Accepted into Sundance's first online festival, Romanov creator Chris Lanier heads off to Hollywood, Utah as one of the few, the proud, the animators in a sea of live-action hype. A must read!
Chris Lanier is a San Francisco-based animator, whose animated short, Scarf Mania, was selected for the Sundance Film Festivals' inaugural online film competition. The 17 films selected for the online competition were featured on the Sundance Festival Website and displayed at the "Digital Center" in downtown Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Festival takes place. Lanier was at the festival for six days, from January 19th to January 24th; what follows is a from-the-trenches account of an animator lost in the wilds of Hollywood, Utah, reconstructed from notes he jotted down in his journal.
By the time we step off the plane in Salt Lake City, it's already been crazy for a month. My life has been a blur of press list scanning, press kit assembly, video dubbing, postcard designing, travel arrangement juggling -- it doesn't sound like it would be all that taxing, but in fact, when we hit the Utah tarmac, I'm more looking forward to getting a full night's sleep when Sundance is over, than I am looking forward to Sundance itself.
The mountains loom huge and imposing as we head toward Park City from the airport; no matter how fast the bus might be traveling, the progress goes stately-slow, because the mountains hardly seem to budge. The trees are so dwarfed by the mountains, they register as brown-gray stubble that's been erratically shaved -- a few hangover swoops of the blade -- to make way for the snake-line descent of pinpoint skiers. Six miles out from Park City, we hit Kimball Junction, which looks like a big joke at the expense of American civilization -- there's a McDonald's, a Best Western, a Wal-Mart all huddled close together, in a wide and forbidding expanse of snowy nothingness -- a corporate wagon train circled against the wilderness. Mountains ring this scene, scaling the biggest building down to shoebox size. The impassive vastness gives me deep atavistic twitchings -- this landscape could kill you without the slightest expenditure of effort. You could be snuffed from exposure, or just plain dumb loneliness out here. The ludicrous, monstrous size of the homes one sees in the hills seem to be precisely about this -- making futile elbowings out into the clear cold air.
Someone getting off the bus is a director of a film in competition. The star of the film is also on the bus. You can feel the folks on the bus perk up at this, 'Ah! We're sharing the bus with a star!' It doesn't matter they've never heard of this star before -- the fact that she has gone through the ritual, allowed her spiritual essence to be transmuted by the camera's glass eye, is enough to bestow the halo of celebrity upon her. That's the problem, being an animation director -- you don't really have a star to pimp. Though an animated character, at least, is always at my beck and call -- so long as there's a pen and the back of an envelope or a scrap of napkin at hand.
My wife Kristin has come out with me -- she makes me look good by association -- using the opportunity to live out a vicarious parallel-universe existence as a movie star. Ralph Carney, the musician for my short, has also come along. He also provided the music for a second short in the online festival, the hilarious Great Big Cartoony Club Show. Thank God he decided to go. His sense of humor is a real anchor for my sanity.
We check into the condo we've rented in Park City. Five days previous, I'd received a call from the folks I'd booked the room through -- they told me I couldn't have it, because the water heater had blown. I had to wonder if "the water heater has blown" was Park City lingo for, "We double-booked, and the other guy can pay more than you," but with no way to verify my suspicions, I said I'd take another room at another place, further out from town. Kristin, however, got back on the phone with them, and after an hour of back-and-forth, miraculously guilted them into getting another room in the original condo complex. When Kristin relayed the room number of this "other room," I had a good laugh. It was the same room number we'd been initially booted from. Very lucky for us, to've chosen a room with a spontaneously self-repairing water heater.
We walk down to main street at night, just to get a sense of place. The commercial part of Park City is basically one street, muffled on either side by steeply rising hillsides. It has the brittle, gingerbread feel common to all towns that rely on outsiders for their livelihood, whether they be tourists, skiers or filmgoers. The architecture seems to ingratiate itself somehow. There are shop windows full of upscale ski-town kitsch -- oil paintings of skiers in gilt frames, expensive rugs with mountain scenes woven in, that sort of thing. Even poor Kokopeli has been forced into service, press ganged from the petroglyphs of the southwest in order to lug snowboards across the front of innumerable sweatshirts. One ski lift springs up into the mountains directly from main street -- a black net stretches over the adjacent street, to stop anyone who might slide off their seat from dropping directly into traffic.
Any available kiosks have been wrapped in layers of posters for films attached to Sundance, or the various offshoots -- Slamdance, Lapdance, Nodance, Scamdance. The surfaces are already at least three layers thick, posters and flyers drooping off other posters and flyers: publicity as an endlessly self-regenerating eczema.
The strangest thing about Park City during Sundance is something invisible -- the negotiation of eye contact. There's no such thing as a casual glance here. Eye contact is one long stuttering of checking and double-checking; furtive shopliftings of recognition. The double-take is de rigeur, the quadruple-take not unheard of. Anyone walking up the street has the potential to be a star, so they have to be measured against screen-memories. A hairstyle, an expression in the eyes, can set off shockingly immediate recollections -- these strangers' faces we've spent so much time with. We're all caught in a Web of helpless rubbernecking.
Park City is far more lively this morning -- main street is a constant stream of models, producers, actors, gawkers, wanna-bes, imposters, freaks, human billboards, masochists and martyrs. Over it all hangs the scent of brains marinating in cel-phone radiation.
We all show up at the Park City location of the online festival, and it's something of a disappointment. Evidently, last year, when the dot-coms were flush and sloppy with money, they raised a big stink in Park City, setting up camp along main street, raising a ruckus, bloviating through bullhorns, demanding Sundance get with the program, and take notice of the digital "revolution." I get the sense that Sundance is of two minds about the online aspect of the festival: while they've made a sincere effort to acknowledge the world of online filmmaking, there is a sense that their hand was, to some degree, forced. Through the selection process, there was a feeling that Sundance wanted to keep the online festival at arm's length -- most likely to diminish the repercussions if it ended up a bust. Understandably (and I think sensibly) they've been careful to avoid the egregious hype that swirls around the Internet as a matter of course.
However, I was disappointed that the online selections were not going to be judged by a jury -- the winner will be chosen by online voting, which is prey to all sorts of distortions (all selection systems are, but the Web magnifies them). Also, arriving at Sundance I've found the online festival has been segregated from the main festival in terms of publicity -- instead of being a part of the main festival brochure, the online festival has its own, separate brochure. And the exhibition choices were a little flat-footed -- for instance, on their site, all the films are shown in RealPlayer format, regardless of their original Web format. Perhaps they wanted to standardize the exhibition, and not force the viewers to juggle a number of different players, but for the films made in Flash, it makes no sense. It's like shoving steak through a meat grinder.
The digital center, where the online festival is located, takes up the lower floor of a mall on main street. There are a handful of monitors, tuned to the festival Website, each outfitted with a set of headphones. The headphones are a sensible way to deal with potential distractions, to help the viewer focus in on the work, but ultimately it feels anti-social. Kristin and I can't really watch the films together; one of us has to wait around while the other finishes up, which is rather boring. This is less problematic than the fact that the monitors are completely overwhelmed by the exhibits of the digital sponsors. The festival monitors seem like an afterthought between the giant HDTV displays, which show loops of contentless content -- montages of slo-mo football passes, rodeo riders disaligning their spinal columns on horseback, see-sawing, circus acrobats throwing highlights off their spangles in trapezial revolutions, kids "adorably" playing on the beach in fast motion -- and the arrays of high-end digital cameras. Instead of looking like a festival, the lower level of the mall looks like a trade show.
Way at the back of the sponsor exhibits, there's a small room set specially aside for the online festival. It's not very inviting, and seems hastily improvised -- black curtains are drawn over all the walls, and there's one table with four monitors set up on it. It looks like some goth teenager's multimedia den, inexplicably fitted with fluorescent lights. It's very off-putting to the casual viewer -- the first thing you see, on entering, are four people sitting at monitors, with their backs turned to you -- while we're there, we see several people look in, then hastily beat a retreat.
We're supposed to be doing a Q&A, but only the other filmmakers show up -- so we ask each other questions. There's Obie Scott Wade, who directed Julius and Friends, a great animation taking place in a planned community for cartoon characters (perfect entertainment for kids; it's smart and fun and doesn't talk down to them at all) and Jenni Olson, who directed the live-action short Meep! Meep!, which sets a voice-over narration about a doomed lesbian relationship against calm, fixed shots of an urban landscape (this urban landscape happens to be San Francisco -- as it turns out, I've come out to Utah to meet a lot of people in my back yard; 8 of the 17 online films were produced in the Bay Area). Jenni suggests we at least get our shorts running on the monitors that are available. In a little comedic touch, I can't get into the Sundance Website. Some anti-porn software has been installed on the machine, and the Sundance site is verboten, as it doesn't have a rating.
This is all very frustrating for Angela Teran, who's been my liaison with the digital festival for the past month. It's a pleasure to meet her finally, after innumerable email exchanges and phone calls. She's extremely warm, and has been a great help through the pre-festival process. She's bent over backwards to get me set up for any opportunities the festival might offer and I certainly don't envy her, having to guide the first online festival through its initial baby steps. Any festival is a logistical nightmare -- adding technological problems on top of it all must be a prime recipe for sleepless nights and daytime migraines. She takes her job very seriously; it's obvious she sincerely wants to provide the best possible experience for the filmmakers.
Before we take off, Ralph cracks me up by taking a picture of me, and then one of the "online festival." The flash gets absorbed in the black curtains, and bounces off the four screens -- we both know how spectacular the shot is going to look -- like the storage room assigned to an MIS department.
Tonight we finally catch a movie: The American Astronaut, a very pleasingly bizarre sci-fi musical western. It's preceded by an animated short, Infection, by James Cunningham. It's a 3D CGI cartoon -- Cunningham explained before the screening -- that was made partly in reaction to a newly-elected right-wing government in his native New Zealand, which revoked the right to free higher education, and saddled the current generation of students with sizable loans. The hero of Infection is a three-fingered hand that sneaks into a government data center, and deletes students' outstanding debt. He has to fight off the guardians of the data center -- gruesome giant eyeballs, with hands and ears growing out of them. Some robotic hypodermic needles get mixed up in the action...and let's just say that there hasn't been a better film for connoisseurs of punctured-eyeball anxiety since Un Chien Andalou.
I see Cunningham in the hallway after the screening, and tell him I liked his short:"The hand is actually my hand," he announces."You mean you actually traced it as the model?""No, I took a series of photographs of it, from different angles, that I used to map on the surfaces..." he pauses. "And the eye is from an actual eye -- the textures are taken from an eyeball I borrowed from an eye bank.""They let you have an eye?""Well, I returned it to them.""So the eye...""Right, the cornea I used to get the texture, somebody back in New Zealand is probably walking around, looking through it, right now as we speak..."
Ralph comes back from an evening walk clutching a brown paper bag. A crinkle of brown paper, and he shows us the label -- Jack Daniels. It takes Kristin and I approximately 2 seconds to dig shot glasses out of the condo cabinet. We need it bad, and it ain't cuz of the cold...
We go to the official party tonight, in honor of Julianne Moore, who's received an award today. It's sponsored by Champagne Piper-Heidsieck, but the free champagne's already run out by the time we get there. We don't know anyone and feel completely at sea in the transplanted-Hollywood vibe. In one corner of the ski lodge, people are lining up to have their photographs taken alongside a huge bottle of (presumably Piper-Heidsieck) champagne. A weird totem to build a weird little ritual around. At one point we try to head up to the second floor of the party, but are turned back, because we don't have an extra-special VIP pass. "Filmmakers aren't VIPs?" I ask, incredulous. We're about to pack it up, when we see Elisa Greene, Wildbrain's publicist, and George Evelyn, the director of The Great Big Cartoony Club Show. They manage to save the party for us. It's the first time I've met George -- he has a native garrulousness that seems to have, over the years, matured into a philosophy of life. The Internet has given him a second wind as an animator. He was instrumental in getting the Cartoon Network Website to buy off on the notion of producing a number of self-contained short subjects -- no series potential, no merchandizing tie-ins, no re-purposing of old copyrighted characters into obnoxious contemporary "relevance." The Internet has been the greatest boon to the cartoon short since trailers booted them off the movie screens -- George has taken the ball and run with it and it's obvious he's delighted.
A night of perturbing and idiotic dreams. The waking world offers more of the same. Someone on the street is wearing a cardboard sign: "Will Work for Distribution." Someone else has a hand-puppet, a shapeless brown mass with eyes. "I'm H.R. Puke-n-shit!" it announces. The puppeteer is wearing a hat with a dotcom address -- I'm glad the fellow is doing his part to perpetuate the image of the Internet as the most high-tech toilet stall in human history. Cameramen and sound guys swinging boom mics are already converging on H.R. for sound bites...
It takes forever for me to get food into my gut this morning. Big mistake -- the emptiness in my stomach is getting impatient and crawling up my brain stem. I'm wondering if I've made a horrible mistake. I've laid out a ridiculous amount of money and time in anticipation of Sundance, and I'm feeling like a sucker. Is anyone ever going to show up at the digital center? Does anyone give a crap at all?
The short Sundance selected for the festival is called Scarf Mania -- it features a hapless everyman character, named Romanov. He travels to a city whose cultural and economic life revolves around the wearing of scarves, and Romanov just can't get the hang of it -- he keeps getting tangled up, etc, and as a result he's a laughingstock. Scarf Mania is supposed to be a comedy of alienation, but I'm feeling it a little too intimately right now. I've joked that it's an allegory of the wee little digital filmmaker, lost among the scarves of Sundance...and the joke's getting less and less funny by the minute.
Kristin and I go from restaurant to restaurant. They're all choked with huge lines. Someone standing in front of one restaurant propositions us: "Do you want to come inside? Right now, inside, Elvis Mitchell is interviewing Forest Whittaker." "But is there food? Can we eat?" "Yes, the buffet's open." We dash inside. Folks are pressed up against glass partitions, and against the outside windows too, completely out of earshot, but looking intently at the two men, who are just sitting and talking. That's the signal of the famous -- and what makes them like zoo animals -- people will watch them even if they're not doing anything interesting.
Unfortunately the buffet looks pretty unappetizing, and we're back on the street. Finally we find a pizza place that, for some reason, is almost entirely deserted. Like an oasis in the desert of schmooze. Soon, with a nice helping of bread and cheese in my stomach, I'm teetering toward equilibrium -- bring it on, I'm ready to face the day.
I've managed to elbow my way onto a panel, "Digital Filmmaking: The Filmmakers." Mark Osborne is the first co-panelist I meet (or, instead of panelist, I should go by the title they've printed on our badges: "Digital Dialogian." The Sundance folks are insistent about it -- Mark called up the offices: "Hello, I'm one of the panelists..." to be rebuffed with, "No, no, you're not a panelist -- you're a dialogian"). I'm a big admirer of Mark's film, More, which I first saw on ifilm.com. It's a masterful claymation short, with bits of 2D animation interpolated in precise and deliberate counterpoint. In the few short minutes of its running time, Mark manages to accumulate a surprising emotional weight. I think it's a brilliant short, one of the best short films I've seen -- and it's great to meet the fella behind it, and find out he's a nice guy, quite friendly and accessible.
The panel is quite well-attended, putting to rest my anxieties that people aren't interested in this stuff. The other panelists are George Evelyn, Jennifer Arnold, whose Mullet Chronicles (a serialized documentary dedicated to "mullet pride") are in the online festival, Ariella Ben Dov, the festival director of the Queer Short Movie Awards, Mark and myself. The moderator is John Sloss, a lawyer and producer; he opens by sheepishly admitting he was involved in the infamous Pop.com -- the online entertainment venture involving Spielberg, Katzenberg and Ron Howard -- which managed to burn through several millions of dollars, blazing straight into bankruptcy before actually materializing anything on the Web. Pop.com is always brought up first in the inevitable lists of failed Internet entertainment ventures, and unfortunately it comes freighted with undeserved implications -- namely, if Spielberg can't make entertainment fly on the Net, then who can? Which of course is running the thing backwards. The whole Hollywood infrastructure is tuned to such different economies of scale, it's almost inevitable they'd get tripped up and bogged down.
We get to run some of the directors' shorts off a laptop, through a big screen facing the audience. It's nice getting a mass reaction, hearing people laugh in the right places, etc. These are the instamatic satisfactions you don't get when you put work up on the Web and people watch it on their own time. Although when the question comes up from the audience, all the directors say they prefer the kind of audience feedback they get through the Web -- less immediate but also less nerve-wracking, and usually more in-depth and heartfelt. Of course, you're also more likely to get negative comments as well; anonymity, it seems, is the handmaiden of vituperation, but the slams are usually pretty entertaining, if you're an appreciative student of grammatical novelty and unintentional typographical avant-gardism. Sometimes I fantasize all the rants delivered over the Net are written by the same person -- they're all chapters in a cumulative work, and if they were to be assembled in one place, we'd be witness to one of the greatest conceptual fiats of post-modernist literature. Finnegan's Wake, as if written by Joyce's eighth-wit brother.
There's a lot of talk about how the Web solves problems of distribution and delivers heretofore unreachable audiences. An interesting schism on the panel arises -- the Flash animators (myself and George) are in love with Webcast, but all the folks using the Web as a vehicle for video keep running against the obstacle of poor image quality -- the Web hasn't caught up to video yet (when we run Mark's More through the pixelated blockiness of RealPlayer, it's obviously torture for him since the film was originally shot for IMAX). Because of the technical exigencies of the Web, animation (specifically Flash animation), as a tool of communication, has gained an inflated importance. Before the panel's over, I even get to trot out my pet argument that there are aesthetic strengths to be found through the current limitations of bandwidth -- it forces filmmakers to use editing strategies favoring clever arrangements of juxtapositions and comparisons to build stories. Jennifer throws out La Jetee as a film that would be perfect for the Internet -- a series of still images, put together with consummate intelligence.
We get some good questions from the audience, and a few comments that sound like sales pitches. One person explains his project -- something that's been inevitable for some time now, but which he's evidently put into practice -- an online film where everything in it is for sale. You like the Ming vase on top of the armoire? A couple mouse-clicks, and Fed Ex has it on the way. A couple more clicks, and the armoire's on the same flight. The entire house the movie is set in, in fact, is for sale: "If I just sell that, I've already covered my production costs." George shoots back: "If somebody buys the house, does it disappear from the movie?" In fact, George is on to something: imagine an episode of Friends, where you can buy every article of clothing, and as soon as you do, said article disappears from the thespian-slash-mannequin. The only snarl in this scheme, is that you'd have all these hetero guys depleting their credit cards with bra and panty purchases. We'll have to wait for fashion to take a few more bold steps toward androgyny for this sort of thing to work out.
To the real-estate-agent-cum-auteur, I want to say, "Excuse me, but don't you find this at all horrific?" but bite my tongue. I don't suppose he'll be making many movies about poor folks, unless perhaps they work as shoe-shiners in some swanky resort.
After the panel's over, a few folks come up to Mark and I, who are malingering to talk up a few stray points. Someone half-jokingly ventures the theory that Spielberg et. al. created Pop.com to run it into the ground deliberately, and take down the Web with it. You gotta love the conspiracy theories. Mark says the medium is about communication, small communities, small economies of scale -- things that are handmade and personal. That's the exciting potential of the Net, and that's what will always escape the Hollywood guys -- they're institutionally incapable of grasping it. In retrospect, I'm disappointed that so much of the Q&A centered around economic models, with relatively little said about the cultural content of online film. The new economic models being formed are interesting, and may have wide repercussions for the development of the art form -- particularly promising, to me at least, are peer-to-peer models, and the eventual advent of micropayments -- but sometimes it seems the only interest people have in art, is an interest in art-as-commerce-by-other-means. It bespeaks a disappointing lack of curiosity about the human animal, about the texture and the substance of the mind.
We get back to our room, and get sucked into one of the episodes of Jazz, playing on TV. They're taking it up through Art Blakey, Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Ornette Coleman. Kristin keeps asking if we're going to go to the party tonight -- Elisa can get us into some Hugo Boss shindig (I have no idea who or what Hugo Boss is -- but I'm not about to admit this to anybody out loud). Kristin takes a shower to freshen up, then lays down in her PJs on the couch. "So are we going to the party?" she asks, her eyelids already drooping sleepily over the top rims of her pupils. "Who're you kidding? You're gonna go in your PJs?" She shrugs, "We're at Sundance. We're supposed to be going to all the glamorous parties." I call up Elisa, because I don't want to be rude, and ask her about the party -- but she and George are pretty crashed out, and are going to bail after all. When I hang up and report the news, everyone sags in relief. And my favorite stupid show, Blind Date is on -- the best dialogue on television, improvised on the spot by lonely singles with strange exhibitionist tendencies. We yuk it up as we watch the self-professed "Hillybilly" clear the dance floor by dry-humping the air; and then yuk it up some more at the second couple, which features a self-professed "poet" with a Kenny G 'do, who actually wins over his date by talking up Norse mythology and quoting Thoreau. Sure, we're just as lame as these folks -- watching bad TV from the middle of Sundance, fer crissakes -- but at least our lameness isn't being televised.
This time, in my daily trek to the "online festival," I meet Jakub Pistecky, whose short Maly Milos is in the lineup. He's a handsome fellow, with close-cropped black hair and compact, precisely arranged features. He's currently working at ILM, on the next Star Wars movie; I decide to be cool and not ask him a single damn question about it.
Jakub appears to be having a far better time in Park City than I am. He's not worried in the slightest about making connections or schmoozing his career up a notch -- he's just here to see movies and go to parties. In all, a far more sane approach. Last night he was at an Ozzy Osbourne party, that was opened by someone named the "Reverend B. Dangerous" or somesuch, who hung a 50 lb. camera from a perforation in his tongue, and then followed up by having the heaviest guy in the audience step on the back of his head, grinding his face into a pile of broken glass. In short, Ozzy is so far past his bat-head munching days, he's taken to delegating.
I like Jakub's short quite a bit. It's a 3D computer animation, with a genuine fairytale quality (fairytales of the Grimm variety, with plenty of dirt under their peasant fingernails). A lot of CGI animation seems, to me, to be heading toward a cul-de-sac of thoughtless mimesis; the closer computer-generated imagery comes to replicating "reality," the more it loses its purely expressive potential.
Jakub solves this problem by resorting to puppetry; the characters in Milos look like they've been carved in a woodshop. Milos has a face reminiscent of the faces of Jiri Trnka's animated puppets -- almost immobile, but deeply expressive -- the face has the suggestive emotional expressiveness of a mask. We have a good conversation about this. It seems we're at a point where new technologies are providing receptive forms for old, shunted-aside artforms: motion-capture provides an entry point for dance and gestural theatre; CGI provides an entry point for sculpture and puppetry.
For our last two nights, we're staying with the Quackenbushes, a couple who are friends with Kristin's dad, in Salt Lake City. It's a relief to not have to talk about movies and deals (perversely and against my will, earlier in the day I'd been drawn into an extensive conversation, with a complete stranger, about the lack of fire in Harrison Ford's latest thespian activities). Instead, we talk about books, the election, and the oddball physics experiments Joe Quackenbush, a science teacher, cooks up for his class. It's heaven, really. There's a world outside the screen.
In the morning I have a live Web-streamed interview with Streaming Media magazine and Res magazine -- they've set up a table at the digital center. The interview is run by Rae Zander and Scott Smith, both great folks, and the interview is actually kinda fun. Then I get to turn the tables, and conduct an interview myself, with Eric Henry and Syd Garon, the directors of Wave Twisters, which is running as part of Sundance's midnight screening series.
Wave Twisters is the anti-Fantasia/2000; both take pre-recorded music as the basis for animation, but where Fantasia/2000 looked backwards -- both in terms of the use of respectable and safe music, and in its storytelling sensibilities, which harken back to cozy '50s conventions -- Wave Twisters is incredibly fresh, new and forward-looking. The soundtrack that provides its aural spine is an album by DJ Qbert. The film is an insane piece of work. The "story" involves a space orthodontist spreading the gospel of turntable culture -- and every scratch, beat and sample has a visual correspondence. So much information flies at you -- in a combo of 2D animation, 3D animation and cheesy video effects, scrambled together in an appropriately "turntablistic" collage that the first time I saw it (a rough cut shown at RESFEST), I felt like my brain was vibrating in its skull case, overloaded past the limit of absorption.
The one place where it falls down, is in its sexual politics. It's always a disappointment when something stylistically avant-garde is politically retro and the female "character" in it is just a pin-up, given nothing interesting to do. The filmmakers feel awful about it, too. They were working off a soundtrack where the female vocal samples were all along the lines of "save me" and "help me," stuff lifted off old adventure and sci-fi records which comes off satirical on the CD, but they didn't cut against it in the visuals in a meaningful way, and the spoofing aspect of the vocals doesn't come through. In the interview, Eric says morosely: "I have no excuse. I went to Oberlin."
Because I've done the interview with Eric and Syd, I've managed to wheedle my way onto the guest list for the big party tonight, which is both for Wave Twisters and a documentary on turntablism called Scratch. The large bouncer guarding the door announces to the throng outside that: "Only those people on 'the list' will get in -- this is a private party, not open to the general public." We have to wait out in the cold for several minutes before "the list" arrives. People are surly, trying to cut line, throwing attitude right and left. One person leaves the line, then elbows her way back, giving Kristin an evil eye, asking her if she "has a problem." Some French lady behind me keeps saying "Zees ees incredible. Zey said zey would have sree girls checking zee list, but zere is only one! Zees is so ineeficient. Zey said zey would have sree girls. Oh, I don't know why I am putting up weef zis!" A mystery for the ages. "I feel like I'm in New York," Kristin says. I say, "I feel like I'm in High School."
We get inside and knock back a few drinks -- this being Utah, the alcohol content is lower than the norm, and despite the deoxygenating compensations of high altitude, you have to knock back quite a few to get a decent buzz going. The Beat Junkies are up first, throwing records down one after another, the two of them swapping duties across two turntable setups. The work they're doing over the turntables is mysterious work, with perhaps a little deliberate mad-scientist mystification -- they attack the vinyl as a combo of musician and performance artist. It's not sufficient, for instance, to just slide a used up record off the turntable, and tuck it back in its sleeve -- the record's gotta be lifted with a quick snap, and twirled on the axis of two index fingers -- the record suddenly not a disc but a brief blurred globe -- the spinning longitude lines tracings of music. Both Beat Junkies bob on the stage like two pistons in a motor, synched on the same axle.
It's great fun to dance to, because the music is "played" by being interrupted and interpolated -- you have to listen closely, to keep track of where it's heading. After a while, Qbert gets up on stage to do a little scratching, before heading out to the Wave Twisters premiere. I have no idea what record he has up there, for scratching purposes -- he warps the sound all out of shape, peeling hidden noises out of the original grooves. The record screeches up like tires in a car wreck -- then dissolves into a flock of mechanical birds. The crowd whoops it up.
At the screening itself, they've got a two turntable setup for Qbert to give a scratching demonstration. On one turntable he runs the beat, on the other he's got a Barbie record -- something that came with a picture book -- he runs the phrase, spoken in insipid whitegirl diction: "Turn the page when you hear the sound of the chime" (and then there's the crystal ding! of the chime). He proceeds to spin the phrase fast, then slow, then backwards; then he makes up rhythms from repetitions -- the audience responds to the conceptual kick of it -- eloquence through stuttering. "Turn the page t-t-t-turn the page Turn Turn Turn the page." He finally launches full bore into it, running the line "when you hear the sound of the chime," then pulling out the chime into a long, complex, fluttering arpeggio -- that ends with a perfectly timed and clear ding!
It's a perfect intro for the film, which unfortunately gets off to a rough start -- there's no sound at first. They rewind the film and start it over again. This in itself is a great advertisement for digital projection -- if Wave Twisters had been projected in 35mm, there would've been no way to reel it back. It's a testament to the out-there aesthetics of the film, that when it starts rewinding, running backwards and getting all pixelated, most of the audience thinks this is actually part of the movie.
What is it about stepping into a pile of dog crap, that it always resonates with metaphysical implications? I score a direct hit, first thing in the morning, right into the winter tread of my boot. The citizens of Salt Lake City are treated to the spectacle of the defeated Sundance director, stranded at the curb for a good 15 minutes, one foot shivering in a faded black sock, beating the boot itself against the pavement again and again, like the murderous ape with the bone in 2001. This alternates with more fine-tuned scraping with serrated bits of leaves and available scraps of gum wrapper. I examine the shit-smeared sole of my boot like a gypsy inspecting tea-leaves at the bottom of a cup. I've stepped directly into a bad omen, but unfortunately, crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over my head for the remainder of the day isn't an option; I've gotta persevere, forge ahead, one foot scraping against the icy blacktop in a hygienic limp.
Eric and Syd are at the digital center, both looking fairly wiped out from their big night. The perfect capper for their evening was trying to get back into their party after the screening -- and not being allowed in. Their publicist had to come and save them from the bouncer.
A nice bonus -- Andy Murdock happens to be in the digital center when I peek in to give a last goodbye to Angela (who, unfortunately, isn't there). He's tall and sandy-haired, and like all the other filmmakers I've met, very friendly. I'd seen his Sundance-selected short Rocketpants at RESFEST, and told him I liked it -- it's a nice slice of whacked-out dream-imagery, featuring an Elvis Presley-looking fellow with robotic nether parts, rocketing around a bizarre landscape. He shows me the cartoon he's currently working on -- he's got a tape in a digital camera, pops open the side screen and plugs some headphones into the thing for me. So I sit and watch while he sits and watches me watch. It's a couple minutes of a strange, cybernetic ecosystem, with natural forms overlapping with artificial ones. It starts with a hummingbird with a sparkplug for a head, darting its beak into a flower -- the stamen of the flower bends to the back of the bird's head and closes the circuit, flashing sparks across the interval. Other mechanical animals appear: a motorized millipede that erases the distinction between insect locomotion and the repetitive rhythms of an engine and a pelican that looks like it's descended from the notional helicopter that appeared in Da Vinci's sketchbooks. It starts getting deeply weird when a tree-borne fruit shrivels and disgorges, as its pit, the head and torso of a human infant...then the tape cuts out. "That was insanely beautiful," I say. "Thanks," Andy says, "I have no idea where it's going. But I like to work that way. Keeps it fresh, so I don't get bored with it."
These are the sorts of moments that make the festival worthwhile -- impromptu sharings of oddball visions -- the outpatients swapping their hallucinations for the sake of mutual enjoyment.
Parting Thoughts and Notions
I hope Sundance continues to have an online component to their festival. It's good for online work to get notice and to be brought into greater dialogue with a wider audience. The more opportunities for people working in the online field to come together and meet each other, the greater the chances are for cross-fertilization and sideways sparks of inspiration. By facilitating this, festivals contribute to the evolution of the art form and Sundance could certainly cultivate a role as one of the midwives of this newly emerging medium.
While I understand the philosophical impulses behind Sundance's decision to keep the online festival on monitors, in its native environment so to speak, I hope they rethink this. Of course it would be possible to relegate the online festival completely to "cyberspace," without any physical, corresponding presence in Park City -- but I think this would be running in the wrong direction, and wasting the cultural capital Sundance brings to the enterprise. Sundance has great value as a physical place, where filmmakers, producers and curious bystanders can be brought together in fruitful networks. An actual screening of the online films would be nice. While the online experience tends to be an intimate one, with one or two people sitting close to their monitor, a festival experience is a necessarily communal one. Screenings concentrate peoples' attention and curiosity, and create a real dialog with the work. A screening becomes an "event" that people feel they are a part of. Interactive online films, which don't have a linear narrative, could be shown as demonstrations, with the filmmakers guiding the audience through a few variations. There's no reason why monitors couldn't be provided in addition, for the curious to work out their own variations when the screening is over. In this way, Sundance could provide a bridge to the work -- acting as an educator and de-mystifier.
Despite all the hype and anti-hype surrounding online film, the Web is here to stay as a venue for truly independent film -- films that are done on the cheap, films that evolve out of a deeply personal vision, films that push the boundaries of narrative structure. If the focus is on the work, and there's plenty of good work online, a situation that will only improve, no other excuses need be made.
Chris Lanier is the creator of the Web cartoon Romanov, running on www.wildbrain.com.