Teri Orr: A toast to an extraordinary time of storytelling — on and off the screen
Outside of Sundance — my life isn’t ever like this…
I saw so many personal heroes in the flesh this festival I did have to gut check, take a deep long breath and be reminded this is not normal. It is extraordinary. I met so many new people I am dizzy from trying to remember how they connect to each other — to the festival — to me — and all the next chapters to come.
Being a journalist has allowed me more privileges than all the other jobs I have ever had. It is the golden ticket that serves as entree — even temporarily — into worlds that are foreign and exotic — gritty and scary authentic. For the past 10 days I have been weaving between conversations and dinner parties and panel discussions and scribbling sideways writing in the dark — trying to absorb all the nuances involved in the process. Or “the art of making art” … as Stephen Sondheim proclaimed decades ago in his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” based upon Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Seeing that performance in New York City was reason enough — in the late ’80s — for me to change the original name of this column from — Strike a Vein — to Sunday in the Park.
This year I shared conversations on a city bus ride from Main Street to the Eccles Theater, in the Owl Bar at Sundance Resort in front of the crackling fire, at the tiny — really tiny — six-person bar inside Cafe Terigo, at dinner parties in homes high in the hills inside and out of the city limits, with some conservative folks but mostly with large gatherings of out-of-state liberals who passionately remind us there is much hard work to be done.
The panel, “Power of Story: Just Art,” was like a dream for me and featured my artistic heroes. We were in the room where Lin-Manuel Miranda was rapping all about “being in the room where it happens” from his seminal work, “Hamilton.” He was joined in conversation with dissident Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei, at the festival with a film he did about injustice in Mexico. And they were joined by director/visual artist “The Lion (hearted) King” Julie Taymor talking about her current project — the film “The Glorias” — about Gloria Steinem. And then later in the week I saw real-life Gloria with Julie on the Eccles stage. Honestly, it was full sensory overload.
The question always floating around the festival is the “Sophie’s Choice” one … which one of the films was your favorite? Impossible to answer … to choose. I try to parse it down and pick my favorite film for cinematography, or storytelling, or great acting. And though I have not seen — by Sundance standards — many films this year — maybe 10 — that is 10 full times more films than I see on average weeks the rest of the year.
For me — the most important film was “The Dissident,” about the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Oscar-winning director (“Icarus”) Bryan Fogel started on the story the very day after it was confirmed Khashoggi had been murdered. The web he reveals involves the same web we all use to communicate and the same one that revealed Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame, of course, but more importantly for this story — owner of The Washington Post) was having an affair — that leak was ALL manipulated by the Saudis. It is a spying and manipulation of information done in the dark recesses of the web. The film reveals these operatives as “flies.” And they were countered by the good guys, the “bees.” And together they quickly influence what you are and are not seeing online. This film should scare every thinking person. The unimaginable wealth in the Middle East and the means the rulers will go to maintain their power and influence and money — giant piles of money. So much money the filmmaker suggested in the Q-and-A in the tiny screening room at Sundance Resort that perhaps they are the holders of the missing “Salvator Mundi,” the painting of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. That was sold anonymously in auction in 2017 in New York by Christie’s. … And then — it disappeared.
I left the screening realizing all I did not know about the state of the world, the internet, who controls what I see and how the murder — by thugs — of a world-respected journalist can take place in broad daylight inside an embassy. And how that bonesawed body completely disappeared while his fiancee stood for hours and then days waiting outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul for him to return with a marriage license so they could live happily ever after. This was The Film — this festival. It was co-produced by part-time Parkite Jim Swartz.
For years my favorite Sundance party has been with folks I was introduced to by a former East Coast horsewoman who became a Montana horsewoman and who has a place here and has the most amazing dinner parties with volunteers — who she opens her home to during the festival. I met her through two of those volunteers at the Eccles theater more than a decade ago. She, in turn, introduced me to folks who mostly live on the East Coast but have homes in California and Texas also. The evening — with a crackling fire in a comfy log home — included the heads of networks who were drinking fine wine out of red solo cups. The banter was about the impeachment, by people, currently covering that story.
When I left, there was a parting gift, a signed memoir by Frank Bennack, former CEO of the Hearst Corporation, and chairman emeritus of the Lincoln Center, Presbyterian Hospital and Metropolitan Opera Company. Frank started out in Texas in a hardscrabble way. He became a journalist when the acting thing seemed unlikely to stick. His book is titled “Leave Something on the Table.”
On a summer night — not too long ago — a few of us sat on the wide deck of Frank’s home overlooking Park City and he toasted the night by stealing a quote from centuries past. … “Confusion to the enemy!” he proclaimed in his authoritative deep voice as he raised his glass. And I knew ghosts of all those journalists he had watched and those he had shaped were raising glasses with him. So I raise mine this week to the gods of the festival who bring this disparate group of film lovers together and allow us to make friendships and discuss world issues — for years and years. Conversations that happen in front of fires and on summer porches. And on Sundays in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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