Chest of Lies
Every morning during Sundance, a citywide ritual occurs. By the time the tardy sun finally comes over Park City’s Wasatch mountains, competitive teams armed with heavy-duty stapler guns and stacks of posters are fanning out through the streets to put their films’ mark on the surprisingly few bulletin boards designated for public advertising. Because of the limited space, and a hefty fine for posting bills anywhere else, the competition is intense, and it requires a vigilant campaign to keep your poster in the public eye. With several hundred films vying for attention, the hope is that if the right people walk by at the right time and notice your film, even subconsciously, they might remember to see it, and good things might happen. In the war for exposure, the flier squads are the infantry, constantly trying to form a beachhead on every festivalgoer’s short-term memory.
I’m out early, and I see at least a dozen crews on the move. Two kids approach the billboard near me and start systematically checkering it with posters for a Slamdance feature called Homo Erectus.
“How long will one layer stay up?” I ask.
“Half an hour tops,” they say. “Sometimes just a few minutes.” The kids are Shane McAvoy and Bernard Crosland. Shane is a friend of the director. Bernard is his backup. They’re from Temple City, and their travel here is occupied by this sole mission. They’ve been at it since Friday. Recently, they’ve found themselves locked in a tête-à-tête with another movie, called Rocket Science.
Los Angeles Angels vs. Houston Astros
TicketsFri., Aug. 25, 7:07pm
Los Angeles Rams vs. Los Angeles Chargers
TicketsSat., Aug. 26, 5:00pm
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. Oakland Athletics
TicketsMon., Aug. 28, 7:07pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Oakland Athletics
TicketsMon., Aug. 28, 7:07pm
UCLA Bruins Football Season Ticket Deposit
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 4:30pm
“As soon as we’re done,” Shane says, “they come along and cover us up.”
Bernard starts lifting the edges of the posters, peeling back the layers. There must be 50 sheets, and as we sift through the archaeology of promotion, a visible pattern becomes clear. “Our poster is white,” he says, “and theirs is blue.” You can see the edges alternating blue and white all the way to yesterday.
Rocket Science, a “quirky coming-of-age story” about a debate captain who stutters, is in competition at Sundance, and has a team of eight people fliering. “They cover us up in a flash,” Shane says. Bernard adds that they’re putting up posters for other movies too.
“So they’re third-party mercenaries?”
“And as hired guns they don’t even care about the movies on their posters.”
“We’re out here fighting The Man.”
For some, it is a bitter irony that Sundance has become the establishment. It was, after all, originally conceived as an annual mutiny against the big studios. Sundance purists complain about celebrity creep, but would secretly love to have them in their own movies. The Slamdance crowd complains about big, bad Sundance, but would rather be showing there instead. Shorts directors know their entirely uncommercial category lies closer to the festival’s original spirit, but they’d of course like to screen a narrative feature. The dynamic is conflicted, with concentric rings of outsiders simultaneously cursing and envying the relative insiders. It’s the unspoken rule of rebellion: You’re only angry at The Man until you are The Man.
My trip to Sun-/Slam-/X-/Etceteradance was last-minute, with almost no planning. Too late for a press pass, I lack the all-important lanyard-suspended laminate around my neck and am therefore not just at the bottom of the totem pole, but not even on the totem pole — statusless, with the same level of access as a refugee-camp resident. I’m with my friend Jessica, a writer covering the festival. She tells me we’re headed to the press/filmmakers' party, which, just like it sounds, is for all press and filmmakers, meaning virtually everyone in town is invited except me. By definition, then, this event is not a hot ticket, with no talent, no gift bags, no celebrity chef braising beef cheeks with vine-ripened tomatoes on a bed of Parmesan polenta, no list or line at the door. Still, you do need that laminate, and I may not get into a party that no one even cares about.
Halfway into explaining to the staffer checking credentials that I’m meeting some people inside, but don’t have a credential — what I mean is, I accidentally left my credential at the condo in Deer Valley — I run into Kay, a friend from New York, who recognizes my predicament and interjects, “I’m glad I found you — here, I have your pass in my purse.” And with that she slips the protective amulet of a filmmaker laminate around my neck.
Now fully entitled as a producer of a documentary in competition (that will go unnamed here so as to protect my “sources”), I walk in to discover a room full of people all wearing badges printed with the name of their own project or media outlet, drinking Stella (an official Sundance sponsor) and mindlessly eating free finger foods, very deeply fried and unidentifiable.
“So what are you doing here?” Kay asks while we make for the bar.
My honest response: “I really don’t know.”
Overheard in an Afternoon
“Did you see the dog with the blue Mohawk?”
“It’s like a cross between Pulp Fiction and Napoleon Dynamite — but better than both.”
“The Darfur movie is totally like the most amazing thing ever, but kind of a downer.”
“Seriously, this is worse than Memorial Day in East Hampton.”
“Justin Timberlake is playing on Tuesday. Too many people just wanna hate on him for no reason.”
“I’m at fuckin’ Sundance, fuckin’ ridiculous, fuckin’ drinkin’, fuckin’ people everywhere, fuckin’ just, you know, watching the Bears game.”
Coin of the Realm
Supposedly, this year’s festival is the first in memory to see a wane in the opportunistic marketing and celebrity frenzy that’s turned Sundance into Hollywood’s snowbound Spring Break, Cancun. It’s hard to tell. Sundance is a victim of its own success. Another marketplace of ideas turned into a marketplace, much of it ancillary, entirely unrelated to the film business, a promotional bonanza that festival organizers publicly admit is “parasitic.” To wit: Even before arriving, I managed to RSVP to: the American Eagle White Out party with Samantha Ronson (transportation courtesy of GM is available for approved talent upon request); Aaron Eckhart’s receipt of the Ray-Ban Visionary Award; Bon Appetit’s Supper Club at Sundance; free snowboarding lessons (and gloves and goggles) from Burton; and unspecified comforts from the Entertainment Tonight, Gibson Guitar, and Getty Images Lodge (“Get Ready to Rock Main Street!”).
I will likely go to none of these events, but that’s not the point. If you can RSVP, you do, because RSVPs are the coin of the realm during the annual offensive of filmmakers and critics and actors and gawkers and parties and hangers-on and orange-vested festival volunteers and gifting salons and converted music venues and impromptu clubs and myriad clandestine house parties that occasions the opening weekend at Sundance. When Robert Redford called his own creation “Park City’s version of Pamplona and the running of the bulls,” it was to explain why he no longer visits the festival beyond opening night.
All of this is why Sundance printed a get-back-to-roots slogan, “Focus on Film,” on buttons for festivalgoers to pin to their parkas. An accompanying explainer makes the following declaration:
“Visibly wearing this button during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival means that I want to see film that I know I’ll never get to see anywhere else; My idea of ‘celebrity’ is the filmmaker who directed my favorite film at the Festival; I’m willing to wait in the cold for two hours to see a hot documentary .?.?.”
Yet it’s Sundance that again programmed many features with big stars. Nor can Sundance eschew its own approved marketing; the “Focus on Film” button also signifies that the wearer “understand[s] that without the support of the official sponsor community, I would not have the opportunity to Focus on Film at the Sundance Film Festival.” On the back are the corporate logos: Volkswagen, HP, AOL, Adobe, Delta and American Express.
The Kuleshov Effect
Thank God for those sponsors, because otherwise there wouldn’t be free booze inside the Kimball Art Center. The liquor helps grease the social wheels, but people would introduce themselves anyhow. The first thing I notice about Park City during Sundance is that almost everyone is friendly in a “we’re all in this together” kind of way. Since 99 percent of us are visitors, there’s no big-city-intruder/resentful-townie dynamic. At the press/filmmakers’ party, everyone is especially friendly. Even the purest intention of Sundance is promotion. Everyone wants to tell you about what they’re doing and they want to know what you’re doing. Most people are genuinely interested, but there is no way to erase the subtext of every conversation, which is: Perhaps this person can help me someday, hopefully starting later on tonight when I’m trying to get into that highly coveted premiere and/or party.
Kay and I ensconce ourselves as makeshift VIPs on a U of soft, comfortable red couches in the center of the room. My friends Emily and Brent come by. They are the editors of Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine published by McSweeney’s. They’re with David and Nathan Zellner, a team making their third Sundance appearance in the short category and whose films have appeared on Wholphin. A corrugated metal basin full of beer and ice had just fallen on Emily’s foot, but she’s still working the room, meeting potential contributors.
As the scene dies down, we’re all discussing next moves. Food, more parties, maybe some screenings. I keep hearing about Crazy Love, a documentary about a man who hired someone to throw acid on an ex-lover’s face, went to jail, and later married the woman. Chris Smith fans want to see his new feature, The Pool. Everyone’s curious about Zoo, the horse-fucker documentary.
Jessica, already on her third drink, says, “I plan to just roll out the red carpet and see where it takes me.” Kay says she’d “rather just stay on this comfortable couch forever,” and then asks: “Can you get me some more wine?”
On my way back from the bar, I run into David Zellner talking about a cinematic term called the Kuleshov effect. “An early Russian director discovered there are expressions that audiences can interpret multiple ways,” he says. “He used the same face, on the verge of tears, in various montages. Depending on the perspective, it would be experienced as either joy or agony.” I wonder if Kuleshov has been to Sundance.
Inner Sanctum of Swag
The Village at the Lift is a barricaded complex of stores and restaurants surrounding the ski lift that launches into mountains directly from the bottom of Main Street. Not even the festival express pass that gets bigtime film critics into screenings of their choice without waiting gains entry to The Village.
Much of Main Street gets converted into a promotional Potemkin village, but this is the most heavily fortified center of celebrity shoulder-rubbing and free stuff. In another act of festival identity theft, I got a badge for The Village from a friend, and even though it says Ivana Schechter-Garcia and features her picture, I took the risk that a quick, strategic flash would get me in, which is why I am now enjoying free food in The Village’s T-Mobile–sponsored café, watching Billy Baldwin get his photograph taken through the window.
Outside, a security guard named Alan describes all the other famous faces he’s seen from his post at The Village: “somebody off That ’70s Show”; “the girl from Scary Movie”; “a guy from The Matrix”; “that dude from 90210”; “oh yeah — and Tara Reid.”
As we huddle beneath a heat lamp, Crispin Glover hustles past. He’s here promoting his film It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine., whose principal character is a man with real-life cerebral palsy who has explicit sex with several women before strangling them.
“There goes the guy from Back to the Future,” Alan says. “He’s a real nice guy. I talked with him yesterday.”
I ask Alan if he’s familiar with the thematic content of Glover’s film.
When I explain it, Alan shrugs his shoulders and says, “I guess I don’t get out much.”
I follow Glover into the Philips lounge, where a Philips device is projecting a rotating snowflake on the bartender’s sweater and there is an enthusiastic young woman telling a visitor that “Philips is all about the experience” as she provides a tour of the company’s products on display, including Philips’ new portable, design-conscious defibrillator. Billy Baldwin is here as well, engaged in an interview in the back by my friend Whitney Pastorek, who is covering Sundance for Entertainment Weekly. Afterward, she shows me the contents of her commodious bag from the Fred Segal next door.
“Look at these boots I got!” she says, digging into her goodies. “You should head over there.”
But Fred Segal, I discover, requires yet another, higher insignia than mine. Foiled: Inside the VIP area is — yet another VIP area. As Albie Hecht, former president of film and television at Nickelodeon, told me while we were waiting to get into a party during the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “Even when you think you’ve made it to the seventh chamber, there’s always one more door to another chamber, and you don’t have the key.”
I revisit Alan, who breaks down the color-coded security regime. I have a green circle on my Village at the Lift card, but you need the blue square for entry into Fred Segal’s inner sanctum of swag. “It’s like on the slopes,” he says. At the highest order — possessed only by people like, say, Justin Timberlake — is a card emblazoned with a black diamond, the coveted and elusive seventh-chamber key.
The Freedom Campaign
For those bold-name jet setters who find carrying 50 pounds of gratis cashmere underwear and electronics they can afford to buy themselves too encumbering and/or embarrassing, there’s the new Luxestar Card, debuting this year at Sundance, which “gives celebrities the chance to select their own swag in the privacy of their own home.”
How convenient! The rest of the Luxestar press release, blissfully unaware of its own irony, speaks for itself:
“Park City, UT (January 15, 2007). For the FIRST TIME EVER, there will be a brand new way of gifting at the Sundance Film Festival .?.?. This is not your typical swag house. No more heavy bags full of useless merchandise, no more oversized clothing or oddly colored promotional items.
“Representatives will be on-site to guide guests through the Luxestar website and even assist them in ordering items on the spot. They simply log on and pick their favorite size, color, style and have it shipped to the address of their choice. For our high-end products/services, taxes then become the responsibility of the celebrity only for what they select and not for what they are given.”
And what goes better with shameless publicity and filthy lucre than the Burmese humanitarian crisis? Also from the same press release:
“In addition to new products, the Freedom Campaign will be there raising awareness. The Freedom Campaign will be working to showcase the campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi and introduce Hollywood’s famed actors and actresses attending to get involved and join the cause in Burma.”
The unintended subtextual degradation behind Luxestar is that the card’s value depends on how much of a celebrity you are. So the very act of accepting the thing means allowing a team of flacks evaluate your worth. I wonder who enters that number into the spreadsheet. And how do they decide? Is there a formula? Billy Baldwin = how much free crap? How about “the girl from Scary Movie”? In the case of Tara Reid, does her card’s total rise or fall as her career devolves into peekaboo nipple scars and tabloid notoriety?
100,000 Thumbs, 50,000 Phones
Among the many Sundance press materials is a handsome 295-page catalog featuring descriptions of all the features, documentaries, shorts, panels, talks, workshops and many bands playing in ASCAP’s official daily music lineup at the Star Bar. Flipping through it is exciting, like planning for college: A vista of opportunity, with dreams of taking Russian lit and karate and foreign policy of the Weimar Republic, all meticulously planned out on paper when deep down you know you’re going to spend the semester playing video games, eating two-for-one Little Caesars crazy sticks and going to parties.
Only here, partying must also be planned in advance. On Saturday there are at least a dozen producers feting their own films with dinners or cocktail receptions; MySpace/Tao commandeered Harry O’s to bring us Mos Def; a bar called Celsius has become a satellite of Cahuenga’s Hotel Café; Filmmaker magazine is celebrating its 15th anniversary at the Delta Sky Lodge; Entertainment Weekly is celebrating, well, Entertainment Weekly, at the Gateway Center; and who knows how many private soirees are under way at the timber-and-stone A-frame villas whose twinkling lights we can see on the hills above downtown. Hollywood has mapped its social structure on Park City, reorganizing its geography according to access. All these events have various levels of exclusivity, depending on host, guests, size and altitude. Last night, I heard, even PBS had an invite-only affair.
11 p.m. — parking is $25 but all the lots are full. The cars on Main are at a dead stop. The sidewalks are crowded with Los Angeles natives wearing strangely well-appointed and fully coordinated winter wardrobes. Fueling the frantic social structure of Sundance is a constant fear that there may be a better party than the one you’re at. There are just 10 days, after all, to get in as much posturing and networking as possible. A hundred thousand thumbs are working 50,000 phones, coordinating and evaluating the evening’s rendezvous opportunities. From my sidekick:
Me: Where U@?
Friend: Heading 2 myspace
Me: can u get in?
Friend: On list +1
Friend: But w/ 3 friends
Friend: Def can’t bring everyone there. Plus last night was too crowded.
Me: Good Mag party supposed to be alright
Friend: Maybe EW later
I never hear back from my much-better-connected party contact. I’m at a mediocre bar where there’s a $20 cover for no reason other than it’s Sundance. Down the street, a storefront has been rented by a magazine called Hollywood Life. I have no idea what that is, despite the fact that I live in Hollywood, but some friends are heading there to celebrate a big movie sale. The door is closed, protected from interlopers by the kind of tall, attractive girl that typically serves as Keeper of the List. Backing her up is a strange show of force — a man with camouflage pants tucked into shiny black boots, a flack vest, utility belt and cop squawk affixed to left clavicle, and the requisite paramilitary flattop. The only thing missing is a black balaclava. It’s party security by way of Special Forces, as if any revelers getting out of line at the Hollywood Life house would quickly discover dude descending upside down from the ceiling to break their necks in one of 17 weak points.
Special Forces turns out to be real friendly once we’re cooled by a producer already inside. (Cooled as in: “They’re cool,” as in: They can enter.) The party feels transplanted directly from any of the clubs in “revitalized” downtown Hollywood. DJ Spider is reading the room pretty well with the wheels of steel. Producers, agents, actors and people who aspire to be producers, agents and actors salute each other unctuously. The vodka tonics are free, but the bartender must be drunk because in four trips to the bar I got either all vodka or just tonic and ice.
What talk about movies I hear mostly relates to business deals. “The lawyers are working it out.” “Is that foreign and domestic?” “They paid how much?” A brief buzz surrounds a rumored after-party at Nick Cannon’s house. When that fizzles, we realize this is where we’re spending the rest of Saturday night. Hollywood Life is our Alamo. And we better make the most of it. What core remains of the party is on the dance floor, couples together, free agents looking for last-minute connections, the rest too drunk to care. DJ Spider plays Dick in a Box and the people go wild, pantomiming, singing and wondering if J.T. will rock that accidental hit when he plays on Tuesday at Celsius. “Oh, man,” says a guy on the edge of my dancing perimeter who’s been cutting up the rug while still wearing his scarf and hat with earflaps, “I’d love to see that shit live.”
Brought to You by Albertsons
It’s day four, and still no movies. By 11 a.m. a stretch Hummer with flame decals is already cruising Main. Farther up, an R.V. belonging to the Socko energy-drink street team is pacing a group of girls as the guy riding shotgun films them with a video camera. It is the lamest attempt at the guerilla manufacture of street-team “hype” I have ever seen, but that doesn’t stop a half dozen Mormon children in shorts riding razor scooters from following along, desperate to enter the R.V. and presumably experience the patented “Socko lifestyle" — “The Energy You Want While Eliminating Unwanted Carbs.”
By the way: Who knew there were so many different energy drinks? I’ve come across BooKoo (the first energy drink distributed in 24-ounce cans), Piranha Outrageous Orange Pineapple Energy Drink, Rockstar, Red Thunder and plenty of original and sugar-free Red Bull. The Socko R.V. is still in sight when my friend Walter grabs me as he’s being led to a press event at the Miners Club, where Monster Energy’s many brands are being spiked by two Latin American women.
“You look like you need a drink,” one of them says. It’s barely noon.
“Why not?” I say. “What are you serving?”
She mixes some Monster Khaos with lime vodka. It looks and tastes like the ferment of a thousand melted orange Tic Tacs, which is to say delicious.
“What do you call this?”
“What do you want to call it, baby?”
Behind her are the remnants of a sad little complimentary fajita bar — two hot plates with cold beans and peppers surrounded by tortilla crumbs — above which hangs a sign: “BROUGHT TO YOU BY ALBERTSONS.” There’s a band playing. They suck. After one song, I hear something new, which is the sound of one person clapping in a room full of people. I stuff my pockets with freebie Vojo energy mints and Lindt chocolate truffles and then wander outside, drunk.
The Mormon Identity
Here’s how a scene materializes at Sundance. One gleaming blue SUV with tinted windows pulls out of a driveway and stops traffic in the middle of the street. People congregate, believing there’s a celebrity inside. Who can it be? P. Diddy has been spotted in Park City. As have Winona Ryder, Kevin Bacon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Douglas and Parker Posey. No one knows, but the crowd expands. Cameras come out. More people notice. Panicking, the driver of the SUV tries to move, wedging his vehicle against another. This draws more attention, and everyone’s flocking to get a better look. Like a cyclone emerging from the warm Pacific, the crush of people keeps growing, drawing its strength from the constant flow of pedestrians. In a matter of seconds, a normal street becomes a mob of hundreds. Those without cameras are snapping pictures with cell phones. Of whom, they’re still not sure. It all happens so fast there’s no way that those outside the inner core have any idea what they’re supposed to be so excited about.
In the center of it all is a doughy blond man with a framed camping backpack and a blue shirt that reads:
He is knocking on the tinted window, asking whoever’s inside to roll it down, all the while taking pictures. Someone, presumably the unknown cynosure’s handler, gets out of the SUV and says, “Thank you, that will be enough.” The man’s still taking pictures, smiling and chasing the vehicle as it now starts to move. Eventually the SUV breaks through the crowd, and deposits its passengers less than half a block away.
I CAN’T I’M MORMON follows with his backpack and camera. As the crowd disperses, he remains high on the experience, taking more pictures. I see him chase down one of the professional paparazzi, perhaps to ask for copies of his photos of the incident. He’s across the street, and I want to talk to him. But in the split second that it takes for a delivery van to drive up Main between us, the Mormon disappears without a trace. And I mean fast, like The Bourne Identity. The paparazzo is suddenly alone, and the street returns to normal, as if none of it ever happened.
The Seventh Chamber
My carefully developed strategy for Sundance nightlife: If I see a line, I get in it. It’s served me well so far. I’ve seen M. Ward sing, eaten roast duck at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, and gotten some free samples of StriVectin, the new anti-aging tonic first developed as an epidermal regenerator for burn victims. Right now, I’m waiting to get into the San Francisco Film Society party at Buona Vita. When I arrive at the door, I say I’m Brent Hoff and flash my recently acquired third badge, a press pass that carries neither Brent’s nor my name.
Next thing you know, I’m inside with a skewer full of roasted vegetables in my hand, scanning the crowd.
“How’d you get in here?” my friend Kay asks and hands me a drink.
“Connections,” I say, pointing at the laminates collecting around my neck.
“I see,” she says, raising her glass to me. “You have a chest full of lies.”
None of the badges will help hours later at the door to a party being held by one of the mini-major studios. The security buffer zone is seven men deep. When you give your name to the point man, he passes it back to the guy behind him, who passes it farther back, and so on, like a game of telephone, until it reaches the information officer holding the clipboard. Ahead of me in line, there’s confusion surrounding someone who believes himself to be a Hollywood macher but can’t get in.
“I’m [so-and-so],” he’s complaining, likely with added urgency since he’s with a woman. “And I’m supposed to be in there.”
“I’m not seeing him on here,” reports the information officer, and when that makes it way back to where we’re standing, the macher is livid. “[So-and-so] put me on there,” he says. “Check again.”
The actual sheets of paper with the names are so far away, it is logistically difficult to make your case to the security apparatus, which is probably the point of their tactical configuration. It is by far the most forbidding door I’ve approached at Sundance, but I know my name is on the list. Don’t ask me how, but it’s true, and I will admit to a sense of tremendous satisfaction when I breeze through the gauntlet and leave the abandoned, fuming, putative macher still standing outside.
Two Jack-and-Cokes later, I see Tara Reid up in this piece, but the party’s flat-lining. Half the rooms are empty, and no one is dancing. The paradox of VIP access is that once you get it, you realize there’s nothing very important back there at all. It’s all a well-choreographed deception: Pull back the curtain, and there’s just a little old man pulling levers and scaring people.
Earlier in the week, I had been walking past a party at Harry O’s. The scene out front was like a bread riot, with actual metal fortifications controlling the frantic multitudes. I happened to know one of the people presiding over it all, pointing at the anointed few who were to be granted admission. I waved. My friend pointed at me — “He’s cool” — and the security seas parted. I was with a half dozen friends, but had to leave them behind. It was the cold, hard calculus of Sundance parties: If you can enter, you must. And plus-six ain’t gonna happen. Instantly, I knew it was a mistake. I had no idea who was playing and didn’t care. My friend was too busy pointing at people from the door. The biggest reward of a VIP party, I realized as I was leaving, is the thrill of getting in; more exciting than staying would be to keep going out and getting chosen to come in over and over again.
At the studio party, I’m outside on the smoking patio, where I can hear the seven-layer security team still telling people the party’s too crowded when it is in fact in dire need of people. Lots of “You two are good when the next two people come out” and “She can come in but not her friend.” Now, there are several good reasons for operating a tight door. You may want to keep out the riffraff. You don’t want the fire marshals to shut you down. You probably want delicate control over the demographic mixture in order to maintain your high-octane awesome party atmosphere. But tonight none of these apply, and the policy seems arbitrary, to the detriment of the actual party. The door is rogue, spun off from its source, a mutagenic power regime existing for its own sake.
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.