The Park City Dances
Smog has descended upon northern Utah, a meteorological phenomenon known as an inversion. This is the fifteenth day of January, and the thirteenth day of the inversion. A warning appears in the lower right hand corner of the hotel television—Condition Red—and conjures thoughts of burning buildings, dirty nukes, earthquakes, explosions, war. But the only imminent threat is the air we breathe. Recess has been cancelled in Salt Lake City elementary schools. The firemen stay indoors. The fog hovers low and traps car exhaust and smokestack plumage and the atmosphere becomes more toxic with each passing day.
I fill the sink with ice cubes and water and dunk my head and try to open my eyelids underwater. The capillaries extending outward from my irises are pink and broken. My mouth tastes of iron and my nose is bleeding. I’ve left Florida, the heat and the humidity, for this bitter, dry cold. I’m lightheaded from the altitude. I’ve left Debbie at home with Ian, our infant son. Already I’ve been accosted by Mormon missionaries. Already I’m lonely.
Interstate 80, the route from Salt Lake City to Park City, inclines steeply into the Wasatch Range, which is covered in white snowdrift and jagged brown rock, and ten miles west of the city the road emerges from the fog. The sky becomes very bright, a vast cloudless stretch of intense, luminous blue. A candy-apple red hot air balloon ascends from a ski resort. The air is thin and cold. I feel a burning in my retinas and see two black holes, blind spots that recede with the passing of clouds in front of the sun and return with each new glare. A dull ache accompanies these blacknesses. Not pain, but the absence of feeling.
Ian will be walking soon. Any day he’ll take his first steps. This trip was planned before he was even born. I believed, then, in the power of fame to make me whole. Maybe I still have stars in my eyes: stories I will write, films I will make, places I will travel, the whole grandeur of the world waiting for me, calling out for my presence so the earth can unfold its wonders.
But there are greater wonders. A man and a woman make love, again and again, and (who knows which time this miracle happened?) a child is knit together in the womb. From seed and egg, yes, but seemingly out of nothing. One day, two, and the next day three. I was there, I saw his mother struggle to push him into the light, and I saw him emerge, bloody and screaming, but also whole and beautiful. I held an ultraviolet blanket to his jaundiced body for seven days, until his skin turned from yellow to pink. I fed him from a tiny bottle. I sang to him and watched him sleeping in my arms.
Now I’ve left him, for the first time in his life, and for what? To chase producers in slick grey suits and slip them my film treatment. To sneak into Bacchanalian parties. To tell lies—I’m with the director; I’m with ABC; I’m with Extra; I am the director—so I can get behind doors, curtains, walls, security details. To make—that strange word—contacts. To write down tiny observations that I can use later, so I can publish, so I can be bigger, so I can climb some elusive ladder.
It’s the first day of the Sundance Film Festival. I’ve wrangled credentials from the press office and assignments from an Ohio daily newspaper and a hip San Francisco web site. This means sometimes I can get into film showings for free. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been told to walk around and write things down.
I have seen movie stars. I have seen directors in bowler hats with white feathers, been seduced by a beautiful woman in a dyed white fur coat, sneaked into places I shouldn’t be disguised as a television cameraman, watched big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton descend a hundred-foot wave after chasing it, towed by a Jet Ski. I’ve sat not fifteen feet away from Robert Redford while he made a public joke at the expense of a hack writer. I’ve shaken hands with bit-part actor Chuck Plentywounds, thinking he was Sherman Alexie, and enjoyed this exchange at a Blender magazine party:
Woman in White Fur: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Writing things down. What are you doing?”
Women in White Fur: “I’m drinking! Let’s dance, wallflower!”
I have seen Mormons in hipster gear trying to stargaze outside Zoom Restaurant. I have smelled stinky butts on Park City public transportation. I have been nearly trampled outside a high-school auditorium by an unruly mass of bodies and cameras trying with desperate conviction to get footage of an obscure entourage member whose name they do not know. (They shout to the publicist: “Who’s that we just got?”) I have seen advertisements for something called Pimp Juice, and ample evidence of the negative effects of intoxication on human decision-making. People have approached me in the street, saying, “I loved you in Seabiscuit.” This was not a compliment.
I call home, and Debbie answers. The baby’s fine, she says. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.
Everything is not fine. In the background I hear my mother singing the diaper changing song. The baby is crying. I’m standing in the lobby of a hunting lodge, at an early evening reception for Sundance directors. There are no directors here, only actors with small roles in underfunded movies playing elsewhere, tourists with fourteen hundred dollar backstage passes, and one lonely wire photographer, snapping away as everyone smiles and tries to look important.
I love you, I’m saying. I’m practically shouting. The wood floors vibrate with bass frequencies from the dance music below. Stray flickers of mirror ball light play against the corner of the phone booth. A giant disembodied moose head stares down at me. His gaze is startled, and not a little sad.
What? She’s saying. I can’t hear you. You’ll have to speak louder.
The editor of a film magazine is trying to take my arm. He’s handing me a Heineken. He’s strapping a plastic bracelet around my wrist. He’s responsible for sneaking me in. Hold on, I tell my wife. He wants to introduce me to someone from Los Angeles.
When I put the receiver again to my ear I hear terrible screaming. I’m sorry, I have to go, she says. I drop the bottle and spill beer on my shoes. I never knew I had full possession of the Heineken. I love you, I say. The editor and the man from Los Angeles are across the room now, waving me over, bidding me join a new conversational circle.
I’m sorry, baby, I can’t hear you, she’s saying. I’m sorry, I have to go. I love you.
Tonight is National Lampoon night at the Blender party at Harry O’s on Main Street, hosted by an R&B singer named Nelly. Dancers hold blue light sticks in their hands, and from the smoke-obscured ground level, they appear as faint neon fireflies, tethered to nothing. I meet a man who sells foreign rights to obscure American documentaries. He is dressed in all black, with a black beard and near black eyes that don’t quite match the pallor of his skin. “You heard of You Don’t Know Jack?” he says. I say no. He says it’s a documentary about Jack Nance, star of the David Lynch film Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. He looks like someone from a David Lynch film himself, just slightly out of place, and he did mysteriously appear from the mist. He hands me a DVD screener of the movie, which he says will self-destruct (or at least become unplayable) in forty-eight hours. “New technology,” he says. “Cutting-edge stuff.”
I try to use the bathroom. Three women wearing black T-shirts and black panties stand in front of the entrance. I am accosted by two faintly Greek-looking bodyguards with biceps as big as my thighs. “You can’t go in there,” the smaller one says, looking down at me. “Okay,” I say. “Get out of here,” he says. “Okay,” I say, and I do.
Hotels in Park City are priced for expense accounts, for corporate credit cards and four-figure per diems, not for unpaid reporters who have quit their day jobs and bought their own plane tickets. Early every morning and late every evening I’ll commute up and down the Wasatch toward the western side—the far side—of Salt Lake City, high on Red Bull energy drinks and Vitamin B and C pills, trying to stay awake, trying to stay alive.
It’s two in the morning. I’m sitting in a grocery store parking lot, wearing a green and white sock hat and a bulky maroon coat over three layers of clothing, and I can’t stay warm. I get too aggressive with the rental car and flood the engine. It’s dark. A snowball fight—six or seven teenagers on the run, snowboards strapped to their backs—erupts over my trunk, a spray of damp against my breath-fogged windows, a fury of white arcs, then passes, and I am alone again.
The car starts and I pull too fast onto the iced-over street. I slam foot to brake, and the rear end fishtails and I briefly spin. Out past the city, on the narrow roads leading to the interstate, my headlights reflect green against four eyes, and I slow and see two magnificent creatures, doe and fawn, watching from near the shoulder. This morning I heard a story on the radio about a death on this road, a car full of children sitting idle in the turn lane, its wheels angled to oncoming traffic, and a drunken van striking it from behind, sending the car careening toward disaster, broadsided at forty miles per hour in the dark.
This is Debbie’s greatest fear, that I’ll die and leave her alone. She says she won’t remarry, but I hope she will. I hope she’ll choose someone who will love her and love my son and be good and kind to them. I’ve turned onto the interstate, and this faster road is still caked with ice, and now the mountains fall away on either side. For the last five years I’ve had constant premonitions of death—my death, Debbie’s, Ian’s—and it’s true, people are dying all around me, most recently my friend Tony, dead of leukemia at 32. The middle lane seems safest to me, the farthest from the edges, and I’m going fifty-five, plenty fast, I think, for a steep decline on ice in the dead of night, with the inversion fog just ahead, and cars are flying past me on both sides.
My little brother spends most nights on drives like this, but longer, a thousand miles from city to city, and three hours sleep before strapping on his bass guitar and playing rock star. He is a huge celebrity, but only in Italy and Holland. He tells me about a frequent hallucination—sheep jumping over bridges, often in places where there are no bridges—and he says if the road splits into three roads, try to keep the wheels pointed toward the road in the middle.
Day Two, and I’m across the street from the walled-and-gated Mormon Temple complex, contemplating a strange indoor sculpture of, I suppose, Medusa. Her tangle of snake-hair is made of dull red and cannon-fire orange blown-glass tendrils, and rises sixty feet or so above my head. The elite of Salt Lake City—politicians, the director of the zoo, privileged children, media-types, money, money, money—has gathered beneath her coils, in Abravenel Hall, for a sort of civilian (non-film industry) festival premiere. Last night’s official premiere, in Park City, was held at the Eccles Center, a high-school auditorium, and hungry filmgoers could buy popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas at the concession stand. Tonight, in Salt Lake, hostesses circulate trays of dipped fruits, breaded chocolate confections, peppered salmon bites, croissant wraps, brie, and red wine with orange-rind garnishes around the rim of the glass. Tonight we celebrate the mainstreaming of Native American filmmaking with the premiere of Chris Eyre’s second film, Edge of America, while, unfathomably, a band of white people plays Celtic music in the grand hallway.
The national press will ignore these festivities. Tonight is a tip of the hat to local power, and (one would assume) local tax breaks. Tonight I am the national press, and I have been sent to the red-carpet line, which is carpeted but not red. What press mostly does at Sundance is take pictures of and get quotes from movie stars, but there are no movie stars in Edge of America. Last night, in Park City, where the biggest star was Gabrielle Reece, a beach volleyball player (and, okay, a swimsuit model), I saw people with cameras and microphones throw a few elbows while jockeying for position along the red-carpet line. Tonight, in Salt Lake, the local newspaper- and television-types stand around gossiping, bored, throwing no elbows. A reporter points toward the glass medusa. “See that?” she says. “The man who made that is half-blind. He made it for the Winter Olympics. He wears an eye-patch, like a pirate.”
I am given lessons in Mormon history and culture by a Latter-Day Saint cameraman. Across the street the golden cast of the Angel Moroni sits atop the temple at the geographic center of the city and looks down upon us all. In the nineteenth century Moroni led Joseph Smith to the hill where he discovered the buried golden plates of Reformed Egyptian Heiroglyphs that he translated, aided by magic spectacles, into Mormon Scripture. “It’s very white inside the temple, and beautiful,” the cameraman says. “And clean. You have to take your shoes off.”
A Sundance press-office person gathers us together. There has been a change in plans. We must go upstairs and meet the governor and hear opening remarks; then we’ll do the red carpet line. In a fine imitation of kindergarten teachers everywhere (I know: my mom teaches five-year-olds in Florida) the press-office person raises one hand in the air and instructs us to form a line. We do. We follow the hand through the sea of bodies in the grand hallway, up the winding staircase, through the restricted access zone on the second floor, and into a private anteroom decorated with expensive abstract expressionist paintings and full of the sort of people who might buy a thousand-dollar plate at a Republican Party fundraiser. A wet bar at far end of the room, near the floor-to-ceiling windows, serves Manhattans and cosmopolitans and vodka tonics and Chardonnay and Merlot. “The podium’s up front,” the hand says, and we pass the word along to the back of the press line (this is something like telephone, the school-bus game where a message is whispered from child to child, usually arriving radically altered at the rear of the bus, but, fortunately, our line is very short, and everyone is able to find the podium).
We are separated into three groups, according to our relative media value. Television cameras are given the prime real estate, right in front of the podium. Still photographers get dibs on the side of the stage. Writers (they call us print; this is a media designation roughly equivalent to an army rank of, say, buck private) are forced into a single-file line along the wall, behind the television cameras and away from the Republicans. I stand on my tiptoes, straining to see between two cameras, as government and film festival dignitaries give their opening addresses for an audience of cameras and microphones while over a thousand ticket-holders wait downstairs, not knowing that there are opening remarks to hear.
The governor of Utah is a seventy-two-year-old woman named Olene S. Walker who took office last November after Mike Leavitt, the governor to whom she was lieutenant, resigned to take over the Environmental Protection Agency. Governor Walker looks sort of like Stockard Channing, but more wrinkly, and has the stage presence of a stand-up comic: She talks; we laugh. Her policy interests are education and the plight of the homeless. Her daughter produced last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner American Splendor. If Olene S. Walker ran for president, I would vote for her.
Downstairs, we finally do the red carpet line, and I feel sorry for the actors, because they clearly have been looking forward to walking the red carpet, and they seem genuinely disappointed that we reporters are not being at all paparazzi-ish.
Reporter: “And who are you?”
Handsome Man: “I’m Tim Daly.”
Reporter: “And you’re in the film?”
Handsome Man: “I play LeRoy McKinney.”
Reporter: “In the film?”
Publicist: “He’s also an executive producer.”
Cameraman: “Could you turn a little to the left, Mr. McKinney?”
Inside the theater, Robert Redford appears again from the behind the curtain, Oz-like, (and, like last night, draws more substantial applause than the actual filmmakers he is introducing) and welcomes the crowd. It has become standard practice among die-hard independent film-types to deride Sundance (and, by extension, Redford—it’s his baby) as a commercial sellout, a place for auctioning and purchasing, a Hollywood film festival. But Redford, after brief sponsor-thanking, delivers instead an impassioned speech about the history of Native Americans in film and about the ways that white people have exploited ratty Indian caricatures—cowboy ambushes, Tonto, Italian actors with long hair, embarrassingly inauthentic rain dances and war whoops and peace pipes—without giving Native voices the opportunity to tell their own stories. “I think it’s about time that Native Americans be shown somewhere other than the back of a nickel,” he says.
The lights dim. The movie starts. Someone near the middle of the theater coughs, quite audibly. Edge of America fills the screen and disappoints me, because it is good, but not in an edgy, independent film way; instead in a safe, PG-rated sports-movie-dealing-with-racial-issues-in-a-touching-yet-formulaic-and-sort-of-manipulative way, because this is Salt Lake City, not Park City, and the Angel Moroni, after all, is looking down upon us, and Medusa, too, and as I walk back to the parking garage and my rental car, I search half-heartedly and in vain for something more interesting, perhaps a man with a black eye-patch who can blow snakes from glass.
Debbie calls with news: Ian has taken his first step. He has said his first word (if Aboo counts as a first word) and taken a bottle of formula in his hands for the first time. He’s banging the piano keys with his hands, and he appears to be singing. The doctor says he’s gained five pounds since his last visit. He’s switched his affection from a stuffed Winnie the Pooh to a stuffed blue creature that looks like a hippopotamus. Debbie says it’s supposed to be a cow.
And how is your trip? she asks. I’ve got nothing. You can float in the Great Salt Lake, I tell her. The salt makes you buoyant.
Did you float? she says. No, I say. It was too cold to get in the water.
It’s eighty-five degrees here, she says. She means she wishes I was there instead of here.
I’m good, I say. I’m great. I think I saw Jennifer Aniston. She’s in town shooting a commercial with a gorilla. Something environmental.
That’s great, she says. You’re doing great. She says something else, but there’s static and then silence. I’m standing at a Park City bus stop, punching buttons, but they won’t light back up. The cell phone is dead.
The days are rushing together, shortened and lengthened by lack of sleep and delirium. Today’s topic is claustrophobia: fear of the mash and crush of bodies confined in tiny spaces, the invasion of personal places, especially on the bus, especially on the Park City Transit / Sundance Film Festival Theater Loop, which this afternoon became packed too full—bodies in the stairwell, bodies pressed against windows, bodies in my lap—and then got ensnared in the Great Park Avenue Traffic Jam of 2004, the big one, when the heater pumped ninety-degree blasts of furnace air into a moving container holding people wearing layers of shirt and fleece and heavy coat, and the stale, recirculated air grew thick with heat and exhalations and the smell of commingled halitosis, all the organic leech-and-stink of desperate fleeing body toxins, my two inches of atmosphere tasting like the Hefeweizen breath of the California girl sitting next to me, who wore a lei of purple flowers around her neck and talked incessantly about Ashton Kutcher, whose film was scheduled to premiere one hour from when we boarded and whose film began before we debarked.
I could tell you about the democracy of the bus—ski bums and corporate sponsors; actors and gawkers; Sundance volunteers in red-and-black gratis Kenneth Cole vests and old ladies with surgically tightened faces and white swinging purses dangling from gold-colored chains; haunted white Gothic European metro faces framed in jet-black dyed hair, black faces covered in chic unfettered kinks of carefully ungroomed salt-and-pepper beard hair, sunburned faces, windblown faces, faces with and without makeup, faces with peeling concealer covering mounds of blemish; feet with boots, boots with hair, loafers, tennis shoes, laceups, slip-ons, space-age, moccasin; and voices, Mandarin and Slavic, Romance and Indo-European, rounded consonants and glottal stops; swatches of clothing, black leather, brown corduroy, periwinkle sock hat, a silver ring on a pale white finger attached to a body obscured from sight by other bodies, bodies, bodies, jewelry, earrings; the smell of unlaundered clothing, the unmistakable (and welcome) smell of Tide with Bleach Alternative, Polo Sport, Jean Nate, Sunflowers, carnauba wax, mothballs, dried marinara, feta cheese, various smells male and female, private, sexual, animal, the private zone occluded by proximity.
The bus stopped unexpectedly, too quickly, tipped to starboard, and the hydraulic doors opened, and one of the rear stairwell riders would have fallen face-first into a snowdrift three feet down if two frailish women hadn’t caught his arms and held him in. The girl with the lei held a half-empty bottle of water.
Man: “How much you want for that water?”
Lei Girl: “This is a three-dollar bottle of water!”
Man: “ I’ll give you five.”
Lei Girl: “No way!”
We finally reached Main Street, and I debarked to eat at the Red Banjo Pizza Parlour, one of the few downtown restaurants where a reservation is not required. I waited forty-five minutes for a table, then landed a four-seater by myself. A few minutes later an Australian man asked if he could sit with me. “Sure,” I said. “Bloody great,” he said. He leaned over the table, put his mouth close to my ear, and said, “How old you gotta be to drink in this state?”
“Twenty-one,” I said.
“Tell you what, mate,” he said. “I’m nineteen. You order a pitcher of beer and split it with me, and I’ll pay for it. I haven’t had a good drink since I got to the states.”
I darted. I danced. I dodged. I have ethical problems with buying beer for underage drinkers, even underage drinkers from parts of the world where an eight-year-old can hoist a pint. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m an actor,” he said. “My name is Maxwell Kasch. I play Shorty in Chrystal.”
I want to say that I’m a principled person. I want to say I’m not into all that celebrity worship, that I find ordinary people more interesting than the actors who portray them, that I’m callous and a bit jaded and not at all given to elbow-rubbing, that I’m above it all. But offered the company of a very obscure underage actor in a Billy Bob Thornton vehicle (and, okay, it is one of the best movies in the festival) I relent, I give in, I sell my moral birthright for a pitcher of watered-down, 4 percent Utah beer. We eat pizza and sip the beer and debate the relative merits of buzz—both the film-industry and the beer-industry kind—and Maxwell displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the foreign films showing at Sundance, most of which he has already seen in Australia. He is a people-magnet. People from Los Angeles stop by to say hello, people from Melbourne, people he has never met and who have no idea who he might be. I thank him for the beer. “No worries,” he says.
You did what? Debbie is saying. What if you get arrested? You don’t know the law out there, it’s written by Mormons. What if they take you to jail? Who will bail you out?
Then: You aren’t going to write about it, are you?
By now my dispatches from Sundance are running in daily installments on a very popular internet site. I’m getting hourly emails from around the world, from people in the film industry in Hollywood, from South Africa and New Zealand, from magazine editors in Manhattan and Brooklyn, from people here at Sundance, from well-known literary writers I’ve long admired. My parents are reading me. Debbie’s colleagues at work are reading, and her family, and our friends. We both come from deeply conservative communities. We’ve spent time in churches, in programs for children and teenagers. We’re both teachers. I’m planning a book.
What about Ian? she says. What if he grows up and reads your book and decides it’s okay to be reckless?
My mother taught me to fear everything, and so I spent my childhood in dread of, well, all things. I don’t endorse recklessness, but Debbie’s argument seems like that old trap that would deny adults any knowledge of human complexity for fear of polluting the mythic innocence of some child, any child, anywhere. But this is unfair to Debbie. She is smart, and often wise. She is not my mother.
A street party has developed on Lower Main, two blocks away. The Long Winters, a cover band with a keyboardist who is a dead ringer for Jack Osbourne, play fairly competent rock-and-roll. Three children in pastel snowsuits are dancing to “Runnin’ with the Devil.” The rest of the people, me included, are dancing just to keep warm. It is ten degrees Fahrenheit, and dropping. Later, I examine my legs, and find them chapped pink with cold.
The music winds down and a drum circle forms behind me. The snowsuited children run to join it, and their parents rush to keep up. The children dance winding dervish spins around the drummers, and other people join in, too. Some are stereotypical drum-circle dancers—hippies, white people with dreadlocks, ski-cap hackysack types—but people with ties are dancing, too, and beautiful women, and bundled-up men with gray hair. A djembe dangles between a percussionist’s legs, hanging from a rope tied around his waist, and he beats the contrapuntals with palms and fingertips, and even though these instruments are purely rhythmic, their timbres, and the dancing, and the motion, and the sound of the wind through the street, all of it is suggestive of melody, and I can hear the music in my head, snaking through the current of beats and bodies, and so I join in the dancing, too, and close my eyes and enjoy the shadow movement of the streetlights across my eyelids.
I should write magical sentences. I should, as E. M. Forster suggested, turn time toward beauty. I should shroud Park City in veils of descriptive majesty, the sky magenta, then purple, then midnight blue, then black, and the stars less shy here in the mountains, away from the three-thousand mile stretches of streetlight that plague the coasts. I should describe the trajectory of a marriage, the survival of love, small daily epiphanies. I should say how I survived, we survived, how death and the fear of death are not the same thing. I should bare my frailties and then show you hope. I should end with those children dancing, those drummers, that sound.
I am alone without her. The evening we fell in love, we sat on a dock beside a tiny Florida lake, dangled our feet in the water and gave away all our secrets. A radio tower rose above us in the distance, and its red light cast a reflection upon the water that appeared to flicker with the gentle rolling waves. Do you see it? she said. And I said yes, I did. But do you see it? Her eyes were full with tears. She’d grabbed onto beauty and knew how to understand it. She took me in her arms and helped me to be still. She helped me to understand. She taught me to see.
But that was the beginning, when our bodies told us things, the days of tremble and flight, of flicker and transport. I can speak with confidence of beginnings and endings, how the soft snow began to fall onto the streets of Park City—even as the laborers folded tents and lowered banners, even as the airport in Salt Lake City crowded with fleeing urbanites—the cleansing snow that had been promised by the meteorologists, and how by the next morning the fog that had covered the Wasatch Basin had begun to abate, and the first patches of clear blue in over two weeks could be seen above Salt Lake City’s skyline.