Before: Although most of the Sundance Film Festival takes place in the small resort town of Park City, Utah, festival films are shown in the state capital, Salt Lake City, throughout the week, including the opening-night selection, Sliding Doors. Written and directed by first-timer Peter Howitt, the Miramax release stars droopy Gwyneth Paltrow and even droopier Martin Amis–lookalike John Hannah as an English couple whose fates interlock by way of a narrative device lifted from Kieslowski’s Blind Chance and The Double Life of Veronique. It’s a rotten film, most appalling not for its retral sexual politics or noxious view toward class but for its aggressive banality — it’s a bad sign for the festival, and an increasingly familiar one for the former indie distributor.

Thursday, January 15: The van driver gets lost on the way from Salt Lake City to Park City; it takes longer to get from the Salt Lake airport to the condo than it did to fly in from Los Angeles. That night, we eat at Robert Redford’s Zoom, a determinedly casual, high-end restaurant decorated in Western chic and lined with movie posters. A poster of Redford, his back to the camera and face turned in three-quarters profile, greets you at the entrance. My friend J. calls it the “Aw shucks, it’s just me” pose.

Friday: No longer compressed onto Park City’s main drag, the 11-day event now spills across town, which cuts down on congestion but also on the possibilities for chance encounters, a must in the alienating atmosphere of a film festival. Over at headquarters, journalists wait for press passes that have been delayed because the office computers have been down for a week — a portent for this technically challenged festival. In the afternoon, I see Smoke Signals, a genial road movie directed by Sundance Lab alum Chris Eyre, and based on Sherman Alexie’s collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Before the screening, Alexie tells the audience how important and moving the film is; later, a programmer tells me the Miramax pickup is shorter now than when it was selected. On my way to Beautopia, a dull-witted documentary about fashion models, I hear a couple talking about Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s documentary on Woody Allen. “You know who surprised me?” the man says. “Soon-Yi.”

Saturday: I walk out of the Shorts Program V when a wheezy Hume Cronyn comes onscreen; make it through Martin (Hache), a talky Spanish/Argentine co-production about some dissipated filmmaker friends. In the afternoon, there’s High Art, Columbia film school graduate Lisa Cholodenko’s feature debut, which owes its aesthetic and many of its narrative particulars to photographer Nan Goldin. Radha Mitchell stars as a young magazine editor who falls for a photographer-junkie played by a ravaged-looking Ally Sheedy. I wait to see if Cholodenko thanks Goldin, only to see the artist’s name buried in the credits. After the screening, October co-president Bingham Ray distractedly asks what I think; the next day, October announces it’s bought the film, its only Sundance pickup. On my way back to the press office, L.A.’s ubiquitous unemployed actor, Dennis Woodruff (“Hire me!”), asks for directions. Woodruff is the subject of a short documentary at Slam dance, and I give him directions that he ignores. That night, I see Brad Anderson’s romantic comedy Next Stop, Wonderland, his audience-friendly follow-up to The Darien Gap. Two acquisition execs whisper that Miramax has snapped up the film for $7 million, a price that includes rights to his next two features.

Sunday: Find out that the Special Screen ing at 2 p.m. is of the Coen brothers’ forthcoming The Big Lebowski; hear the festival has mislaid the print, which is why the screening has now been bumped; later, someone tells me Lebowski is based on indie rep Jeff Dowd, who apparently is the only person who thinks the movie is any good. See Under the Skin, preceded by a terrific short, Gasman, one of the best films in the festival. While waiting for The Pigeon Egg Strategy to begin, I hear one man (“I’m a studio suit, that’s what I do”) ask another, “Did you make a movie about bad things happening to bad people?” The director of Pigeon Egg assures us that “If you don’t understand, don’t worry”; after 30 minutes of sophomore Beckett I leave, fully understanding, and, with a phalanx of distributors, walk into Dead Man’s Curve, a thriller in the self-congratulatory, pop-happy manner of Miramax’s newest fair-haired boy, Kevin Williamson. I skip Wrestling With Alligators to have dinner. My four critic companions insist that The Misadventures of Margaret, a nominal romantic comedy and one of the most highly anticipated films in the festival, is a disaster; one calls it a “career killer” for star Parker Posey. If people knew what critics really say about movies, we’d have no friends and no readers. At midnight I’m pulled through a crush of people by a publicist to make it into a “secret screening” at the Elks Lodge of Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney. It’s the most open secret in town — Daryl Hannah and Sarah Gilbert sit next to studio suits in weekend wear and journalists, including a regiment from Sundance sponsor Entertainment Weekly; getting banned by the festival is the best thing that’s happened to Broomfield’s career in years. As it happens, Kurt and Courtney is also his finest work since Aileen Wuornos, but it’s creepy, unpleasant stuff. Broomfield is beholden to tabloid logic — the doc insinuates Love’s guilt even as it insists on her innocence.

Monday: The Misadventures of Margaret is aptly named; Parker Posey has never been so poorly served by a director, cinematographer or hairdresser. I sit through Once We Were Strangers, a romantic comedy about love and cultural alienation, thinking about the wonderful British films of the ’80s like My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which had humor, sex and politics. Then it’s over to the new, badly designed Eccles Theatre — no center aisle, muffled sound — to see the best American movie at the festival, Paul Schrader’s Affliction. The night before, Schrader — who’s on the dramatic jury — choked on a lamb bone while eating at Zoom; his publicist, Susan Jacobs, administered the Heimlich maneuver, saving her client and proving her crisis-management skills with one blow. After Affliction, I struggle through Whatever, trying to understand why Sony Classics picked up this lackluster coming-of-age trifle; later, I stay awake for the 11:30 p.m. screening of Gods and Monsters, a Showtime production about director James Whale (Frankenstein), lifted from banality by Ian McKellen’s star turn. At the Albertsons, I buy a copy of Cowboys & Indians with Redford on the cover: “The Horse Whisperer Speaks His Mind.”

Tuesday: Chief programmer Geoff Gilmore introduces the Brazilian feature Central Station with some enthusiastic words about the new Cinema Nôva. The film is art-house dreck. It’s another Sony Classics release, though one that makes sense; the mixture of exotic locale and hokum — an orphan, a spinster, a bucket of snot and tears — is sure to win over mainstream critics and audiences. My friend G. predicts an Academy Award nomination. I walk out of another competition film feeling bad, since one of the producers gave me a ticket. J. reminds me of a story Schrader told us about sleeping through Reds and telling an insulted Warren Beatty that his three hours of sleep meant more to him than Beatty’s 10 years in production. A former critic, Schrader is one of the few directors who genuinely seem to like hanging out with film critics, and is quick to share his opinions on the industry. Road movie Niagara, Niagara is Shooting Gallery co-founder Bob Gosse’s fine feature debut; Jerry and Tom, a sub-Mamet set piece, is directed by character actor Saul Rubinek, and has inexplicably found a distributor in Miramax, which bought it up from Lions Gate (formerly CFP) at the festival. With three other critics, I drink Wasatch Ale in a bar where oversize televisions play extreme skiing to the sounds of Led Zeppelin; go to bed thinking about a career change, wondering if I could pass the LSAT.

Wednesday: I skip the 9 a.m. screening of Ted Demme’s Snitch since I hated his last film, Beautiful Girls, and turn on CNN to discover that Wag the Dog is no longer fiction. My first film of the day is One, an affecting debut from 28-year-old San Francisco native Tony Barbieri that’s been slotted into the American Spectrum section of the festival. The film is better than most of the features in competition, the story of two blue-collar friends trying to find some meaning in their lives. Barbieri and his wife and producer, Wendy Cary, both once worked in L.A. as dog walkers for UTA agents and Melrose Place producer Darren Star while having a go at film school; they dropped out to shoot their movie. Begun in 1996 as a noncompetitive showcase, American Spectrum is — despite official denials — distinctly second tier. Reporters looking for stories (or stars, and the two are often synonymous) are more likely to check out the competition films before those in Spec trum; the same holds true for distributors. (Almost everyone I know missed Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut, Sydney, when it played in American Spectrum in ’96; the excitement was reserved for the competition films, Big Night and Care of the Spitfire Grill.) One begins an hour late, something about the festival’s “new German projector,” but turns out to be worth the wait. At the next screening across town, I’m happily surprised by Buffalo ’66, an ambitious first feature from actor Vincent Gallo about an ex-con who stumbles into true love, but three minutes before the film ends, the projector — also new, also German — loses sound. Some one from the festival explains that they’re experiencing technical difficulties. Gallo takes the mike to tell us the film’s not over. Most of us wait another 25 minutes for the projector to get going; The New York Times’ Janet Maslin takes advantage of the mishap to interview Gallo. Later, I walk out of a prosaic Canadian sex comedy called Dirty (“They’re going to have to do better than this,” grouses G., after a woman sticks her finger up her lover’s ass). At dinner, I bump into Magna Entertainment executive Rama Wiener, who introduces me to Daniel J. Harris and his producer, Ariel Perets. The three are in the middle of an intense discussion; the next day, it’s announced that one year after winning Slamdance with The Bible and Gun Club, Harris this week signed a distribution deal for his film, the first feature to be bought by Island Records founder Chris Black well’s new company, Palm Pictures. I skip Frat House and make the mistake of going to The Opposite of Sex, a romantic comedy redeemed only by the presence of Christina Ricci, who’s even better in Buffalo ’66. J. tells me that the dramatic-competition front-runner is Slam, which makes me anxious since I don’t have a ticket. At midnight, I fight to stay awake through a Tarantinoesque cheapie, Blood Guts Bullets & Octane.

Thursday: Hands down, the best feature in dramatic competition is Darren Aronofsky’s p(Pi), a darkly funny, culturally specific satire that’s the anti–Good Will Hunting — in other words, a smart film by smart people. Shot in sizzling black-and-white for $60,000 (and bought midfestival by Live Entertainment for $1 million), p combines mathematics, the stock market, computers, a menacing corporation, the Japanese game Go, some radical Kab balistic Jews and a Cronenberg-like sense of sexual dread to create a wholly unique universe that is finally about, as Aronofsky himself puts it, “the search.” Next, it’s over to a press screening of Paddy Breathnach’s I Went Down, an Irish film about a pair of petty gangsters that miraculously evades cliché at every turn. The rest of the day seems anticlimactic, a feeling abetted by the fact that many of the screenings are at less than capacity: a documentary called Paulina; an unfunny British sex comedy, The Sea Change; a tedious competition entry, Miss Monday.

Friday: Enjoy Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, a charming first feature set in L.A. about unrequited love and lust by Tommy O’Haver. Bingham Ray, who’s already seen the film, has come to watch the frolicsome opening-credit sequence again, but doesn’t seem captivated enough to buy the film (Trimark picks it up by the festival’s end). Ray, along with MGM, Sony Classics, Tri mark and a handful of other distributors, are everywhere to be seen, but conspicuously missing from the trenches is Harvey Weinstein, who seems to be spending this festival holed up at the Stein Eriksen, a resort crowded with agents and stuffed animal heads. That day I see a picture of Weinstein cuddling with Elizabeth Berkley in indieWire. I also read in Daily Variety that Hachette is starting up a magazine called Indie and wonder how — or if — it’ll distinguish studio fare from authentic independents, particularly since real indies can’t afford big ads. I walk out of the grating 2by4, about an Irish immigrant’s adventures in construction and rough trade. “Did you stay for the fist-fucking?” asks J. Back at the press office, I score a ticket for Slam. The screening is packed, energized by buzz and by the $2.5 million Trimark paid for the movie two days earlier. Directed by doc filmmaker Marc Levin, Slam revolves around a pot-dealing poet facing a lengthy jail term. Levin has no politics, no feel for narrative and no clue how to light for black skin, but his film ignites the audience, which bursts into applause at regular intervals, apparently oblivious to the perverse irony of what it means for this mainly white audience at this mainly white festival to be lapping up images of America’s favorite black others — hardcore scary men and way-cool artists — albeit at a safe distance.

After: Saturday afternoon, I share a van with Slamdance winner Kevin Di Novis, director of Surrender Dorothy, a movie about a man who forces his male roommate to become the ideal woman. I feign sleep and pray he doesn’t recognize my name. Sunday night, Sundance announces the winners. Slam wins the dramatic competition, while The Farm and Frat House tie for documentary. p gets the directing award, one of 12 other prizes. The next morning, NPR runs a report on Kopple’s documentary on Woody Allen and on Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney. I turn the radio off and call publicist Mickey Cottrell, a producer on One, and find that one of the best movies in the 1998 Sundance Film Festival still doesn’t have distribution.

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