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Sundance diaries


Thursday

Salt Lake City airport: I'm standing at a urinal when, out of the corner of my eye, I see him approaching. He takes a position next to me and – I assume; I'm not staring – reaches for his fly. Because I don't see movie stars often, you might think I'd be shy, but I tell you, having James Spader urinating right next to me means less than nothing. Because all I can think about is how mean he was to poor Andie in Pretty in Pink. I mean, do you remember? The horrible rich boy's smirk that cut right through her heart and made her feel that she didn't belong and that Blane would never really love her? And my rage begins to build: here he is, Steff himself, standing there, going to the bathroom looking straight ahead at the wall not even giving one goddamn about all the hurt he's left behind him. I have to say something; how can I live with myself and enjoy the film festival if I let him get away with it – and then, his arm is shaking; he steps back and is gone. I'm so angry I have to stop before I'm finished. Later that night, at the gala premiere of The Laramie Project, I see Capt. Dudley Smith from L.A. Confidential, and I almost ask him to make an arrest. Then I remember the ugly business with Jack Vincennes, and I scan the room for Bud White but have no luck locating him. I guess I'm mumbling something, because one of my friends mentions that those guys weren't real cops. As if I didn't know that. (J.H. Tompkins)

Friday

Today is the 11th, and I wouldn't have remembered any other 11th if it weren't for the flags – the most gigantic ones I've ever seen – flying over Salt Lake City. Officially, they're there to welcome Olympic visitors; unofficially, they serve to scare me to death. I've left San Francisco; I'm in America now. I'm pleased to note, however, the presence of dissidents in the midst: our car rental office has made a poster of the Olympic organizers scandal and posted the faces and crimes of those involved for visitors' viewing pleasure. By the time our ears pop and we reach the higher elevations in Park City, we're in, of course, another world altogether: tent city, a once-a-year gathering where American indies, docs, and the marginal, fanatic, underfunded, and fatally flawed people who make them are given the paparazzi treatment by oxygen-starved crowds who squeeze and cheat their way into screenings. Here in the other Utah, the unified voice of knee-jerk patriotism is replaced by the clamor of a million messages screaming their way off the screen. But Park City itself is different this year: as expected, everyone is "giving pause." The word that was most closely associated with previous festivals – "buzz" – has found a successor. This year everyone is hoping to "resonate." And many screenings feature that ridiculous Sept. 11th-related question. A woman waiting in line with me reports that after John Malkovich's premiere of The Dancer Upstairs – a project five years in the making – a person asked whether the story, which features terrorism, was conceived after Sept. 11. Uh?

Like every other industry, the festival has taken the opportunity to use "security concerns" to initiate new policies, such as limiting the swag and party invitations in press boxes. Fear of the sealed envelope. Me, I'm happy – last year I broke my back hauling around boxes of Balance bars, free hats, and courtesy key chains. But sponsors are fighting back: Skyy Vodka phones and generously offers to drive by and deliver a special gift pack to the place where I'm staying. I can't in good conscience accept. I take two Tylenol instead.

Why do I need it? Well, altitude and a really awful opening movie for my five-day Sundance stay: Secretary, featuring original indie scowler James Spader in a stepped-up sexual outsider role. He (dominant) and his submissive (Maggie Gyllenhaal) spank and cry their way through the feature and are helplessly unconvincing until the Q&A session, when their obvious embarrassment and timidity and fear of exposure as no real questions are asked makes me wonder just how much method went into the parts. (Susan Gerhard)

The celebrity quotient kicked in even before I left S.F.; I had scored an opportunity to interview Javier Bardem and John Malkovich. I boasted to friends about the glamour of it all. So there's something bemusing about bumping into Bardem in a publicist's suite within the first minutes of being in Park City. Being a pro, I don't speak to him, but I do very much note his brainy beefcake charisma. (Glen Helfand)

I watch Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a great documentary about music and the South African revolution. But then themes like armed struggle, and scenes with enormous crowds of people following leaders into god knows what, tend to attract me. Not to mention the music, which is great. (Tompkins)

Saturday

Is that Patricia Arquette walking down the street with tears on her face? I resist the urge to walk up and ask her what's wrong, but I do not resist the fantasy of taking her home and treating her to an hour-long lecture about why she's the most amazing actress of the century. Not just because of her beautiful crooked teeth and incredible curvy body and sexy mousy voice and conquest of every role from True Romance to Little Nicky, but also, in particular, because of her brave part in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's Human Nature, in which her body is displayed with a new look: ape. She's got a genetic disorder. She's hirsute, plump, gorgeous. Horny with the thought of her primate legs in that film, I decide it couldn't be her. I return home and read in the catalog that she's actually supposed to be here: she's on the dramatic jury.

The movie of the day? Nick Broomfield's L.A. Story, which he says is actually supposed to be titled Biggie and Tupac. It takes the Broomfield shtick into a whole new realm, but in this one, as he wanders into the middle of L.A.'s embattled police department with his arch and hostile questions, he earns the right to be front and center. The bonus: childhood footage of Tupac in a Rick James wig singing "Super Freak." Later in the day at Sundance's House of Docs, I run into the director, who weathers his own set of hostile questions postscreening. I'm too shy to actually tell him how much I loved his film, but I do hope someone informs him that tans – his face is a tawny brown – are so 1975. Super freaky, yeah. (Gerhard)

Being a night person, I can't believe I'm going to see John Malkovich's film, The Dancer Upstairs, at nine in the morning. But it's my professional duty. The film is wide in scope, beautifully shot in South American locations, and politically ambitious. Too bad it exudes all the qualities of Malkovich's thorny public persona: it seems intelligent but self-indulgent, pretentious yet peppered with moments of butt ogling. It's just over two hours long, but Dancer seems to go on for about a year. As I lose interest in the narrative, I feel my life slipping away, not to mention my options for getting to my next screening, which is clear across town. I flee from the theater before the credits have completely unspooled. (Helfand)

The Cockettes, a documentary about the fabulous, long-gone San Francisco drag troupe, is too great for words. There's all kinds of vintage performance footage, plus interviews with surviving members. When the Cockettes started appearing at midnight shows in North Beach in 1970, they were the only true revolutionaries left in town. The film is so good I don't go to any other movies today because I want to cradle the feelings it has evoked. (Tompkins)

Sunday

After four films yesterday, I'm ready for socializing. The Queer Brunch is actually pretty fun, and even though it overlaps with the scheduled Malkovich-Bardem roundtable, I'm there. I'm surprised that it's not a difficult decision to blow off Malkovich; I feel a sense of relief and irony when I retrieve my cell phone message from the aforementioned publicist's office saying the Malkovich event has been canceled "due to scheduling conflicts." I'm later offered a one-on-one with the director. I don't call back but make plans to go to a small shot-on-video documentary about a little-known artist. (Helfand)

Real Women Have Curves is a predictable, feel-good movie about a young girl from East L.A. who has to battle her family and cultural tradition to break loose and go to college. The audience – several hundred strong – laughs and cries during the screening and, when it's over, stands up, shouting, cheering, and whistling, making a din that only gets louder when the director (Patricia Cardoso) and four actors walk to the front of the theater to answer questions. Predictably, I'm on my feet along with everyone else. (Tompkins)

I am informed that people have been waiting in line, in the snow, since 6:30 a.m. to get into Mike White and Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl, featuring Jennifer Aniston. I consider the nature of mass delusion. When I watch the film a few hours later, in the cozy press-only screening room, I appreciate it but can't quite get with Aniston's Texas shop-girl accent. It's great to see White and Arteta (Chuck and Buck; Arteta's previous was the kooky Star Maps) getting/doing more work, but I wish they would stick with the real weirdos – truly what the world needs now. (Gerhard)

Monday

If Sundance nurtures directors, that means those of us who come here year after year watch them grow up in public. It's not always pretty. Early works are quirky and funny, despite their budgets. They fit no models. Then the filmmakers "learn" how to really make a movie, and, well, you know the rest of the story. Seeing Joe Carnahan's return after his kooky '98 festival debut (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) is like meeting a child you haven't seen in 15 years to find him morose, hooded, into video games, and over six feet tall. Mature, and a little scary, Carnahan's second feature, Narc, a slickly shot bad-cops-and-drug-dealers story with Ray Liotta, Jason Patric, and the always cute Busta Rhymes, is ready for market. But its director has lost his baby fat, and in many ways, his charm. There's always tomorrow. (Gerhard)

Next week: the movies.