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Notes from the underground: beyond sundance.

Ah, Sun! Searing, glorious, light my brain ... Dance! Lunge, leap, pour vision into my veins: Sundance! The very name conjures glory. Vital perfect moments ... oh, well, joke's on me. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Consider me naive, wrapped up in my own little world, scribbling away in my cave, my mind of late inhabiting the environs of a farm in the Catskills of upstate New York because of a novel I was just completing. So know that my knowledge of things going on around me is sometimes spotty at best.

My fantasies, from what smatterings I had heard about Sundance, leaned toward an idyllic, snowy, one-street town that "originally, and not so long ago, had been a mining town." I mean, I had everything but sleighs with bells in this scenario. From things like this, I ask you, how could I have possibly been prepared for the phantasmagorically gentrified--urban, suburban, or ultra-urban--development of Park City, Utah; the place spreading for miles, dripping with the endless gray and beige clapboard charm of the manor, or manors, infinite in number, as the blocks of condominiums seemed? CEO suddenly had new meaning for me; I didn't know just how much of a starving artist I was until I hit Main Street and saw four-by-fours parked in lines so long they extended into the sunset. So this is where all that stock market wealth of the last decade had been planted. What an epiphany, right there on Main Street, in front of the Zoom Restaurant. But more of this later.

When the eleventh-hour call came in, offering a floor-space share in a condo at the mecca of independent filmmaking, the Sundance Film Festival, I at first refused. For one thing, my favorite of the feral cats living in the back plot of our group-house had developed some mysterious kind of mange and had demanded some attention which I was in the middle of tending to, and the other was I couldn't afford the several hundred dollars for a plane ticket. Couldn't I find someone who would want to drive with me? in their car? Clarabelle, my own Toyota, though certainly loyal enough and well meaning, was a little long in the tooth for the Utah mountains--so I knew better than to ask that of her. Well, after much late night phoning around, finally my good buddy Shelley seriously offered to drive us there in his Geo Metro, (No problem, let's go. If we have to, we can buy snow chains on the road anywhere along the way. There were places as common as McDonalds for this, he had heard.) Anyway, by the following morning he had come to his senses and what had seemed like a terrific adventure in the expansiveness of the wee hours seemed less so in the harsh, sober glare of day. So there I was, at a loss to join the more maverick of my filmmaking colleagues at this wondrous gathering of the tribe of true artists of celluloid, under the stewardship of the illustrious Robert Redford. Then I got the idea: the Greyhound Adventure. Of course!

Why there must be dozens of budget-minded, scruffy filmmaker types traveling with the gray dog. I was sure of it. We would gather, hardy band that we were, in true proletarian fashion, picking up new members as we went, from the nooks of bus stops and the crannies of cafes the bus stopped at in the middle of nowhere, hanging out in the back seats, singing our way up to the mountains where true art on celluloid was being conjured.

Well, let this noble dream end now, state of grace though it might be, and plunge into the suds of harsh reality. Apparently, out of the alleged TEN THOUSAND or so independently inclined souls who gathered up there at the mountaintops this past January, I saw no one, and heard of no one besides myself, who rode the bus--certainly no one who would admit to doing anything so low-rent. When I was being introduced around to my condo-mates by the erstwhile colleague who had invited me, he announced incredulously. "Man, you actually took the bus???!!! Stephan took the bus here? Wow. Dude, he took the bus!!" (The second time was for the other hand to be nailed to the cross.) My credibility dropped into a mine so deep that some of those people never saw me climb out of it the rest of the week. Even though they were kind about it, I avoided them and their weak smiles of sympathy for the guy who was a "real artist" like a plague. When I could. Should I add that three were lawyers, at least before they had decided to become producers four years ago?

But I wasn't there for a splendid weekend with a sauna. So, undaunted, as yet, I plunged on into the real pith and substance of my, MY community of artistic souls fleeing the commerce of the film capital, looking to commute with one another about the human condition or their craft, much the way Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning and David Smith did at the Cedar Tavern in the 1950s in New York. Of course, that was a long time ago and far, far away. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. Before I continue with my foray into the festival, I would like to describe a little of the aforementioned bus trip itself.

The downtown station is pretty much what you'd expect-a large majority of Latinos and other people of color. Large families carrying the banner of domestic squabbles into the public arena hunched around and sitting on every conceivable kind of package, box, crate, even three-wheeled carts, all bound with rope, string, bungee cord, a rainbow-colored snake extending from the glass door that was the gate, up one aisle down another, then around the back wall somewhere; there were no limits to it, it was as long as the number of folks waiting. But the kids are free, chasing each other, throwing things at one another, missing, hitting someone else, more brouhaha and so on (some might call this unrestrained, but in the end I had to chuckle; it was funny stuff.)

And considering the thousands of schedules, agendas, and reasons for traveling, all criss-crossing in this one room, there is a fairly good-natured, fairly controlled chaos to the proceedings of waiting for the appropriate bus. Even the two immigration agents are soft spoken and polite as they approach two Latino migrant workers, sitting right at my elbow--young campesinos with spotless western shirts and perfectly tailored Wrangler jeans. The federales ask politely for permission before going through all their baggage, completely, piece by piece, right on the floor in front of their feet. At that moment the Oldest Crone, and thinnest, sails by in a bathrobe and thongs on her blue feet, doing what I think is swearing at them, but I vaguely recognize in her litany the words Cheer, Tide, Pine de Sol, Clorox, carrying on about whatever beef she has against those detergents and God and government agents. She fades off as the agents continue with their picking until I notice a grim, dark, thuggish-looking, possibly Latino male, approaching. I think this could be real trouble until I see the chain around his neck. It holds his badge. In fact, he is their back up, third man on the squad watching the behavior of everybody from a distance, just in case. Now I'm not someone who's for open borders, but by this time even I'M feeling illegal. One of the officers catches my eye, I return his glare innocently enough, though not quite smiling, and the look I get in return translates into "Something bothering you? Maybe you're not a citizen, too? Want us to check?" I go back down into my notebook. But in the end it is a lucky day; the searchees are not burros (drug carriers). Everything is cool with their bags and their papers and we all get on the bus.

So the bus is filled with the definitely downwardly mobile. Let's hope not, but these folks probably won't have the chance to become interns on Capitol Hill or IBM prospects, let's face it. They are the minions struggling to get from point A to point B for as little carfare as possible. You don't gather the impression anybody is a traveler of leisure. A crucial exchange of relatives, dropping kids off from one family in one city to another. Lots of farmhands going to find work in places like Des Moines, Baker, and Grand Junction. It occurs to me that maybe this is a sentimental journey for me, back to the old days around Times Square, the way Forty-Second Street used to be before it became a mail. After the no-sidewalk existence of L.A., here I was back in the armpit of humanity--on the street again! As I relaxed into this pool of basic survival, I found the harshness of its reality appealing. It was simple; you either kept your one leg up, hooked onto the ladder, or with one false move you went way, way down. A tasty burrito with fresh rice and beans could really make your day. Simple. It was the reality of simple family joys, sometimes bickering, and often crises, and it was peopled the way Tennessee Williams might have done or William Faulkner or John Steinbeck or Mark Twain or Toni Morrison. People skidding like a greyhound on the thin ice of their existence.

And much later that night, I was chatting at the Bambi, spelled B-a-m-b-l, Cafe with this bull-necked ex-welder with a shock of white hair who had gone off into the desert (with a piece of cardboard, that's what you lie on) instead of murdering his wife and her TWO lovers. And yes he HAD met Ted Kaczynski when they were both riding the rails, at a hobo camp outside Vegas, TWICE. (Said welder knew Ted K. was strange even then, because he stared into the fire all night AND all day. Didn't say much though.) And because Jupiter was INGRESSING into Mars, for him it was a good time to spend the next two weeks in a hotel room in Vegas. I think it was the stuff about Kaczynski that made me decide not to offer my number in L.A. and a place to stay. But I still feel guilty about it; I wanted to.

Anyway, here's my dilemma: where were my fellow filmmakers on the trip? Wasn't this the stuff dreams are made of on celluloid of an independent sort? And if even the independent filmmakers ignore the Greyhound reality and dip into the lives of the struggling minions only for as long as it takes to concoct a story that they think will sell, doesn't that go against the grain of all great art? If the methodology is to research a script for a few weeks, cruise a ghetto, interview some local denizens, get the "real" story, and then turn around and write a shoot-'em-up, this doesn't make me feel very optimistic.

The real masters of our time steeped themselves to the gills in the milieu that was reflected in their work: Ernest Hemingway in the North Michigan woods was hardly a dilettante.

Faulkner lived and breathed Yoknapatawpha County and wrote about the full spectrum of humanity that inhabited it. Certainly Farley Mowat knew about the native people he wrote about and wrote intimately about their lives. I don't mean to sound like I'm making a case for social realism or that I'm trying to pass myself off as some kind of working-class hero. And maybe I'm drawing too much from my one slice of travel experience, I don't think so. It's certainly likely that I missed some fellow travelers on the Greyhound line, and maybe some filmmakers at the festival really do dig down into the mine of their own experience. (Although, when I hear a noted L.A. critic whinnying with delight at the sublime virtues of obsession as portrayed in a film where a male junkie is manipulated for his drugs into becoming a female and ultimately is castrated, and this is celebrated by said critic in the name of wonderful eccentricity, it leaves my mouth agape and my stomach ready to lurch.) But the youthful, albeit scruffy filmmakers I encountered over and over at Sundance had SUCCESS written across their foreheads rather than BUCK (the system). As if success was the only obsession worth having--not the process, not the doing, just the result. Write a clever script, shoot it, get your film in the can, and the rest will follow--maybe you'll win the lottery and have a hit.

The rarefied atmosphere we breathed fairly crackled with the electricity of lust for winning. People literally trembled around the people who had been touched by it, as if it was catching and they just might get some, too, by standing close. Let's not even mention the groupies, female and male. And if you had even its perfume around you, that you might be POTENTIALLY successful, you were valued, you were in-like-Flynn at all the parties.

Which brings me to a final point. It is true that, deep in my heart of hearts, I do wish I had found platoons of young filmmakers on the bus, observing the minions, taking notes, pondering the landscape sliding by outside the window, meditating on their lives, lulled by the rocking coach, engaging in conversation with people they don't ordinarily sit shoulder to shoulder with. Alas, up there on the mountaintop, at the couple of parties I was able to squirm into without a badge, the scruffiness was there but the currency was golden ambition--only a little more sly than if it were clothed in a three-piece suit. This year it was Homies (black and white) working the floor in their gangsta duds and wool caps pulled low, but looking over my shoulder checking out the other possibilities." Hail fellow ('s up?) we'll meet, with your distributor, can you turn me on to one? Gee thanks, dude."

Maybe that's why I've turned to novels--you do it alone and you don't have to please so many people. It's you and the page.

So it's back to my cave and reveries of the farm up in the Catskills, where the morning milking is the most important priority and painful, after the late-night adventures of a country-western bar, where the girls are pretty in their liquid jeans, and the soul of the place is located somewhere between Fifty-eight and Fifty-nine. And tomorrow there's a mountain to climb. No joke.

Postscript: My buddy Shelley thought I should write this. It might help my career.
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Title Annotation:Sundance Film Festival
Author:Morrow, Stephan
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1998
Previous Article:Lessons from Cuba.
Next Article:Humanism and evolutionary humility.

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