Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Sundance scenery: New films from Paul Giamatti, Kirby Dick, and Haskell Wexler

PARK CITY, Utah - Mistah Sting! Mistah Sting! I hear a woman's voice repeat this five or six times and I turn to hear where it's coming from and I'm staring at Sting.

He wears a black leather jacket and black ski hat that reads "Saints" short for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the film his wife, Trudie Styler, co-produced. It's one of 16 films in dramatic competition here at the Sundance Film Festival and one of the best.

Mr. Sting turns on his heels finally, walks stiffly to the woman, signs her notebook in a single unreadable swipe, and turns around and walks back into line. I notice this kind of thing occur a couple of times; in the middle of Main Street, a pair of teenage boys approach Neil Young. They shout "Mr. Young!" and raise their cameras and Young says warily, "Don't even think about it."

Feel bad for Sting.

Feel bad for Neil Young.

Feel bad for Paul Giamatti. People in Toledo often ask who is the nicest actor I have ever interviewed. Giamatti is the nicest - gracious, smart, without pretense. Giamatti can't walk five feet here without someone mentioning Sideways or asking him if he'd like a sip of merlot, and every time he waves his hand in recognition and shrugs or thanks them, but he never pretends not to notice. "Paul, you keeping the beard?" a stranger yells. Giamatti runs his hands through the thick hair and says, "I'm keeping it, man."

We talk a bit about his movie The Hawk is Dying, which is not a happy title. He plays an auto upholsterer obsessed with train-

ing a red-tailed hawk. He spends a lot of the film with a hawk on a leash, thrashing around beside him; his character, alienated and lonely, is on the verge of a breakdown. As for the birds: "They're very light and I talked about getting one even." Nevertheless two people walk up and ask if the bird was a digital creation, like King Kong. "No," he says, and shoots a glance at me, "It was on my arm, for real, the whole time."

Life here in Park City is difficult.

The bagels are stale. The weather hovers around four degrees in the morning. The sushi is mediocre. The shuttle buses are slow and so crowded inevitably someone spills a Starbucks venti on someone else's $900 Jimmy Choos. Worse, you have to walk uphill to reach a Starbucks. Worse yet, every year, hundreds of feet above sea level and away from reality, the real world intrudes anyway.

Since this edition of Sundance began last week, I have seen movies about Sudanese refugees (God Grew Tired of Us), infanticide (Stephanie Daley), kids with cancer (A Lion in the House), terrorism (Right at Your Door), suicide (Wristcutters: a Love Story), Rosie O'Donnell (All Aboard!), global warming (An Inconvenient Truth), Iraq (Iraq in Fragments), North Korea (Dear Pyongyang), and politics (Forgiven). There is a groundswell of alienation movies. I call them Bill Murray movies though none feature Bill Murray: Nick Nolte plays lonely in Off the Black, an early Oscar favorite for next year, Sherrybaby stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as an alienated drug addict pulling her life together after being released from prison, and an entire family in Little Miss Sunshine (including Steve Carell and Toni Collette) wrestles with death and beauty pageants.

Now never mind all that, though.

There's no Katie Holmes sex scene. There was a brief moment of despair when director Jason Reitman realized a 12-second snippet of Holmes and Aaron Eckhart hooking up had been removed from the Sundance premiere of his film, Thank You For Smoking. There's no nudity in the scene and it's hardly explicit, but conspiracy theories circulate fast: The Mormons were responsible, Tom Cruise ordered the edit himself. Reitman quells fears when he explains those 12 seconds (which happen at the end of one reel) were lopped-off accidentally when the reels were spliced together in Los Angeles. Sundance mops its brow.

Then there's Kirby Dick's follow-up to his Toledo-based Twist of Faith, which is called This Film is Not Yet Rated. It's an infuriating, hilarious examination of the ratings board operated (quite mysteriously) by the Motion Picture Association of America. Last year whenever I asked Dick and his producer Eddie Schmidt what they were working on, they refused to say. This is why: His film is the first serious inquiry into a parochial process (however voluntary) that applies contradictory standards and a remarkable lack of sophistication about the very issues it means to tangle with - like violence and sex. Dick's film doesn't argue so much as it asks simple, nonideological questions, but as with so many of the filmmakers interviewed here who've asked the MPAA for those same explanations, Dick is shouting into a void.

My vote for the most fascinating cause at Sundance goes to Haskell Wexler's Who Needs Sleep? - a question thrown around here with such abandon that Wexler's film is a slap in the face. A two-time Oscar winning cinematographer, he takes on the impact of insanely long work hours and sleep deprivation on the movie business, then expands the premise to show what the "24-7 culture" (as he calls it) has done to our sense of priorities, both morally and physically.

I met with him in a lounge on Main Street, and he explained that the film came about after cinematographer Brent Hershman died in 1997 after falling asleep at the wheel while driving home from a 19-hour day on Pleasantville.

This is a business, a lot of people don't realize, where unions bargain for 12-hour workdays. That's all Wexler wants. When he shot Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the 1960s, he remembers working eight-hour days. "Dr. Zhivago we shot eight-hour days." By the time he was making One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the day approached 15 hours. Today, 22-hour production days in the movie business are not unusual.

There are filmmakers who still insist on 12, he said - like Clint Eastwood and the Cohen brothers. Wexler is 83 now. We talk about whether longer days have literally increased the pace of film itself. (He doubts it.) Whether overwork has impacted the quality of movies. (He's unsure.) He says he was so wrapped up in his work, he never noticed that he wasn't spending time with his kids. One photographer in the film says he has never had dinner with his family during a workweek, never. The producer Richard Zanuck says unrealistic studio schedules are routinely signed off just to get a film going. Another filmmaker talks about how overtime pay can be hidden in a budget but extra productions can't, so nothing changes.

"It's a tangled web, and not unique to movies," Wexler said, "but more bizarre for us, I think, because we pride ourselves on being Hollywood, on being creative people, and not just workers, but the fact is, it's a job and it's killing us."

And with that, I walked uphill to Starbucks.

Gotta stay awake.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at or 419-724-6117.

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