Sundance 2014: Diary of a Volunteer


The Sundance Film Festival is world renowned for being the springboard for independent film, the place where deals and careers are made, and where Hollywood people have to get out of their comfort zone and freeze their canastas off for a week or so in the occasionally bitter cold of Park City, Utah. What’s not really public knowledge is that a film festival of this size wouldn’t be possible without a horde of movie nerds willing to volunteer our time to run the theaters, the parking, the shuttle bus navigation, the stores, the celebrity-wrangling and all sorts of other various and sundry duties that need to be handled in order to make the experience of celebrating movies one that runs smoothly. For the past dozen years or so, I’ve been one of those people who fly out to Utah from wherever they are to get a snazzy Kenneth Cole coat and spend a week and a half playing The Fall Guy as “the unknown stuntman who made Redford such a star.” Wait, strike that, reverse it. Robert Redford is the reason guys like me get to come to a ski resort town and see movies before most other folks.

The set up is pretty simple – you work whatever your assigned shift is, be it ‘lady who tells people which buses go where’ or ‘guy who drives cars with famous people in them’ or ‘person who makes sure no one got sick in the bathroom,’ and then the rest of the time is yours to try and see movies… or, in my case, fight with a small-town internet infrastructure which is unable to handle the sheer amount of abuse it gets from the Sundance influx in order to maintain the Comics Channel (I promise, we will have a new Book Report podcast up shortly after I get back from The U). Of course, you also have to find time to sleep, which is hard when movies start at 8 a.m. and you work until 2:30 a.m. each night. You’re bound to get hit with a cold to knock you out of a day or two, and for some reason, every year, I forget that the altitude is going to give me a bloody nose for a while. That’s always a freaky discovery.

Perhaps the biggest hook that keeps me coming back each year is the social aspect and the general creative enthusiasm for film that the volunteers all seem to share. It’s energizing, be it with people who work in film themselves or the diehards who cram in as many movies as they can possibly see. When I first started, I saw maybe 40 films. 12 years in, bad internet, age, and an influx of younger folks who are totally down with wee-hour post-late-shift “socializing” have made it more difficult to manage that level of commitment. When you only went to bed an hour ago, and your alarm goes off telling you it’s time to go trudge across town in the biting cold to get in line, sleep will often win out over Kristen Wiig’s new indie dramedy. Otherwise, your system starts to suck and you wind up with crappy colds that will force you into bed anyway. But it is refreshing to realize that even though the next generation of film lovers might be the type of people who use words like “baller” unironically, they can still have strong and interesting opinions about Scorsese and Von Trier, so maybe you don’t need to have such a problem with slang that’s not your own. Deuces!

Anyway, that’s not what you care about, is it? You’re probably more curious about the movies I’ve seen. Admittedly, not as many as I’d like, but I like what I’ve managed to check out – and here’s the quick-hit rundown. Sadly, I was shut out of Whiplash and The Skeleton Twins.

The Double:  A great aesthetic for a bleak head trip of a film that made a lot more sense as soon as the credits told me that Richard Ayoade’s film was based on a Dostoevsky story. Then, suddenly, you could go “oh! Russian literature! Of course!” A strong dual performance from Jesse Eisenberg was nothing like Michael Cera’s dual performance in Youth In Revolt, which I’d feared it would going in. It took me an hour after watching this film to decide that yes, I liked it. Wallace Shawn, man.  Fred Topel’s full review is here.

Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger: What I thought would be your standard sort of documentary about a famous criminal’s twisted rap sheet surprised me by focusing more on the fact that Whitey Bulger was able to run Boston’s underworld for 25 years without even getting hit with a misdemeanor because he was being protected by the FBI. It’s not a film festival if you don’t see at least one documentary that makes you completely depressed about some kind of institutionalized corruption that seems completely unfixable.

Cooties: I am not much of a horror fan, and even less so for ‘evil kid’ movies, but the way you get around that is giving me Rainn Wilson as a surly gym teacher in a school overrun by zombie grade-schoolers. Funny, twitchy characters keep this one afloat as it goes for that elusive “cute and gory” market. William Bibbiani’s full review is here.

The Raid 2: You don’t often think of film festivals as places for sequels, much less for martial arts movies, but when The Raid showed up at Sundance two years ago, it was the talk of our crew, with one of them saying he worked up a sweat just watching its crazy kinetic action. So we made a point of getting up at 6am in order to get across town in time to see the next one, which is less claustrophobic than the first and a little more sprawling in its scope. Still a damn good time with some truly impressive, elaborate and imaginative kick-punching. Fred’s take is here.

Cold In July: What seems like watching Michael C. Hall’s tense descent into paranoia in the wake of a home invasion he stopped with an over-eager trigger finger transforms into some kind of vigilante revengey movie with the welcome arrival of Don Johnson halfway through. Good performances (particularly from Sam Shepard) and compelling characters make it worth a watch, even though it seems like it forgot to resolve half its plot. Fred’s take is here.

My Prairie Home: An extremely chill docu-musical about transgender Canadian folk singer Rae Spoon, about their life growing up in an abusive, religious home and their escape through music. Their voice is very ethereal and worth checking out.

Nymphomaniac Volume 1:  The secret screening that everyone was curious about happened to play during my shift, so I was the only one from Crave Online who was able to see it. Hence, my full review here.

Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch presents two hours of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston lounging around and looking sexy in their existential malaise as immortal vampires who are becoming slowly less immortal due to the disgusting blood of modern humans, whom they deride as “zombies.” Sunday fun fact – James Roberts, writer of great Transformers comics, tweeted me to let me know that the title comes from a Pet Shop Boys song about AIDS called “Dreaming of the Queen.” That idea becomes relevant later in the film, which relies entirely on the charisma of its lead actors to make it work, of which they have plenty, although it does feel a bit turgid here and there. Bibbs’ take is right here.

I Origins:  Mike Cahill’s Another Earth was one of the most talked-up movies of the 2011 festival, but I never got a chance to see it. Thankfully, I was able to make it to this one, which won the Alfred P. Sloan award for narrative films prominently featuring science. Michael Pitt is a scientist obsessed with the eye, trying to cure blindness, who gets caught up in a whirlwind romance with an unpredictably emotional young woman (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and when tragedy strikes, he and his lab partner Brit Marling are surprised to find themselves on a quest to prove or disprove the connection between the human eye’s unique iris pattern and reincarnated souls. It’s a smart film that never dumbs down its characters, which makes their slow awakening into spirituality that much more engrossing and every emotional moment that much more powerful. Definitely recommended.

God Help The Girl: The story behind this one is odd. Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian makes his directorial debut with this musical, the songs for which were written long before the movie was finished, and therefore were already released on a previous album. It’s hard to avoid calling this film an indie-pop version of Once, given the tender, awkward relationship that develops between two musicians that doesn’t turn out predictably, although Emily Browning’s Eve has a lot more personal issues to deal with that keep landing her in psychiatric hospitals. Still, it manages to be emotionally pure yet complex at the same time, as it’s all about confusion, hesitance and mistakes made in the arena of young love, featuring charming performances from Browning and Olly Alexander, and some really nice music. I’m looking forward to getting the new soundtrack, too.

Locke: This is an interesting experiment from Eastern Promises director Steven Knight, who spends the entire 85 minutes of this film watching Tom Hardy drive a car towards London while making a series of phone calls that destroy his life. There are no spectacular elements involved – no gunplay or crime or hot action or anything – but rather a meticulous, practical man dealing with fallout from a regrettable instance of infidelity while also trying to talk a co-worker through the most important architectural job of their lives. Hardy is a very engaging actor, and while the circumstances of the film are grounded in mundane realism, Ivan Locke’s methodical approach to trying to solve his problems balances with his occasional anger directed at the spectre of his hated father he sees in his rearview mirror to create an interesting character. However, it’s possible that many people will just find this boring, which is why they call a movie like this  an “experiment.”

Nick Offerman: American Ham: I’d love to see more stand-up comedy performance films at Sundance, and I’d love to see more Offerman anywhere. There’s a lot of Ron Swanson in Offerman as he details his 10 steps for leading a prosperous life, which include “Eat Red Meat” and “Use a Hanky,” but then he’ll occasionally bust out a goofy little giggle or start singing a song in his cracked voice about how awful the internet is and you can see that he’s not all Swanson. He’s not gut-bustingly hilarious, but his laid-back man-of-the-land style makes it easy to kill an hour with chuckles and maybe some inspiration to take up woodworking.


That’s all I got a chance to see. I write this on Sunday night as I’ve finally wrapped up my festival responsibilities, getting ready for one last get-together with my yearly film-nerd pals before we all fly back to our respective homes tomorrow. Sundance is like Movie Camp for Grown-Ups, really, and the work is immediately rewarding. Plus, sometimes, you get to watch Kevin Smith officiate a wedding on stage at the Egyptian Theater before a 20th anniversary screening of Clerks.

Now I gotta reserve a shuttle to haul my ass to the Salt Lake City airport tomorrow. Catch you on the Comics side, folks!