Sundance 2020: Day 11

Max Richter Plays Sleep Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 9

Slept until 9am again but had a good plan to see stuff today. First up was the new Ross Brothers film, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, about the last day of a Las Vegas dive bar. The film starts with a very 70s style opening title sequence set to Buck Owens’ “Big in Vegas” so it sets you up for an almost Altmanesque tableau of multi-faceted characters. The bar is a home for many of the hard-drinking, hard-living patrons. There is no hiding the damage that alcohol can do to people, but there is also a lot of genuine love between these people that a lot of society would call losers. Knowing their previous work, I knew the film wasn’t strictly a documentary, and the directors admitted afterwards that the bar is a bit of a construct. It was not closing, and the patrons were brought together for the film shoot, though most were nonprofessionals. It’s still unscripted and from all accounts the drinking was real, so it does capture a set of themes the filmmakers were trying to communicate while still feeling truthful, at least to me. Turner Ross said he saw Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh when he was 9 years old and that that was a huge influence on the film. In any case, another strong entry from the Ross Brothers, and this one should appear in Toronto at Hot Docs in a few months.

I had to surreptitiously turn my phone on during the film to get onto the eWaitlist for Max Richter’s Sleep, which was screening at the Egyptian at 2:30pm, and then race over after my first film. I got from the Library Theatre to the Egyptian with about 15 minutes to spare and was able to get a volunteer ticket, so that was a relief. I’ve been looking forward to Max Richter’s appearance at the festival for weeks now.

So, Max Richter. I discovered his work when I watched the HBO series The Leftovers a few years ago but he’s also done film score work for films like Arrival and Shutter Island. Natalie Johns’ film documents one of the public performances of his 8 hour long opus “Sleep,” which is performed only two or three times a year due to the incredible stress it places on the musicians, including Richter who plays piano. This particular performance was the first outdoor one, in Los Angeles’ Grand Park. Spanning the hours from midnight to 8am, the performance features cots for its audience to recline, sleep, cuddle, meditate, or whatever. The film speaks to a few of the audience members about their experience, and I think that was a great choice by the filmmaker. Richter’s music hits me very hard emotionally and it’s difficult to say why, but “Sleep” in particular means a lot to me. I’ve always had trouble sleeping, and therefore I’m sort of obsessed by the whole idea, and also by the weird state of mind between waking and sleeping. Music often helps me fall asleep and Richter’s piece was expressly designed for this, but it also evokes certain stories and dreams and I find all of it fascinating. The music itself is stunningly simple, kind of mournful but resigned. I’ve described it as not only good music to sleep to, but music that would make dying to it seem just fine. The film also does a great job of tracing Richter’s life, along with that of his creative and romantic partner Yulia Mahr. At the heart of the film is their own love story, which moved me very much. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this again and sharing it with others.

I met up with the other shorts volunteer Bryan afterwards (he’d also been in the screening) and we went back toward HQ. We were going to meet up with Terry and Drew for dinner at Anaya’s Market, but when we got there they were no longer serving food, so we went to Windy Ridge Cafe instead and used another of our “grub stubs” for a burger and fries. Terry and Drew didn’t end up joining us, but we were meeting Terry afterwards in the lineup at The Shop (near the Library) for the Max Richter performance. We were there very early and stood in line for over an hour just to make sure we could get in.

After having seen the documentary just a few hours earlier, I wasn’t sure I’d want to hear the music again, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the 90 minute version of “Sleep” performed live. And it was completely worthwhile. We all joked that we’d probably fall asleep and in fact many of us did, for a few seconds or minutes at least. But the music ends with what Richter calls a kind of “sunrise” and magically, I felt refreshed when it ended. Nevertheless, even at 10pm I wanted nothing more than to come home and get into bed, and so that’s what I did.

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