Sunday morning in Park City, just two days into the Sundance Film Festival, I feel in dire need of an encounter with the Eternal.
And so to mass. To St. Mary’s, the oldest Roman Catholic church in Utah, or so the cantor tells me, erected at the top of Park Avenue by miners in 1884, and twice since burned to the ground…he doesn’t say by whom. And far be it for me, at this mass dedicated to celebrating a Vatican-mandated “week of Christian unity,” to ask. The gospel text, appropriately enough, is from the fourth chapter of St. Matthew, about Jesus walking beside the Sea of Galilee and enlisting the brothers Simon (called Peter) and Andrew — followed by the sons of Zebedee, James and John — to his cause.
Christian unity . . . brothers . . . got that?
Also in this issue
To read Ella Taylor's article about Sundance 2005, click
To read Scott Foundas' article on why Sundance is for independents, click
The priest certainly did. The first sign of trouble, for a quasi-traditionalist like myself — ever searching out the vestiges of solemn observance amid the bumptious precincts of Kevin Smith’s “buddy Christ” — was when the altar girl processed to the lectern bearing a pretty, ice-blue Apple laptop, from whose screen our lapel-miked presider prepared to read his homily. And such a homily it was — about “brothers,” of course. But not so much about the brothers of the gospel text, or the brotherhood of some presumed Catholic-Protestant-Mormon unity, but the brothers of Brothers, a film in the World Dramatic Competition of the very festival I’d just struggled so mightily on a cold, dark morning to escape, if only for a couple of hours. Moreover, this Roger Ebert of an alter Christus, not content with merely alluding to the movie in question, blithely launched into a scene-by-scene accounting of the film, beginning to end, complete with spoilers. Many spoilers.
The silver lining, I guess, was I got to scratch Brothers from my list of “possibles.” And however squeamish or appalled I may have been about the content of the homily, all was soon forgotten in the face of this sacred liturgy’s coup de grâce, which occurred later, during the announcements. Following the lector’s enumeration of the usual church and community activities, Father Dominic — for such was his name — proceeded to an entirely different order of business, that of reminding the congregation that his very own short films — including the new one, Dogwoman and Magicman, a dramatization of a scene from Mark’s gospel involving the miraculous cure of the deaf-and-dumb child — would be screening at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning at one of Park City’s many sidebar festivals. Moreover, the good father would be handing out fliers in the vestibule of the church after mass.
Good sport that I am, I took a flier, introduced myself and told him I’d see him Wednesday morning. And indeed I did see Father Dominic again, and his movies, which turned out to be really not all that bad. The priest-filmmaker — a visiting Dominican friar, it turned out — had been assigned by his superior to attend the festival and, I suppose, soak up the kinds of influences that would nourish his unconventional apostolate. And so I spotted Father Dominic once at a screening of Dear Wendy (Thomas Vinterberg directing what played like a lousy warm-up to Dogville, scripted by Lars von Trier), and again, as he exited a screening at Holiday Cinemas.
“Seen anything good since Sunday?” he asked.
I didn’t give his question more than a moment’s thought.
“Why yes, father. Just now, in fact. The Aristocrats!”
What was I thinking? The Aristocrats, courtesy of Penn Gillette and Paul Provenza, shows 100 or so professional funnymen, and women — almost all of whom you’d instantly recognize — attempting to outdo one another in recounting, and embellishing, what is undoubtedly the world’s filthiest joke.
It’s true the film brought something entirely new to Sundance, or at least my experience of Sundance — namely, belly laughs, which left the audience in stitches for the better part of 90 minutes. But what imp of the perverse led me to recommend such a filthy film to this man of the cloth? I dare not speculate. All I can say — really, safely — is “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.”
Here’s the deal, folks: You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. Okay? You’re another corporate fucking shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gangbang . . . everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.
—Bill Hicks, 1961 — 1994
“What is the name of the current president of the United States of America?”
A tall and vastly employed man emerges from the kitchen carrying a huge tray of food up high. Although he stands behind the bar, he’s not a bartender, or at least he’s not our bartender; maybe he’s a confused waiter. Whatever he is, he is looming and sincerely threatening to place the tray before us, on a genuine oak bar in an artificial Universal CityWalk (“Fun!®”) restaurant, if we answer his query correctly.
“George W. Bush,” Laura replies, in a clear and mellifluous alto that trumps my sophomoric baritone mutters of “Li’l Lord Satan” and “The Blue-Eyed Honky Devil.”
“Congratulations!” the man shouts, placing before us the generous mix of beige and brown finger foods, overfried and tepid. “You’ve won our Monster Platter Award!”
We guttle down a few ounces of the mottled grease with beer, overtip and dash across the plaza to join the slow-motion herd of foot traffic bottlenecked at the Universal Amphitheater’s metal detectors just minutes before NetZero spokesmodel Dennis Miller is set to take the stage with left-wing hero Bill Maher.
“Thank you, Pete, for whipping them into a frenzy!” hacks Miller to Peter Lowy, chairman of the board of the University of Judaism, host of this evening’s event. From there, Miller proceeds toward levels of smarm hitherto unknown outside of a Donald Rumsfeld/David Spade fantasy smarmfest.
No matter how many times Miller explains that he’s not a Republican but a pragmatist, and that after his country was attacked he decided that its foreign policy was best exported in black-and-white rather than color, almost anytime I hear his name mentioned, I also hear “What the fuck happened to that guy?”
So here’s what happened, according to Miller tonight: “I was just not certain enough of my guesswork to remain liberal.”
That makes sense, doesn’t it? Every day, we murder civilians in Iraq, and Miller’s stumping for kill-’em-all-let-god-sort-’em-out policies because he’s not confident in his guesswork. O Dear Lowered, why oh why did you take Bill Hicks and leave us this?
NetZero exhausts his smarm and leaves the podium to Maher. Predictably (for we are a damn commie pinko liberal heathen audience, replete with opposable thumbs), Maher is better received than Miller, and here I must apologize. Due to technical difficulties — the Amphitheater wouldn’t allow me to record the event, the University wouldn’t share their recording, and no one outside a courtroom can write that fast — I’m unable to quote Maher’s invigorating rebuttal to a handful of hecklers who booed his censure of Bush’s seven long ass-sitting minutes spent reading to schoolchildren after being told that America was under attack. Too bad, because it was the best part of the show, and I was enjoying it so much that all I could write down was “And if you . . . then you have drunk the Kool-Aid, and you are in a cult.” Sorry.
The rest of Maher’s set passes smoothly and — can you imagine? — logically: “Because you know that Jesus was all about the military invasions”; “Baghdad, a.k.a. the Galleria at Halliburton Square”; “I’m not one of those who claims that Iraq is Vietnam — with Vietnam, Bush had an exit strategy.”
Then Maher abandons the podium to join Miller and U of J president Dr. Robert Wexler in comfortable chairs for some overly conciliatory banter, presumably so that everyone can love them and want to take them home and cuddle. Miller chides Maher for portraying the entire right as mindless Christian hicks, as if “they all came here tonight on burros.” Maher reminds Miller, “No, Dennis. These are the Jews.” Wexler, who’s pretty damn funny himself, for someone who believes in a particular god (and yes, it’s generally a mutually exclusive deal), forces some focus: “Why did America re-elect George W. Bush?”
Switching off the smarm-o-matic for a moment, Miller breaks it down to chess vs. checkers: Kerry plays chess, and thus spends so much time studying subtleties and permutations that by the time he makes a move, the timer’s gone off and no one cares to hear his answer. Bush, on the other hand, just plays checkers.
Maher delights in Miller’s response. “Dennis,” he replies, “you’re such a smart guy, but you’re somehow drawn to these simplistic answers. I will agree with you that Bush probably doesn’t know how to play chess . . . ”
This draws some flippant barbs from Miller, which elicits, “Oh, Dennis. You with your flippant barbs,” from Maher, and soon Miller has defaulted back to his smarm-o-mania and Maher to his reason, but it’s all too damn friendly and, by my estimation, fake.
When the house lights come up, I still see Maher and Wexler sharing a thought balloon: What the fuck happened to this guy?
No harm, no foul, no gain. Laura and I break from the exiting gray herd back toward the sickening colors of CityWalk, where, at just 9:45, another Fun!® restaurant/bar is serving last call.
I got a phone call from an old friend: “Congratulations!”
“Thanks. For what?”
“You’ve been nominated for a Grammy Award.”
This was a big surprise. My sixth comedy album, The Zen Bastard Rides Again, had been released last September by Artemis Records, without fanfare, advertising, reviews or, for that matter, sales.
When I checked the nominations for Best Comedy Album, there was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog for Come Poop With Me; Jon Stewart and the cast of The Daily Show for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart; Ellen DeGeneres for The Funny Thing Is; David Sedaris for Live at Carnegie Hall; and Al Franken for The O’Franken Factor Factor — The Very Best of the O’Franken Factor. But not me.
I called my friend back, and learned that my nomination was for Best Album Notes. I didn’t even know there was such a category. I had been invited by Shawn Amos at the Shout! Factory label to write a 5,000-word essay, “The Ballad of Lenny the Lawyer,” to serve as liner notes accompanying a six-CD anthology, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware.
My competition: the album notes for The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 — Concert at Philharmonic Hall; Peter, Paul & Mary’s Carry It On; The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945 – 1947); and No Thanks! The ’70s Punk Rebellion.
I don’t expect to win, but if I do it would be a tribute to Lenny Bruce, not me. Actually, people often mistake me for Paul Kantner. In fact, when I returned from the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, a customs agent looked at my passport and said, “Hey, you guys made some great music,” and my luggage wasn’t searched. I could’ve smuggled in several buds of prize-winning marijuana.
I once attended the Academy Awards in a borrowed tuxedo with a co-writer on Fox’s short-lived Wilton North Report, Paul Slansky, who had an extra ticket. His friend Albert Brooks was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Broadcast News. The ceremony was boring, so, after Brooks didn’t win, Slansky and I left, got some takeout Kentucky Fried Chicken, and watched the rest of the Oscars on TV.
Now, for the Grammy Awards on February 13, I would have to fly to L.A. and stay at a hotel, so I considered selling my tickets — somebody was auctioning six tickets on eBay at a minimum bid of $4,000 each — but instead I decided to give my tickets to a friend and his wife. It turned out, though, that I’m entitled to just one complimentary ticket. Only members of the Recording Academy are entitled to two comps. A guest ticket — including one for my wife — would cost $550. What a racket. Nobody goes to the Grammys alone. My friend offered to reimburse me.
However, my nominee order form advised: “Tickets transferred or re-sold without permission will be revoked and their bearers deemed trespassers.” Tickets would not be mailed, and could only be picked up at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where presumably IDs would be required, except for a maximum of two extra guests, whose tickets would cost $450 each (midlevel seating) or $250 each (upper-level seating), plus $200 each to attend the Grammy Celebration Party.
At my request, Danny Goldberg, who runs Artemis, asked its publicist to find out the appropriate person I could speak to who could grant me permission to transfer my tickets. She e-mailed me: “I have checked with NARAS and unfortunately, Grammy tickets are not transferable under any circumstances.” So, in a letter to Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, I plead my (and my friends’) case.
No reply. My friends will not be going to the Grammys after all. As for me, I’ll just borrow a tux, get some Chinese takeout and watch the show at home.