Medusa’s tangle of snake-hair is made of dull red and cannon-fire orange blown-glass tendrils, and rises sixty feet or so above my head. The elite of Salt Lake City—politicians, the director of the zoo, privileged children, media-types, money, money, money—has gathered beneath her coils, in Abravenel Hall, for a sort of civilian (non-film industry) festival premiere. Last night’s official premiere, in Park City, was held at the Eccles Center, a high-school auditorium, and hungry filmgoers could buy popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas at the concession stand. Tonight, in Salt Lake, hostesses circulate trays of dipped fruits, breaded chocolate confections, peppered salmon bites, croissant wraps, brie, and red wine with orange-rind garnishes around the rim of the glass. Tonight we celebrate the mainstreaming of Native American filmmaking with the premiere of Chris Eyre’s second film, Edge of America, while, unfathomably, a band of white people plays Celtic music in the grand hallway.
Tonight I am press. I have been sent to the red-carpet line, which is carpeted but not red. There are not very many of us press, because there are no movie stars in Edge of America, and what press mostly does at Sundance is take pictures of and get quotes from movie stars. Last night, in Park City, where the biggest star was Gabrielle Reece, a beach volleyball player (and, okay, a model), I saw people with cameras and microphones throw a few elbows while jockeying for position along the red-carpet line. Tonight, in Salt Lake, the local newspaper- and television-types stand around gossiping, bored, throwing no elbows. A reporter points toward the glass Medusa. “See that?” she says. “The man who made that is half-blind. He made it for the Winter Olympics. He wears an eye-patch, like a pirate.”
I am given lessons in Mormon history and culture by a Latter-Day Saint cameraman. Across the street from Abravenel Hall stands the walled-and-gated Mormon Temple complex and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and the golden cast of the Angel Moroni, who sits atop the temple at the geographic center of the city and looks down upon us all. In the nineteenth century Moroni led Joseph Smith to the hill where he discovered the buried golden plates of Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphs that he translated, aided by magic spectacles, into Mormon Scripture. “It’s very white inside the temple, and beautiful,” the cameraman says. “And clean. You have to take your shoes off.”
The television people are worried, because they need to get pictures of the Edge of America actors—stars or not—for the ten o’clock news. A fat man in a casual winter business suit engages the reporter from the local NBC affiliate in conversation. They talk for probably fifteen minutes. The man excuses himself. The NBC reporter decides to play a little joke on the reporter from FOX.
Local NBC guy: “That was the star of our feature film.”
Local FOX woman: “What?!”
Local NBC guy: “Just kidding. That was the director of the zoo.”
A Sundance press-office person gathers us together. There has been a change in plans. We must go upstairs and meet the governor and hear opening remarks; then we’ll do the red-carpet line. In a fine imitation of kindergarten teachers everywhere (I know: my mom teaches five-year-olds in Florida) the press-office person raises one hand in the air and instructs us to form a line. We do. We follow the hand through the sea of bodies in the grand hallway, up the winding staircase, through the restricted-access zone on the second floor and into a private anteroom decorated with expensive abstract expressionist paintings and full of the sort of people who might buy a thousand-dollar plate at a Republican Party fundraiser. A wet bar at the far end of the room, near the floor-to-ceiling windows, serves Manhattans and cosmopolitans and vodka tonics and Chardonnay and Merlot. “The podium’s up front,” the hand says, and we pass the word along to the back of the press line (this is something like telephone, the school-bus game where a message is whispered from child to child, usually arriving radically altered at the rear of the bus, but, fortunately, our line is very short, and everyone is able to find the podium).
We are separated into three groups, according to our relative media value. Television cameras are given the prime real estate, right in front of the podium. Still photographers get dibs on the side of the stage. Writers (they call us print; this is a media designation roughly equivalent to an army rank of, say, buck private) are forced into a single-file line along the wall, behind the television cameras and away from the Republicans. I stand on my tiptoes, straining to see between two cameras, as government and film festival dignitaries give their opening addresses for an audience of cameras and microphones while over a thousand ticket-holders wait downstairs, not knowing that there are opening remarks to hear.
The governor of Utah is a seventy-two-year-old woman named Olene S. Walker who took office last November after Mike Leavitt, the governor to whom she was lieutenant, resigned to take over the Environmental Protection Agency. Governor Walker sort of looks like Stockard Channing, but more wrinkly, and has the stage presence of a stand-up comic. She talks; we laugh. Her policy interests are education and the plight of the homeless. Her daughter made last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner American Splendor. If she ran for president, I would vote for her.
Downstairs, we do the red-carpet line, and I feel sorry for the actors, because they clearly have been looking forward to walking the red carpet, and they seem genuinely disappointed that we reporters are not being at all paparazzi-ish.
p((.Reporter: “And who are you?”
Handsome Man: “I’m Tim Daly.”
Reporter: “AndŠ you’re in the film?”
Handsome Man: “I play LeRoy McKinney.”
Reporter: “In the film?”
Publicist: “He’s also an executive producer.”
Cameraman: “Could you turn to the left a little?”
Inside the theater, Robert Redford appears again from behind the curtain, Oz-like, (and, like last night, draws more substantial applause than the actual filmmakers) and welcomes the crowd. It has become a standard practice among die-hard independent film types to deride Sundance (and, by extension, Redford—it’s his baby) as a commercial sellout, a place for auctioning and purchasing, a Hollywood film festival. But Redford, after brief sponsor-thanking, delivers instead an impassioned speech about the history of Native Americans in film and about the ways that white people have exploited ratty Indian caricatures—cowboy ambushes, Tonto, Italian actors with long hair, embarrassingly inauthentic rain dances and war whoops and peace pipes—without giving Native voices the opportunity to tell their own stories. “I think it’s about time that Native Americans be shown somewhere other than the back of a nickel,” Redford says.
The lights dim. The movie starts. Someone near the middle of the theater coughs, quite audibly. Edge of America fills the screen and disappoints me, because it is good, but not in an edgy Sundance way; instead in a safe, PG-rated sports-movie-dealing-with-racial-issues-in-a-touching-but-formulaic way, because this is Salt Lake City, not Park City, and the Angel Moroni, after all, is looking down upon us, and Medusa, too, and walking back to my rental car, I search in vain for a man with a black eye-patch who can blow snakes from glass.