At the movies · Memories

Sundance 1995

Here’s something I prepared earlier, and never finalized. It was drafted over three years ago in January 2020, the 25th anniversary of my first visit to the USA. I offer it here as a record of that first trip, to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. There are over 1,300 words in this piece.

Sundance 1995

25 years ago this month, in January 1995, I visited the United States for the first time, to attend the Sundance Film Festival. My invitation, for want of a better word, had a rather unglamorous origin.

I had worked on Film Festivals here in the UK in the 1980s and remained in contact with my former workmates. One of them was attending Sundance for the second time and he was so outraged at the size and cost of his accommodation – a family room in a ski lodge designed for at least four people – that he didn’t want to be the only person using it. He didn’t want a contribution towards the cost, but if I paid for my flights and food I could stay for free. His registration for the Festival included more tickets for films and other events than one person could use on their own, so there would be plenty for me to see. In the years that we had worked together we had often divided up our tasks at Festivals, so we were used to working that way.

Ordinarily I would have found numerous excuses not to go. It was at short notice (less than a fortnight away). The event was in Park City, Utah, where the snow could be six feet deep and the temperatures would be sub-zero all the time. It would involve at least 15 hours’ travelling time each way (with a brief stopover in Minneapolis-St Paul to change planes). I didn’t have a valid passport. The last of these was the most pressing reason to say no.

UK passport agencies always advise you to leave several weeks for a new one to arrive and the flight was under two weeks away. In the previous three years I had only left the UK for holidays in Ireland and mainland Europe and for the latter had used Visitor’s Passports each time. Remember them? You could pick them up over the counter at Post Offices and they lasted for a year. Perfect for people like me who don’t plan very far ahead. Before booking my flight, I used one of those “Express-Visa-Passport-24-Hour-Turnaround” places, trading from a shabby office next door to a petrol station. They provided the service exactly as advertised, a shiny new passport delivered within 24 hours for a £15 fee on top of the usual charges. Money well spent.

With that very specific excuse out of the way, and encouraged by my mother who thought it would be great for me to visit the States, I booked my flights (around £300 as I recall) and did some research. Although I had drastically scaled down my film-going in the previous few years I had kept up with the American Indie scene, directors like Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley and Kevin Smith. I was a big fan of many of their films, and Sundance was a big part of American independent movie-making at the time. I caught up with other releases on video, met Whit Stillman (another leading light of the indie scene) at a couple of events that month, and felt that I wouldn’t be turning up completely unprepared.

I would be flying to Salt Lake City Utah, the Mormon capital of the world. Coincidentally, the Henry Hathway-directed movie “Brigham Young” was on TV one afternoon the week I booked my flight. I had vaguely heard of him but one of the listings magazines gave me more detail. It described the film in a similar way to this brief synopsis on IMDb:

In 1844, after the assassination of Mormon leader Joseph Smith by an angry mob in Illinois, the Mormons choose Brigham Young as their new leader and follow him to a new promised land in Utah.

The part of Joseph Smith was played by Vincent Price. I set the video timer to record it and watched it a few days later. It was the only thing I had ever seen about Mormon history.

I also read some travel books at my local library. January 1995 was the first month that I used the Internet, checking out the Cyberia Café near Goodge Street in Central London, but none of the libraries nearby had Internet access, nor did anyone I knew, and nor did I (until 1997 – and I was a fairly early adopter of dial-up). The main thing I took from reading travel guides to the USA was the importance of tipping. I was also influenced by that restaurant scene in “Reservoir Dogs” where the gang members argue about tipping the waitress. One of them refuses to add a dollar to the bill, sorry, the check (“They make minimum wage, they don’t need tips …”) so one of his colleagues puts in an extra dollar for him. A gratuity of 15% was the general advice in the books that I read.

My only previous experience of travelling in winter to sub-zero temperatures was for the Berlin Film Festival in the 1980s. I had bought three pairs of thermal long-johns specifically for my first trip there in 1986, and dug them out for my time in Utah. I also had a pair of Oxblood Doctor Marten shoes that I had bought in 1985 and hardly ever worn. Boots would have been better but I didn’t have any. I wanted to get one of those Russian-style furry snow hats, the kind that Julie Christie wore in “Dr Zhivago”. A university friend had a similar one back in the 1980s. I called to ask where he got it from. Moscow, it turned out, which wasn’t much good to me. There was an Army Surplus shop near Piccadilly Circus in those days and they sold something similar. I bought one that had flaps over the ears (I’m not sure that Julie Christie’s one did). It was certainly very warm, but the fur was fake and I felt ridiculous wearing it in London, which was not especially cold that winter. Maybe I’d feel different about wearing it in Utah.

The journey begins

The flight from Gatwick to Minnesota was on time, so was the connection to Utah, and my travelling companion had booked a car from Salt Lake City to Park City, around 45 minutes away. Our driver was a fan of British comedy, “Monty Python” (unsurprisingly) and “Are you being served?” (which I did not expect). He pronounced “Monty Python” as Americans do, making it sound like three words (“Monty Pie Thon”). His sister had just returned from a mission in England (“In Man-Chester”). Snow was falling heavily. He talked in detail about snow-chains and his experiences of driving in extreme weather conditions, so far without any mishaps.

It was night-time when we arrived at the ski-lodge so the first we saw of the other guests was at breakfast the following morning. My research had not prepared me for the question about how I would like my fried eggs, “sunny side up” or “over easy”. I didn’t know the difference. We had been chatting with the woman who ran the ski-lodge, and some of the guests, a family of Irish-American origin (father, mother, two children). We had already established shared background (ancestors from Cavan). If I had sat silent for the previous 10 minutes I might have just picked one of the fried egg options so as not to draw attention to myself: how much difference could there be between “sunny side up” and “eggs over easy”? Instead I alluded to the language problem, saying that I didn’t know what those descriptions meant and asked if I could have them “reasonably runny”. Which turns out to be sunny side up.

To be continued


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