Everybody's got something to plug, except for me and my monkey

Networking overload at Sundance: Searching for Paris Hilton and finding the real-life Dude from "The Big Lebowski."

Published January 23, 2004 10:51PM (EST)

"Hip-hop is the easiest way to blow up." James Siebens, 19 years old, isn't talking about spontaneous combustion brought on by listening to Outkast. He's talking about his screenplay, which features characters like Good Will and Nature and Jealousy engaged in a fierce battle to save the world. What it all has to do with hip-hop and whether Siebens is a young genius or a grandiose teenager remain unclear. But at least here, in the glow of an outdoor fire pit at a Sundance premiere party, Siebens seems sure of his talents and his path. But then, maybe extreme confidence is just one small part of his very practical plan for breaking wide.

Siebens presents an extreme example of the internal battle you encounter in the characters you meet at Sundance. On the one hand, you have an idealism and belief in creative expression; on the other, a pragmatism that borders on shrewd manipulation. From scattering postcards advertising an unfinished documentary that still needs funding to pushing business cards on every executive or reporter or agent who wanders by, these temporary inhabitants of Park City are engaged in a quiet battle for face time.

Of course, it makes sense that filmmakers and producers embody such a curious mix of inspiration and opportunism -- filmmaking is an expensive and complicated pursuit, one that typically requires several million dollars and several dozen people to pull off. And, as awful as the nonstop courting sounds, somehow all of this glad-handing plays better at this snowy altitude than it does back in the cramped development offices and DJ'd pool parties of Los Angeles. Something about navigating crowded streets in biting temperatures and shuffling in slow motion through a packed crowd to a table decorated with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella pulls people into an efficient but friendly exchange: "Tell me who you are, and I'll tell you who I am, and then we'll quickly discuss how we can work together."

Once you become accustomed to using your first and last name in every interaction like the polished young professionals around you, the key is to expedite the transaction quickly, maximizing your face time and business card acquisitions while minimizing your empty chatter. Those without anything to purchase or promote seem to sense this, introducing themselves using only their first names and saying, with a note of shame, "I'm just here with my friend" or "I just live in Salt Lake City" or "I'm just a divorced guy who rescues dogs," as if they need to excuse themselves for not being hucksters like the rest of us. (BTW, New York-area 40-something women interested in divorced dog-lovers should e-mail me, pronto.)

See how difficult it is, even when the film business isn't involved, to remain detached? For 10 days, Park City becomes a tangled mess of codependent networking, the kind of schmoozing that sucks you in and forces you to become invested, so that by the end of the night you've agreed to 1) throw your pass to the coveted Kodak party over a balcony to your new friends on the sidewalk below, 2) give the number of an agent you know from two days ago to a feature filmmaker you met three minutes ago, 3) give up on the party at a nearby condo (which your cab-mates report is "lame") for a distant United Talent Agency party where Paris Hilton is said to have made an appearance, 4) watch a screener of a short film about lesbian card sharks, and 5) find an attractive but smart 40-something woman for a divorced dog rescuer because you had a shot of tequila together, noticed him ogling a gaggle of trashy leather-clad Elviras and informed him that "The right plane can't land if the wrong plane is blocking the runway."

Jeff Dowd, aka "The Dude," refers to this as "bridge building." A big, mercurial guy with a tangled mess of grayish hair, The Dude is well-known for having been the inspiration for Jeff Bridges' character in "The Big Lebowski." True to legend, The Dude is warm and weird and possibly half-crazy, and he loudly promotes films that he's passionate about. Does that mean The Dude is a publicist or an agent or a marketing consultant or what? "I'm a bridge builder," The Dude repeats for the second time, but based on how stubbornly unique he is and how many people seem to know him or know of him, he's more like an exotic island with so many bridges to the mainland it appears entirely landlocked.

Another face you see at every party is that of Marguerite Moreau, the young lead actress in "Easy," a feature about a single girl searching for love that's receiving a positive response from audiences here. I talk to Marguerite for about two minutes, after which a woman nearby says to me, "Isn't she great?" and another woman adds, "She's everywhere." Later, my roommate raves about pretty Marguerite and how she's destined for stardom. As it turns out, The Dude, who according to my roommate is technically a producer's rep but seems to wear more hats than a traveling cap salesman, is representing Moreau's film. Coincidence? I think not.

But The Dude and Company are just the tip of the iceberg -- everyone here seems to have a few pies in the oven at once. Alex Laskey, the producer of last year's Slamdance Grand Jury Prize winner, "Assisted Living," which is up for grabs again after its distribution company went under, is also organizing voter registration events sponsored by Swing State Productions, which sound like a cross between "Rock the Vote" and "Battle of the Bands." Tami Yeager is looking for investors for her documentary about a Sikh murdered four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, but she's also here to celebrate the premiere of her close friend's film. Tim Nackashi, co-director of the documentary "Dirty Work," also happens to be a member of the popular Athens, Ga.-based band Empire State.

Eventually, of course, the ambition of those assembled, many of whom are far sharper and friendlier and more admirable than you imagined self-promoters could ever be, makes you feel absolutely exhausted. Maybe you're exhausted because you've always (theoretically) disliked ambitious Hollywood and aspiring-director types, and you never really thought they might be smart and friendly and have honorable or soulful goals in mind. Maybe you're tired because you feel like a reclusive underachiever in comparison, since you're not one of the "10 Directors to Watch" or any kind of anything to watch, plus you forgot your business cards. Maybe the truth is you don't have any stinking business cards in the first place, and your hair, which was styled into a flattened mess by your knit hat on the way here, makes you look like Booger from "Revenge of the Nerds." Maybe you're feeling a little overwhelmed from almost bumping into Jeremy Sisto, the nutso brother from "Six Feet Under," while ogling his tuna sashimi at close range at the Variety party. Maybe you're knocked out from the four beers and 2 pounds of mashed potatoes you ate there, mashed potatoes that, as you remarked to a stranger, really should've been formed into a massive replica of Devils Tower as an homage to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Maybe imagining out loud that the Mashed Potato Sculpture might someday replace the Ice Sculpture at weddings and gala events wasn't such a good idea, given the look that girl with the collagen-swollen lips gave you.

Or maybe you're just tired because you got four hours of sleep the night before and tomorrow you have to see three films, followed by lunch with a new friend, plus another two parties after that. As one partygoer put it when asked if she was having a good time, "Incredible, absolutely fantastic! I'm going home tomorrow, and I can't wait!"

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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