Teri Orr: And the credits roll…
When the Sundance Film Festival traditionally came to a close, it would be after 11 days of utter exhaustive efforts by all the folks in a small town who helped to keep the party going. Including all the hospitality suites that existed on Main Street and in so many private homes. The air was electric. And the gatherings of eccentric and eclectic folks who were actually part of the front-facing festival or those who were simply back-of-house made the magic happen for others. We all loved to be a part of all things Sundance and we all loved to find fault with things too.
Someday, with enough time and reflection, I will gather stories about those early days and put them in one place. And it will include all the talent both legendary and emerging who started the festival proper by entering the lower lobby of the Eccles Center facing the extended mics and the flashing cameras and questions from press as they “walked the line,” the press line. And then they would head down the back hallway next to the gym where teenage girls and boys giggled and snuck out of class and hid in the restrooms or the gym, hoping to catch a glimpse of “a star,” from Justin Timberlake to Taylor Swift to U2 to Tom Hanks.
But this year all the interaction was more than muffled and hidden — it simply didn’t happen, and like much of the this past pandemic year, we were left to make our own moments. Without interacting humans and flash bulbs and chance encounters at the counter of Squatters (always a great place to get a glimpse of high-profile people who wanted/needed a little vitamin G that only bacon provides the first thing in the morning of a morning after), we were left to consider something else — in isolation. The films themselves. Unvarnished. The art of watching mindfully in one’s own home required discipline of a different kind — trying not to stop and start too many times to ensure as a viewer you were … “picking up what they were laying down.”
There were four films in the second half of the festival that stood out for me and I think of them as two suites — though I did not plan that nor did Sundance in any way suggest that. But watching “Passing” the same day I watched “Ailey” was a mini-immersion into Black History Month. “Passing” is based on a novella from 1929 that focuses on two refined upper-class women who have a chance encounter at the Drake Hotel. And one women, a doctor’s wife from Harlem, spots another — a blonde who looks familiar and turns out to be a girl she knew in high school in Harlem. The light-skinned Black and now blonde-haired woman is passing for white. It is a psychological thriller and I’m reluctant to share more than that about the plot. Filmed in black and white, it places the viewer squarely in the Harlem Renaissance and all the sophistication of that era. It was directed by Rebecca Hall, successful actress in her own right who, in a Q-and-A session, revealed that a few generations back she has Black relations she only learned of later in life. Find this film and go on the journey and get a glimpse of being … inauthentic.
“Ailey“ is based on the life of famed choreographer Alvin Ailey, who came from a cotton-picking single mother and full-immersion river baptisms in Texas to be a global sensation with the first full Black modern dance company in America. It shows the evolution of his brilliant dances created from a unique joy and pain that is both Black and universal. When the Eccles Center opened in 1998 and Sundance had that giant venue for the very first time — just months later we presented the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to show the variety and excellence that was planned for that stage. Watching the story of the man and his company, it did not dance around the personal story of a tortured genius who created those soulful iconic pieces that are now cannon for dance — it was heart thumping.
At the other end of the emotional powerhouse were the two films “Mass” and “Rebel Hearts.” For more than dozen years three Holy Cross nuns lived next door to me here in Park Meadows. Two of the three are still living and are now in Jeremy Ranch. Those women taught me that devotion didn’t wear a habit (they are particularly prone to polar fleece and sandals). And once I traveled with them to a special conference in California that explored the edges of Catholicism with married priests and nuns and all kinds of amazing humans devoted to doing good on the planet. So the story of the bold and brave and righteous Sisters at the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Hollywood in the ’60s who defied the Vatican — to not have to wear habits or teach in schools without the education to do so — who wanted to chart their own course of service and love — was a brilliant documentary. Spoiler alert — the patriarchy loses. And loving kindness and spirited feminism wins — but at a considerable cost.
Finally “Mass” simply must be experienced and if I give you too much of the plot you will not have the breathless, shocking ride I had coming into the film knowing little. Here is the simplest explanation — two couples are set in a church basement five years after the son of the one couple was responsible for the death of the son of the other couple. It is a film that starts very slow and, honestly, I was tempted to give up after the first 30 minutes but then slowly the reveal begins and you understand the pain of parenting and the untouchable fear that any day could be the last day you see your child alive.
There was no closing-night party this year. For years it was held in the Racquet Club and the Rotary Club would put down a false floor to protect the courts and all the filmmakers would come and hang out with the locals and the press and anyone from the festival who was still in town. They were grateful to the town for putting the event together and they were equally eager to hear how their film “had played with the local folks” who had watched their very independent productions. We both watched and celebrated in private this year — which was like the rest of this past year — except with edgier content and seamless technology. Which took dozens of people to make happen and I only know the czar of all that is Holden Payne and he has been at the controls for decades walking the tightrope of technology and temperament to keep the films streaming. This year it was with a smaller team for the giant job. And though he couldn’t see us, many of us were giving him a standing, wild arm-waving cheer as the festival ended.
What Sundance proved was the essence of the festival is secure — it was always about the films and the filmmakers and the stories that created them. The festival provided a platform for storytelling to be seen universally — pretty seamlessly — and that is something we can all celebrate this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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