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Sundance Journal 2003

Reprinted from RedEye, published by the Chicago Tribune, 2003.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

A quote from Britney Spears, while at Park City, Utah:
"Sundance is weird. The movies are weird - you actually have to think about them when you watch them."

By Therese Shechter

Famous Last Words
Wednesday, January 15

Dear Friends,

It’s that time of the year again and I’m packing my long underwear and cell phone charger for two weeks as a volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. For the third year in a row, I will be working as a festival volunteer in exchange for free shelter and all the movies and parties I can possible weasel my way into over the course of 12 chaotic days.

I've been assigned to the House of Docs, a combination seminar space, coffee house and networking paradise geared to documentary filmmakers and the people who pay meager sums of money to distribute their work. It is also one of the few places at the festival where you are greeted at the door with a welcoming smile, as opposed to a sneering demand to produce your ticket/pass/identity papers or some kind of proof that your last name really is Redford.
This year, being older and wiser, I pledge to focus on film-going, not partying. No pleading at the door to get into the HBO bash, no staying out till all hours dancing with 22-year-olds and drinking Red Bull and vodka cocktails, no impromptu parties in the nearest hot tub. This year I resolve to see as many films as possible, get enough sleep and eat at least one salad a day. I will not obsess over where Jake Gyllenhall might be hanging out or whether The Strokes will be making a surprise appearance at Harry O’s Bar. This is a new, virtuous me dedicated to the art and craft of  what we respectfully call ‘the cinema.’

So to that end, I am assembling my survival kit:
Protein bars, because given the choice of a sit-down meal or squeezing in an extra screening, it’s no contest.
Jumbo bottles of both water and aspirin, to counteract the heinous effects of altitude sickness.
Chinese herbs, which I’m told do something beneficial for my spleen, although I’m not exactly sure what.
Hundreds of promotional postcards for my own documentary, because you never know who might be interested in offering me a meager sum of money to distribute my work.

And then there are the burning questions:
1. Will I be housed in the same fabulous chalet as last year, complete with a giant hot tub on the balcony with a breath-taking view of the Wasatch Mountains?
2. Will Krispy Kreme Donuts once again sponsor the festival, providing me with unlimited access to the foundation of any well balanced diet?
3. Will I be able to convince my friends that Sundance is actually a lot of hard work and little glamor, and that we volunteers are truly the bottom link in the festival  food chain? After all, we have no real access to anyone worthy of Us Weekly and must rely on the kindness of strangers and journalists in order to party with Jake Gyllenhall - I mean - get into that important documentary about Wood.

I'm off to the airport. Stay tuned to this space for scintillating stories of serious cinema and dark green vegetables. I know you’re at the edge of your seat already.
Yours in good health,

And We're Off!
Thursday, January 16

Dear Friends,

I have finally arrived at Sundance – as opposed to the snow, which seems to be wintering in the Midwest this year. All this dry sidewalk makes me long for my divine black leather pointy-toed, kitten-heeled boots. Instead I m stuck clomping around in my sensible, large and dumpy Timberlands. At least the locals won t make fun of me.

First off, let me thank my many loyal readers who have written me with advice on successfully incorporating wild partying into my busy schedule. One suggestion comes from a "Miss Sarah Redford" (we are still authenticating her identity papers), from Fort Lewis, WA. She suggests drinking lots of water and taking  disco naps  while waiting for films to begin. [Note: For those of you who were either too young, too old or too dull during the 80's, a disco nap is a short bit of sleep in the early evening that allows you to dance all night, preferably at a gay bar. But I digress.]

Last night I checked out the official volunteer welcome party, held at hip local venue Harry O's. Sad to say I didn t last too long - I was tired and it was way too noisy and smoky and strobey to really enjoy myself. I did get a free drink – something the locals call a "Gin and Tonic," which I assume must be pretty healthy since it has the word "tonic" in it and it came with a wedge of citrus fruit which I believe is an antioxidant. I must admit it did perk me up a bit, but my second wind lasted only long enough to check in with old friends and get a miraculous backrub from a gentleman named Tony.

Speaking of which, to all the concerned readers wondering about our hot tub situation, the good news is that we have been blessed with our very own private tub right behind our lodgings. If any of you know the male equivalent of "chick magnet," please send it on so we can properly describe our current good fortune.

On tonight's agenda is the Opening Night Gala in Salt Lake City. Should be a truly glamorous and unforgettable night for those who actually got invited. We volunteers, however, will be treated to a double feature at one of the Park City venues and sent right off to bed to prepare for Day One of the festival tomorrow. I start at the Filmmakers Lodge/House of Docs first thing in the morning and I have it on good authority that we will be visited by no other than Mr. Robert Redford that evening for the official opening of the venue. Your loyal correspondent will record the event in breathless detail in order to set it down here in my next dispatch.

I have left the saddest news for last. No Krispy Kremes in sight – at least none available for free by the boxful. I am comforting myself with my fantastic new volunteer jacket, fleece and hat, all courtesy of our generous sponsor Kenneth Cole.

I'm off to my first film "Raising Victor Vargas," followed by "Confidence" right afterwards. It should be an exciting weekend, and I am fairly confident of bumping into my new imaginary boyfriend, Jake Gyllenhall. Perhaps even inviting him over for an imaginary hot tub party. Stay tuned and see you Monday.

Yours in sensible shoes,
Therese (Kirsten Dunst who?) Shechter

Crowd Control
Sunday, January 19

Dear Friends,

I am exhausted. Wearied. Fatigued. Depleted. Drained. It’s only Day Three of the festival and we are all feeling the cumulative effects of too little sleep, too many hours on our feet and too few healthy foods in our belly. I just inhaled a few slices of mediocre pizza, feeling ridiculously virtuous about the fact that there were peppers and mushrooms on it.

The fatigue is also making me hypersensitive. Our venue, The Filmmakers Lodge, is housed at the local Elks Club, a musty yet charming old building on Main Street. The walls are lined with endless sepia portraits of all the Chamber of Commerce types that have headed up the Lodge over the decades. And because it is, after all, the Elks Club, the walls are also lined with gigantic mounted heads of ex-Elks, the kind with fur and big antlers. It is a truly disconcerting thing to look into their big brown eyes every day as they watch over our panel discussions and cocktail parties. I may be oversensitive, but the other day, at a restaurant adorned with the heads of my Elks’ relatives, I nearly broke into tears. Maybe it was the added sight of all the red bloody meat being carved nearby that was too much for my simple Vegetarian soul to bear. I was just not cut out for this frontier life…

Then there are the crowds. From Sundance, yes, but also from Slamdance, NoDance, SlackerDance, SchmoozeDance and all the other side festivals, real or imagined in my sleep-deprived brain. We sad hordes stand in line for hours to get into films or parties or restaurants, only to be turned away because of capacity crowds. The number of people in Park City seems to have quadrupled from last year, although I may just be basing that on the mob that was gathered outside the HBO Project Greenlight Party last night to catch a glimpse of Ben and Jen and Matt. What seemed like millions of 20-year olds with digital cameras swarmed tiny Main Street, climbing poles, standing on cars and dodging police, security guards and TV crews. And they did this for hours, late into the night and long after the celebrities had left the building. And why? There wasn’t even any decent shwag to be had.

And speaking of shwag (those promotional items given away for free at films and events) there was the same old crap to be had everywhere you turned – baseball caps, ski hats, t-shirts, CDs, all with a corporate logo or film title on them. Given the tizzy some of my colleagues were sent into at every giveaway, you would think those goody bags had Nintendo Game Cubes in them. Oh wait…actually…they did. But only if you were on "The VIP Talent List" at a private corporate party we stumbled into. Apparently, if you are ‘major talent’ like Ben or Jen or Matt, you could help yourself to the aforementioned Game Cubes, plus TiVo systems, Mojito-making kits and Calvin Klein eyewear. Being a weekend Socialist, I felt compelled to point out that the people who least needed to get this stuff for free were walking away with bagfuls, while those who would really appreciate a free Nintendo Game Cube, starving artists not unlike myself, had to content ourselves with baseball caps with car logos on them. It made little impression on the baffled reps and we had to satisfy ourselves with free Red Bull and Vodka cocktails ("an energizing drink") and all the James Bond Nintendo we could play. And much to the horror of my associates, I turned down the logo cap. I make it my policy to only wear shwag with the word ‘dance’ in it.

At this point, you’re probably wondering about the films I’ve seen, aren’t you? It is, after all, the serious cinema that I am here for. Well, aside from exposing capitalist consumer culture, I’ve been kind of busy trying to get our hot tub repaired. News of all the films tomorrow, but first I must regain my bearings. In the words of one young woman sitting behind me at a screening last night "Which Dance is this one again?"

See you in the morning,

Celebs and Revolutionaries
Monday, January 20

Dear Friends,

It was bound to happen. This morning your loyal Sundance correspondent slept right through her 8am alarm and was late for her shift at the Filmmakers Lodge. I blame this on my esteemed writing colleague Mark Caro, with whom I waded, late into the night, through a sea of celebrity entourages, cheese cubes and an ice sculpture in the shape of a whisky bottle.

Last night's highlight* was the party for the film "Confidence." A veritable bonanza of celebrities were offered up for my viewing enjoyment including Ed Burns (who looks much better on screen), that model who sells overpriced yoga clothing, Dustin Hoffman (who looks better off screen and does that weird lip pursing thing in real life), lovely Rachel Weisz and Richard Schiff (from West Wing). I wanted to go up and tell him how much I loved Toby Zeigler, but my sister had once accosted him at an airport and I feared he would see the family resemblance and flee. Speaking of celebrities, I must share with you all how dreamy Campbell Scott is. He s sweet and polite and incredibly handsome and I will have to see at least one of the films he has here so that I can properly stalk him.

And speaking of films, for all my griping about crowds and corporate hype, it only takes one great film to put me in a dazzling mood. I was lucky enough last night to see two, and they were both documentaries. "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" is about one of the most incredible people you have never heard of. Key advisor to Martin Luther King, passionate believer in non-violent resistance, tireless civil rights organizer - he is my new hero. Showing right after it was its perfect counterpart, "The Weather Underground," a complex and fascinating history of the Weathermen**, including very reflective and self-critical interviews with them today. The film felt incredibly relevant in light of today s anti-war movement (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

I have this button that has the word  war  with a red slash through it that I got at an event run by "New Yorkers Say No to War" on the anniversary of 9/11. Everyone who has seen me wearing it here at the festival has asked if it was a giveaway for "The Weather Underground" and if I know where they could get one. Now that would be some good shwag!

Yours in the good fight,
Therese (power to the people) Shechter

* I use the word "highlight" loosely. None of these parties are particularly good or distinctive or fun. But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen and this party had tasty cheese trays.

** The Weathermen were a radical group of upper-class white college students who plotted the violent overthrow of the American government in the 1970s to protest the Vietnam War and racism. They set off bombs, were hunted by the FBI, and went into hiding for years. If you are ignorant of who they were and what they stood for, as many of my colleagues here seem to be, get on the internet and do some reading for heaven s sakes.

Instant Karma
Tuesday, January 21

Dear Friends,

I write this to you in great haste from the Alpine Internet Cybercafe at the foot of Main Street. I have run down here on my break of which I have a scant 20 minutes left. My dash down the hill from the Filmmakers Lodge was repeatedly impeded by the hordes of people clogging the sidewalk in front of the various private parties that dot the street. Each one had the requisite camera crew, the underfed wannabe’s, the over-cosmetized publicists and at least one person yelling, "If you don’t have a ticket, you’re not gettin’ in!" It seems to be the call of the wild around here. That, and "Anyone have an extra ticket?"

I finally broke down and bought some tickets because I was getting tired of idling in the wait list line for 90 minutes before each show I wanted to see. Volunteers get the $5 half-price rate for four tickets and I quickly used up my quota on the few screenings that weren’t officially sold out. The rest have been line-up jobs, or I have resorted to begging in front of the theaters to anyone who might have a ticket going unused. Like a stoned Deadhead before a concert, I stand there with the plaintive wail: "I need a miracle."

And wouldn’t you know, I have received some! There is a phenomenon at Sundance called the karmic trade. If you give someone a particularly sweet piece of shwag, get them into a private party, or pass on a spare movie ticket, you ask for nothing in return but the blessing of the goddesses and good luck in a future time of need. That’s how I got an almost un-gettable ticket to "Weather Underground" right before the show – and for free. I believe in good karma and I believe in random acts of kindness. And around here both can be few and far between, and the powers above take notice when it happens.

Last night I saw the fantastic new film "28 Days Later" by Danny Boyle (of "Trainspotting" fame). No, it was not a sequel to the disappointing Sandra Bullock vehicle about alcohol addiction and the search for true love. Hardly. "28 Days Later" is an adrenaline rush of a post apocalyptic horror-thriller that left my hands shaking and my ears bleeding. Now that’s entertainment! Hey – wouldn’t that make a great blurb for the movie ad? How cool would that be? Maybe someone will pick it up and hopefully when they do, they will spell my name right. Fan that I am, I got to chat with Mr. Boyle for a bit after the film, and I am now hopelessly smitten with his entire production team. Maybe it’s the British accents.

Today, I got to talk to a woman in a wait list line who hails from Ogden, Utah. There are a lot of locals here for the festival and it’s always interesting to hear what they think of all of this. I told her about the Danny Boyle film and she almost fainted at the description. She told me she looks for "clean" films, those with "positive messages" and "uplifting themes." But when I described the extremely uplifting Bayard Rustin documentary and got to the part about him being a gay civil rights leader, I think I lost her again. I sure do get a reality check coming out here after living in the big city. Maybe it was my black vinyl pants that made her nervous.

Anyway, enough of my big city ways. Back to work for me. And then a screening of "Normal," a drama about what happens to a family when the father decides he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. It stars the incredible Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange, but for all my enthusiastic recommendations, I doubt I’ll run into the lady from Ogden.

Yours from the festival Utah-ers call "DecaDance,"
Therese (pleathergirl) Shechter

Enquiring Minds
Wednesday, January 22

Dear Friends,

Writing a daily column is no picnic, I tell ya. So today I’ve decided to fill this space with some of the questions and comments I’ve received from my loyal readers.

Your picture is dreamy (SB)
Thank you SB. I think you’re dreamy too.

We enjoy tremendously reading your stories! (MS)
Thanks mom and dad.

Don't give up on the gals from Ogden, just yet. The need your love Karma too. (LC)

You’re right LC. I will try harder to spread the love. Still, I wish people would have just a teensy bit of openness to things that might be challenging to them. After all, you can see Al Pacino at the Cineplex any time.

What’s great that you’ve seen in fiction and documentary, aside from the stuff you’ve already talked about? (PE)
 I just saw three great films:

 "American Splendor" is the story of the underground comic book guy Harvey Pekar. An amazing and funny combination of narrative, documentary and comic book art all rolled into one. I had never heard of him although the audience was full of rabid fans. A truly original film that’s been a huge audience favorite here. It should be on HBO this year.

"Whale Rider" is about a Maori tribe trying to find their new leader and the young girl who is destined to fill that role, despite disapproval from the traditional menfolk. It won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and got the longest standing ovation here that I have ever seen. It’s being distributed by Newmarket, "Big Fat Greek Wedding" people, so you’ll probably see it soon in theaters.

 "What I Want My Words to Do to You" is a documentary about women in prison.  Now I bet the combination of the words "documentary," "women," and "prison" have probably just made your eyes glaze over. Admit it – you’re already scanning ahead for the sexy stuff. It’s sad, because this film, which chronicles Eve Ensler’s (The Vagina Monologues) writing workshops with these women, quite literally blew me away. The women, mostly convicted murderers, wrote about their memories, their remorse, their hopes, and then a group of actresses came to the prison to do readings of their works. When the film ended, I was so overwhelmed by their stories I could barely speak and had to find a quiet corner to have a good cry. Truly breathtaking and you’ll probably never get to see it.

More columns about sexual encounters in the hot tub would interest readers. (SD)

Well it would certainly interest me. Like I said, I’m trying to spread the love. What do you think I’m building up my karma for?

Next year I want to be your personal assistant and carry your makeup bag or something! (MG)
Thanks, MG. But please make sure to walk three feet behind me at all times.

Do you have any REAL dirt? I won’t tell! (ND)
And neither will I. You will have to buy me a few drinks if you want me to spill the really good stuff. My parents are reading this, for crying out loud!

Love and kisses,

Pass the Suntan Lotion
Thursday, January 23

Dear Friends,

Well it’s another balmy day here at Club Sundance. The margaritas are flowing and the warms winds are blowing thought the tall palms. OK, not quite, but watching Katie Couric freezing her dimples off back home in NYC makes me grateful for the freakish global warming playing itself out in the Rockies.

It’s not so great for the skiing, though. Except for two weeks out of the year, Park City is all about careening down mountains at breakneck speeds, and it’s a little strange not sharing the buses with skiers and snowboarders heading up to the lifts. But with or without the snow, the town is still charming, and the enormous mountains always give me a little start when I look up and remember they are there.

Park City proper is essentially a long, quaint Main Street that runs up a steep hill. Many of the buildings date back to the town’s silver mining days although they now house designer clothing shops, overpriced restaurants, fudge makers and one truly dreadful Thomas Kincade (Painter of Light) Gallery. The famous Egyptian Theater with it’s groovy façade is there as is our Filmmakers Lodge/House of Docs, but all the other theater venues are in the newer and flatter part of Park City, whose architecture can best be described as wild west meets strip mall.

Festival-goers rent lodging all over the city, either at Marriott-type hotels or in ski condos and chalets. It’s incredibly expensive, well over $2000 a week, so we volunteers are eternally grateful for the free housing.

We’ve all been talking about how few parties we’ve gone to, but despite the breathless reporting on Entertainment Tonight, there is little going on here that promises more fun than seeing another movie. Hopefully that will change with tonight’s Sundance party with its promise of a Brazilian DJ. After that, I’ve scored tickets to the TromaDance party, organized by the fine folks who brought you "The Toxic Avenger" and other classics. I have a pass that’s good for two people, and wouldn’t you know how popular I’ve become all of a sudden.

The Troma party will cap off my day of strange and disturbing films starting with "A Certain Kind of Death," a documentary about what happens to people who die without any next of kin or friends to claim them. Makes you want to be nice to your family. This happy little film was followed by "Shorts on the Frontier," a collection of short films of a more experimental nature. Some were pretty awful, but most had a creative vision and an original approach to storytelling that was seriously inspiring. A lot of the more popular films here are going to be released some time this year anyway, so why spend your time on those when you could see great stuff that will never be considered commercial enough to play even art house venues.

I will next see you for my final report Monday after the awards have been handed out and the discarded baseball hats with car logos have been swept away. Now I’m off to work and then – parties!!!

Ciao babies,

Je Ne Regrette Rien
Sunday, January 26

Dear Friends,

Park City is a ghost town. The awards have been distributed, the automotive shwag tents have been taken down, and the camera crews have gone away to bother someone else. And I have spent the last 12 days immersed in the stuff I love best - vodka – I mean, film.

There were a few of disappointments:

1. The closing night party, a steam-letting-off event we all needed, was filled to capacity within 40 minutes and our shuttle bus was turned back at the driveway like some "Ship of Fools" with drink tickets. We were forced to spend the evening at The Phat Tire, where we hung out with locals, drowned our sorrows with weak $2 cocktails and suffered through a house band that refused to play anything we could dance to (except for the requisite "Sweet Home Alabama").

2. Several friends from last year were infected with the dreaded "Playa" virus, which compelled them to spend every waking moment hunting for tradable shwag, party tickets and hot townies. One guy, who I will call V., called me every single day just to give me a running total of what (and who) he had scored.

3. As for me, the object of over a week of flirtation – a lovely gentleman from overseas with a fine sense of humor and a very un-Hollywood demeanor - informed me, as I prepared to snuggle us up on the couch in front of a fire, "You know I’m gay, right?"  Sigh. Story of my life. I should have figured it out when he told me he liked Sondheim.

Today I am groggy and hung over, and my clothes smell of cigarette smoke and regret. Not really, but I thought that sounded poetic. Actually, je ne regrette rien, as the old Piaf song goes. I've had adventures that you, alas, will never read about, and I’ve come to the end of another fantastic festival, with 11 dramatic films, 7 documentaries and about 10 shorts under my belt. I wish I had seen more, but I can’t complain.

I was moved, entertained and/or inspired by so much, especially the stories the filmmakers told after their screenings about the five, seven, ten years it took to raise the money and make these projects a reality. (Note to parents: I’m still well within an acceptable time frame) Most of them were simply shocked to be standing before an audience and hearing applause for something that they have been carrying with them for years, never thinking it would see the light of day, let alone screen here at Sundance, let alone win an award.

I also got the chance to get feedback on my own film from PBS and HBO, from other filmmakers I admire, and from the Sundance staff. I am full of inspiration and energy and as it is every year, I can’t wait to get back to Brooklyn and work. A lot of people have asked me over the course of these past 12 days whether I have a film here at the festival. "Next year," I always say. "Next year."  Think good thoughts for me. Who knows? Come 2004, I might be able to give you the inside scoop on what it’s really like to be one of the filmmakers.

Yours with all the best karma,
Therese (come see my film) Shechter

Reprinted from RedEye, published by the Chicago Tribune, 2003.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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