As soon as I stepped off the plane in Salt Lake City and saw the rapper Common standing a few feet behind me at baggage claim, I knew this weekend would be surreal. But it was not until I reached Park City’s Main Street that I realized I had made it. I was at Sundance Film Festival.
Usually, the town is a quiet ski village that sleeps six months of the year. But when winter comes and Sundance begins, the town is awake and vibrant. Everyone is from everywhere but Utah. We are all either filmmakers dressed like Wes Anderson, producers in all black or undiscovered models in furs. Everyone did his or her best to be somebody this week.
I saw a young Obi-Wan climb into an Escalade on the first day.
This was the second year that Dr. Wicks, a literature professor at PLNU, organized a class for Sundance. The class is under the title Special Studies in Communication (or COM 490) and requires film analysis, reviews and a term paper. The three students in attendance this year were Veronica Woda, a media communications major; Rachel Guthro, a French major with a minor in world literature; and myself, Alexandra Taylor, a writing major.
For five days, Dr. Wicks drove us through snowy hills in an old Toyota Camry from our host home to Park City. Former PLNU professor Dr. Norm Shoemaker hosted us in his home outside the town. Every morning we attended Windrider Forum, an organized group of Christian schools that come together each year to discuss faith and cinema. It was invigorating to meet so many like-minded students from schools like Taylor University and Fuller Theological Seminary, and share our nerdy insights into what films we liked or didn’t like. Discussing films from a Christian perspective was an added bonus and not something that is always easy to find in the film industry.
As Dr. Wicks said, “I’ve found my people.”
Monday was my birthday, and it was a good one. I saw “Last Days in the Desert,” a film written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia and starring Ewan McGregor. It is a fictional account of Christ (or Jeshua in the film) during his fast in the desert. He encounters a family and witnesses a struggle between the son and father, which parallels the struggles between himself and God. McGregor plays both Christ and a demon. After the film, Windrider Forum got the director to join us in a Q&A session. I was able to ask him a question about his script.
Garcia’s film had little dialogue, and the script was only about sixty pages (about the length of an hour-long TV drama). I asked him whether his original intent was to have a lean script or whether he wrote much more and cut out the fat later. He replied that it was his intent to communicate more through setting and action. This made every word much more meaningful. He was careful not to make Jeshua appear overly insightful or prophetic, but instead he wanted to portray a Holy man who is searching and who has not quite found the answers that he does find at the end of his journey.
Best birthday ever, I’d say.
We saw about a dozen short films in the course of the week, all of which covered a diverse range of topics. It is popular now to enter a short at Sundance and hope it gets noticed so that it can get turned into a feature film. My favorites were the animated shorts because each was as strange and twisted as the next. One animated short called “Bathhouse” featured stop-motion animation, anthropomorphized animals and a chemical contamination incident.
“I wanted people to feel uncomfortable,” said the creator Niki Lindroth Von Bahr in the Q&A after.
Another highlight was “Sons My Brother Taught Me,” a film about a Lakota Sioux family living on a reservation in South Dakota. It follows a brother and sister as they navigate growing up in a reservation haunted by alcoholism.
Nineteenth century Russian author Leo Tolstoy said that there are only two types of stories: ones where a man goes on an adventure, and one where a stranger comes to town. However in this film, Johnny, the brother, struggles to decide whether to embark on a journey to Los Angeles with his girlfriend or stay with his mother and sister. It is so convincingly real that it looks like a documentary.
Tuesday night, three of us went to the midnight showing of “Slow West,” a film produced by Michael Fassbender. This happy, violent film was shot in New Zealand. It felt somewhat like a play—staged in vivid color with a brighter-than-life aesthetic. However, it seems the romantic naivette of the main character is what gets everyone into serious trouble. While it was not my favorite, I would be thrilled if this were my first film in Sundance. It will likely be one of those cult hits that fans come back to when John Maclean emerges as a widely recognized director, much like Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Finding celebrities was remarkably easy and usually an accident. The four of us sat in the back of the Egyptian Theater to watch “Listen to Me Marlon,” a retrospective documentary of the life of the actor Marlon Brando, an influential American actor who died in 2004. The film consists entirely of his own sound recordings and interviews, as well as film clips. It also features a digital reconstruction of his head that appears sporadically to narrate his story. The audience is invited into an intimacy with the actor that allowed for many emotional moments. But the most emotional moment for our friend Veronica Woda was the presence of James Franco and Jane Fonda only a row to our right. It was like looking into the eyes of a rare animal in the forest.
A not-so-rare animal was the presence of a supportive artistic community. A few of us ran into directors and producers and the wisdom they shared all contained the same principle: be generous to everyone, and always send thank-you notes.
The experience of Sundance Film Festival is one I will never forget. I will always remember how it fueled a passion in my heart for cinema not only as an art form, but also as a ministry. Those 8:30 a.m. conversations between us in our Camry on the way to Park City were a challenge to keep learning, to keep thinking critically and to keep the fellowship with each other in Christ.
So when a student in a panel asked, “What is the aesthetic of Sundance?” I thought he missed the point. Sundance is about celebrating your voice, your passion and your vision as an artist. There is no aesthetic or structure that guarantees being accepted. Create what you want to see in the world.
Alexandra Taylor’s Pick:
“Listen to Me Marlon”
Directed by Noah Baumbach
“An intimate film about a conflicted and pained man. I like the transient, memory-like aesthetic.”
Dr. James Wicks’ Pick:
Directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell*
“Violent 80’s nostalgia. It’s like Mega-Man on steroids.”
THE KID lives in a post-apocalyptic future that takes place in 1997. He is a reluctant hero who must fight the leader ZEUS along with his friend, APPLE.
Rachel Guthro’s Pick:
“Last Days in the Desert” Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
“Despite the fact that it is a fictional account of Jesus’ time in the desert, I thought that Ewan McGregor played the part of both Jesus and the demon very well.”
McGregor plays both Jesus and the demon as he encounters a family in the desert.
Veronica Woda’s Pick:
“I Am Michael”
Directed by Justin Kelly
“James Franco plays an honest portrayal of a man struggling with his sexual identity. It reminded me that religion is about love.”
James Franco plays Michael Glatze, a man who claims to have had a “homosexual problem” and turned to a very conservative form of Christianity for peace.