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Postcards from Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah -- Mugging by postcard is the white-collar crime of choice at the Sundance Film Festival. Filmmakers fly to Utah with suitcases filled with postcards advertising their films, which they hand out to anybody who looks vaguely promising. I have 19 in my pocket right now.

The official First Postcard of the 2001 Festival was presented to me 10 seconds after I arrived at the press office, by Jonathan Hyman and Andy Berman, the producer and director of "Bit Players." "When is it playing?" I asked.

"In the Short Film Program," they said.

"I don't get to see a lot of the short films," I said.

"But it's in the first Short Film Program," they said.

"Thanks for the card," I said. I walked 10 steps in the direction of the theater and was stopped by Agnieszka Wostowicz-Vosloo of Poland, who gave me a postcard for her film, "Pate."

"It's in the Short Film Program," she said. "But it's in the first Short Film Program."

I may go. I'll know half the people there.

The opening night film is shown every year in Salt Lake City, in the cavernous Abravanel Hall. This year it was the odd and affecting "My First Mister," the directorial debut of the actress Christine Lahti. Leelee Sobieski stars as a pierced 17-year-old Goth, a loner angry at the world, whose life is changed when she meets Albert Brooks, as a 49-year-old loner who wears suspenders and manages a clothing store. Their relationship doesn't proceed beyond hugging, nor should it, because it is not about sex but about finding someone who will listen.

The lobby of the hall was jammed with film crews from all the entertainment channels, plus CNN, MTV, Fox and the local stations. This is the only American film festival covered on the national news, which is amazing if you remember, as I do, the years when it was contained in the downtown Egyptian Theater, a shopping center triplex and meeting rooms at the Holiday Inn.

"What does this festival really mean?" I was asked by CNN. I supplied an answer that was a little longer than a sound bite and a little shorter than an inaugural address, ending with the words ". . . entry point for new filmmakers."

"That's the crux of it!" said my interviewer. "Could you repeat just that?"

"It's an entry point for new filmmakers," I said.

"Great!"

My first sighting of The Dude was immediately after the screening of "My First Mister."

Faithful readers will know that The Dude, a k a Jeff Dowd, is to film festivals what a tout is to racetracks, with the difference that The Dude usually backs winning ponies, even if they are not his own. He had an early bet on "The Blair Witch Project." Dowd is a "producer's rep," which means he shepherds films and their makers through the minefields of Sundance, Toronto and Cannes.

This year he was shepherding Sergio Castilla, the Chilean director of "Te Amo (Made in Chile)," Castilla's actor son Adrian, plus two attractive young women, Victoria Villanueve, a producer from Argentina, and Janneke Boeck, a producer from Germany ("but we are roommates in New York").

"Look at that line," he said, spotting 2,000 people waiting for the opening night party. "Forget it. We'll go back later." He had heard of the Dead Goat, a bluegrass saloon that was down the street, down an alley and downstairs, which is pretty far down for Salt Lake City, and we all went there for Dead Goat Burgers.

"You gotta see this," The Dude told me, giving me a postcard for "Scratch." "It's about hip-hop DJs. The buzz is terrific."

"Is that the buzz you're hearing or the buzz you're starting?" I asked.

"Both," said The Dude serenely.

Now we all drive up the hill to Park City.

This year 894 features, 342 documentaries, 515 foreign films and 2,020 shorts were submitted to the festival, whose dazed selectors emerged with 120 films, plus the shorts of Hyman, Berman and Wostowicz-Vosloo.

"There's a lot of buzz about `Donnie Darko,' " three young women told me as I entered my hotel lobby.

"Are you connected with it?"

"Uh-huh."

"I don't think it's buzz if it's your own film you're talking about," I said. "I think it has to be someone else's film. But give me a postcard?"

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