Serendipity rules at Sundance. Hopped off a festival shuttle this morning and a journalist on the sidewalk shouted after me that my name had been called out yesterday at the New York Lounge. I had forgotten that I had dropped a business card in a bowl there. After I left the Lounge, there had been a drawing for Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling software conducted by Marco Cordova, one of the partners of Entertainment Partners, the firm that now develops and markets the popular programs. The irony of me winning this program was that I was one of its beta testers circa 1987.
Should I admit this is my 25th Sundance? Almost a career’s worth of serendipity here in Park City in January. My advice to newbies: if you want to target someone, don’t. Just ride the shuttles, walk the sidewalks, attend the parties, see the films. Guaranteed you’ll cross paths.
I decided to take it easy this morning after attending an impassioned Carole King performance late last night in a small club on Main Street (she’s here promoting Troubadours). Did I mention…next to the stage? Now that we’ve covered serendipity, don’t get me started on the singular magic that flows here at Sundance.
Tried to get into a late morning press & industry screening of Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, a documentary in competition by Andrew Rossi, which I was certain would draw only news junkies like myself. Boy was I wrong. Long lines packed the theater and many, including myself, were turned away. This afternoon it was reported that Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media jointly acquired Page One for release.
As a result of missing this film, the one I wanted to see, I ended up slouching through an alternative film selection at a slightly different time—teen girls coming of age, running away, discovering life’s cruel… stereotypical indie mush—which led to my rejiggering my schedule and attending These Amazing Shadows (below) in the Documentary Premieres section, directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton. Here’s where the serendipity comes in: ordinarily I steer clear of didactic documentaries at Sundance. A film about the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry? How uncool is that?
Which is why you should never judge a doc by its festival catalogue description. These Amazing Shadows strings together over 220 clips from National Registry films recognizable to any aficionado, like Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, as well as films you’re likely not to have seen, such as Topaz, originally intended as a color home movie of the 1940’s internment of Japanese-Americans as seen from the inside, and a 1950’s educational film showing the results of an atomic bomb blast on three side-by-side homes, two poorly maintained and one freshly painted. The freshly painted one, absurdly, alone survives the blast. Lesson? What if I told you it was underwritten by the paint industry?
These Amazing Shadows is a class act, with dozens of incisive (and uniformly well-lit) interviews with producers, directors, archivists, academics and film historians. It takes you deep into hundreds of underground nitrate vaults in the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, where severely damaged films are salvaged and restored. (Ninety miles of shelving! Did you know this center even existed?) Any documentary that pairs the elegant, erudite James Billington, Librarian of the U.S. Congress, with flip Baltimore bad boy John Waters has got to be described as inspired. Also terribly fun to watch.
Zsigmond, third from right, with, from left, Summer Children producers Jack Robinette and Edie Robinette-Petrachi
I wish the same could be said for what is possibly cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s first feature, Summer Children, shot in 1965-66, which producer Jack Robinette described as a “45-year-late premiere” at Slamdance tonight. (The screening was sponsored by Eastman Kodak, a major supporter of Slamdance for every one of its 17 years.) Zsigmond was on hand to unveil what is both a restoration and a debut, since the film was never completed due to outstanding lab bills at the time. Robinette likened the black-and-white film to Italian Realism and French New Wave, but the plot—about a party of seven ’60s youth who take a large sailboat to Catalina Island to attend an overnight shindig—and the acting are both so bad, in a cheesy Roger Corman sort of way, they’re almost good. Almost.
However, like the clips excerpted in These Amazing Shadows, images digitally restored from the original Kodak 35mm Plus-X negative were spectacular. Producer Robinette’s distant cousin Edie described her discovery of the original negative in a vault at Deluxe labs fourteen days before it was scheduled to be destroyed. The Slamdance audience gasped.
Not serendipity in her case, but kismet. And Kodak.
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