To watch Sundance coverage on television is to feel closer to the action—the movie stars, the directors, the “industry buzz”—than the average festivalgoer. This is a matter of access. Tonight’s awards ceremony took place at the Racquet Club, but seating there is extremely limited, so those without cameras (including newspaper reporters and the cast and crew of most festival films) are forced to watch a live feed at one of the hospitality lodges set up throughout the city—the same feed carried nationally (and simultaneously) on the Sundance Channel.
I had planned to watch the awards ceremony from the Filmmakers’ Lodge, which predictably was filled with more press than filmmakers, but I was diverted by a small cluster of people gathered around a blue Econoline van parked illegally on Main Street a block from my destination. The van’s sliding door was open, and a television inside was perched atop a footlocker decorated with psychedelic flower stickers that grew yellow around the edges of the petals. A blue and white skull had been spraypainted on the side of the van, and HARBINGERPRO.COM had been stenciled across both sides in black. The driver, a young man with white hair protruding in unkempt tufts from a red baseball cap, took questions from passersby. I heard him say, “Really, your skin doesn’t have to be that dark if you grow a little stubble. You could pass for an Iraqi, probably.”
A power inverter was duct-taped to the hood of the van and alligator-clipped to the battery, and a long orange extension cord ran from the inverter to the television, which showed promotional clips from subversive works-in-progress, most of them explicitly critical of George W. Bush.
Passing man with gray hair and black glasses: “George Bush rules!”
His friend: “George Bush sucks!”
The driver stepped from the car, stroking a small white dog he held in the crook of his arm, and a second man emerged from the back of the van and began handing out promotional tickets to a special screening of The Corporation—a Canadian Sundance film starring Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore—at the Freedom Cinema Festival across the street.
Me: “What kind of dog is that?”
Driver: “This is a Shih Tzu. I found him in Kansas City.”
Ticket Man: “You’re a thorough motherfucker.”
The driver, Aaron Ruskin, a twenty-four-year-old documentary filmmaker from Brooklyn, told me that last month he had flown into Amman, Jordan, rented a car, drove twelve hours to the Iraqi border, and then—and this is the dangerous part—pushed on through the unprotected desert road toward Baghdad. “You don’t need press credentials to get in anymore,” he told me. “Just show up with your passport and a big set of balls.”
While in Baghdad, Ruskin gathered preliminary footage on his digital video camera, which he used this week to raise money for a full-blown Iraqi documentary. Most of the money, he said, was raised from producers based in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, using Park City businessmen as intermediaries.
Two middle-aged men approached the van. One wore a camouflage hat and the other was dressed in an all-white seventies-looking snowsuit, sort of a winter Bee Gee. The one with the camo hat confronted Ruskin. “Vladimir Lenin said it best,” he said. “The only true political change comes at the point of a gun barrel.”
“If you think Bush is bad,” Winter Bee Gee said, “wait until the Antichrist gets here.”
They asked me if I knew about the mass hypnosis. No, I said. “Fidelity Investments? The worldwide Disney conspiracy? Buena Vista Entertainment? Paramount Pictures?”
I confessed ignorance on all points.
The man in the camo hat began to tell Ruskin and me the true history of the American media. His grandfather created the Rat Pack and all the major television networks and film distributors, and controlled Hollywood until his death in 1997. Control was then passed to his father, and then, just last year, to him. He handed me a business card. “See the initials?” he said. “SPRM. You know MSRP? The bar code people? MSRP is my initials switched around. Welcome to the subliminal world.”
Ruskin wandered off, and the two men began to share their frustration with the brainwashedness of the American people. “You control the media,” I said. “Why don’t you fix it?” The answer to this question, which was delivered with a complexity I could not begin to reconstruct (nor, at the time, did I quite understand it) had something to do with a perpetual motion machine and the inevitability of Armageddon, which George W. Bush was unwittingly helping to speed along.
Never before have I been quite so relieved to be interrupted by a gathering of street performers, four Mormon college students from Bountiful, Utah. They carried white plastic two-gallon buckets filled with drumsticks. The man in the camo hat and Winter Bee Gee made a few last points about the shadow government and then left in a hurry, before the drumming started. The Mormons moved to the street and pulled costumes up over their clothes, and some of the crowd that had gathered around the blue Econoline van followed the drummers—now dressed as Santa Claus, a hepcat, and the Chik-Fil-A cow—but no one else joined in. Everyone—even the drummers—seemed weary after ten days of walking in the cold and jockeying for space on the buses and in the lines and watching movie after movie after movie.
Aaron Ruskin began tearing down his makeshift theater, unplugging the extension cord from the inverter, and by the next afternoon most of the people who had filled Park City for the last ten days had driven to Salt Lake City and boarded airplanes bound for home. Crowds of Utahns who had not attended the festival packed the ceremonial screenings of the award-winning films while Sundance volunteers packed the Filmmakers’ Lodge and the press office and the Online Film Festival into padded travel cases, and Park City municipal workers removed metal barricades from Main Street’s parallel-parking spaces.
The next day, Monday, it was all gone. I met Ori and Lori, two Park City residents transplanted from Washington, DC, for sushi, and then we drove to the Eccles Theater for a final screening of Primer, the winner of the festival prize for Best Dramatic Feature. The free show was a thank-you gift from Sundance to the residents of Park City. No actors or cameramen worked the red carpet. No one pushed. No one waited in line for more than ten minutes. A soft snow had begun to fall outside, the cleansing snow that had been promised by the meteorologists, and by the next morning the fog that had covered the Wasatch Basin had begun to abate, and the first patches of clear blue in over two weeks could be seen above Salt Lake City’s skyline.