Mr. Cyzyk Goes To Utah
By Skizz Cyzyk
For one week in January, the little ski resort of Park City, Utah is the center of everything film. Though the reputation is that of "independent" film, the truth is Hollywood merely migrates to the mountains for the Sundance Film Festival. Crowded city streets are littered with fliers, movie posters, TV crews and cellphones, cellphones, cellphones.
The majority of Park City's population for that week seemed to be there for one purpose... no, I'm not talking about watching films. I'm talking about schmoozing. Everywhere you looked, you saw people talking with fake coolness, name-dropping and bragging about which party they got an invitation to. The restaurants were all too expensive (for such mediocre food), and therefore reservations were used as status symbols. I got to eat in quite a few of the overpriced restaurants and go to a couple of parties and there was one main thing that seemed most obvious to me: Film people from LA and NY are really good at blocking hallways. I guess you can take the bozos out of Hollywood but you can't take the Hollywood out of the bozos.
So why on earth would a guerrilla filmmaker and promoter of D.I.Y. films like myself be there? The answer is simple: Sundance isn't the only game in town. There are at least two other film festivals happening in Park City at the same time as Sundance.
I was there as one of two projectionists for Slamdance, a festival started in 1995 when it's founding members had their films rejected by Sundance and decided not to let that stop them from being screened admist all the hoopla. Knowing the history of Slamdance and the principles behind it, I jumped at the chance to be involved when my friend, Gabe (the other projectionist), called and asked me to do it.
Slamdance was NOT the underground, guerrilla-style, punk ethics film festival I was expecting. Being a frequent patron of against-the-grain film festivale, I thought I was in for another showcase of low-budget, crudely made original films by poor guys like me. Maybe it had been that way in the past, but this year it was a well organized and thoughtfully programmed, international film festival able to compete with the big boys.
The Slamdance films were only low-budget in the Hollywood sense of the term. Otherwise, they were of the same quality as what Sundance was showing. Slamdance's head honchos, Jon Fitzgerald and Peter Baxter, have done all they can to lose the "Sundance upstart" label that Robert Redford would prefer they keep by being Sundance's equal.
At first, I was disappointed - there goes my punk rock credibility. But then I felt proud once I realized that I was still a part of something that was really pissing off the establishment anyway! Yes, Sundance in all of it's "not-the-studios/underdog/independent film glorification," actually comes off more like The Film Police who control Park City and no one is allowed to fart in their town without asking their permission (or paying them off) first. Needless to say, David was farting so loud Goliath's ears hurt. Last year's Slamdance took place in a venue that Sundance pulled out from under them. This year's Slamdance took place at the Treasure Mountain Inn, which Sundance immediately tried to book for next year but was turned down.
Before you think that no punk-ethics film activity is going on during "Sundance Week" in Park City anymore, let me tell you about the third of the "Dance" festivals... Slumdance.
Held in what was once a Mrs. Fields Cookie factory, Slumdance was a maze of Christmas lights, lawn chairs, hammocks, mattresses, tents, TV's, VCR's, shopping carts, and all assortments of decorations. Aside from their 35mm screening room, their 16mm screening hallway, a couple of video rooms, a rave room a lounge, and an old silver mine somewhere up the mountain, Slumdance's headquarters consisted mainly of an area called "Tent City", wherein attendees could" Book Your Own Festival" by picking tapes out of shopping carts and watching them in any of a number of tents set up and equipped with TV's and VCR's.
Slumdance had a fine program including some great features that were turned down by both Sun and Slam, plus a 35mm print of Mario Bava's DANGER DIABOLIK, a documentary about The Monkees, and a very open screening policy towards films that just happened to show up.
Very quickly Slumdance and Slamdance were working together and complimenting each other, lending out emergency pieces of equipment and eventually sharing some of the films - all the while being denounced by the bigger festival down the hill.
Granted, I was in town to work, not to schmooze or eat bad expensive food. But I did get to see quite a lot of films and meet a few interesting people. One such person was Dan Mirvish, a Slamdance co-founder who served as host of the festival's screenings. Dan made a film called OMAHA: THE MOVIE, a comedy about a man trying to find himself while being chased around Nebraska by Colombian jewel thieves and kickboxing street gangs. Dan's movie displays a sense of humor that the Sundance crowd wouldn't get - and his low-budget look doesn't help either. With his bushy hair, goofy hat and 4-day beard, Dan seems out of place. In a town full of Hollywood-wanna-be's who would never admit it, Dan doesn't seem like one at all - but he's the first to admit that he is. At one point he told me that he values his integrity but at the same time he'd jump if an offer to make PROBLEM CHILD 4 came his way. He'll even admit to being a filmmaker who will stock shelves in supermarkets when he has to. How many LA-rich-kid filmmakers would ever support themselves with a minimum wage job, much less admit to it?
Opening night of Slamdance enabled me to see the debut episode of John Peirson's SPLITSCREEN. The show made me wish I had cable, since that's where it will air. Peirson himself hung around the festival and was very friendly and approachable - at one point setting up a table with a sign reading something to the effect of "Ask the guru a question" on it. SPLITSCREEN included a clip from a film called HANG YOUR DOG IN THE WIND, which consists of actor Keythe Farley telling a story about a movie about making a movie, and how that's all that's being made these days.
Sure enough, I saw my share of movies about making movies. KIRK & KERRY was a short made by Azza Jacobs (Ken's son), about a real life couple playing a couple in a movie that's being made. I liked the way the line between reality vs. script kept the viewer wondering what the hell was going on, plus I liked The Clash in the soundtrack.
Another movie about making movies that stood out was THE SIZE OF WATERMELONS, about a loser (played by Paul Rudd - the step brother from CLUELESS) who decides to make a documentary about his wild friend (played by Donal Logue who's best known for being Jimmy the Cab Driver on MTV). Very funny with a lot of jokes only film geeks would get. Cast members Ione Skye, Donovan Leitch and Marrisa Ribicci were in attendance at the premiere party after the screening.
The aforementioned HANG YOUR DOG IN THE WIND screened at Slumdance, and the aforementioned actor Keythe Farley was on hand all week long, greeting people at the entrance, dishing them soup and handing out party favors. If you were one of the lucky ones, he'd even give you a tour of the Slum. He was such a fun guy to hang out with that I was surprised to see what an asshole he plays in the film. Nevertheless, I loved the film and Keythe's character delivers most of the funniest lines.
Another film I saw at Slumdance was Frank Novak's DOMESTIC DISPUTE. This short film is sort of like an episode of COPS except the camera crew sticks around after the cops leave. It's a voyeuristic laugh-at-white-trash film that turned out to be darkly hysterical. I think the screening of DOMESTIC DISPUTE I saw was an open screening (since it showed with my film and I just sort of showed up with mine and Paul, the projectionist, threw it up on the screen for me). I'm surprised I haven't seen this film at other underground festivals.
PIECES, made by Cleveland brothers, Joe & Anthony Russo, was one of the features I got to see at Slamdance. These guys really know how to throw a premiere. They had PIECES posters all over town. I saw their hats and T-shirts everywhere I looked. They must have flown everyone involved with the film to the festival. Plus they had parties each night sponsored by their film. I usually frown on that kind of promotion - I figure if a film is good it should be able to stand on it's own merits. I hate the way many good films get overlooked because less adequate films have larger promotions budgets. But the Russo's film was worth the hype they created for it. A very stylish feature about three Italian brothers in a failing hairpiece business who steal their competitor's client list.
Steven Soderberg introduced his work in progress, SCHIZOPOLIS. He was very funny and so was his film. In fact, the degree of surreal humor and weirdness in his film leads me to predict that SCHIZOPOLIS will flop because it will go over most peoples' heads.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK was another festival favorite, though a little too much of a "feel-good" teen movie for me, but still a nice enough comedy. Roger Ebert showed up at one of the screenings and liked the movie. The next thing you know, another screening had to be added for all the industry types who didn't bother to watch it until Roger said it was worthwhile - now that's power.
HARD CORE LOGO, by Canadian filmmaker, Bruce McDonald (HIGHWAY 61, DANCE ME OUTSIDE), was a cool mock-umentary about a punk band reuniting for one last tour in honor of a fallen friend who turns out to have faked his fall. It's filled with lots of great music and jokes only guys in bands would get, but the storyline is entertaining and the acting is so dead-on that if you didn't know better, you might believe it's actually a documentary. (On a side note, I can now say I know what it's like to be in Bruce McDonald's shoes... because I'm wearing his shoes. One of the festival sponsors gave a pair of shoes to each of the filmmakers. McDonald is the only filmmaker who didn't show up in person and we just happen to be the same shoe size... so I got his shoes. Thanks Bruce.)
I saw a fair share of ambitious shorts. Tennessee Reid Norton showed his very short LIZARD WHOMPER - a violent clay animation gore film... very straight to the point and exactly what the title says.
David Baer's ANGRY MAN was another hit. Those familiar with his earlier short, SHAVE AGAINST THE MACHINE, will recognize ANGRY MAN as an extension of that film (yes, he simply tacked on another 10 minutes and changed the name). Baer advertised his screenings by putting fake parking citations on cars all over Park City (when you open the envelope there's a flier for ANGRY MAN in it). Well, somebody (I won't mention her name but her initials are Parker Posey) called the cops and they came looking for him. We had to hide him in the projection booth until the Q&A after his film. Everyone expected him to be hauled off at that point but the cops got tired of waiting and left.
MEAT was another favorite at the festival. Director Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt, producer/cinematographer Matt Spain, and lead actress Leah Foster were in attendance. Jason gave a brilliant explanation on the importance of wearing original headgear to a film festival - sighting himself and Dan Mirvish as examples.
The real find at Slamdance was THE BIBLE & GUN CLUB, a narrative feature that pays homage to the Maysles documentary, SALESMAN, more than anything else. Shot handheld in grainy black and white, THE BIBLE & GUN CLUB is the story of a bunch of weathered Bible and gun salesmen who go to a convention in Vegas and decide to do a little business in the nearby trailer parks. It was funny, dark and entertaining.
As is to be expected, not every film I saw was great or even memorable. Some, in fact, were only memorable for how much I didn't like them.
There was a considerable buzz going around about Cinque Lee and his feature, NOWHERE FAST. Slamdance was apparently NOWHERE FAST's U.S. premiere, though it had already shown at several foreign festivals. The buzz, it turns out, was more about Cinque being the brother of Spike - his film unfortunately wasn't that great. Despite being shot well, it was low on story, the acting was second rate and some of the characters were so annoying I felt like walking out. On the brighter side and sort of unexpected, Cinque was a really nice guy - I feel bad about not liking his film. When his film hadn't shown up by screening time, Cinque entertained the audience until FedEx arrived. He even hung out by the projection booth with me and a bottle a booze during one of his screenings. I sort of expected nepotism to make NOWHERE FAST a festival hit, but so far that hasn't happened. Cinque admitted to me that he doesn't like the same things about his film that I didn't like, and that the film was made for fun (and $80,000) - so I hope to eventually see better things from him.
Some of the biggest complaining came from people responsible for some of the most forgettable films. A GUN, A CAR, A BLONDE was a dreadful wanted-to-be-noir film that could be excused if it had been a made for TV movie... but it wasn't. Written by Tom Epperson and featuring Billy Bob Thornton and John Ritter, this is a perfect example of how a lot of money too often goes to the wrong projects. And get this, the makers were furious when they opened the festival program to find their film listed as "A GUN, A CAR AND A BLONDE" (which incidentally is how it was titled on the film cans). The Slamdance crew had to insert correction slips into the programs to make up for the mistake.
The guys representing RED MEAT also seemed to complain a lot, starting the second they arrived. They didn't like their contact address in the program. The focus was off. The sound wasn't right. The projection was framed improperly. I can understand being nervous during your film's world premiere, especially when your only name star, Jennifer Grey, is in the audience, but their film wasn't worth the attitude.
There certainly was a lot of attitude in Park City. But then again, there was an abundance of just about everything, including celebrities. I watched Peter Fonda and Martha Plympton eat their lunch. I saw John Waters sign Slumdance's graffiti room. I talked modeling with Reese Witherspoon and the weather with Ione Skye. I heard that Tim Robbins was at a Slumdance party (he cut out of his Sundance triute to hang out). One of my fellow staffmembers told me how he saw Kurt Raab (from all those Fassbinder films) get dragged out of a restaurant in chains by the cops (I thought he was dead). If it teaches us anything, it's that the "important" people are just like the rest of us.
(And by the way, I didn't see ANY of the films at Sundance).