Last week Police Beat didn't win any prizes at the festival, but the film received some great reviews in the New York Times, Variety, Film Comment, the Los Angeles Times, and the Village Voice. And thank God for that, because I was ready to go to war with anyone who criticized the movie. I'm not kidding. Shortly after settling in my Park City lodge, I ran into former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell in a bar and asked him point blank for his opinion of Police Beat. He said he liked it, that he thought it was "dreamy" and had "great images," and I thought, "Good, no fight to the death with Mitchell tonight." I shook his hand and returned to my glass of wine.
Why was I so ready to fight Mitchell, a critic I deeply admire? Because he was safe and I was vulnerable. This is the first lesson I learned at the most important film festival in America: If you are critic, you are safe; if you are an artist, you're not. True, it's great to have your film in the popular festival, but if your work gets critically panned then everyone hears about it very quickly. Everyone watches you fall fast from the very top of the game to the very bottom.
For example, the night after my encounter with Mitchell, using my festival pass, which got me into all of the big parties (but not without some difficulty--at Sundance you always have to struggle to get into anything if you don't look famous), I went to a party for Naomi Watts' movie Ellie Parker. It was in competition with my movie, and had been screened for the first time earlier that day. After the film ended, the critics wasted no time savaging the film, and by the time the director, Scott Coffey, arrived with his blond star, you could tell he had had a very bad day (Somebody get that man a drink!). Naomi Watts, who is pretty and polite, but incredibly thin, was oblivious to the director's suffering (Get that man another drink!). But I knew exactly what he was going through; I knew exactly the kinds of things critics will say when they totally hate what you have made--because I've often said those kinds of things about directors myself. My pass might have said screenwriter, but in truth I was still a critic.
As a critic, this is my position on Police Beat: Our story of a lovesick police officer whose girlfriend takes an unexpected trip with her male roommate, leaving the officer lost in a world of petty crime, is more romantic than I wanted it to be. It should have had more philosophy, and less romance. As a screenwriter, though, I have no complaints. Devor did a great job infusing the picture with poetry, Pape Sidy Niang's performance is solid, and Sean Kirby's cinematography rises above earthly beauty and enters the otherworldly. And if other critics (and there were so many at the festival) offered disapproval other than "the film needs more philosophy," then I was going to combat them with words and, if need be, with fists. I was not going to give in like Naomi Watts' director; I was ready to fight my critics.
My first enemy arrived on the day of Police Beat's third screening. His name was Peter Hanson, his publication was Film Threat, and his review mocked my screenwriting style (he didn't much care for its "somber pretension[s]" and "opaque pomposity"). Incensed (and feeling pompous), I fired an e-mail to the editor calling Hanson an "idiot," and stated that "his review of Police Beat gave proof to the fact that so many reviewers in the USA are reviewers for no other reason than they are white" (I guessed that he was white). The next day I received this e-mail from Film Threat's deputy editor, Eric Campos: "But at least he didn't call anyone an idiot. Shame on you and your bad manners."
The critic in me does not at all regret sending the rude e-mail (I was, after all, criticizing his criticism), but the emerging screenwriter in me does (I made a work of art and so it must be judged). So here is the second lesson I learned at Sundance: As time goes on, and other films are hopefully made from my writing, I will have to become used to receiving the criticism that I'm in the habit of dishing out. Making a film is not an easy thing to do, but in the end, after all of the spent hours and money, a movie is simply going to be one of two things: good or bad.