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Salt Lake glitters with Sundance stars

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With a thick pea-soup fog socking in much of the Salt Lake Valley, the only stars clearly visible Thursday night were those parading down the red carpet in Abravanel Hall for the opening-night kickoff of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Curiously, while young actors Joshua Jackson, Ben Foster and Clea DuVall were nearly mobbed on their way into the cavernous hall, Sundance honcho Robert Redford somehow managed to slip in without being noticed.

Perhaps that explains why Redford — a no-show at last year's event because he was shooting "Spy Game" in Morocco with Brad Pitt — was in something of a jovial mood.

After receiving a warm ovation for walking on stage, he jokingly did an about-face, saying he was going to "quit while I'm ahead."

And when a cell phone went off during his opening remarks, he told the embarrassed audience member, "If that's for me, tell them I'm speaking."

But he became much more serious when talking about "The Laramie Project," the film that was the centerpiece of the Sundance premiere festivities.

Redford called the drama — based on the acclaimed stage play about the killing of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard — "extremely powerful," saying it represents the country's "new sensibilities, new sensitivities, new awareness and consciousness."

Jackson, one of the stars of the film, agreed with Redford's sentiments. Referring to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he said simply, "We've all seen how hate can affect a nation."

"The Laramie Project" meshes dramatic and documentary elements as it recreates the efforts of writer/director Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project in interviewing Laramie residents about Shepard's slaying. Kaufman, who also wrote the original play, offered a brief plea for tolerance and compassion.

Festival co-director Nicole Guillemet used her brief moment in the spotlight to pay tribute to this year's slate of filmmakers — many of whom, like Kaufman, are directing their first movie. Their films feature "new voices and outstanding independent work," Guillemet said.

Besides the stars, there were several things that may have made casual observers think they were in Hollywood instead of Utah. In addition to L.A.'s trademark smog, there was plenty of black clothing, sunglasses and cell phones — all typical of the "People in Black" who attend the festival each year.

But for a change, black didn't seem as out of place, especially with festivities that were definitely more somber and reflective than usual — possible reminders of the more serious tone taken by the nation recently. Still, there were some who embraced the so-called "Redford chic," the more casual dress style favored by Utah's Sundance Kid.

After the screening, the festivities moved to the Marriott Hotel ballroom for a jam-packed, opening-night celebration that featured eclectic Salt Lake dance band Nova Paradiso.

Thursday night's events were just the beginning of partying and movies over the next 10 days as the festival screens 113 feature-length films (74 of them world premieres), as well as 60 shorter-length works. (The majority of screenings will be held in Park City and Salt Lake City.)

One of the festival's major events will occur Sunday when actor Benicio Del Toro, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year for his performance in "Traffic," will be honored with the festival's Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision.

For general information on the festival, call 328-3456. For ticket prices or for information on ticket availability, call the festival box offices, 521-2525 and 1-435-649-4333, or go to the festival's Web site www.sundance.org.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com