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Or is it? To those waiting in the cold, this still looked like a desirable destination. The aggressive door management is perhaps not about the party itself but how it appears to the public. This is Hollywood by proxy, after all, where even the parties have a Potemkin logic. If everyone were allowed in, it might help the party, but the door would be dead. And that would kill the illusion. For the outside world, the door is the party.
Finally, a movie. It’s my last day at Sundance, and I discover a recently added press screening of David Sington’s documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon. It’s been getting a lot of attention; even more so after ThinkFilm bought it for $2 million. While looking for the theater, I meet a woman named Bern Haase, whose son has a feature in competition called On the Road With Judas. She’s also lost.
“What are you seeing?” she asks.
“A bunch of archival NASA footage of the Apollo lunar landings.”
“Oh, that sounds better than what I was going to see. I’m coming with you.”
With that, we head together over a snowbank, down Kearns Boulevard, and into a mall to eventually locate the Holiday Village I screening room. I use my borrowed press pass to get both of us in. Bern buys us popcorn. She tells me how her son made his movie, and how they’ve been swept up in the inevitable commotion of the festival. When the house lights dim and the audience quiets down, I start to remember why all 50,000 of us are here, packed into shuttles and bars and cold lines and overheated rooms in this tiny mountain resort. We all know it’s a cliché, but there’s still nothing quite like that great, breathless moment when a film makes its first promise to a theater full of people. Sometimes it lives up to that promise, and sometimes it doesn’t, but like everyone else, I can’t help but be captivated when those lights start to flicker on the screen.
Today, that anticipatory awe is justified. The story of the Apollo missions is well known, but somehow this film creates a clarifying sensation of import about what it actually means to have stood on the moon. The fucking moon! Maybe it’s the thin mountain air, or exhaustion after a nonstop week of covering up my constant existential dread with bad vodka tonics and Bacchanalian hijinks, but as soon as I see the black-and-white footage of President Kennedy announcing “the greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked,” I am in tears.
In the film’s 100 minutes, everything appears poetic: the sluggish furnaces of the Saturn V’s escaping Cape Canaveral’s massive gantries; William Anders capturing the famous earthrise picture; Apollo 11’s LEM disengaging from the Command Module for its first descent to the moon. When Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 crew member who walked on the moon in 1971, talks about the penetrating experience it is to look back at an Earth the size of his thumb and realize “that’s all of it, everything I’ve ever known,” I’m feeling the change in perspective along with him. “It’s an ecstasy,” he says. “A oneness. An insight. An epiphany.” I feel like hugging Bern Haase, right there in the dark, and I would if I wasn’t a total stranger, eyes blood-red from an hour and a half of crying.
Only 24 people have visited the moon. In the film, one of them points out that doing so makes our terrestrial concerns seem irrelevant. The many films I missed catalog those concerns — Abu Ghraib, the unpredictability of love, the personal loss of war — but on re-emerging from the theater, it feels like we happened across the festival’s most fundamental illumination.
The midday winter sun looks different as Bern and I exchange information. I tell her that the moon is inching away from us. “That’s a shame,” she says, and we part ways. Gone is all the talk about the festival’s manic mingling of art and commerce, which now seems moot. It doesn’t matter if you get into the Grace Is Gone screening, or the Premiere party; nor does it matter if your film is purchased by Miramax for $2.3 million, because sometime not too far away in geological time, the moon will be lost altogether, and there will be very long, dark nights as the Earth’s rotation slows down and then stops, and not too long after that, all of it, every trace, our oceans, rocks and trees, the recycled energy of our short existences, will all be swallowed by the dying sun. That’s all the truth there is, the one that makes all other truths and lies both meaningless and meaningful, and I’m glad I’m going home today. But not before I stop by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation party. I hear there’s free food.