You know the kind of quickfire adrenaline-rush montage of images that some films begin with to establish the character’s routine? Alarm rings, feet hit the floor, coffee maker sizzles, teeth are brushed, a gasp punctuates water hitting the skin, elevator ring, taxi screeches, noisy co-passenger, deadpan office silence, keyboard typing, needle piercing vein, eyes rolling back – you get the gist.
If I were to describe my experience of covering one week of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, this is the visual language: eyes open, airplane taking off, eyes open, airplane landing, eyes open, mountains, eyes wide open, snowstorm in Utah, eyes open, sunshine, press badge, coffee, movie, eyes open, coffee, movie, eyes open in bed, typing, coffee, movie hall, applause, coffee, typing, coffee, coffee. In short, I felt like the jumped-up protagonist of a Danny Boyle movie – watching 21 films, jetlagged and hungry and excited, constantly resuscitating myself, eager to collapse but take it all in simultaneously, writing about more good, proud, independent cinema than I usually watch in a year. Did I mention sleeping? Because there is no such thing. Closing your eyes is futile when the movies – as well as the environment they screen in – are all about dreaming with open eyes.
It takes no less than 4 days to fall into a sane routine for a film festival 9000 feet up in the mountains in late January. For Americans. For Indians (and Asians), Sundance feels like an emotional kaleidoscope; dreams intertwine with movies and reality becomes an afterthought. Somewhere in between thinking about movies, writing about them, seeking after-party invites, decoding the free-bus-shuttle schedules and subtle star-spotting, there was the small matter of feeling the force of the year’s first cultural event. You keep hearing about Main Street and the celebrities visiting, and you keep hoping to randomly bump into Jake Gyllenhaal shopping for cotton socks, but the soul of the festival remains its films. The discoveries. The first-look syndrome. For the Press, most screenings are within a hundred metres of each other, and a giant supermarket in between serves as shelter from the cold, a quick-and-dirty dining room and general mental lodging for critics struggling to follow a schedule that is too ambitious (and delusional) to begin with.
The result is a white, surreal haze…where memories of films collide with scenes of life, rather than vice versa. Which is why I remember, in no certain order, being the guy at a pub where Ray Romano and Mark Duplass demonstrate their love for kitschy kung-fu movies in the heartbreaking Paddleton. Being the coconut on the island that Kiersey Clemons fights a creature every night, in the Cast-Away-meets-Godzilla genre mashup, Sweetheart. Being the house in which Jimmy Fails and Jonathan Majors look for their roots in, in Joe Talbot’s hauntingly whimsical The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Being the sound guy for the filmmaker couple that follows young Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the year-long runup to her historic 2018 midterm election primary win in New York, in the incredibly moving documentary Knock Down The House. Being the friend who visits young filmmaking student Honor Swinton-Bryne during her doomed relationship in London with the older and drug-addicted Tom Burke, in Joanna Hogg’s ethereal and profound The Souvenir. Or an insect in the cave that shrewd CEO Demi Moore and her poor company employees get trapped in during a team-building exercise, in the audaciously gross Corporate Animals. Or a mirror in the Irish house that accommodates a paranoid mother Seana Kerslake and her strange son James Quinn Markey, in the deviously atmospheric The Hole In The Ground. All this, in between watching a modest coming-of-age film about that Indian writer who goes through a week of watching strangers, stories and cold mountains while surviving on love, fresh air and freshly grounded black coffee.