Saturday, January 26, 2013

Memories of My First Sundance

Some quick fun facts about me:
  1. I have never paid money for bottled water.
  2. Despite living minutes away from some of the most popular ski resorts in the country, I have been skiing exactly once.
  3. Despite living minutes away from the site of one of the five biggest film festivals in the world, I had never been to a Sundance screening until earlier this week.
My reasoning for never having attended a Sundance screening is a topic worthy of its own post, so for now I'll just share some of my random thoughts and memories from spending my Martin Luther King Holiday covering a film festival in Park City:

  • 8:30am: Crouching at the back of my Honda Accord in sub-zero weather at Slim Olson's in Bountiful, trying to decide whether the air hose attached to my back tire was inflating it or deflating it, wondering whether I really wanted to drive up to Park City and spend the next 15+ hours covering the reputed mayhem that is the Sundance Film Festival.
  • 9:15am: Driving blindly through the parking lot at the Park City Marriott as sunlight glares through my windshield, lucking into a free parking space on the street right outside, then strolling into Festival Headquarters and picking up my media pass at the press credential desk, where I once again got that strange feeling that someone was giving my opinions credibility.
  • 9:25am: Walking through the lobby and making eye contact with a cute girl with green eyes, then stopping outside and debating whether I should go back in and try to talk to her, even though she was wearing snow pants and was obviously about to head out on the slopes and wouldn't be interested in going to a screening of a random movie based on a Jack Kerouac book, though you never know until you try, and she did have a lanyard on, so she could be press herself, and so I went back inside the lobby, where instead I was approached by a random red-haired woman who thought she had met me at a party the night before.
  • 9:45am: Kicking myself for not getting out the door fifteen minutes earlier so I could both get my press credential early and still have time to catch a warm-up screening before "Big Sur" instead of lingering around the Yarrow Hotel lobby killing time reading over each Sundance entry synopsis seventeen times in the press guide.
  • 11:30am: Filing into my first screening of the day at the Yarrow Theater, finding a seat, then being approached by a guy named Jack who also thought he had met me somewhere before. (He actually looked up a picture of the person he was thinking of on his phone and showed it to me so I wouldn't think he was crazy.)
  • 12:30pm: Watching actor Jean-Marc Barr (playing Jack Kerouac in "Big Sur") chain-smoke his way through virtually every second he spent in the incredible natural wonder that is Big Sur National Park, then remembering my own brief experience in Big Sur: trying to sleep on a picnic table in one of the park's campgrounds halfway through my road trip up the Pacific Coastal Highway in the summer of 2009.
  • 1:15pm: Wondering if the copy of Entertainment Weekly that I had impulsively grabbed from a stack in the press tent was complimentary or if I was supposed to have paid for it, then sheepishly double-checking with the amused festival volunteer on my way out of the theater. 
  • 1:30pm: Intentionally sitting in the sun at my booth at Taco Maker because it was so much nicer than the crappy cold and inversion I'd been dealing with in Salt Lake, noting that Taco Maker chooses to call its Tator Tots "Potato Gems" instead of Tator Tots (or Mexi Fries like Taco Time), then debating whether I should feel dumb for eating at Taco Maker during my one day in Park City.
  • 2:15pm: Being herded into the press tent outside the Holiday Theaters, feeling a little like I was about to become some kind of human entry in a State Fair-style livestock display, then talking to Duncan, a lawyer from LA who has been attending Sundance for two decades and looks a little like a younger Robert Redford (though I'm sure every red-haired guy looks a little like Redford during Sundance) while waiting in line for the press screening of "Manhunt," a documentary about the search for Osama bin Laden.
  • 3:30pm: Nodding off in the mid-afternoon screening of "Manhunt," then hearing the gasp in the audience when someone indicated that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month, even though another someone indicated that 183 was the number of dunks, not the number of actual sessions, whatever that means. 
  • 4:45pm: Weighing whether to try to squeeze in an extra screening--in this case, "Blackfish," a documentary about a killer whale in captivity that has either killed some of its handlers or killed some of the people watching it perform, I can't recall--even though the film was already spoken for by one of my D-News colleagues, then deciding to use the break to take a crowded bus downtown then stroll up and down Historic Main Street and take some pictures of "the Sundance scene."
  • 6:30pm: Taking a few shots of a couple of girls who had been stopped by a crew from the Sundance Channel for an interview while a car drove by and a passenger called out the window, "CELEBRITEEEEES! CELEBRITEEEES!"
  • 7:00pm: Sitting by myself at a four-person booth in The Bandit Grill, eating what was listed as a half-pound hickory burger but only seemed to be 1/4-1/3 pounds of angus beef, wondering if the guy at the table next to me is really the supporting character actor I think he is, or if I am just assuming that everyone in Park City is famous, and secretly regretting the fact that I didn't do any research to figure out the best places to eat in town before I drove up.
  • 9:15pm: Standing in the press tent waiting for the 10pm "Sound City" screening, weighing the prospects of driving home through Parley's Canyon at 12:30am,  and wondering if I should just bail and tell my editor that I would write a review of "Manhunt" instead, since I really don't know if Deseret News readers are all that psyched to learn about the studio in LA where Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" were recorded, even though I kind of am.
  • 9:55pm: Deciding to stick it out with "Sound City," then changing seats multiple times before the movie began when the middle-aged woman in the white fur coat on the row behind me starts coughing like crazy and sniffing like she was inhaling either cocaine or boogers or both and either way I didn't want to get sick for the third time in a month or take the chance of her husband/partner/parole officer kicking my chair for the fourth time while I was just trying to enjoy a documentary about a nice little recording studio in Los Angeles.
  • 10:10pm: Watching the album montage at the beginning of "Sound City" and thinking that pretty much every album released between 1974 and 1994 was recorded there, then laughing when interview segments with rock gods like Neil Young and Tom Petty and Mick Fleetwood were suddenly followed by an interview segment with Barry Manilow.
  • 10:45pm: Noting that director Dave Grohl just spent fifteen minutes on the technical details of the Sound City mixing board, and thinking that only diehard music fans will embrace the "Sound City" documentary in its entirety, but that the fans would have to be OK with R-rated language, because after keeping a mental tab on the number of F-bombs in "Sound City" so I could determine what rating estimate to use in my review, I had to give up after about two dozen.
  • 12:15am: Driving home through Parley's Canyon after 15 hours in Park City, safely and happily, glad I stuck around for "Sound City," but also glad that my long first ever day at Sundance was over.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dating and Driving, No. I

I recently discovered a curious flaw in my driving habits. When I want to change lanes in moderate traffic, I don't flip on my turn signal and wait for my fellow drivers to create an opening for me. Instead, I wait for the natural ebb and flow of traffic to create an opening, then I flip on my turn signal and move over.

As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of agitation when my fellow drivers fail to ebb and flow the way I want them to. At this point, I have to speed up, slow down, utter a few choice words, and finally flip on my signal and force my way over, all the time cursing the oblivious driver who was happy to pass the day away sitting comfortably in my blind spot.

It occurs to me that I behave the same way socially. If I see a girl at a party that I want to meet, I don't "flip on my turn signal" and go meet her. Instead I wait for the ebb and flow of the party to create a natural opening, which rarely if ever happens. Usually the girl leaves the party, or I wind up forcing some kind of hasty introduction which goes badly.

Clearly the lesson has something to do with being assertive in life, and one of these days I'll get around to learning it. In the meantime I can take solace in the fact that I'm not the first person to connect my driving life to my dating life.

Several years ago when I was in grad school, I came back to Salt Lake one weekend to pick up a pair of glasses I had ordered. Since I was in town for a couple of days, I decided to attend church at my old university ward on the University of Utah campus. As I made my way up 400 south Sunday morning, I seemed to hit every possible red light, often at the last second, and it became clear that without a break or two I would be late for sacrament meeting.

I really hate walking in late for sacrament meeting. So whenever the light would change to green, I would stomp on the gas and try to squeeze past the next light. This never happened, and after an extremely agitating run, I finally made it to the Institute building and just barely slipped into the meeting on time. It was a fast and testimony meeting, so surrounded by a number of familiar faces, I settled back into my bench to enjoy what my old friend Nathan used to refer to as, "Open Mic at the U32."

About two or three testimonies in, a girl I had never seen before got up at the pulpit and began to weave a tale of frustration and fury worthy of the most scorned of women. Apparently on her way up to campus that morning she had encountered the most prideful and arrogant driver she could possibly imagine. This pompous fool was so determined to show off for his fellow commuters that he insisted on peeling out at every green light, just to show everyone how great he was.

Imagine the nerve.

Try as she might, after a couple of intersections this poor victim couldn't resist temptation any longer, and she began trying to race this highway menace and put him in his place. But her gallant effort failed as her bitter adversary continued to beat her to each red light.

"I didn't get a good look at him," she said with a weak laugh, "for all I know he's sitting in the chapel right now."

But here is where the story got good. To the bemusement of the congregation, this girl's testimony made the impressive leap from driving angst to dating angst, and she described in vivid, near-hysteric detail how her road rage triggered a host of pent-up emotions that had been boiling under the surface. Near tears, the girl poured her heart out into the microphone about how the whole experience stirred up her frustrations of being single, and ultimately served as a reminder that God still loved her in spite of all her imperfections.

Finally at the end of all this she blurted out, "I'm really not a man hater...I promise."

Good to know. For once in my life, I guess I was the oblivious driver.

I was tempted to get up next and tell the innocent story of how my desire to get to church on time served as a heartwarming reminder of why God still loved me. But I didn't. I may come up with mean ideas, but I rarely if ever follow through on them.

Besides, even back then I understood how dumb things like a morning commute could make me stress out about my dating life.

I agree. I'm also pretty sure He and the apostles would use the HOV lane instead of blocking the fast lane.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Living a Hands-On Life

The more time I spend writing film reviews on my iMac desktop or polishing pixels from my latest digital photo shoot, the more I appreciate building things with my own two hands.

Example #1: Back in the 8th Grade I took a metalshop class as a follow-up to the woodshop class we were required to take the previous year. My woodshop efforts were weak at best, but in metalshop, we got to use welding torches, which gave us motivation. I don't know that I've ever been as proud of a gift as I was of the six cast-iron hot dog cookers I gave my mother that Christmas. Of course, I can't think of a more misdirected gift, either.

Example #2: Six months ago I moved into a loft apartment in Bountiful. It's been my first experience without roommates, and a quick lesson in all the day-to-day items I'd been taking for granted. I mean, I was happy to contribute the Velvet Elvi, but I always just assumed that someone else would bring the microwave. Furniture was another of those items, and so I fled to that great panacea of affordable furniture to fill in the gaps: IKEA.

I can't describe the odd sense of satisfaction I derived from following a set of painfully simple instructions to assemble a basic easy chair and shelf unit. They can't have required more than a second grade education to build, but the process of tightening bolts and screwing together pre-fab sections of wood-like furniture parts made me feel productive in the same way that knocking doors made me feel productive in the mission field. It may not have been the most challenging or effective of tasks, but it FELT good.

Then last week I ramped up the stakes and ordered a new computer desk from Office Max. No more simple Swedish furniture for me! It was time to play with the big boys. Of course, my first task was finding a way to drag the box of unassembled parts up two flights of stairs into my apartment. (I guess doorstep delivery is a relative term at FedEx.)

From there, the next item of business was to open the box, scatter its contents around my living room, and decide whether to make lunch instead. I shrugged and told myself that I would at least start the process, then take a break to eat. But at some point "start the process" became "build the whole thing," and a few hours and a skipped meal later, I had scored a few more points on my man card.

I guess this manly impulse to build things is the same thing that convinced me to join a framing crew the summer after I finished grad school, or that made me feel so good about helping my uncle install a new water heater over the holidays. As incredible as technology can be, I think it can remove us from experience as much as it can expand it.

That's also why I think no matter how convenient it is to load thousands of books onto a digital tablet, or how how easy it is to load news onto a website in real time and bypass the printing process, there will always be a place for books and newspapers in some form. Not because of the sense of satisfaction that binders and printers enjoy; rather, because living too much of our lives through LED screens can deny us of one of our five senses. Now, your guess is as good as mine what they will look like, or if they'll be nothing more than a nostalgia item like the sports almanac in "Back to the Future II." But one way or another, the physical experience will endure.

Not that I'll have a problem buying pre-assembled furniture in the future. Or letting someone in coveralls haul it up my stairs.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The 10 Most Embarrassing Movies in My DVD Collection

In a world pushing to consolidate our belongings onto digital devices as small as humanly possible, I'm still kind of old fashioned when it comes to my media library. When I go to a friend's house, I still like to see a row of books to browse, or a line of CDs to judge maliciously. But such judgments have to be at least a bit reserved, because as I look at the rows of DVDs next to my TV, I realize that in my heart I am as human and flawed as the next guy.

Here are the 10 most embarrassing movies in my DVD collection, presented in the order I felt like writing about them, along with my token attempt to justify their purchases:

1. Arthur 2: On the Rocks

"Arthur" is a classic early-80s comedy about a spoiled rich-boy drunkard that was made before it occurred to anyone that making alcoholism funny might not be the best idea. "Arthur 2" is one of those movies that is only watchable at about 2AM on cable when you absolutely refuse to go to bed. It also happened to come in a "Comedy Double Feature" DVD set I picked up for $10 a while back in order to get the original. Verdict: Sort of justified.

2. Romeo + Juliet

You wouldn't think a guy who had taught English classes for 10 years would be embarrassed to have a copy of "Romeo + Juliet" on his movie shelf, even if it is the Baz Luhrmann version. But as a red-blooded American male, I do wonder what kind of impression it will make. I got it from my sister when we divided up her Baz Luhrmann boxed set. She kept "Strictly Ballroom" and the special features DVD, and I got "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge." Verdict: Kind of, sort of justified.

3. Mars Attacks

There's no reason to be apologetic about being a Tim Burton fan. I even kind of enjoyed "Dark Shadows." Still, even longtime Burton fans would probably admit that "Mars Attacks" wasn't his best effort. But there I was in Logan one cold night in grad school, determined to expand my DVD collection, and "Mars Attacks" was only $9. I don't know; maybe I should have kept browsing. Verdict: Not justified.

4. Dune

Prime example of why sometimes seeing the movie before the book ain't always a bad idea. Most fans of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel despise what David Lynch did to the source material. But I just remembered a cheesy Toto soundtrack, a laughable blue space-speedo for Sting, and lots of outer space surfer-dudes riding on the backs of giant sand worms. So I bought it. On blu-ray. About five months ago. Verdict: Probably not justified, but I really don't care.

5. Serendipity

Just about the time I hit puberty, "Innerspace" left me with a deep appreciation of the music of Sam Cooke and an even deeper crush on Meg Ryan. Ten-odd years later, "Serendipity" left me with a deep appreciation of the music of Nick Drake and a crush on Kate Beckinsale. It helped that the male lead was John Cusack, who my subconscious has seen as a big brother figure ever since his supporting role in "Stand By Me." Add it all up and tack on some dating drama of my own from that stretch, and "Serendipity" landed on my shelf permanently. Verdict: Justified. No really, justified!

6. Elizabethtown

"Elizabethtown" is widely viewed as one of Cameron Crowe's lesser films, and it offers Kirsten Dunst haters plenty of ammunition. But in spite of the romantic comedy elements, "Elizabethtown" is more a story of a young man learning about where he came from, and about the father he wishes he'd known better. And it finishes off with a fantastic road trip sequence, scored by some great Crowe selections. "My Father's Gun" may not do for "Elizabethtown" quite what "Tiny Dancer" did for "Almost Famous," but it did enough to get it on my shelf. Verdict: I don't care what you think. Justified!

7. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

It's true that I own the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy (two times over, if you count my new blu-ray set). It's also true that I recently wrote an article for the Deseret News explaining why I felt the prequels fell far short of the originals. As much as the critic in me would like to tell you that the first time I saw "Phantom Menace" I was terribly insulted and never returned, the truth is I probably saw that movie in all its Jar-Jar-infested glory about a dozen times in the summer of 1999. If it helps, I can't actually remember watching the DVD since I bought it. Verdict: I am a sad, conflicted human being.

8. Spider-Man 3

I think I was more exciting about getting a new release DVD for five bucks than I was excited about getting a copy of "Spider-Man 3." Honestly, I liked the first two better, and I don't own either of them. But in its defense, SM3 wasn't quite as bad as some would have you believe. I actually enjoyed the James Brown sequence.

(OK...fine. I just re-watched the clip. That was pretty bad.) Verdict: Not justified.

9. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End

Another example of me owning a sequel but not an original. I liked the first Pirates movie, had no desire to see the second (I think I caught it on cable), and was only interested in seeing the third because I heard that Keith Richards would make a cameo as Jack Sparrow's dad. So when my buddy Bob offered me his copy because he couldn't see his kids having any interest in the film, I accepted his gracious gift. And haven't watched it since. Verdict: Kind of, sort of justified.

10. Pearl Harbor

If you're only going to own one Michael Bay film...this probably isn't the best choice. From the ridiculous love story tacked loosely onto an American tragedy to the sweeping adult-contemporary flagship single from Faith Hill, "Pearl Harbor" was one of the most obvious attempts to cash in on the "Titanic" formula. When I picked it up used I told myself it was just for the action scenes, and when backed into a corner I would hide behind the Beckinsale crush again. But I have to be honest here: I paid money for a bad movie. It wasn't the first time, and it probably won't be the last. Verdict: Not justified, running in slow motion away from an explosion at a low angle.