Sunday in the Park
January 27, 2007
This week, you pronounce the word with a Peter Sellers accent and you make it two syllables. And the word is philem. Moving pictures, telling stories and all the people it takes to create that artform. Because, while the Sundance Film Festival once again gives us the opportunity to learn about our world, our emotions and global issues by viewing films, it also gives us a peek into the complicated world of filmmaking. Of script writing and music composing and cinematography and distribution.
I am, at this point in the festival, well below my regular viewing average. Work has interfered with pleasure. Still, in any given week the rest of the year, seeing three films in five days would be excessive, so I’m not complaining. Well, not too much, anyway.
I did not pick my films thoughtfully this year. It boiled down to my availability du jour, paired with the films. This resulted in a hit, a miss and a pleasant enough two-hour escape.
The miss I will not name until after the festival. Perhaps someone else will unsuspectingly view it and love it if they are not steered elsewhere. Here’s the best thing I can say — it takes place over three days in New York in 1980 and honestly those two hours of viewing felt like at least three days. In the Q and A, one viewer got it right, asking the director, "Why did you think this film needed to be made?" The audience members were asking each other the very same question.
Conversely, "Fay Grimm," featuring Little Miss Sundance, Parker Posey, was a fun romp in the Spectrum section of the festival, meaning it is not part of the competition, so sit back and enjoy. It was smart and funny, and the addition of Jeff Goldblum to the cast made it all so unexpected. The dialogue was rapid fire, rapid fire, rapid fire, like watching "Studio 60," "West Wing" and "24," all at once. If there was a deeper message encoded in this spy/comedy/thriller it was lost on me, except perhaps how seriously writers take themselves and how seriously people who worship writers take themselves and how silly and convoluted our understanding of intelligence and counter-intelligence and counter to the counter-intelligence can appear. Dare I say this about a Sundance film? It was fun.
But the jewel for me was the beautiful work, "Away From Her," a premiere film, which means it could be coming to a theater near you sometime soon (it has no more screenings at this festival). The young director/actor, Sarah Polley, spoke earlier in the week at a panel/brunch for Women in Film, where she talked about this rich story for an older actress and her passion to develop those roles for women to perform when they have the most in life to say. Call it sophisticated job security if you will, but when you can cast Julie Christie in a film about a 60-something-year-old woman named Fiona, with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s who is in a 44-year-long relationship with a man who adores her based on a rich, short story ("The Bear Came Over The Mountain" by Alice Munro), you also have a vehicle for a mesmerizing film.
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Too, you have a jumping-off point for discussions with loved ones of your own about long-term care and forgiving, while you still have the capacity to both give and receive forgiveness. The sparseness of the dialogue and the vastness of the Canadian winter landscape help tell this story in the spaces between the words. For those of us of a certain age, who remember Julie Christie in the 1965 multi-Oscar-winning classic, "Doctor Zhivago," as the beautiful Lara, with her own haunting, music-box soundtrack, "Lara’s Theme," we recall, in our film memory, the starkness of the Russian winter during the Revolution. I found myself fighting between that Lara and this Fiona, and how they aged. Julie Christie is unafraid to look her years (66), which is refreshing in our over-stretched and nipped-and-tucked society. Her sparse acting, coupled with Polley’s careful direction, make for a performance that is as haunting in Fiona’s aging, as Lara was in the vibrancy of her youth.
As for the hundreds of other films in the festival this year, I have heard lobby reviews of dozens. Films, where viewers walk out annoyed, are also somebody else’s pick for "best of fest." That’s the richness of the whole thing. What you think is a story worth telling and then telling well, may be the same topic or emotion your neighbors don’t wish to explore. And your ability to learn more about a topic that interests you, from global warming to genocide in Africa, is all there for the price of a ticket.
It has been a busy marketplace for films this year. As of this writing, I think I heard more than a dozen films have been purchased and, therefore, will receive distribution, which means those stories will reach an even greater audience. Here in Park City, longtime local festivalgoers react with a quiet kind of bemusement. We remember the days when a film like "Heartland" showed at the Holiday Village Cinemas and then most of the audience wandered over to The Yarrow Hotel and curled up in easy chairs in front of the fire in the lobby, ordered drinks and discussed with the director the nuances of the film. Or all those years when the only parties after a premiere took place in the old Memorial Building (now Harry O’s) and the local community actually did put crepe paper on the basketball hoops and created excitement for both filmmakers and filmgoers. The closing night awards were held in The Yarrow as well, and the whole event was so small it was a sit down dinner. The year when "Chariots of Fire" premiered at The Egyptian Theatre, the entire audience got in a couple of buses and headed up to the new Snow Park Lodge at Deer Valley Resort for a fabulous after-party. If someone wanted to do a really one-of-kind film, they could profile a community who has, for nearly 30 years (it was first, remember, the United States Film and Video Festival) been the premiere audience for independent film. That town of the early ’80’s, with no stoplights and no five-star anythings, welcomed filmmakers and filmgoers with unbridled enthusiasm. They have most likely seen more independent film than any other non-industry people anywhere in the world.
Have all those hours of film viewing helped to create a more tolerant community, a more progressive town, a more environmentally sensitive group of leaders? Hard to say, but it is a place of rich characters and amazing scenery and a kind of soundtrack that switches from a gentle melody filled with stringed instruments to an electric banging bass beat that pumps us up.
Here’s what I know. Sundance is a great reminder of the power of stories to transform us. And if Park City is nothing else, it is a town built up in the last 30 years by people who came here from someplace else to start over. They thought they could do anything… move buildings off their very foundations, move institutions off their very foundations, move politics off their very foundations. Throw an Olympic celebration. Have we been shaped by the festival? Has the festival shaped us? It is worthy of a discussion, perhaps in an overstuffed chair in front of fireplace sometime when the quiet returns, maybe next Sunday in the Park?