A Night that was Worth the Hype

Maybe because I’d already been to so many Sundance parties, or because I couldn’t imagine the Racquet Club as an awards hall, or because I’m allergic to hype—whatever the reason, I was skeptical about the closing night ceremony.

That changed the second I stepped off the Theater Loop bus. Greeters were everywhere, all of them exceedingly polite and smiling, some even in tuxedos, guiding me through the red-tape maze on the floor. It was a breeze; the biggest event at Sundance, and yet not a single line. Imagine that. The only two times I even had to stop (from strutting) were at the press table and the coat check.

Somehow, the awards hall’s designers had turned a bunch of tennis courts into a classy joint. Black curtains formed the perimeter of the hall, while silky white drapery, lit violet and billowing in the draft, hid the steel columns. Spotlights swirled everywhere, accompanied by surprisingly good electronic and hip-hop music. Add to that the white-padded ceiling and everyone’s fluorescent green wristbands, glowing like fireflies under the black lights, and the ceremony had the look of a rave in a space shuttle hangar.

After an hour of open bar and noshing—the mini hamburgers, the only true finger food there, went fast while everything else stagnated—the attendees took their seats for the first award, the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for outstanding science- or technology-related film, given to ADAM. “Going once, going twice,” said the presenter…

…but no one from ADAM was there to accept the prize. It wouldn’t be the last time: About a quarter of the winners weren’t there.

Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore provided one of the night’s more memorable moments, his hoarse voice straining as he addressed the future of independent film—which some say is facing tough times.

“The future isn’t clear,” he said. “It really is uncertain. The independent arena will change and needs to change in order to prosper…. It has to change because there are too many good films that have to be seen by people everywhere, and we have to work out a way for that to happen.”

By the end of his rousing speech, he was practically shouting.

And now some notable winners’ moments:

—After PAPER HEART won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, co-screenwriter Nicholas Jasenovec admitted to the crowd that he and Charlyne Yi wrote only about five pages of script for the film—the rest having been improvised. Yi, meanwhile, said, “Hi, um, I feel sick, I’m sweaty and I smell bad.” Apparently that was funny enough to warrant referencing by two later winners.

—Activist Rick O’Barry, the subject of environmental thriller THE COVE, provided the night’s most controversial moment when, after the documentary won the audience award, he singled out Japanese broadcaster (and Sundance sponsor) NHK and demanded they end the “media blackout” on stories about whale and dolphin hunting. “Ask NHK to please allow the Japanese people to see this movie,” he said. “We love Japan and we love the Japanese people. They have the right to know the truth.” I couldn’t find the NHK rep in attendance to catch his reaction.

—PUSH director Lee Daniels, after winning the audience award for U.S. dramatic film, challenged Gilmore for the most passionate speech, saying, “This is so important to me because this is speaking for every minority that’s in Harlem, that’s in Detroit, that’s in Watts, that’s being abused, that can’t read, that’s obese, and that we turn our back on. And this is for every gay little boy and girl that’s being tortured. If I can do this shit, y‘all can do this shit.”

—Mike White, in presenting the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize (which also went to PUSH), began by saying, “I had a movie in competition here once, and there was some buzz that we would get an award, and the night of the awards one of the jurors got up and said, ‘The awards we’re giving tonight’—I won’t name names, but she said—‘the awards we’re giving tonight are the definitively best movies of the festival. And then we didn’t get any award. Her name started with a ‘J,’ and it ended in an ‘anet Maslin.’” His point, he said: If you don’t win, don’t blackball him like he has blackballed that jury “to this day.”

Fortunately, all of the winners heeded emcee Jane Lynch’s warning: “If you don’t move it along, I will.” (I hope someone from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was there taking notes.) Unsurprisingly, Obama was mentioned at least a half-dozen times, most prominently by the first speaker, Ken Brecher (executive director of the Sundance Institute), who said, “When we began this festival George Bush was the president of the United States, and we end it with Barack Obama.” I’ve never heard an audience hiss and boo with such fury.

(Just kidding.)

I watched the ceremony with the rest of the press near the food spread. Some of the reporters, squinting into their MacBooks, were obviously live-blogging. Others, like me, jotted down the occasional observation or quote into a notebook, but we were there as much for fun as business—which is to say, we drank on the job. After the ceremony, the chairs were whisked away, the DJ booth was moved to the stage (miraculously, without interrupting the music), and the hall turned into a legitimate dance party.

Having availed myself of many a free Stella, I bounded up to several filmmakers and ran my mouth off. I introduced myself to Cary Fukunaga (SIN NOMBRE), hoping to discuss our shared experience as students at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Problem was, Fukunaga had gone to NYU. Desperate to save the conversation, I told him I was eager to see his film because I too had spent a lot of time in Latin America—and, you know, we’re both gringos! He politely nodded his head until I shut myself up and shuffled off. (I hope he doesn’t have a blog.)

I also ran into BIG FAN director/writer Robert Siegel and explained my problem: As I explained in an earlier post, I wasn’t sure whether I should curse him or congratulate him for toying with me until the film’s penultimate scene. We agreed on the latter. Then I assured him there was a lot of buzz surrounding BIG FAN and said there was little doubt it would get picked up. Like I know anything about the movie business.

An hour later I left for the after-party at the Filmmaker’s Lodge. Outside, the unseasonal rain had changed over to snow, the flakes so large they floated down like leaves.

And that’s when the chicken scratch in my notebook becomes completely illegible.