Sunday in the Park
February 2, 2008
It’s over now. The ambush marketers. The inappropriately dressed attention seekers. The ridiculous oversize vehicles that look like cartoon characters on snowy narrow streets. The excess that has come to camp during the Sundance Film Festival on occasion can seem to actually be the festival. And we mistake the nonsense for the event.
But at its core, the Sundance Film Festival has changed little and grown little in its mission, the number of films juried in and the number of locations of actual screenings. The festival continues to bring to our town, for ten days, the very best independent film being created. For Parkites, who have had the extraordinary privilege of being here since the beginning in the early ’80’s with films like "Homeland" and "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," we have had a postgraduate-level course in filmmaking, script writing, cinematography and, ultimately, storytelling. We are, I would suggest, the most sophisticated, concentrated audience body for independent film anywhere in the world. A clever person could weave that into a pretty fascinating film, I suspect.
What Sundance always does for me, whether I see one film or 18 (my all-time record), is it causes me to see life through a different lens, if only for a few hours. Often I am educated about topics I know little or nothing about. Often I am viewing the human condition in ways that make me uncomfortable initially and then, sometimes, in hopeful, redemptive ways. This year’s Grand Jury prize-winner, "Frozen River," did that for me. "The Escapist" almost worked. And, as with any creative process, "The Year of Getting to Know Us" was an idea that might have worked but was perhaps not fully developed.
The "U2 3D" film and experience is worthy of a column or novella all its own. The team surrounding rock star/humanitarian Bono was made up of lovely all-Irish gentlemen, full of good manners and good cheer. The film reaches a narrative arc through its choice of music and mind-blowing digital special effects. The team from 3Ality that created the technology for the National Geographic-produced film was also a thoughtful, considerate group of filmmakers. The enthusiasm from everyone involved in the film and the Sundance folks themselves to create the most amazing student outreach opportunity ever was heartwarming and unexpected. The Q-and-A afterward was legendary.
But the film and the Q-and-A for me with the greatest impact was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s "Déjà Vu." It is not a traditional concert film but rather a journey across country in the summer of 2006 when the band reunites to sing old classic protest songs like "Ohio" along with sure-to-be-new-Neil-Young -classics like "Let’s Impeach The President for Lyin’." ABC Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning veteran journalist Mike Cerre becomes embedded with the band after having been embedded in Iraq, and he gauges, clear-eyed, the audience reaction to the new and old material of the iconic protest band.
The tour is not universally embraced. The quotes from reviewers are often harsh and biting. But the story that emerges comes from the veterans themselves, those who have served in this war and don’t want to return. Who talk about the psychic human cost of war. How returning the same men and women to be redeployed may avoid an actual draft but just increases the odds of being killed. And the number of suicides of returned veterans.
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I had to sit up at that point in the film. It was the second time in a month someone was speaking the same message that the media has chosen to ignore. In December, I attended a conference in Los Angeles, where the two-and-half days of incredible speakers concluded with saving the best for last comedian Jonathan Winters, Kennedy Center honoree, pianist Leon Fleisher, who played for us, and finally the poet laureate of radio, 97-year-old Norman Corwin, who wrote and delivered the famed "On a Note Of Triumph" radio speech at the end of World War II. Norman is still an active writer and teacher at USC and just signed another three-year contract there. He said he would deliver a piece of that famed speech but it would be in honor of the more than 2,500 returned soldiers who have committed suicide since this recent war began. His powerful, classic radio voice shaking, he said we were never supposed to go to war ever again. We were never supposed to create weapons to kill where we could push a button and never see the cost of our actions. We have failed to understand the cost of war, he said of the "soldier’s heart" – a phrase that came out of the Civil War to try and describe the emotional toll from witnessing the horrors of combat. We stood for him/with him, as he read.
But then it was Christmas and snowstorms and Sundance and I forgot to do any homework to understand the depth of the tragedy. The film brought it back to me – hearing the veteran’s stories and watching the band implore us all to start talking about the human cost of war and remind us that disagreeing is not unpatriotic and may, in fact, be the most caring thing we can for a country we love.
At the Q-and-A, a strong, proud, handsome man stood in the aisle and said he was speaking to honor the memory of his brother who was killed in Iraq in 2006. "With all due respect," he said to Neil Young, "you don’t know what you’re talking about." There was an audible gasp from the audience and then silence. Neil paused just a beat and then bent over into the microphone. "I know. You’re right," he said simply. "Thank you for speaking. Thank you."
And there was silence.
Then a man down front said, "With all due respect, you know exactly what you are talking about." And the crowd murmured their approval. "I know," said Young. "Thank you for speaking That’s all I wanted to do with this film is get people speaking again. It isn’t unpatriotic to disagree with your government."
The numbers continue to roll out now. Some sources say as many as 120 soldiers a week are committing suicide. The New York Times recently has been reporting on the large numbers of returned soldiers who have killed civilians upon returning home. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Gary Trudeau of "Doonesbury" fame continues to focus his series on the large numbers of amputees and head-injury veterans trying to return to civilian life and the difficulties of the families trying to help them.
This week Utah plays a role in the Super Tuesday primary. Personally, I hope you will consider voting for real change and vote for Barack Obama. But mostly I hope you just exercise your right, hard fought since the very birth of our country, to vote, freely.
Norman Corwin would urge you to do at least that, to respect the memory of all fallen and broken soldiers. I thank Sundance for bringing such a timely film to the festival.
I am haunted now about the concept of a soldier’s heart. "I’d rather kill myself and be called a traitor," one soldier states in the film, "rather than go back to Iraq."
" I joined the service willing to die to protect my mother and sister," says another, "not to kill somebody else’s mother and sister. I won’t go back."
Those are the voices that shouldn’t leave my head this day or Sunday, in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. Orr is also a former editor of The Park Record.