Argument outside the Yarrow Hotel press screening of The Woodsman:

Acquisitions person: “I’ve got tickets.”

Sundance press-office person: “This is a press screening. Press only. No buyers.”

Acquisitions person: “But I’ve got press tickets.”

Sundance press-office person: “We’re only letting press in.”

Acquisitions person: “This is bullshit.”

Sundance press-office person: “I’m very sorry.”

Someone has screwed up. The press screening of The Woodsman precedes the festival premiere. This makes the representatives of the distributors—Lion’s Gate, Miramax, Sony Classics, Strand, Fine Line, and so on—crazy. If one buyer sees the film before the others, that buyer may make a preemptive offer and acquire the movie without a fight, and The Woodsman is the kind of expensive-looking indie film distributors want to acquire. It has recognizable names—Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, David Alan Grier, Eve, Mos Def—and a provocative storyline. Bacon portrays a pedophile newly released from the correctional facility who is trying to reconstruct his life.

The acquisitions person is an attractive young woman in a silver coat with a cell phone semi-permanently attached to her ear. “There’s another entrance to this room,” she says, to no one in particular. She intends to sneak into the theater. The Sundance press-office staff confers:

“Are there any back entrances?”

“You gotta admire her tenacity.”

“Is this the only door?”

“Don’t let anyone back in after they leave.”

“What if they have to pee?”

“We have to let them use the bathroom.”

“You, check the theater and see if anyone’s hiding inside.”

This is very exciting. A hallway full of journalists, a group not given to demonstrable enthusiasm, sits and stands along the walls, eyes riveted to the confrontation. A newspaper writer whispers to a colleague: “Who is she with?” The colleague shrugs and asks the person next to him. No one knows. Miramax, maybe, someone says. A few minutes later, after things have cooled off, I approach the acquisitions person, and she is reluctant to give me any information.

Me: “You won’t tell me your name?”

Her: “You’ll have to clear that with the publicist.”

Me: “But you’re with Miramax?”

Her: “Maybe?”

Me: “You won’t tell me what distributor you’re with?”

Her: “Miramax.”

I think she’s telling the truth, but I’m not sure, and this must mean that she is very good at her job.

A grisly early version of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale ends with this epilogue: a woodsman splits the wolf in two with his axe and rescues a little girl from his digestive tract. What makes The Woodsman so difficult to watch is that one is never sure whether the Kevin Bacon character will turn out to be woodsman or wolf. After the credits roll, a hundred people staggered from the screening room—literally staggered. My shoulders and chest felt heavy, the same way I felt at my grandfather’s funeral, profoundly sad and thoroughly drained. I joined the procession of journalists to the snack bar, where we formed a long line of comfort-food buyers. A man from New York ordered a slice of pineapple pizza. I ordered a sugar cookie and a Coke. Nobody talked much.

I planned to see either CSA: The Confederate States of America or Word Wars, a movie about the Scrabble-obsessed, and for the first time this week I relished the evening walk from theater to theater in the bitter cold, the mind-cleansing cold. At the Holiday Village next door, the ticketless were arriving three to four hours early, and so many wanted tickets that the heated Wait List tent could not even shelter half, and so the lines snaked through the parking lots and sidewalks, and men huddled together for warmth and some of them shared cans of warm Budweiser and turned their backs to the road to avoid the scrutiny of the occasional patrol car. “All this for Scrabble,” one of the beer smugglers said. “I don’t even like Scrabble.” His friend laughed: “He can’t even spell!”

I settled for two sparsely attended press screenings at the Yarrow. A couple of years ago I stumbled onto a ballroom full of cowboys in big hats at a Marriott in Columbus, Ohio. They had gathered to purchase heifers and bulls and calves and—most prized of all—bull semen (they called it Liquid Gold) in the largest auction of its kind in the United States, the Super Bowl of Cattle Sperm Dissemination. Tonight, although I had not planned for it, I watched Russ Page, PhD, collect the stuff in Dirty Work, executive-produced by Edward Norton. The film—and this usage is a stretch; Dirty Work was shot on digital video at a nonstandard aspect ratio; it looked like television—also follows Darrell Allen, a septic-tank pumper, and Bernard Holston, an embalmer, through the mundanities of their daily chores, and what surprises and delights the viewer is the near-evangelical fervor each man brings to the job. Holston, the embalmer, sees himself as both an artist and a healer. Allen, who finished six grades of school in twelve years and who speaks with such a garbled rural Southern accent that he must be subtitled, finds in septic-tank pumping a point of intellectual superiority, a body of expertise in a field where he knows more than any of the white-collar people for whom he pumps. He traces cultural change through the items he finds intermingled with human waste. When oral contraception became popular in the late sixties, for example, the septic-tank condom supply dwindled, but with the onset of AIDS, in the mid-eighties, condoms became more popular flushing items than ever. And this: diet pills pass through most digestive tracts unabsorbed, and are therefore a waste of money and emotional energy for the overweight people who take them.

The Dirty Work press kit came enclosed in a bright red biohazard disposal bag, and everyone in attendance was given a small bottle of antibacterial hand lotion. As we exited the theater, I saw a woman squirt the lotion all over her hands. She rubbed and squirted, rubbed and squirted, until the bottle was empty, and she threw it away. And then she kept rubbing, kept rubbing, all the way to the bus stop.