Hope & Inspiration at Sundance, After the Pall Cast by the Death of Bingham Ray

I don’t remember anything else about the conversation, only that at some point Amy Taubin said, “There’s just so much death”

A long time ago, nearly as long ago as when the New York Times actually ran a headline about Todd Haynes’ and Christine Vachon’s "Poison" as ham-fisted as “Gay Film Wins at Sundance,” Village Voice critic Amy Taubin attended a screening of a movie I was working on. This was in New York in the early '90s. I was in my early 20s and just starting to get my own little projects.

As per norm, the day after the screening I called her on the telephone to ask what she thought. Taubin spat it over the line at me. I don’t remember anything else about the conversation, only that at some point she said, “There’s just so much death.”

It’s one of those lines you never forget.

Also read: Bingham Ray Remembered: Film World Mourns Loss of a Pioneer

She wasn’t talking about the film. She was talking about her friends, people she knew. I was out of my league. I only knew her as a smart writer I was lucky to have at that screening and that the teacher of a filmmaking and theory class I’d taken not long before at Sarah Lawrence had pointed her out as the star (if you can call it that) of Michael Snow’s masterpiece "Wavelength," the entire action (if you can call it that) of which, come to think of it, entails Amy Taubin answering a telephone.

***

As I drove last Thursday afternoon across the Inland Empire’s nubly 210 freeway and on towards I-15 and Vegas, the top story on KNX1070 News Radio relayed the discovery of a pair of severed human feet to join the previously discovered severed hands and head of a man, between 40 and 60 years old, all in the hills just below the Hollywood sign.

Well past Vegas and 10 miles before hitting Mesquite and the Arizona state line, I pulled off the interstate and drove a quarter mile into the desert as a purple sunset turned the mountains black. I got out of the car and simultaneously took a long piss and smoked a thin joint.

As I finished I heard tires coming around the bend behind me. I ground the roach into the Nevada sand and made a big show of zipping up my pants as I returned to the driver’s side and got into the car. On approach: an old white SUV bearing the insignia of a park ranger. It passed my car slowly and pulled off to the side of the road a hundred yards ahead. I made a U turn and headed back to the interstate.

At the top of the hour, the CBS News Radio Roundup — KNX can be heard all the way into St. George — reported the death of Sarah Burke, a 29-year-old freestyle skier, a report I vividly remember pointing to a head injury sustained during a practice run as the cause of death but did not name the location at which it occurred. There was no dateline.

As that park ranger’s white SUV passed me on what was by then a dark desert highway, I realized its rectangular headlights had been in my rearview for a while. I tapped the cruise control at 68 and watched as the truck zipped off the next exit towards a cluster of gas food lodging.

As I suspected, Burke, a four-time Winter X Games champion, had been practicing on a Park City half-pipe, and her death was the indeed the top story on the Salt Lake Fox TV news as I settled into the Deer Valley house my friend Heather and I are sharing with celebrity photographer Henny Garfunkel and her team from Retna.

The precise way Burke died: “a torn vertebral artery in her neck that caused bleeding in her brain,” per the page one story in Friday’s Salt Lake Tribune.

Robert Redford used the word “grim” to describe the national mood at his opening press conference, yet he found hope in the way this year’s crop of filmmakers are reflecting the conditions around them. That press conference may or may not have been taking place around the same time Bingham Ray, a legend in our business and a friend to many here, was hit by strokes that put him in a Provo hospital and then killed him.

When Bingham was still alive, one tweeter suggested the news of his hospitalization had “cast a pall over the festival.”

A more – what’s the word? Morose? Clinical? Jaundiced? — eye might look at Bingham’s fate as emblematic of what those of us of a certain age already know: the indie film old guard, by which I mean the curatorial forces of the king-making distributor, the culture-shaping publicist, and just about every film critic that brought independent filmmaking to the point at which we find ourselves today, are either falling giants like Bingham Ray and Andrew Sarris and Jim Hoberman or simply whirring away on their treadmills.

We – and we know who we are – could all-too-easily be replaced in the eyes of the young moviegoer by social media and by their generation’s like/dislike mosh-pit experience of culture, destined to obsolescence by what will be their inevitable, wholesale disconnection from the cumbersome demands of the feature length film.

And yet.

Against this black sky and over the last few days here, flashes of brilliance have ricocheted through my pleasure centers.

I’ve listened intently and with great enthusiasm as Eugene Hernandez of the Film Society of Lincoln Center has masterfully helmed KPCW radio’s extensive festival coverage, hosting the likes of Sundance gods Trevor Groth and John Cooper, "Keep the Lights On" director and previous Dramatic Competition winner Ira Sachs, SXSW’s tell-it-like-it-is honcho Janet Pierson, and Andrea Arnold, the delightfully British director of what she called “the cover band version” of "Wuthering Heights."

As co-founder of IndieWIRE, Eugene contributed to the independent film movement of the last decade and a half as powerfully as Bingham Ray or any distributor or producer for that matter. What may be a surprise only to me is that Hernandez has re-invented himself, post IndieWIRE, as a supremely talented on-air personality, a natural broadcaster.

The joy he takes in his radio guests is contagious, though he never fawns. He’s smart: he lets those guests speak their mind and plug their work, but also elegantly, enthusiastically keeps them on their toes, keeps the questions coming. Perhaps this is why Janet Pierson revealed on Eugene’s KPCW airtime that China and our relationship to it might be a major theme in Austin this spring as she simultaneously regretted making such an observation public.

***

A long time ago, Fox Searchlight bought a nasty, sexy little L.A. noir here called "Star Maps." It featured a Latino kid who sold the title goods on Sunset – just like Tatum O’Neil in "The Bad News Bears" – only instead of having Walter Matthau as a dad this little dude screwed all kinds of people all over town for all kinds of cash money. It was the debut picture by Miguel Arteta and his producer Matthew Greenfield, who is today a production executive at Searchlight.

Back in the day, Eugene Hernandez had heard about the "Star Maps" acquisition very late that night, and I arranged for him to meet up at the Filmmaker Lodge with Searchlight’s then head of publicity Val Van Galder after the sun had risen a few hours later. I was particularly excited by the prospect of a break in IndieWIRE’s print edition, which was then a double-sided photocopied sheet of jumbo- legal-sized paper that would come out later that day.

I was late to the meeting. When I arrived at the Filmmaker Lodge, un-bathed and out of breath, Val and Eugene were already screaming at each other. “You can’t write that!” “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t write!” That kind of thing.

Val was worried that a post on IndieWIRE would scoop the Hollywood Industrial Complex trade papers. Eugene wanted to scoop the Hollywood Industrial Complex trade papers. We reached a compromise: IndieWIRE would run along with the trades, and in exchange Searchlight’s president Lindsay Law would sit for a photo with Arteta and Greenfield that would be exclusive to IndieWIRE and its print edition.

Maybe the reason Eugene is today a terrific broadcaster is that he has more perspective than just about anyone covering our industry.

The old guard is falling and I am once again out of my league. But I take great comfort in the work being done by Searchlight, which just bought the ironlungsexmagik movie "The Surrogate" for what TheWrap reported as $6 million; by Eugene, by Sundance, by what Bill Cunningham of the New York Times might call “those crazy kids” who are making these movies.

I’ve seen this year’s crop of movies cause a first-time Sundance journalist who is also staying at our Deer Valley house boil over with passion that is by turns hopeful, enraged, inspired, elated and devastated (and that was just her reaction to "The Comedy."). Her amygdale half way through Trevor and Cooper’s annual magic carpet is a smoking, sparking, sizzling little cluster of synapses. She’s having a damn blast.