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Sundance So Far

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The World According To Dick Cheney is a very good, maybe great documentary. It isn’t The Fog Of War, but it has an element of that. And it isn’t Tyson, but it has an element of that too. If you walk into the movie hating Dick Cheney your feelings aren’t going to change. And if you walk in loving him your feelings won’t change, either. Because if you love him you already know he lied about certain things and you believe, the way he believes, that he did what was necessary to keep America safe. You feel that way about torture. And if you’re like me, and probably like most readers of The Rumpus, which is a literary website after all, then you wonder, Safe from what? He didn’t keep us safe from dishonest politicians and becoming a country that tortures prisoners and ignores the law. In the name of protecting America he made America less worth protecting. But you will learn how certain things came to be, and you’ll get a portrait of a zealot, and you see what happens when a zealot also possesses extraordinary political skills and comes to power.

And I loved Stoker. But my friend didn’t love it and she asked me why I loved it and I couldn’t say really. The cinematography of course. This is a movie where the camera is truly one of the performers. The music, by Clint Mansell, a composer I’m obsessed with. But the story is what carries. The tension. You’re locked in your seat. And the movie is smart. It’s not like a Hollywood thriller, continually talking down to you, telling you how to feel.

And I thought of another friend asking a similar question about Django Unchained. She was asking about the purpose of the movie and wondering about the purpose of the artist, as well.  The purpose of the artist is not important to me. I don’t believe an artist needs to know why she is driven to create what she creates. And I don’t judge art against the character of that artist. The artist rarely enters the experience for me. I believe art happens between the viewer and canvas. If I was deconstructing I could have said Django asked interesting questions about narrative’s relation to the darkest part of American history. It was similar, really, to Martin Amis’s Koba The Dread, subtitled Laughter And The Twenty Million, an amazing book that poses the question of why it’s OK to make jokes about Stalin, but no Hitler. But I don’t think I loved Django for that reason. And yet these movies are not just entertainments. Tarantino is commenting on the history of cinema and Park Chan-wook is making movies unlike anything we’ve seen before. Though Django stayed with me and already Stoker is fading.

I’ve seen five movies in my three days here and only really enjoyed two of them. I was most disappointed by Before Midnight, because Before Sunset is one of my favorite movies. Ethan Hawke is still amazing. It’s almost impossible not to look at his face, even when his shirt is half-tucked in for more than a third of the movie as if it were a fashion statement. But Julie Delpy is terrible. Or her character is. But the actors wrote the movie with Richard Linklater, most of it coming from improvisations. To me Delpy was everything I never want in a relationship. She was an argument against relationships. In Before Sunset she was neurotic, and nagging, but also an artist, full of life. Now she is only neurotic. If you tell her you miss your son who lives with his mom in Chicago she will tell you she’s not moving to Chicago. If you try to talk she will scream. She will criticize your writing and assure you you’re no Henry Miller, on the page or in the bed. She will work traps, asking what you don’t like about her.

Halfway through the movie I whispered to my friend, I would have broken up with her twenty minutes ago. And by broken up I meant, walked out the door. I would have taken a small bag and walked to the road and gotten in someone’s car. It would matter that we had twins together, but not enough. I know, from a family friend, that you regret later not fighting for your children. But Hawke was in the fortunate spot of having a son in Chicago and two daughters in Paris; he was going to abandon either the son or the twins no matter what.

I didn’t like Don Jon’s Addiction, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut, but it got me thinking about compulsion. All my life I’ve tried to live the way I’m supposed to live but never known what that is. I can read an article, like The Futile Pursuit Of Happiness (which I read in 2003 and successfully nominated for Best American Non-Required) and attach myself to it like a cult. I was talking to a friend who plays Farmville two hours every night. She had eight farms, she said. She said they were perfect. She wasn’t conflicted. She didn’t feel like she was wasting time.

I brought it up with C., who was in Park City only for the weekend. I said, porn, sex (of a type), internet, chocolate, smart conversation, indoor climbing sometimes. Snowboarding. Board games, card games. It’s a long list. She said, Does it make you happy. And I said, Is that really the question? Drugs make me happy. I haven’t done ecstasy in five years, or acid since high school. Does happiness really justify anything? I get how we define addiction. It interrupts our work, hurts our relationships. I was talking on the other side of that. Like Josh Gordon Levitt’s character masturbating 11 times a day. Or that movie Shame. Or anorexia. Or the video game industry.

I was talking about meaning. Elusive. Always shifting as what matters to us changes. That’s why Sheila Heti‘s book is called How Should A Person Be. That’s what On The Road is about. That’s the question Joan Didion raises, and answers, in The White Album. That’s the question I raised, and answered, in The Score. It turns out the answers are temporary. That’s the beauty of the quintessential line from Hard Rain Falling:

He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey.

That’s why I moved to the mountain in 1997 and I moved to the Mission in 1999. Because I thought it was important to be free and I thought it was important to be close to friends.

Don Jon’s Addiction, at its best, and it’s rarely at its best, is a movie about change. But change into what? And for how long?

What I’m most excited about at Sundance is the premier of Afternoon Delight directed by Jill Soloway. It seemed like one day she was talking about wanting to make a movie, taking director workshops, and the next day her first movie was opening at Sundance. I’m fond of Jill, she’s always trying to help people. And she’s funny and a good writer.

And I’m excited for Josh Bearman and Antonia Crane who are supposed to arrive today.

And at some point I’m getting on that mountain and hurtling downward. Maybe today in fact, though it’ll mean missing movies I want to see. Can you believe they gave me a press pass for The Rumpus? And I guess here I am, writing about Sundance, so maybe it’s not without merit.

Kink opened here the other day. A documentary about Kink.com (very NSFW). James Franco got the idea for it when we were shooting About Cherry in the San Francisco armory. He didn’t direct the movie, which I’ve heard good things about. He’s the producer.

There are parties here. Lots of them. Drinks are free. The food is good. People are going all out. The directors are relatively hidden but the producers are everywhere. Some people say it’s like Hollywood, if Los Angeles was smaller and you could walk to things. But it’s also New York. It’s got all the good and bad sides of making movies. What I love is that there is so much to do. It’s beautiful, no matter where you stay. It’s almost impossible to look out a window and not see a mountain. The busses are free. There are people here who live in San Francisco but we hang out more in Park City. We’re all away from our routines, like it’s the first day of college.

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Postscript: The excessive stimulation can make it hard to connect, as well. Hard to have a meaningful talk while rushing to the next thing. It’s exhilarating. You might say, It’s good to be alive! and forget why you said it moments later. The challenge of getting into a movie you want to see might be more fun than the movie itself. I happen to be good at getting into places when I want to. For instance, if I want to see a movie I’ll ask three or four people for tickets. One of them will always come across an extra ticket. Either they changed their mind about going, or the met someone with an extra ticket. But most people don’t do that. They don’t have a ticket so they either sit in the wait-list line or go somewhere else. Maybe I lack pride. And maybe there’s a link between lacking pride and being resourceful. And can you lack pride but still have integrity? Like most contradictions it helps to have a short memory.

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Originally published as a Daily Rumpus email.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →