Jay Meehan: The gospel of the Sundance Program Guide
As strange as it may sound, the annual Sundance Film Festival digital program guide has, over the years, become one of my favorite reads.
It’s like taking on a 5,000-paragraph postmodern experimental metafiction. It’s David Foster Wallace without the Pop Tarts and backhand volleys. You can open it anywhere and fall into any number of rabbit holes — each of which can take you to a microcosmic abyss of your choosing.
But, of course, like with Wallace, you will get waylaid. You can get there from here but the more curious and informed the reader, the longer it’s going to take. It might well be prudent to leave a trail of Toll House semisweet chocolate chips along your path in order to safely return to whichever starting point fits the moment.
Take Monday morning for example. While immersed once again in the Program Guide and performing the backstroke through that most often offbeat NEXT category, I came upon “Sister Aimee.” Without warning, I immediately astral-projected back to an outdoor stairway at the rear of the Los Angeles Central Library.
It was the mid ’60s and there I sat, facing an early edition of one of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson’s many houses of worship. As an employee in the Library’s old-school Manual Processing Department, I often took breaks, lunch and otherwise, amid the historically rich architecture of the cul-de-sac out back.
That space, along with the musty stacks of archival volumes that ran down the central spine of the multi-storied affair, formed my sacred turf. The Stacks, dark and musty, not to mention otherworldy, were straight out of Umberto Eco’s monastery in “The Name of the Rose.”
There was hidden access through secret doors that I discovered one day and, once I had wandered that holy ground, you couldn’t keep me out. It felt like you were breathing pre-Gutenberg air, back when Monks labored over manuscripts for their entire lives. I half-expected to stumble upon a copy of “The Book of Kells” at any moment.
Although I discovered The Stacks on my own, I have my father, Robert Emmett Meehan (“Bob” to all), to thank for my familiarity with the long lost lore of Sister Aimee. Somewhere along our family’s move south between my missed turn to Las Vegas and our first actual contact with the Pacific Ocean at Cayucos, her story came up.
It included her ornate Temples and her “hold” on the thousands, probably millions, who followed her traveling crusade. Bob was an encyclopedia, by the way, and he couldn’t stop the information from flowing.
And, when her fundamentalist Christian followers bought into her outrageous story of being kidnapped when in fact she had stolen off to Mexico with her lover, I was hooked. I should also give a nod to her unwitting protégé, Donald Trump. Gullibility and blind faith – there’s a stew for you.
Be that as it may, it’s a great yarn and I can’t wait to see the film at this year’s Festival. As I understand it from the Program Guide: “The sensational evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson has pulled off her latest marvel: vanishing in plain sight of a devout disciple!
“Except that this disappearance was a cleverly orchestrated ploy to run away with her lover, a married writer named Kenny. Outfitted with new identities and a courageous guide named Rey, Aimee and Kenny head for Mexico, searching for inspiration and adventure.
“When Aimee tires of Kenny’s literary ineptitude, she enlists Rey’s help to ditch him in the desert. Yet getting Aimee back to Los Angeles — where the news, the police, and her devotees are anxiously searching for her — will take a real miracle.”
Fear not, Sister Aimee, your base shall never desert you. Why, you could probably shoot and kill someone on Main Street and they would cling tighter than ever. Faith, my dear – that is the key.
If this sounds familiar (I mean, other than a tweet from our president you read), Sister Aimee’s story had been rendered upon the silver screen before. Maybe you caught “Elmer Gantry,” a marvelous turn for Burt Lancaster with Jean Simmons in the female evangelist role. Burt walked away with a gold statuette for that one.
What did I tell you about rabbit holes and the great microcosmic abyss? Excuse me, I gotta get back to my 2019 Sundance Film Festival Program Guide. It’s a jungle in there.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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