It’s 5 a.m. and we are bundled up like Sherpas in our boots and sheepskins, boarding the plane to Utah with a contingent of young New Yorkers with pony tails talking into cellphones and carrying skis. They are buyers, development executives, actors, journalists, publicists, directors and producers, heading for the Sundance Film Festival, where they will wheel and deal. We are not here for the snowboarding or the schmoozing: our son has co-written, co-produced, and acted in a movie to be screened at the festival, and we are going to cheer him on. It’s called Wet Hot American Summer, and it’s a comedy set on the last day of summer camp in 1981.

Sundance is the hoped-for pot of gold for aspiring young independent movie-makers, but no picnic for the proud and anxious parents. On the plane, I meet a buyer who tells me that she was at Sundance when Ed Burns’s The Brothers McMullen was shown for the first time, and told his parents: ‘Your life is going to change.’ ‘I hope you say the same to me when you see my son’s film,’ I say. ‘Oh, I doubt it,’ she replies. ‘I usually tell them to keep the day job.’ This is Mike’s day job. When we arrive, I see some women with posters advertising ‘Support Group for Mothers of Indie Film Makers’.

The official film guide to Sundance 2001 is 110 pages long, and includes 115 feature films – 40 by first-time filmmakers – chosen from a field of about 2500. There are some Hollywood premieres (the opening-night gala is held in nearby Salt Lake City); there is World Cinema; there’s the Native Forum, a showcase for new work by ‘indigenous cultures’ from the US to the South Pacific; there is Frontier, for experimental films; Shorts; and Midnight, a cult-film niche; plus Drama and Documentary.

This year there is a new Digital Center on Main Street, sponsoring daily dialogues on the aesthetics and business of film, and a House of Docs, where documentary makers can mingle. High-school students are showing their films at the Gen-Y Studio. Besides the official festival, a horde of ‘alternadances’ have opened on the fringe, with venues higher up in the mountains or in bars and gymnasiums: Scamdance, Digidance, NoDance, Lapdance and X-Dance. Utah had just appointed its first full-time antiporn official, and the Salt Lake Tribune reported a lawsuit brought against the University of Utah by a Mormon student who complained that the theatre department ousted her for refusing to speak profane lines. But no one in the Mormon heartland seemed troubled by Scamdance, Lapdance or X-Dance.

Slamdance, the oldest of the fringe fests, has 20 features and 41 shorts in its programme, and new headquarters in a converted silver mine just outside town. A few enterprising filmmakers try to show their movies in parking lots or off of trucks until they are chased away by the police. The critic John Anderson who has written a book about Sundance calls it ‘a progressive event that recognises the right of every American to get her or his movie on-screen.’

And yet, as Andy Klein, another journalist, complains, Sundance is ‘about as useful’ for watching movies ‘as ten days in a coma’. The tiny ski resort – population 7000 – is too small to have a multiplex cinema or even a community college, and the films are screened in a makeshift collection of spaces, including hotels, the high school, and the public library. No two theatres are within a mile of each other, so getting from one venue to another in the snow and ice is slow and exhausting. Everywhere the seats are hard, and the ticketing system is Byzantine, with huge blocks of tickets sold to the studios months in advance. We have managed to get tickets to about a dozen events, and are hoping to pick up more on the scene. But to do so, we’ll have to compete with the twenty thousand or so other tourists pushing to get in. In Klein’s view, ‘to invite an international crowd of XX thousand to Park City is like inviting five hundred of your closest friends for a swimming party in your inflatable swimming pool.’

So why Park City? The town, in the rugged Wasatch Mountains, and high enough for altitude sickness, was founded in the 1870s, when silver was discovered, but declined when the country went off the silver standard. Norwegian and Swedish immigrants had begun to develop recreational skiing in 1916, and by 1982, with the mines closing and jobs disappearing, Park City reinvented itself as a ski resort, and built slopes, spas and hotels. Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute is about twenty miles away: in 1981 he took over a small Utah film festival and turned it into the most important film festival in the US. Of course, Redford himself isn’t here this year: he’s filming in Prague.

Apart from winter sports, Park City has an impressive number of high-profile restaurants clustered on the 12 steep blocks of its ‘Old West’-style Main Street, including several where such local delicacies as caribou chops are served. But in order to get in, you have to have booked a long time ago, and even then you have to wait behind the bigwigs from Miramax.

The Park City Police Department is strict about enforcing the peculiar Utah drinking laws and towing illegally parked cars; in fact, the local police sergeant looks forward to the festival for that reason: ‘you can always count on meeting a celebrity from having impounded their car. The guessing game is which celebrity this year is going to have to come up and pay an impound fee.’ Actually, the celebrities don’t mind. The impound fee in Park City is cheaper than valet parking in LA.

Another major element of the festival is loot: freebies, giveaways and swag. Sundance has become a place to market products as well as films. ‘Our customers go to Sundance, so we’re there too,’ Marty Staff, the chief executive of Hugo Boss, told the New York Times. ‘It’s the best place for people to see cool people wearing our clothes.’ At the Hugo House, a chalet on the mountain decked with red Christmas lights, the Hugo Boss logo beamed in red over the snow. There were huge parties, including one for Wet Hot, with the New York DJ Samantha Ronson, an open bar and, for the stars, Hugo Boss white down coats (rumoured to cost $1400 and glow in the dark) as party favours. Gap also had a party palace, and gave out orange jackets with the Sundance logo.

For all its supposed idealism, Sundance is intensely competitive and stressful. It makes my other marathon ‘festival’, the annual MLA Convention, look like a garden party. The atmosphere is frenzied and cut-throat as rumours circulate about the ‘edgiest’ and most commercially-promising work. Every morning, in addition to daily Variety, RoughCut and indieWire, there are piles of tipsheets on the latest gossip: the buzz, the bids, the biz, the hype, the hit, the hobnob, the hot button. The feminist zap group, Guerilla Girls, is putting up protest stickers in the ladies’ loos: ‘These distributors don’t know how to pick up women.’ Even Errol Morris, the famous documentary-maker who’s here to attend a symposium on his work, speaks of ‘raw animal fear’. Someone else says: ‘Wherever I was I always thought the party was somewhere else. The important people were somewhere else; the important distributors were somewhere else.’

I have brought a polite letter of identification from the LRB, and take it to the press office to apply for a badge. Ha. The media attendance has grown from 375 to more than 950 over seven years. When I show the kid behind the desk my letter, he sniggers, and tells me to come back and try again next year. According to Andy Klein, ‘Most major festivals see it as in their interest to cater to journalists … But at Sundance, it feels as though critics are at the bottom of the carpetbagger ladder, beneath the business people and assorted industry vermin who swarm over the town, their incessant cellphone chatter dominating the sound waves like the din of a swarm of locusts.’ I am at the bottom of the bottom, but I feel better when I discover that two years ago the Guardian’s Derek Malcolm was denied a pass. ‘I mean, I’m not being silly about it,’ he said, ‘but I think a press pass is my due, on the whole.’

An excellent film that gets little attention in the midst of the madness is Meng Ong’s Miss Wonton. Based on the life of the director’s mother, it deals with the experience of a young Chinese woman who is an illegal immigrant in the US, and who tries to escape her near-slavery in a restaurant through an affair with a married American man. Touching a theme I hear often during the week, Ong says that he feels the film – in Chinese, with subtitles – is universal. Over the next few days I will also hear universality claimed for the experience of paedophiles, neo-Nazis, and schizophrenic adolescents.

The most controversial film in the festival – it eventually wins the Grand Jury Prize but doesn’t find a buyer – is The Believer, written and directed by Henry Bean, and starring a young Canadian called Ryan Gosling. Ten years in the making, the film is based on a true story: a neo-Nazi skinhead who killed himself when a reporter from the New York Times revealed that he was Jewish. For the first hour, we watch the young thug Danny Balint join a fascist group, rant about his hatred for Jews, and participate in beatings and assassination plots. Then, as his hateful gang wrecks a synagogue, he rescues a Torah, and begins to have flashbacks to his Orthodox upbringing and the intellectual and spiritual questions that caused him to break away. The film combines some of the visceral impact of A Clockwork Orange – shown this year in a panel on major influences on indie film – with a cerebral, even Talmudic debate about the nature of God and the meaning of Judaism. At the Q&A, audiences speak of the dangers of the film’s anti-semitic images. It might have been a fascinating play, but here, in the mecca of movie-making, it’s almost heresy to mention such an old-fashioned genre.

Pictures of the Wet Hot stars in the Hugo Boss coats appear in the New York Times Style Section. I have a respiratory infection that will last two weeks: my maternal offering to the gods.

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