Today’s topic is claustrophobia: fear of the mash and crush of bodies confined in tiny spaces, the invasion of personal places, especially on the bus, especially on the Park City Transit / Sundance Film Festival Theater Loop, which this afternoon became packed too full—bodies in the stairwell, bodies pressed against windows, bodies in my lap—and then got ensnared in the Great Park Avenue Traffic Jam of 2004, the big one, when the heater pumped ninety-degree blasts of furnace air into a moving container holding people wearing layers of shirt and fleece and heavy coat, and the stale, recirculated air grew thick with heat and exhalations and the smell of commingled halitosis, all the organic leech-and-stink of desperate fleeing body toxins, my two inches of atmosphere tasting like the Hefeweizen breath of the California girl sitting next to me, who wore a lei of purple flowers around her neck and talked incessantly about Ashton Kutcher, whose film was scheduled to premiere one hour from when we boarded and whose film began before we debarked.
I could tell you about the democracy of the bus—ski bums and corporate sponsors; actors and gawkers; Sundance volunteers in red-and-black gratis Kenneth Cole vests and old ladies with surgically tightened faces and white swinging purses dangling from gold-colored chains; haunted white Gothic European metro faces framed in jet-black dyed hair, black faces covered in chic unfettered kinks of carefully ungroomed salt-and-pepper beard hair, sunburned faces, windblown faces, faces with and without makeup, faces with peeling concealer covering mounds of blemish; feet with boots, boots with hair, loafers, tennis shoes, laceups, slip-ons, space-age, moccasin; and voices, Mandarin and Slavic, Romance and Indo-European, rounded consonants and glottal stops; swatches of clothing, black leather, brown corduroy, periwinkle sock hat, a silver ring on a pale white finger attached to a body obscured from sight by other bodies, bodies, bodies, jewelry, earrings; the smell of unlaundered clothing, the unmistakable (and welcome) smell of Tide with Bleach Alternative, Polo Sport, Jean Nate, Sunflowers, carnauba wax, mothballs, dried marinara, feta cheese, various smells male and female, private, sexual, animal, the private zone occluded by proximity.
The bus stopped unexpectedly, too quickly, tipped to starboard, and the hydraulic doors opened, and one of the rear stairwell riders would have fallen face-first into a snowdrift three feet down if two frailish women hadn’t caught his arms and held him in. The girl with the lei held a half-empty bottle of water.
Man: “How much you want for that water?”
Lei Girl: “This is a three-dollar bottle of water!”
Man: “I’ll give you five.”
Lei Girl: “No way!”
I stopped to eat on Main Street at the Red Banjo Pizza Parlour, one of the few downtown restaurants where a reservation is not required. I waited forty-five minutes for a table, then landed a four-seater by myself. A few minutes later an Australian man asked if he could sit with me. “Sure,” I said. “Bloody great,” he said. He leaned over the table, put his mouth close to my ear, and said, “How old you gotta be to drink in this state?”
“Twenty-one,” I said.
“Tell you what, mate,” he said. “I’m nineteen. You order a pitcher of beer and split it with me, and I’ll pay for it. I haven’t had a good drink since I got to the states.”
I darted. I danced. I avoided. I have ethical problems with buying beer for underage drinkers, even underage drinkers from parts of the world where an eight-year-old can hoist a pint. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m an actor,” he said. “My name is Maxwell Kasch. I play Shorty in Chrystal.”
I want to say that I’m a principled person. I want to say I’m not into all that celebrity stuff, that I find ordinary people more interesting than the actors who portray them, that I’m callous and a bit jaded and not at all given to elbow-rubbing, that I’m above it all. But offered the company of a very obscure underage actor in a Billy Bob Thornton vehicle (and okay, it is one of the best movies in the festival) I relent, I give in, I sell my moral birthright for a pitcher of watered-down, 4 percent Utah beer. We eat pizza and sip the beer and debate the relative merits of buzz—both the film-industry kind and the beer-industry kind—and Maxwell displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the foreign films showing at Sundance, most of which he has already seen in Australia. He is a people-magnet. People from Los Angeles stop by to say hello, people from Melbourne, people he has never met and who have no idea who he might be. I thank him for the beer. “No worries,” he says.
A street party has developed on Lower Main, two blocks away. The Long Winters, a cover band with a keyboardist who is a dead ringer for Jack Osbourne, play fairly competent rock-and-roll. Three children in pastel snowsuits are dancing to “Runnin’ with the Devil.” The rest of the people, me included, are dancing just to keep warm. It is ten degrees Fahrenheit, and dropping. Later, I examine my legs, and find them chapped pink with cold.
The music winds down and a drum circle forms behind me. The snowsuited children run to join it, and their parents rush to keep up. The children dance winding dervish spins around the drummers, and other people join in, too. Some are stereotypical drum-circle dancers—hippies, white people with dreadlocks, ski-cap hackysack types—but people with ties are dancing, too, and beautiful women, and bundled-up men with gray hair. A djembe dangles between a percussionist’s legs, hanging from a rope tied around his waist, and he beats the contrapuntals with palms and fingertips, and even though these instruments are purely rhythmic, their timbres, and the dancing, and the motion, and the sound of the wind through the street, all of it is suggestive of melody, and I can hear the music in my head, snaking through the current of beats and bodies, and so I join in the dancing, too, and close my eyes and enjoy the shadow movement of the streetlights across my eyelids.
The sensory wash of that experience was the inverse of the feeling evoked by 15, the late-night film at Holiday Village Cinema I. Five fifteen-year-old Singaporean gangsters reenact the chaos and sorrow of their existence, and writer-director Royston Tan is completely willing to follow them into the dark places—contemplated suicide at the edge of monstrous skyscrapers, heroin smuggled in the stomach cavity by swallowing condoms full, bloody underground brawls, violent homoerotic exploration birthed from a cavernous loneliness, dressings-down by alcoholic fathers, betrayals and disturbing loyalties, Asian techno gangsta chants, canings by schoolteachers, despair and emptiness and long, idle solitary stretches without hope. 15 is drenched in color that is somehow both washed-out and vivid, and the narrative never threatens to become linear. These lives know only fragmentation, and video games, and pornography, and animation—these are incorporated, too. The government of Singapore, which helped finance 15, also banned the film in its original cut. What disturbed the censors was not so much the violence and explicitness of the film. What bothered them was the exposure of the hidden underclass of a society that regulates disorderly conduct by beating offenders with canes. The boys in the story are the undereducated Mandarin-speaking caste, separated from the English-speakers in a bizarre “merit-based” intellectual apartheid, thrust together into a country packed into a city crammed onto an island, with a population density that makes Manhattan seem like a stretch of Kansas prairie by comparison.
By the end of the credit roll, half the audience had left the theater. Roystan Tan stood at a microphone and said, “Any questions?” I was surprised by the thin slope of his body, his gentle nature, the kindness of his eyes. Those who left early must have taken 15 for a Pulp Fiction trip, a gratuitous orgy of violence for the sake of the voyeur. But as Royston Tan described his process of collaboration with his five gangsters, his yielding to their ideas about framing and editing and color correction, I was thinking about the transformative power of simply letting voices be heard. I was thinking about the ways that the convergence of sounds and images and language can evoke sadness and empathy.
On the long walk from theater to Parking Lot G, I dropped my notebook. It landed on a patch of snow half-melted by black road salt. When I picked it up, the pages were covered with a thin muddy film of brown speckled black with ash.