In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good.
And with these words, monotheism came into the world. And Judaism begat Christianity, and Mohammed begat Islam, and Christianity begat Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and the Coptics and the Mormons and the Gnostics and the Protestants; and this story is very old, the ways that great movements upon the earth are imitated and refined and narrated and splintered and restored, the way they have grown up side by side and influenced one another and birthed great visionaries who swayed converts from one aesthetic to another.
So it is with film festivals. Sundance was not first, and purists can make compelling arguments about whether or not Sundance is even best when compared with Cannes, Toronto, San Sebastian, Venice, Berlin. Even in Park City, epicenter of the American independent film community, challengers have set up camp and shown films in venues right next door to Sundance. Some—Moondance, Lapdance, Slamdunk—have folded their tents and moved away or ceased to exist altogether. Others—Roadance, Tromadance, Damah, Schmoozedance, the Freedom Cinema Festival—hang on defiantly, suffering through screenings with single-digit attendance, and, in the case of Roadance, whose truck-mounted screen must continually evade the Park City Police (and, trust me, the ACLU is on the case), no attendance at all, just the fleeting contact of eye and image somewhere in the street.
The oldest and best of these alternative festivals is Slamdance, now in its tenth year, and Slamdance is where I saw the week’s most affecting film, titled (and don’t let the name throw you) Big City Dick, which tells the story of a Seattle street musician named Richard Peterson, an emotionally impaired savant with encyclopedic recall who taught himself the trumpet and piano by studying a production LP of musical cues from the obscure early-fifties television show Sea Hunt_. As Richard released albums (_Richard Peterson’s First Album, Richard Peterson’s Second Album, Richard Peterson’s Third Album: Love on the Golf Course, Richard Peterson’s Fourth Album: The William Loose Songbook) that showcased a unique artistic vision, fusing popular music with the string-drenched melodrama of early television scoring, he became a fixture in the Seattle music scene. When Young Fresh Fellows frontman Scott McCaughey invited Richard to play trumpet on “The New Young Fresh Fellows Theme Song,” Richard balked, because Huey Lewis had invited a guest trumpeter to play on two album cuts, not one; Richard wanted his two cuts, too. In the end, Richard got his second Young Fresh Fellows cut—"TV Dream"—into which he adapted a Sea Hunt theme. When grunge exploded from Seattle’s musical ghetto and became, briefly, the most popular music in the world, Richard complained that everyone’s career was taking off while his was waning, and he made a list of complaints—Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden.
Richard grew a mohawk during the New Wave. His best friend is an elephant trunk. The Stone Temple Pilots covered Richard’s “The Second Album” on their second album. Jeff Bridges, whose father Lloyd was the star of Sea Hunt, befriended Richard after hearing him play Sea Hunt cues outside a hotel window. An architect discovered that Richard could draw schematics of every building in Seattle from memory. He designed floor-length neckties and measured the work of the tailor with a ruler. And after denying he was a Johnny Mathis stalker, Richard wrote this lyric:
Love on the golf course /
Watching Johnny Mathis play golf
These are the Rain Man things, the surprising things, the funny things. But what makes Big City Dick moving is the way that the filmmakers have used Richard’s story, which would be easy to simply exploit for laughs, to instead explore the big questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be humane. We learn that Richard’s father stopped acknowledging his existence when Richard was very young, and banished him to foster homes where he was severely beaten by his foster parents and their children, and later Richard reveals something his mother told him before she died—that he was the product of an affair with a musician, who also died before Richard could build a relationship with him. So Richard began a lifelong search for new fathers, and he found them in the Seattle broadcasting community. He began enlisting radio and television personalities (to Richard, “personality” is a rank one attains through a combination of fame and kindness) as surrogate fathers, and, surprisingly, his personalities embraced him, endured his daily visits to their radio stations and television studios, threw him a fiftieth birthday party, exchanged cards and letters, visited him in the hospital when he was sick. By the end of the film, after Richard’s family of origin has abandoned him, after his mother had died, after his health has grown poor, one begins to realize that the significant relationships in Richard’s life are those he has cultivated through the artistic impulse—his songs, his drawings, his declarations, his radio plays, his film about a singing elephant trunk who desires above all a Johnny Mathis voice. The strain upon Richard’s media friends is apparent—clearly, he operates under a self-invented set of social conventions foreign to the understanding of those around him—and yet they choose to embrace him, and love him; and the filmmakers seem to be saying that love is not an impulse, love is not a feeling, love is a choice, and often an inconvenient one made at some cost to the one who chooses to love. In this way, the Big City Dick narrative grows into something more than the viewer expects, something philosophical, given to great empathy, and, dare it be said, something quite Biblical in its scope—the whole epic sweep of life and death, love and sorrow, sacrifice, redemption, the hero’s journey and those who help along the way, the daggers thrown by antagonists and the unsolvable problem of evil: why a man with such a deep wellspring of life would be saddled with a physical affliction that would make so difficult his pathways to the life around him.