memories of utah

Mon Feb-7th-2011 // Filed under: Celluloid,Random Crap

So, yeah, Sundance.

I was invited as a guest, so it was a working trip, albeit not a super busy one. Actually, when I first read the e-mail, I thought it was a joke or a scam, simply because I don’t work in film — why would they care, right? Then I found out that Sundance has this thing called New Frontier, which ”celebrates the convergence of film, art, and new media technologies as a hotbed for cinematic innovation”. Video games fit that bill pretty well, and since they had a panel on storytelling and video games, suddenly things started to make a lot more sense.

So I went over, partly for work reasons and partly because it’s Sundance — that’s a kind of a no-brainer for anybody who loves cinema. It’s a kind of a rough trip when you’re flying from Finland to Utah — I timed it, and it took almost exactly 24 hours from the time I left my home to the moment I stepped into my hotel room at the other end. I was beat, but the trip itself went pretty smoothly.

The only minor bump in the road was the Immigration guy at O’Hare in Chicago, who peered at me suspiciously and thought it important to make sure I knew that I couldn’t just dance into his damn country as I please. It was kind of ridiculous; it was obvious he wasn’t going to detain me or anything, but he had me for a few minutes and he was going to make me sing for my supper.

Which is what I did, of course. Getting clever with those guys just isn’t worth the aggravation. All you can do is play along.

“Why are you going to Utah?”

“I’m going to the Sundance Film Festival.”

“Why?”

See, right there, that was a kind of a stumper. There are so many ways I could answer that — and wouldn’t the answer be pretty obvious, anyway? It’s a film festival. Then again, dude didn’t exactly strike me as a culture vulture; perhaps it was incomprehensible to him that someone would want to do that. I just had to roll with it.

“Well, I’ve been invited to attend the festival as a guest.”

“Whose guest?”

“…the Sundance Film Festival’s.”

“Who’re you, the president of the film festival?”

Ha ha! Good one, officer! You really threw me a curve ball with that one. You’re playing me like a violin.

“No, I make video games.”

He looked blank. I elaborated.

“They have a panel on video games at the festival.”

He looked blank. I elaborated.

“I’ve been invited to take part in that panel.”

The guy peered at my passport one more time, and then seemed to lose interest.

“Okay.”

No “welcome to the United States, sir” or anything along those lines for me, but what the hell, I was free to go, having made it through a careful interrogation, which certainly would have revealed my true intentions had I been a terrorist or, worse yet, someone who intends to stick around without a Green Card. So I made it in, and after one day in-country I even managed to shake off most of the jetlag, as impossible as that felt at first.

Park City, Utah, where the festival is mostly held, is a kind of a weird place in that it seems like there’s no middle class. Park City thrives on tourism — Sundance and skiing, basically. It has a less than 8,000 people living there. That seems to consist of the people (mostly Hispanics, at a glance) who get to flip burgers and clean hotel rooms, and then you got people who seem to be pretty affluent. I’m sure that’s a horrible and inaccurate generalization, and I can’t pretend to done a lot of investigation there, but that’s the impression I got. I didn’t actually get a chance to check out the Main Street area, but I hear there are no banks there, nothing actual citizens would use — just restaurants and antique stores and whatnot, stuff for people who’re just in town for a week, at most.

In any case, it’s definitely a nice place to visit; the town’s surrounded by mountains, which makes everything pretty. When I arrived, the weather was actually almost exactly the same as in Finland when I left. It was a few degrees warmer, though, and being further south, it definitely got a lot more daylight, which led to my face getting a little sunburned. What can I say? Being a Finn, at this point in the year, I’m used to getting maybe an hour of sunlight a day, if I’m lucky. I’m just not used to it being, you know… not dark.

I was extremely impressed with how well the festival was organized. For example, just getting around the place was almost ridiculously easy. Most everything in Park City is within walking distance, but when you’re trying to get from one event to another, you’re often in a hurry — the venues aren’t next to each other, and sometimes you just have to dash from one end of the town to the other. Luckily, they have a regular shuttle service that runs all day long, and pretty late into the night, so it’s really easy to get to wherever you’re going to. What’s more, every shuttle stop also had a volunteer who announced the stops the next shuttle would take. They also asked people where they were going and told them the best way to get there. Those guys did a hell of a job, standing outside in the cold for hours at a time. I never saw a single one of them be anything but cheerful, which is absolutely more than I could manage.

My panel went pretty well. It was me, Neil Druckmann from Naughty Dog and Nick Fortugno from Playmatics. Michelle Byrd from Games for Change was the moderator, and the whole thing was put together by Lisa Osborne from Jigsaw Global. Cool people, one and all. We didn’t really know what to expect from the whole thing — Sundance is hardly known for its gamer presence, so it certainly felt possible that maybe just five people might show up. Two of them would just want a place to catch a nap in, one would be somebody’s mom, and remaining two of them wouldn’t have even the most basic understanding of anything so we’d just end up confusing them.

However, as it turned out, the room was pretty much packed, and everybody seemed to be very interested — lots of very good audience questions. We had 90 minutes, and it just flew past. I think everybody felt good about it afterwards.

Later on, I spent quite a bit of time just hanging out with Neil and Nick between movies and talking shop. I was especially interested to learn how deep an RPG background Nick has; that, obviously, gave us a lot to talk about. Both Neil and Nick are really nice and smart guys, and it really made the whole Sundance experience a lot more fun for me.

And, of course, it’s Sundance, so you gotta see some films, right? I managed to get in a solid seven.

Little Birds

Two white trash teenagers run away and to chase their dreams — mundane, non-Hollywood dreams — in Los Angeles. Things don’t turn out so great. Great performances by young actors. Admittedly, some of it feels perhaps a little too familiar, but nonetheless, it’s great to see a movie that isn’t afraid to get nasty without feeling like it’s just dragging the characters through ugly shit just to get a reaction — it felt honest and authentic. I caught a little bit of the Q&A with the director/writer, Elgin James, and a lot of this stuff echoes his own experiences with homelessness and being involved with gangs. This was also his debut film.

Another Earth

A lovely, beautifully paced science fiction movie about actions and consequences. A young lady, driving drunk, manages to crash her car into that of a composer, killing his wife and child, just as humanity has become aware of another planet on the far side of the Sun. Four years later, as an expedition to the new planet is underway, she gets out of prison and tries to live with the consequences. There’s a depth of emotion in this movie that resonated with me, and I love how it takes a frankly silly science fiction concept and uses it as a subtle catalyst to deal with something far more personal and important.

Bellflower

Probably the best movie I saw at Sundance (certainly the one I’ve spent the most time talking and thinking about afterwards), Bellflower was apparently also the cheapeast… Not that you could tell that it was made on a shoestring budget, because it looks gorgeous. Two guys are obsessed with the coming apocalypse and Mad Max: Road Warrior, and build flamethrowers and tricked-out cars to prepare for it. One of the guys meets a girl. Things get complicated, but not in the way you’d expect. Very funny, at times genuinely touching, surprising in its violence, mercifully devoid of the type of clichés my description above would make you expect, and absolutely fucking beautiful to look at.


The guy behind the film, Evan Glodell, is the kind of a creator who makes the rest of us feel like slackers – he directed it, he wrote it, he stars in it, he produced it, he edited it, and apparently also built the cars and flamethrowers. Oh, and the cameras.

Take Shelter

A family man starts seeing apocalyptic visions, and gets obsessed about the old storm shelter in his back yard. One of the creepiest movies I’ve seen in a long time – I was extremely uncomfortable watching it in all the best ways. The atmosphere is tremendously oppressive, but it never feels like it was just about cheap scares, even when we get one. To a great extent, what makes the movie is the confusion, helplessness and compulsion Michael Shannon, playing the lead, conveys. He’s a big guy who seems to hulk over the other characters, and seeing him lose control can be scary or heartbreaking, depending on the scene.

I’m not entirely sure I liked the ending — I couldn’t help thinking that it undermined the rest of the events in the movie. Still, it was certainly effective.


The Bengali Detective

Because police is so corrupt in India, people turn to private investigators instead. One such detective runs his own agency and, along with his team of assistants, investigates the sale of hair product knockoffs, an unfaithful husband and a fairly gruesome triple homicide. They also find the time to train for a dance number so they can audition for a talent show on TV.

The punchline: this is a documentary.

Knuckle

An absolutely fascinating documentary about various Irish Traveller families, their ongoing and apparently everlasting feuds over the most trivial shit, which they perpetuate by sending each other videos of themselves trash talking the other families, and periodically attempt to resolve with ritualized bare-knuckle combat. It’s a vicious circle with no end in sight. The director, Ian Palmer, spent 13 years filming these fights and interviewing the participants – no small feat, given that they are a highly insular community.

I hear HBO’s going to turn it into a TV series. Okay, then!

The Oregonian

A young woman wakes in a crashed car and attempts to get some help. She meets a bunch of weird people and shit gets scary and strange. As a movie, pretty much an incoherent and shallow piece of shit. As a weird, psychedelic and downright creepy audiovisual experience, pretty damn good. (Unfortunately, I went in expecting the former. I’m not sure which one the director was going for, and the Q&A session seemed to pretty much amount to ”I don’t care if you like it or not,” which wasn’t terribly informative. Still, as a guy who sets out to do a thing, clearly he knows his stuff.)

Let me be clear here: you may watch the trailer below, and think of it as Lynchian. I’ve heard it described as such, but that’s what The Oregonian just isn’t. Even at his most experimental, Lynch tends to be reasonably coherent, or at least atmospheric and stylish. This is like peeking inside a caleidoscope full of random shit, blood and craziness. And, you know, if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s awesome.

Hobo With a Shotgun

Rutger Hauer is the hobo! How could you not love that? But goddammit, I had to give this one a miss. I had a ticket and everything, but it was a midnight showing, and there was a problem with my plane ticket — I had to get to the airport real early the following morning just to make sure that I could straighten everything out in case it got complicated, so I decided to play it safe for once.

Of course, the next morning at check-in there was no line and I just breezed through. Figures.

So that was me and Sundance, more or less. All in all, a great trip and a wonderful experience, and it certainly made me think about doing it next year on my own dime, without having to worry about anything other than what films I want to see.


7 Comments

  1. Hey, I had a similar experience at Chicago O’Hare immigration. The immigration officer wanted to look at my luggage, which it took them maybe half an hour to find, and once he popped it open he said in a suspicious tone: “You sure read a lot of *books*, sir.” I managed to not make a snide comment and he finally let me enter the country, but, wow, *books*.

    Comment by Jouni — February 7, 2011 @ 1297066835

  2. My strategy at U.S. immigration and when dealing with the officials of dictatorships is to pretend to be a happy idiot. It makes things easier, when you don’t seem to be a serious person in any capacity…

    (Sounds like a great trip, btw.)

    Comment by Juhana — February 7, 2011 @ 1297085738

  3. I was traveling with a female friend who has black, curly hair, brown eyes, eastern-sounding surname in a Finnish passport. Got to JFK. I breezed through immigration with a “what are you studying then?” (I had a visa sponsored by the US foreign office). She was questioned for fifteen minutes, and a special officer got in the booth already to take her for further interrogation. Same visa. Apparently the officers called someone and were told to let her through. Scary, that.

    Comment by Taika — February 7, 2011 @ 1297095098

  4. I’ve had the almost same discussion at Detroit Airport. Although I managed to piss the guy off.

    “Why are you traveling to New Orleans?”
    “I’m going to a systems administration and networking conference.”
    “Why?”
    “Um, I guess because it’s what I do and the conference is there?”
    “DON’T TAKE THAT ATTITUDE WITH ME MA’AM.”

    Comment by Tuuli — February 7, 2011 @ 1297098376

  5. Yeah, it’s a kind of a classic setup for them — they ask stupid questions with completely obvious answers, and if you don’t just play along, they jump on you. I’m honestly not sure if they — or what percentage of them — really believe that it’s meaningful, that the answers they get to this kind of inane, completely superficial questioning prove something. I guess it’s great to have that kind of illusion of security/scrutiny…

    And yes, of course, I’m sure they get a lot of people trying to pull something on them, a lot of guys who don’t have a visa, or have one but intend to never leave, or whatever. Sure, I get that they are trying to deal with that, and I’m sure that’s a really challenging and thankless job.

    But if I had an evil plan to infiltrate the US, I kind of think that I would have planned for this contingency, you know, even if I wasn’t really going to attend the festival. It doesn’t take fucking Keyser Söze to wiggle your way out of that one. I could’ve said “I directed one of the movies in the festival” or “I like movies” or “I won this trip as a prize in a competition” or “it’s always been my life’s dream to see the fabled land of Mormons” and they’d still have let me continue — it’s obviously less about what you say and more about just deferentially jumping through the hoops. Hell, it’s not like they ascertained that the answer I did give them was true (even though I did actually have the invitation all printed out in my bag just in case, ’cause you never know). So what’s the point, really, other than making the first official contact I have with America an unpleasant experience?

    (I’m glad to report that it was the only unpleasant experience, though; everybody else I talked to was super friendly and polite, whether it was the TSA guys or the Sundance people or the guy who served me breakfast or whoever.)

    Comment by Mikki — February 7, 2011 @ 1297104744

  6. We speculated later, that the whole thing was to try and probe for emotional markers of some sort – they just keep you there for a moment to have a good look, and if you don’t look them in the eye etc, then you’re potentially trouble. Unless you match a racial profile, of course.

    Comment by Taika — February 8, 2011 @ 1297176253

  7. Yeah, the JFK immigration is notorious. After I got my temporary papers we made like 4 trips before I got my green card. During those 8 visits to JFK, I got friendly treatment once. No-one was particularly mean, though, but… yeah. Welcome to America, dudes.
    The festival sounds amazing! Yay Mikki!

    Comment by Eppu — February 12, 2011 @ 1297485914

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