Teri Orr: The way we were … and are
The film festival opening happened this week in Park City just as it has, once a year, every year since I moved to town in 1979. It wasn’t always called Sundance. It wasn’t always in January. It wasn’t always something that took over the town. It started in Salt Lake in the ’70s and made its way up the hill at the end of that decade. At one point — it had the very cumbersome name of The U.S. Film and Video Festival. And I remember taking my young children to see a film called, maybe, “Homeland,” which as I recall included the actual birth of a cow and it seemed to last — for hours without actual dialogue — unless you counted the cow’s lowing in pain. It was graphic in terms of the birth. My adult children still laugh about how I may have scarred them for life watching that black-and-white (was it?) piece of art.
There was the year in 1981 when I helped with festival press relations. And the only theater in town was the Egyptian. And the film was “On Golden Pond.” The actors weren’t actually coming to promote the film — the Fondas, Henry and Jane, and also Katherine Hepburn — but it was still a pretty big thing. The theater was packed and we had just shut the doors and the film started to roll. My business partner Katherine and I were in the lobby with a few volunteers catching our breath after seating a complete full house. Then a handsome man walked breathless into the lobby and said he just wanted to stand in the back and hear the audience’s reaction. He didn’t have a fancy premiere night ticket but he was happy to buy one. One of the very officious volunteers said there wasn’t a seat in the house — it had been sold out for weeks — and NO — just NO — there was NO standing in the theater.
I took a long look at the guy in the plaid jacket and jeans and cowboy boots and realized I recognized him from pre-press photos. I walked over and said “Ernest Thompson (the director of the film), we are so happy you made it here. Please come in and watch.” And I led him to the back where he could stand and I watched him watch a few minutes of his film and then quietly left him to enjoy the moment. The film would go on to win all the principals Oscars for their performances and Thompson one for his direction.
The Egyptian was THE place to see a film. The makeshift places — the Elks Club and the Yarrow hotel and the others were all pretty much health and safety violations we pretended not to notice.
This year in a galaxy far far away from those beginnings on a night with a full moon and empty theaters, the festival began on personal screens — mostly in isolation. At the welcome introduction, Executive Director Keri Putnum and new Festival Director Tabitha Jackson introduced the event and how it would layout over the next several days in our homes and yet strangely now, all over the world. A global pandemic that was just whispered about at last year’s festival has, of course, invaded the planet like the worst horror film and kept us all isolated for almost an entire year with endless plot twists no one saw coming last January.
And so the festival has shifted again, as it knows all too well how to do. Reimagined indeed.
The opening remarks, with participation again this year from Native tribes throughout the West, made certain to pay homage to the Native peoples of Utah. And then there was a powerful mood piece about storytelling and the cosmos and our place in them. The voice was familiar and also ethereal, and it took me a beat to recognize it was Robert Redford. Who we never see but just hear in a disembodied way, floating through space. And something seemed very right about it all.
I am two films in already — a feature and a documentary. First “CODA” — which stands for Child of Deaf Adults. And “Summer of Soul,” which is about a kind of black Woodstock that took place in New York City in 1969.
“CODA” is a lovely film with a great cast that reminds us that not all coming-of-age stories are equal because not all childhoods are equal. There is much to laugh at and with in the film, and there is a musical thread which is sweet and powerful. It is a “feel good” film.
“Summer of Soul” is also a feel good film that I found myself — alone in my living room — belting out the refrains at least — of almost every song. Expect gospel, mixed with Motown and funk and the Broadway show tunes … from “Hair.” Expect also to be taken back to a point in time when Black Lives Matter started to have voice. When the stunning archival — buried in a basement for 50 years — footage jumps off the screen with vibrant costumes and powerful rhetoric that proclaims the word Negro is dead and the word Black is born — to appear in headlines and bylines. The very good news is when I was up and dancing and remembering moves I had, as a teenage white girl, tried to steal in the year I graduated high school, there was no one in my living room to laugh out loud.
It was a bonus to the festival en suite.
The next few days I will add to my viewing schedule and hit the Music Cafe and take in a panel and stay in my socks the whole time. And while this is the most fun I can make in solitary, I will be looking forward to when the town is filled with filmmakers and watchers again. Next year, on so many days including a Sunday (or two) 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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