Sundance Film Festival Diary – Day One

January 27, 2013
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Egyptian Theater at Sundance

The advance word on Sundance was that Park City temperatures hovered somewhere between McMurdo Station, Antarctica and Third Circle of Hell. Dire warnings were issued by friends and colleagues that anything less than Swedish military winter gear would result in the loss of toes, fingers or, perhaps, worse. Tales of wayward film critics wandering off into the snow only to be found during Spring thaw were abundant. I imagined Armond White limping through drifts like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, ax in hand, ready to chop Paul Thomas Anderson into kindling.

On the day before I took off for Park City, a friend, who had arrived a day earlier, posted an Instagram photo of his phone displaying the temperature as 5 degrees. The update read: “High temp of the day!”

It seemed so much ado about nothing. Living in Michigan for abaft a decade I figured I was well-prepared for anything Sundance could throw at me. Still, I made sure to pack long undies and extra warm socks.

As I might have expected, much like everything Hollywood does, the weather conditions were all hype. Whatever chill had struck the mountain resort town a week earlier, temps were a balmy 25 degrees when I arrived. They would remain so all week, with nary a snow flutter to worry over. Michiganders would snort in derision over the worry.

DAY ONE

The first thing you come to understand about the Sundance Film Festival is that it’s all about the shuttles. When they leave, where they go, where they stop along the way, and how much they’ll delay your ability to get to a film screening. On this count, my first two days in Park City were an exercise in frustration and self-education. I quickly learned that not only would I have to throw out my intended screening schedule on a regular basis but that scoring tickets to anything not designated as a Press and Industry screening would be near-impossible for the opening weekend. Even the press screenings required that I arrive 45 minutes to an hour in advance to secure a seat (I learned this the hard way after spending an hour in line for Kill Your Darlings only to be turned away 2 spots from the front of the line).

The second thing I came to understand about Sundance is that the parties matter. Actually, along with the deals being negotiated, brokered, and prayed for, events that allow for networking are the lifeblood of the festival. Half the people I met told me that they would only get to see a hand-full of films, opting instead to infiltrate every bar, brewpub, restaurant, gallery, and makeshift party space in Park City. I met composers, actors, producers, filmmakers, and even a few screenwriters, all on the hunt for a professional connection. The focus was on the scene …and being seen.

I also managed to meet a few festival goers along the way. The ballsier ones showed up at public screenings half an hour before showtime and started asking if anyone had extra tickets for sale. This was an especially common occurrence at premieres, where actors and directors were expected to field a Q&A after the film. Interestingly enough, it is against Sundance rules to re-sell tickets, something volunteers futilely attempted to prevent folks from doing through the only weapon at their disposal – guilt. I never saw the tactic work.

My only screening of the day ended up being a midnight showing of We Are What We Are, an American remake of a Mexican horror. Director Jim Mickle’s (Stakeland) cannibal family drama ended up being far more polished and mature than I expected, boasting some terrific camera work and a superlative cast. The film charts the coming-of-age complications of sisters Iris and Rose Parker, who are forced by their brooding zealot of a father (Hal Hartley stalwart Bill Sage) to assume their dead mother’s duties as the cannibalistic provider for the family’s ritualistic beliefs. The Parkers mostly hide in plain sight, running a trailer park, attending high school and otherwise keeping to themselves. This leads their secretive behavior to draw suspicion from Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose teenage daughter went missing a year earlier. As you might expect, events come to an ugly head. Mickle’s movie is a slow burn exercise in American Gothic horror that only explodes with over-the-top violence in its final act – and the final attack is, indeed, a doozy.

Better than it has any right to be, We Are What We Are approaches an otherwise lurid take with understated restraint and stylishness. It may be the most tasteful cannibal movie I’ve ever seen (pun intended).

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS: Michael Cera (at the Marroitt), ace indie producer Christine Vachon (at a Vietnamese restaurant), Michael C. Hall (on the street in Park City).
FUN FACT OF THE DAY: Estimated number of festival attendees was 50K people

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