Scenes from an Old Haunt

What I always find interesting about visiting a city where you once lived, is that it inevitably feels the same. There may be new buildings, old landmarks may have disappeared, but no place evolves so rapidly that it is rendered unrecognizable. There is a persistent familiarity that stamps out all the nostalgic crabgrass that's grown up around your rememberings. Nostalgia can only really take root when it's filling in for something that's gone forever.

But when you're walking on the same street, hearing the same sounds, smelling the same smells, essentially experiencing a place just as you did hundreds of times before, there's no romanticizing it. It is as it always was.

This week I'm re-experiencing San Francisco; one of the many cities that's let me reside in it for a spell. I left its foggy views and steep streets for LA exactly two years ago. Though I've been back since, this is the first time my return is the result of following a newly discovered thread, rather than the usual wrestling with loose ends. Yet even though I'm here for strangely different reasons, San Francisco still feels the same.

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to my old neighborhood, simply because I'm sentimental about things like that.

I felt silly taking pictures of things I saw every day as I lived here. I did it mostly for my sestra, since it'd once been her neighborhood too, and I knew she'd like some current images to put with her wistful memories.

And after my departure, so will I.

View from the top. My once-upon-a-time flat.

Kasey and I've actually sprinted portions of this hill. It's amazing what you're capable of when you're desperate not to miss the #1 bus.

Whole Foods, how I miss thee, let me count the ways.

I think the park near Grace Cathedral may be the only place in SF where a person can feel perfectly safe on a swing in the middle of the night.

Pick-Up Lines Get Creative

"Would you like to come live on our communal farm in the Catskills?"

Okay, so in fairness, this was not the first thing Vince and Alex said to Dianne and me when they first sat down next us. That question came later in the conversation, but what a memorable opening line it would have been.

Instead, Vince (right, advertiser for Jimmy Buffet) and Alex (left, painter, as in arteeest, who speaks with a French accent despite spending all but five of his formative years in Virgina) simply asked if they could sit down, offering as an their opener: "there's two of you and two of us." So there was.

But Vince and Alex turned out to be fun, entertaining company.

Alex taught us some new camera techniques.

Ahhh, you'd never guess that Vince and Dianne were anything other than a seasoned couple.

And then they brought up the Upstate New York kibbutz. We could go in on a huge farm for a mere million with them and two other couples. We would farm, create, and have late-night discussions about philosophy, art, and the meaning of life.

Dianne said no. I said I'd think about it.

A Day in the LIfe

So what has a day in the life of Ms. Spice been during the Sundance Film Festival? Crazy, exhausting, bone-chillingly cold, fun, unexpected, and packed. Thus explains the multitude of reasons for the spottiness of my posts.

To illustrate, what follows is (some) of what went on in the just a single day of my fete week. I write as I defrost under my silly Volkswagen swag blanket, in spite of a six o'clock alarm (it is now about two), to wake me for the last showing of Rocket Science at eight-thirty. (Never did I dream I would do such things to see a movie. I guess frigid temperatures and being in close quarters with film geeks makes Cinemaphilia contagious). Enjoy.

First activity of the day: screening of The Documentary Spotlight, aka, short docs. Three of which left me emotionally sick.

The first film was about a kid obsessed with horror and pro-wrestling. He taped everything he ever did with these two passions, and lucky Sundance audience us, we got to watch. We saw the time he had a light bulb smashed into his forehead during a wrestling match, and were treated to clips from his ghastly homemade horror films. I was absolutely nauseous by the end of the short. It was sorrowful enough to see a kid so vacant and distant, but his attempt to fill the void with blood and guts was sickening.

Next up, a silent slaughter of tuna fish caught in the nets of Portuguese fishing boats. The grand finale shows thousands of fish violently struggling to breath, this then trickles off into sporadic flapping, finally they focus in on the one last flicker of life, till it stops. The grotesque homage thus sealing my perspective on the whole notion of fish-eating vegetarians: rubbish.

Third on our emotional havoc tour, Freeheld, the story of a woman dying of lung cancer, battling to get her pension left to her partner, Stacy. We hear everyone talk about how lovely this woman is, see it for ourselves, watch her waste away, and then attend her funeral. The only light grey spot is that she gets her wish about the pension.

And in a fourth film, we see a girl taking self-portraits with her still and video cameras at various places all over the world. This is juxtaposed with scenes from Bush protests. There's never an explanation of the rhyme or reason for any of this. According to the credits, the girl didn't even have anything to do with filming the protests. Um, okay.

Although, it may have inspired me to take my own picture as I left the theater. I'd caught my reflection in a mirror, and I looked so unwell. My eyes seemed pained. I felt awful. They should have titled the shorts montage "Spotlight on Visceral Emotions Films can Trigger."

Next on the movie docket: a failed attempt to get into the first screening of Manda Bala. The man at the box office told us not to feel bad, "even the executive producer's father couldn't get a ticket." I'm not sure if knowing this helped or not.

We whiled our time away from the cold, anticipating the release of wait list numbers for the Korean film, Driving with My Wife's Lover . When out of nowhere, Dianne pulled out this globe and casually put it on her lap; as if there was nothing remotely peculiar about the discovery, and that setting it on one's lap was just what one does with a globe in such a situation. I suppose, as a prologue to our foreign film, her prop was appropriate.

Finally, with pink numbers in hand, it was off to dinner. While waiting to be seated at The Easting Establishment, we met two delightful gentlemen who ended up inviting us to share their table. My fantastic dinner companions were (from left to right) filmmaker Jon, attorney Dianne, and screenwriter Michael.

Jon directed Urbania, a previous Sundance feature. And Michael wrote the screenplay for one of my absolute favorite movies, Contact (among other things). His current project is a little picture that's coming out in July called Harry Potter.

Back into the cold to wait and see if we can get into our Korean flick, which we do!

We ended up sitting in back of the director and next to his interpreter (pictured here during the film's Q&A).

After the movie we headed to a party overlooking Main Street thrown by the "Friends of Tom."

The moose statue across the street was our target for snowballs: the perfect use for all that white stuff on the balcony.

We danced all night (except for the time-out we took for a limbo contest).

Ms. Anne with Justin, Jeff, and miscellaneous others.

The infamous Tom and the top of my head.

A last look at the slowing revelry below before our departure.

Movies Encapsulated

By next year I will be a volunteer veteran! Thanks to my discovery of press screenings (where there's no need for those pesky, previously blogged about, vouchers), I'll be able to see more movies than I previously thought. On a space-available basis, Sundance lets volunteers into its theaters showing back-to-back films for the media. It is much easier to snag a seat when you're competing with folks who are on the job, as opposed to those who are doing something for sheer pleasure.

That said, here are my Cliff's notes thoughts on a couple of the things I've seen.

Driving with My Wife's Lover: a (south) Korean film. Guy hires a cabbie he knows is sleeping with his wife to take him on a four hour journey to another city. A bit hard to follow at times (even with subtitles). Some cool cinegraphic moments (especially involving a watermelon truck that's lost its cargo). But mostly, just too darn long. I was bored by the end. We were at the film's first screening, along with the director (shown left) and he said it started out as a short film. It should have stayed that way.

Chasing Ghosts is a documentary about 80's video game champions. Due to my complete disinterest in video games, I probably never would have seen this movie, but I thought I was walking into something else, and I'm glad I did.

If Napoleon Dynamite has a documentary counterpart, this is it. The video game champions we meet are outright characters, and certainly products of the 1980's. They speak on subjects like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong with utter gravitas. To them, video games are heavy, deep, almost-philosophical matters. The gamers are completely naive to how absurd their comments come across to mere neophytes. Hilarious at times, generally well-constructed story-wise, and managing to hit upon deeper themes of success, finding acceptance, and the hardships of being a has-been, this is an enjoyable documentary I would recommend to even those who never touched an Atari.


Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Fantastically brilliant. That is what I have to say about Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), Jason Kohn's documentary film entry at Sundance.

Even though I've now managed to see several films, this is the only one I felt compelled to write about sooner rather than later.

The documentary is about life in Brazil; the kidnappings, the rich-poor gap, the plastic surgery, the politics. And it's all held together with an examination of a frog farm's inner-workings, money laundering warts and all (sounds strange, but visually, it works).

With it's rich hues, flawless shots, compelling story-line, deft analogies, and thumping Brazilian music, Manda Bala has more in common with a summer blockbuster than your run-of the-mill PBS special, only with even more moments of gasp-out-loud, mouth-dropping incredulousness. I mean, good hell! People are getting their ears cut off.

When this thrilling, artistically executed, film is finished, you come away with an unforgettable overview of a very real, very violent Brazilian culture. Honestly, if every documentary film were like this, the genre would have more of an audience and more respect. As far as documentary films go, this is exactly the kind of work I dream of producing, the same type of piece I create in my mind's eye.

So afterward I talked to Mr. Jason Kohn (who is lovely, witty, and extremely approachable) and asked if I could be a part of his next project. He was very flattered. Amenable to the idea, and took my card.

But then he said, "My next project will be a feature. It won't be a documentary."

Oh, Jason. Why?

Sigh. I'd felt so close.

Vision Points North

There it is: Park City's Main Street at the tail-end of dawn. Full of promise with all of the potentially-great movies to see.

And here I am. Properly dressed for a cold day of dodging in and out of venues showing interesting, artistic, independent films (head-to-toe black with furry Eskimo-ish boots as a practical flourish).

And the number of films I saw today: none.

Curses to that orange credential around my neck. It had been my key to just about every door needing unlocking over the past few days. Now I watched my golden ticket turn to fool's gold; I'd forgotten that to be admitted into films, I also needed vouchers, which naturally I'd left in a neat little stack back in Salt Lake.

I tried my best to be my charming self and talk my way through this obstacle, but was told there were absolutely no exceptions. Now, like everyone else, I was barred from entry, permitted only to look longingly at the building from the outside.

Retreating in disappointment, I boarded the shuttle back to the main drag, where I met a group who had also given up on movies for the afternoon (by choice, however, not by force). The motley crew hailed from all over, didn't really know each other, but were bound by a common denominator: Tom (who was not present).

Even though I was not a friend of this mysterious Tom, his entourage kindly adopted me into their fold. We hit a couple of places on Main Street and then bided the rest of our time together in The Leaf Lounge.

My credential redeemed itself that evening when it gained me access to The Music Cafe.

I stopped in because I'd heard Rosie Thomas was on the docket. I'm not a die-hard Rosie Thomas fan (and was shocked to learn that, while her singing is silky and rich, her speaking voice has more in common with a Powder Puff Girl), but her song Wedding Day has earned a slot on my life's soundtrack. Whenever I'm in the process of a move (which is often) it gets a lot of playtime.

To me, the song is about moving on, from, whatever. Thinking you were right, learning you were wrong, then getting on with it. Having the courage to pack up and go, specific destination unknown, save the vow of being true to yourself and making the most of the open road before you. The song's core idea being that showing such commitment to yourself is as exhilarating as any wedding day.

"I'm gonna drive over hills, over mountains, and canyons," she sang, "I'm gonna be carefree and let nothing pass me by never ever again."

I thought hearing this song live, the artist mere feet before me, was an appropriate cap off to this day. The day itself a celebration in microcosm of my presence at this festival, right down to the mountainous commute.

I'm here only because my initial destination was pulled out from under me, forcing the implementation of an uncharted plan where whole new, previously unimagined, sets of opportunities continue to avail themselves. And there ahead is the future, the end-point unforeseen, full of promise with its myriad of potential possibilities.

But the truly amazing part is that even when something smallishly grand happens, like today, I can see how it was a direct result of staying committed to that nagging internal compass of mine. And knowing the experiences I would have missed cruising down another highway, makes me feel, for a moment, that I've arrived.

The Sundance Shuffle: Let the Films Begin Already!

While the media froze outside, obligated to find something to send back to their stations on this first official day of Sundance (the photographer above resorted to shooting playbills), I spent most of the day deep underground in the so-called "Rabbit Hole" of Sundance's latest addition: New Frontier. The venue is dedicated to art (my personal first love in the humanities), and this being Sundance, specifically art created with video.

Today was the venue's inaugural reception. Fortunately my shift ended just as the party started.

Ring-around-the-roses. Cameras (and people) watch these spinning kaleidoscopes of paper doll-like cut outs, which then project what they see (well, hopefully not the people) onto monitors outside the room.

I was fascinated by this video screen that was like a mirror on LSD; a collage of fragments that have come into the monitor's view.
According to a festival staffer, it's the artist's representation of memory. Passing, random, incomplete; lots of recent-past in the forefront, but you never know when something long-forgotten will pop up.

I could be part of this display for the rest of its lifetime.

I absolute loved these chandelier-like light fixtures made of crumpled plastic bottles. I spent time peering into them, trying to figure out how I could replicate something similar of my own.

Later, unwittingly, I ended up talking to the artist, David Cooney, and we quite hit it off. When I found out he was the creator of the pieces I so-loved I gushed sincerely and demanded a picture.

He said even though the Sundance Festival Guide dubs them "ECO lamps," it's because he was put on the spot for a name. He's looking for something better to call them. (How about "Inspired Recycling"? At least, that's what I would have titled mine).

I stopped in at "the place to be." (One guess as to the lounge's name). But honestly, not my scene. Too-loud music, just the amber stuff to drink, and people munching on french fries (julienned and served in cute paper cones, but french fries nonetheless).

The lounge's theme was "drink your weight in swag," which meant after you drained a glass of beer, you could take it home in a beautiful, embroidered, black velour bag with a tassel.

Some people were taking the collecting very seriously.