Panic in Park City

Fear is the driving force at this year's Sundance Film Festival

I'm halfway through the mountains between Salt Lake City and the Sundance Film Festival, speeding down a dark and twisty road in a rented Neon that wasn't exactly built for performance, when suddenly I realize: Oh, my God--I might actually be able to make it to that 10:30 press screening!

Okay, I think. Let me get my bearings. The time is 10:11 by my watch--or 10:07 according to the clock in the Neon. I don't trust the Neon. So that means I have less than 20 minutes to cover 25 or so miles, some of them in heavy traffic. And find parking: Parking is a nightmare at Sundance. Good thing I have enough gas in the tank. And where's my press pass? Oh, that's right--I don't have one: I'm fresh off the plane from Minnesota and haven't checked in at festival headquarters yet. Now headquarters is closed for the day. So the festival volunteers policing the screening will need to accept my "official letter of accreditation," which was sent last week on Sundance letterhead (and which, at last check, was in my bag--or was it?). Alas, my experience of festival volunteers has been that they don't accept much of anything. So I'll have to turn on the charm. How much of that do I have in the tank?

Eyes on the road. I'm doing 85 or 90 on the straightaway, about 75 in the curves. Then I remember: No insurance. See, I opted against paying $170.11 for "basic coverage" on the Neon, figuring that $170.11 could more basically cover...uh, the better part of a week's lodging at the fleabag motel in Heber City where I habitually hang my hat, some 15 miles from Park City and festival action. (Don't worry about those frayed linens in my digs, dear reader: Just as soon as I start writing for Entertainment Weekly--a "presenting sponsor" of Sundance--I'll be in Fat City. Or at least in Park City.) Anyway, bottom line is: I'm gonna try not to crash the car. But I do need to catch this screening--of The Singing Detective, director Keith Gordon's new adaptation of Dennis Potter's ingeniously acerbic musical, previously filmed as a nine-hour miniseries for the BBC. I mean, what if The Singing Detective turns out to be the festival's consensus masterpiece and I haven't seen it? How could I live with that? In Gordon's film, Robert Downey Jr. plays the lead role under heavy makeup, since his character, Dan Dark, is scarred from head to toe--not from a car crash, as I recall. Or was it?

What--no cell phone? Joaquin Phoenix in Thomas Vinterberg's 'It's All About Love'
Nimbus Film International
What--no cell phone? Joaquin Phoenix in Thomas Vinterberg's 'It's All About Love'

Eyes on the road. It's 10:24 p.m. I decide that I cannot, cannot miss this movie--for psychological reasons. Feeling defeated is no way to begin a 10-day endurance test that dangles some 125 features before the film geek and dares him to see even a quarter of them at the expense of sleep, sanity, and safety--all the unimportant things. Granted, the sense of defeat here--what with the clogged thoroughfares, the ubiquity of corporate logos, the alienating hucksterism that regularly rewards cinematic mediocrity over experimentation, the overwhelming smell of privilege in the air--is inevitable. Even if you're Harvey Weinstein, defeat is inevitable. (I'm thinking of the legendary temper tantrum that the Miramax heavy threw in 1996, when Fine Line Features shrewdly pulled Shine's distribution rights out from under him. "You fucked me!" he told a Fine Line boss in a crowded restaurant. "You fucked me!") Maybe I can manage to hold my own humiliation at bay--at least until tomorrow morning.

Which reminds me: There's a public screening of The Singing Detective at 9:00 a.m., but it was sold out weeks ago. I've been trying all day to reach the film's publicist, who could score me a ticket or otherwise slip me in tomorrow morning at the risk of causing a riot on Main Street, but he hasn't returned my calls. (Again: I don't write for Entertainment Weekly.) So it's now or never. But where? I can't recall whether the screening is at the Yarrow, a hotel on the edge of town, or at the Eccles, a high school theater venue that plays host to arguably more sophisticated productions each January. With 50/50 odds (and the good sense not to boot up my laptop at 85 mph), I decide to guess that the screening is at the Eccles--mainly because I know of a semi-secret parking spot nearby. (I'll never tell.)

Swerving through a swarm of SUVs in the home stretch, I pilot the Neon to within a football field of the Eccles; get out and sprint across an icy lawn, my hundred-pound bag of PR material in tow; make it to the screening room; discover that The Singing Detective is, indeed, unspooling here (whew!); implore the volunteers to let me in with a letter; thank them profusely (on Day One, the volunteers--unlike the critics--apparently haven't had time to get crabby); head into the press "theater" that looks like a boiler room with a hundred folding chairs and a white sheet hung at one end (hooray for Hollywood!); locate one of the last remaining seats in the back row; barely catch my breath; start watching the movie with another critic's head blocking my view of about an eighth of the screen; and discover, after about 15 or 20 minutes, that The Singing Detective, despite predictably impeccable production design and razor-sharp cinematography (seven-eighths of it, at least), pretty much blows.

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