Sundance Diary, Part 3: Cactus Jack, Body Worms, and a Deep Sense of Despair

Ari Perilstein/Getty Images Sundance

Previously: Part 1 and Part 2.

Back on Main Street. Park City during Sundance is a cheery mountain town gone savage, quaint stores turned into pop-up Acura dealerships and Segway depots. All the usual high Western kitsch is here — dealers of fine alpaca coats, “Artist-Driven” boutiques, jewelers, real estate agents and ski butlers and frontier-themed bars. But every third door is unmarked, cryptic, guarded by a man in an earpiece. At night a whole devil’s playground of terrible nightlife emerges: Tao Park City, where Nas played Saturday night, is here; so is New York’s the Westway, and something called NK, by evil clubbing genius Nur Khan. Cab drivers speak of this stretch of road with the resignation of men who have been forced to accept that at some point they will either find themselves in a backseat-vomit-fueled traffic jam or be the source of said traffic jam.

Let’s not talk about how I know these things.

On Friday, I walk this street during the day, trying to participate in the joy and warm fellow feeling I noticed on the faces of contented shuttle riders and moviegoers wearing non-press-and-industry badges. They look considerably less pale, more cheery, less hunted.

Halfway down the slanted street, I stop at a yellow wall, where behind a Plexiglas barricade labeled BANKSY was a work of art by Banksy. It depicts a black-and-white cameraman kneeling, intently pointing his camera at a colorful flower. More sponsored content, this: Exit Through the Gift Shop, the documentary about/by/from the phantom street artist, premiered here in 2010.

“Isn’t that great?” Behind me an older blonde woman in a Burberry scarf has stopped, noticed my interest. She nods at the yellow wall.

“I remember when it was just a flower,” she says.

Monday, midday, the premiere of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. Carruth’s a Sundance hero: Primer, which he wrote, directed, produced, scored, starred in, and made for a reported price of $7,000, won the Grand Jury Prize here in 2004. That film was about the scientific, ethical, and interpersonal implications of time travel, sort of — no one I know has watched this movie just once, and interpretations tend to get more baroque and complex with repeat viewings. Carruth is a former engineer with the kind of mind that is only lightly interfacing with the world the rest of us live in — his Q&A after Upstream Color (more about that in a second) was hallucinatory and may have been conducted in a language other than English. It’s unclear.

The movie though. It … resists summarizing. It’s sci-fi, body horror, romance, a thriller, none of the above. There is a plot of sorts. A woman, played by Amy Seimetz, is abducted by a thief and implanted with a small pale worm, which grows inside of her — Carruth shows it rippling around under her skin. In a gruesome procedure, the worm is removed from her body and fed into the side of a pig. I am not doing this justice — there are also orchid harvesters, a man who watches over the pigs and makes field recordings of nature sounds, a middle third that is sort of a love story between Seimetz’s character and a similarly stricken man played by Carruth. The final act of the movie is almost entirely silent. Thoreau’s Walden plays an important but oblique role. The film is about constructing identity when the inputs for that identity become soft and weird and shared with others who may or may not have been subjected to the same procedure. Carruth and Seimetz’s characters find they possess the same intermingled childhood memories, react in terror when their pig surrogates are threatened, fall in love but struggle to communicate on even the most basic level. Every act by every character is echoed in someone or something else. I dunno — I walked out stunned, hypnotized, elated, utterly confused. If they’d screened it again in that moment my guess is most of the audience would’ve stayed.

The Q&A is like a Beckett play. Carruth refers confidently to “the three points of the triangle,” says things like “The cycle is a construct” and “What I’m writing right now, I keep using bolt cutters.” He vows to stop answering questions “I don’t know” and then answers every subsequent question with some variant of “I don’t know.”

I don’t know. I have a sushi dinner with Michael J. Luisi, president of WWE Studios. I get an e-mail Sunday afternoon, subject line “Party friend from Friday night,” and can’t bring myself to read the rest of it. Late one night, in a white van filled with exhausted partygoers, a man named Cactus Jack begins to sing dolefully and emphatically about heartbreak. He encourages us to check him out on Facebook. Here is Cactus Jack’s Facebook.

At the premiere party for David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, a movie I don’t actually manage to see, Danny McBride is wearing a T-shirt with a Native American chief on it. The film’s star, Paul Rudd, stands, floppy-haired, off in a corner, a few feet from the film’s other star, Emile Hirsch. Alison Brie is here. So, I think, is Allison Janney. Two women in fur hats walk by, holding trays of multicolored martinis — I bend over my phone to make note of this momentous occurrence, and when I look back up, one of the women is now standing six inches in front of me, softly singing la la la la in her fur hat, proffering a glass of complimentary Grey Goose like a sacred offering.

By Monday, narratives start to form. Fruitvale, a fictionalized portrait of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old who was killed by a BART cop in Oakland in 2009, and played here by Michael B. Jordan, is the first film to gather real momentum. The Weinstein Company announces that afternoon that they’ve bought the movie for around $2 million, which is $1 million more than Fox Searchlight paid for Beasts of the Southern Wild this time last year. Near simultaneous articles in the New York Times and L.A. Times on director Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow, shot almost entirely on location in Disney theme parks without Disney’s permission, provoke a run on screenings of the film, in part because no one thinks the movie is making it out of Sundance alive or unsuppressed by Disney’s lawyers. [Disclosure: This website is owned by Disney.] Word spreads of a CAA party in which a burlesque dancer wore a strap-on while dancing — the Hollywood Reporter comes through with the exclusive photo, a bored-looking woman sitting on a bed, flipping idly through an oversize book. “Explicit burlesque shows are popular in New York and Los Angeles clubs,” the magazine reports, “but the act was too suggestive for at least one female party-goer, who tells The Hollywood Reporter she was offended and left the event.”

I go to movies: Stoker, the first English-language film from the Korean director Park Chan-wook, a brightly colored Gothic disaster starring Mia Wasikowska, as an 18-year-old haunted by the suspicious death of her father; Nicole Kidman, as her icy, narcoleptic, unloving mother; and Matthew Goode as a sinister uncle who appears the day of the funeral, harboring a secret. It’s lush, visually stunning, borderline comical — Wasikowska has to simulate not one but two orgasms, the second a screamer tied to a fantasy and/or vision of snapping a local boy’s neck. The Sundance porn wave continues.

Goode was cast in the film after his friend Colin Firth turned it down, he says at the Q&A after, standing in an awkward row with Kidman, Wasikowska, and Park. “As an Englishman, you don’t think you’re gonna get the chance to work with a Korean master,” he says. “Outside of a dojo, anyway.” There is an awkward silence. A mortified Goode hands the mic to someone else, contemplates the floor.

Texas filmmaker David Lowery, who helped Carruth edit Upstream Color, is here with a film of his own, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, about a pair of outlaw lovers and the crime that separates them. It’s a quiet, beautiful film, owing a lot to early Terrence Malick stuff like Badlands. There are sundappled Texas fields and tattered, lovelorn letters read out loud. It’s a movie, in the words of its director, about “the moments that are in between all the big moments” — the robbery that separates Affleck and Mara’s characters takes place offscreen, as does Affleck’s eventual escape from prison, though you see its mythical aftermath, Affleck’s character walking barefoot across mountains, hopping trains, limping back home to the woman he loves. There are three killers who come to town without much explanation of what brought them there, a goodhearted cop played by Ben Foster, and portentous lines of dialogue — “We did what we did because we are who we are”; “I haven’t slept in four years, and I’m tired.”

Like another Casey Affleck film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it’s sort of an anti-Western, a frontier myth at the frontier of fact and fairy tale. Mara and Affleck and Foster are all terrific in it, and their refusal to say much about the movie after it screens feels like a tribute to the film’s understated power.

What else — The East, an eco-terrorist thriller from Sound of My Voice team Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Marling plays an operative for a private intelligence firm who goes undercover with a Black Bloc–like terrorist cell that pulls eye-for-an-eye type “jams” against pharmaceutical companies and other corporate marauders. Alexander Skarsgård is sinister and convincing as the cell’s cult leader; Ellen Page plays a fiery and unremorseful anarchist; Patricia Clarkson is Marling’s icy superior. The film is intense and unrelenting, so obviously pleasing and competent and linear that it almost feels like it doesn’t belong at Sundance, which otherwise tends to gravitate toward movies with broken wings and more fantastical conceits. After this movie is released by Fox Searchlight later this year, Batmanglij will surely be in line for a Bourne-type franchise if he wants one, though my guess is he doesn’t.

He and Marling wrote the film together: They reminisce onstage about a research trip they took, three months on the road trying to buy nothing, dumpster-diving and train-hopping and making friends. The East feels pretty Hollywood, but you get the sense that wasn’t exactly their intention. Asked about Skarsgård, Batmanglij admits, “I didn’t know who he was” before casting him. Skarsgård interjects, indignantly: “I didn’t know who you were either!”

It occurs that this is probably going to be the most commercially successful movie I see here, which is maybe meaningful since it’s not all that commercial. It adds to the general, unreal feeling of Sundance. The festival happens, so we come, but very little that happens here will make it out into the larger world. Most of this diary is a description of something that, by the time you read this, will have already ceased to exist.

A text message from my well-connected friend: “Entirely over socializing/movie watching.” We go out anyway. It’s Monday night, Park City is already becoming Park City again — the nightclub pop-ups are even now slinking out of town, the streets are emptier, everyone seems calmer. My shuttle’s at four a.m., a few hours from now. We end up in some big, wood-paneled, whiskey-heavy room with a bunch of cheery tech entrepreneurs in sweaters and knit caps, Frank Ocean and Solange playing on the speakers. We talk about Upstream Color, what time our flights leave. It’s weird, the sustained conversations and durable eye contact, and I realize it’s because for the first time in five days no one is looking over my shoulder to gaze at whatever famous person might be standing behind me.

The last movie I see at Sundance is Computer Chess, by mumblecore founder/spirit-animal Andrew Bujalski. It’s Bujalski’s fourth film, and first in four years, not counting his perpetually stalled adaptation of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, which he alluded to darkly during the post-screening Q&A. Computer Chess is part mockumentary, part mumblecore, part straight-up experimental film — it follows a circa-1980 weekend-long tournament between computer chess programs and the emotionally stunted nerds who write and operate them. Immortal Dazed and Confused actor Wiley Wiggins is in the film, playing a pudgy and pretentious computer genius; so is another actor that I can’t initially place.

At this point I’m so used to staring at celebrities, trying to figure out who they are so I can put them in this diary, that it takes me all the way until the credits to realize that this actor is not in fact a celebrity at all, but the former boyfriend of a girl I once dated, and that his face and mannerisms are familiar to me because I once knew him, in a passing way. I should also probably admit that for a long time I dated an actress who appeared in another of Bujalski’s films, and that this probably makes me unfit as an unbiased reporter on the general quality of Computer Chess — which by the way I liked, very much — and the overall oeuvre of Bujalski, which when I think of I mostly think of this girl, with whom I was once in love, and who used to get recognized on the street in New York during that one heady year in New York when people thought mumblecore was the next dubstep.

When you start mistaking the former loves of your former loves for movie stars, it’s time to leave. And so I do, walking across the snowy expanse in front of the theater at night, hotel-bound, Sundance over. I pass a group of girls arguing about the film.

“Movies are supposed to entertain you,” I hear one of them say, indignantly.

“That one just made me uncomfortable.”

Zach Baron (@xzachbaronx) is never going back to Park City.

Filed Under: Sundance, The Sundance Diary