Gore?!

‘I’ve seen Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Joe Pantoliano,’ he says. ‘Tons of celebrities. They don’t want to be seen, but if you didn’t notice them, they’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’’

I laugh. ‘Have you seen Gael Garcia Bernal?’

He looks at me like I just burped.

7:10 p.m.

By some force of inertia, we return to the restaurant where we had lunch. It is still mediocre and overpriced. The problem is, we’re not sure where else to go. All the movies are sold out. We don’t have access to parties. And it’s freezing outside.

If I had come here as a journalist, we’d be drunker than the Kennedys by now. We’d be swimming in swag and tasteful buffets, rubbing shoulders with stars, or at least Elvis Mitchell. Instead, here we are—normal people, contest winners, with nothing to do.

R. tells us about his idea for a screenplay: a cop, a daughter, a twist at the end. We cast Ed Harris in the lead role.

8 p.m.

A van with a flat screen monitor on either side drives up and down Main Street, blasting Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings,’ one of the most schmaltzy and heartbreaking classical compositions of all time. The flat screens show brutal footage of animals being trapped and killed for their fur. I seriously consider becoming a vegetarian and then promptly distract myself.

9 p.m.

By sheer dumb luck, one of L.’s favorite musicians is playing in Park City tonight. When he sees the name in the festival program, he practically punches me with excitement.

Marc Anthony Thompson, aka Chocolate Genius, is a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn. When L. and I first started dating, he played me the guy’s album, Black Music, with the kind of nervous, timid enthusiasm preserved for things closest to our heart. Now I understand why.

Thompson is a true force, a performer who is both sad and funny, introducing a weeper about a dead-beat dad by saying, ‘This is a movie that’s been playing in my mind for years. Of course, it stars Nipsy Russell.’ Nelson likes to crack wise, but when he sings and plays the guitar, everyone sinks into a satisfied hush. This is called commanding the room. It is the only ticket that doesn’t require a badge or a special invite, and it is the best show around.

11 p.m.

We’ve spent $50 on drinks so far, and none of us feels a thing.

‘What we need is a good party,’ says R., as we walk down Main Street, staring in the windows at the people holding wine glasses and munching on canapes.

‘Is this invite-only?’ I ask a bouncer while wearing my best smile.

He nods and looks away, as if he’s embarrassed I had to ask.

‘We just need to walk into one of these places like we belong there,’ says R. He runs up to a bouncer and says something. The guy nods and opens the door.

‘What did you tell him?’ I ask, amazed.

‘I told him we were desperate for a drink.’

12 a.m.

Utah’s fabled 3-2 liquor law is the subject of much conversation at the bar. The guy beside me says Mormons aren’t allowed to serve anyone more than one drink at a time. ‘You have to wait until the person’s finished before you can put down another.’ The girl in front of me says that’s not fair, because all the beer and mixed drinks are weaker, so you have to go double-fisted. Now I’m beginning to understand why I’m so blasted sober. Time to switch to the hard stuff. As the bartender pours out my Vodka tonic, he places a black plastic filter over the spout.

‘What’s that for?’ I ask.

‘It measures out exactly one ounce of alcohol,’ he says. ‘I know. It sucks.’

12:30 a.m.

The partygoers turn out to be mostly party-crashers. No one knows whose party it is.

I run into my friend, C., another journalist, who’s staying with eight other women in a condo. She’s drinking a Stella Artois with a funny sticker on it. Apparently, regular beer with full alcohol content has to bear these labels. C. has started collecting them on her film badge. ‘The beer is free at the bar,’ she explains.

Free? Why did I switch to the hard stuff? I bolt to the bartender, who explains all the real beer is gone. He pours another neat ounce of Vodka. ‘I know,’ he says. ‘It sucks.’

1 a.m.

So this is how our first day ends. Finishing our 10th drink of the night in an empty hotel bar. Listening to Peter Cetera. Sober as a Mormon.

Tuesday, 11 a.m.

We wake up late. None of us is hungover, but we all gained two pounds.

We hop on the shuttle to catch our first movie, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, starring Laura Dern, Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause from Six Feet Under. Sure, that’s an independent film; a cast about as ‘independent’ as Iraq.

The guy I’m sitting beside in the theatre is the director of photography (D.P. in movie-lingo) for a movie called Harry and Max. I’ve heard about it, but I can’t remember why.

‘It’s about a sexual relationship between two brothers,’ he tells me.

Oh, yes: That’s why.

The D.P. is nice. He comes to Sundance whenever he has a film in the festival, and he spends all day in the theatre. He saw five movies yesterday. The Woodsman, with Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, is terrific, he says. Everyday People, about a black-friendly, Jewish-owned restaurant in Brooklyn, is really good. In fact, everything he’s seen has been worthwhile, and I feel a twinge of guilt for letting half our trip slip by without catching one single film. Long before I cared about celebrity, before I crushed on actors or read Us Weekly (helplessly, ridiculously), I just loved movies. I watched them over and over again—often in one sitting—just to have access to another life, just to see someone else’s sky for a while.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore, directed by John Curran and based on two short stories about marriage and infidelity by Andre Dubus (whose story ‘Killings’ became the film In the Bedroom), is wonderful. It’s aching and angry, and though I’ve never been the biggest fan of Laura Dern, her performance here left me reeling. As the crowd filters out, I wonder: Why didn’t I try harder? Why was I content to wander around yesterday, looking for Gael Garcia Bernal? This is a film festival, for chrissakes. This should be about the film.

2 p.m.

Holy shit! Danny Glover!

2:30 p.m.

L. and I grab lunch at The Eating Establishment, one of the more famous restaurants on Main Street. It’s funny how you can tell who’s an actor: no one else would spend that much time on his hair. You can tell the journalists, too: no one else would leave the house like that.

4 p.m.

Slamdance screens short films throughout the afternoon for free. They’re housed in a building on Main Street, right across from the mediocre, overpriced restaurant we’ve been frequenting. We arrive in time to see a 30-minute documentary about the bungled reintroduction of wolves in the Northeast, made by a passionate (and stunning) Australian woman who arrives for the Q&A session with tears in her eyes. The film was pretty graphic, all those wolves drugged and dying, tongues lolling out of their mouths, so it’s probably a good thing L. and I are leaving tomorrow; a couple more films like this and I’d become all political or something.

4:45 p.m.

Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray. Man, I could so take him in a fight.

5 p.m.

We return to the hotel for a nap. L. reads me The Da Vinci Code in a funny French accent. ‘Teacher, all four confirmed the existence of the clef de voute. The legendary keystone.’ We’re asleep after three pages.

8:30 p.m.

Whoa. How did that happen?

9 p.m.

Our second and final film is Stander, a crime caper about a South African policeman who turns into a bankrobber. It’s good, entertaining, political without being didactic.

‘Wanna skip the Q&A?’ L. asks as the credits roll.

‘Yeah, let’s bail.’

11:30 p.m.

Restaurants operate on Puritan time in Park City; by the time we arrive, starving, the only place still open is a pizza joint. The girl in front of us in line is wearing more lipstick than all four member of KISS. It’s a gloppy mess, ringed with bleeding dark liner.

‘Do you think she’s somebody?’ asks L.

I consider this. Aside from the nightmare makeup, the girl is quite beautiful, with long flaxen hair and a buxom little frame. She wears a leather biker cap and a hip-hugging black coat.

‘Nah,’ I say, looking at her friends. Though they are pretty, they are also young and too consciously done-up. Their clothes have been made to approximate wealth—rabbit furs and vinyl purses and stiletto heels. Stuff you buy at the mall. ‘I think they’re trying hard to look like somebody,’ I say. ‘If they were famous, do you really think they’d be at the pizza joint at midnight, hanging out with people like us?’

1 a.m.

‘What do you think it would be like to be famous?’ asks L., as we shiver in our winter coats, walking back to the bus.

‘I think it would be terrible,’ I say, which is mostly true. ‘You’d have to worry about how you looked all the time.’ I catch a glimpse of myself in a glass window as we walk past. My hat isn’t nearly as cute as I thought it was.

‘I’m sorry we couldn’t find a party to go to tonight,’ he says. There’s a long line outside a club with loud, throbbing music. Things inside look very chic and German. I’m sure everyone inside is screaming to be heard.

‘I don’t really want to go to a party,’ I say, which is mostly true as well.

Wednesday, 7:30 a.m.

We have just enough time to catch breakfast before the airport shuttle. I scour the room for celebrities, a habit. Nothing.

We take a seat in the back. I hear a chair scraping the floor and turn around to find Gael Garcia Bernal sitting at the table behind me.

7:35 a.m.

I shit you not.

7:40 a.m.

‘Stop clawing my hand!’ whispers L. ‘You’re hurting me.’

I want to look, but I know I can’t look. I want to say something, but there is nothing to say. Gael leaves with a woman, and my head cranes to watch them as they exit.

He is like 10 inches tall. Pocket-size.

10 a.m.

We sit on the plane and stare out the window. I watch the mountains arrive and recede in the corner of the airplane window. They are just as beautiful, just as cinematic as I remember. I get out my laptop, and begin to write this.