"Levity" kick-started the 2003 Sundance Film Festival Thursday night . . . in more ways than one. That was the ironic title of the somber opening-night movie, but also described the cheery atmosphere in Abravanel Hall.
Holly Hunter, one of the film's stars, explained away the absence of Billy Bob Thornton, who has the film's lead role, this way: "Well, he heard there wasn't any snow here and he decided not to come." Actually, Thornton has a severe case of bronchitis and was home resting, per doctor's orders.
Tall, soft-spoken actor Morgan Freeman was in a similarly jovial mood as he walked down Abravanel Hall's red carpet, telling reporters and a mass of paparazzi that "(Holly) isn't always like this. She's usually more sarcastic."
Utah's own Sundance Kid, festival honcho Robert Redford, was also upbeat and amusing. When he received a warm round of applause before his opening remarks, he threatened to "quit while I'm ahead." Then, before launching into his annual state-of-independent-film address, he told the audience — a mix of moviegoers and moviemakers — that if they had "heard this before, you can just take a nap."
Even his more serious remarks were laced with pointed humor. He noted that "freedom of expression has been incorrectly labeled as being unpatriotic," which he described as nonsense.
The tongue-in-cheek tone of much of the evening left it to unflappable festival director Geoff Gilmore to restore some semblance of dignity. He paid tribute to the stars of "Levity" and to writer-director Ed Solomon, calling his movie "exceptional."
"It's a film that is complicated, one that has real emotional heft," Gilmore said of the drama, which is about a convicted murderer (Thornton) who seeks understanding and redemption after his release from prison.
Members of the general public, as well as photographers, seemed so star-hungry they were looking for stars where there weren't any. In Thornton's absence, a Billy Bob look-alike, Ron Dicker from Baltimore, received some stares before he shot back an "I'm-not-him" stare of his own.
Already some style trends seem to be emerging for this year's festival. Facial hair — sideburns included — is in. Black clothing — or at least the all-black outfit — is out. And despite the proliferation of digital cameras, the No. 1 accessory to carry still seems to be the cellular phone. A good portion of the jam-packed house had to be chided about shutting off their phones while the event was in progress.
Following the screening, festivities moved to The Grand Hall at the Union Pacific Depot for a gala that featured The Great Basin Street Band, a local jazz combo.
The screening and gala Thursday night was the kick-off for 10 days of parties, symposiums and especially movies — 124 feature-length films and 92 short works. The majority of screenings will be held in a variety of Park City and Salt Lake City locations.
In addition to its now legendary independent film showcase, Sundance will present its Tribute to Independent Vision to Hunter on Tuesday. Hunter also stars in another festival film, "Thirteen." Along with films and parties, there will be panel discussions, an online festival, a music cafe and the closing-night awards ceremony.
A full rundown of films playing at the festival can be found in the official film guide or online at the Sundance Institute's Web site www.sundance.org.
For general information on the festival, call 328-3456. For ticket prices and availability, call the festival box offices, 521-2525 and 1-435-649-4333.