The tipping point, it seems, was in 2006.
That year, Paris Hilton—she of sex tape and self-branding fame—decided to hold her 25th birthday celebration during the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Hilton, mind you, didn’t have a film at Sundance, or any real reason to be there, so the choice was a curious one, to say the least. Furthermore, the fest is held annually in Park City, Utah, in mid-to-late January, and the heiress’s birthday is on Feb. 17. Whatever.
Hilton’s bash was held at Harry O’s, a nightlife venue in the heart of Main Street in Park City, which had been transformed into a hedonistic wonderland by host Blender magazine, replete with half-naked, epileptic dancers, occasional blasts of smoke, and enough booze to supply a Gatsby soiree. It was my second year attending the festival since my college, Colby, offered it as an elective during our January term, and I’d managed to score entry to the fete through a family friend. When I entered, the scene was bleak. Hilton danced in a corner by herself while her then-boyfriend, shipping heir Stavros Niarchos, gave her the stink eye. Bill Maher chatted up a busty-looking gal. I went to the bathroom and opened a stall door to take a piss only to interrupt an unnamed star’s line-snorting session. I had entered the seventh circle of hell.
Today, Sundance is even more of a party palace. For the first weekend of the festival, Main Street transforms into a line of gifting suites by day and pop-up lounges by night, attracting a confusing mélange of bottle-blond sorority girls draped in furs, douchebag V-necked Angelenos, and party-hearty A-listers, all inhaling elaborate cocktails and Utah’s 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (ABW) beer at 7,000 feet. I’m frankly shocked I didn’t bump into Brody Jenner.
“They're taking away some of the textures and qualities that were here that gave it a kind of intimacy,” lamented festival founder Robert Redford. “It's no longer the place it was. I don't like what's happened.”
The nightlife scene at Sundance does, indeed, stand in sharp contrast to the “indie spirit” that the festival hopes to represent, providing a platform for underdog, renegade artists to shine. It’s still an important festival—one that has, in the last five years, brought us indie hits like Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and last year’s Fruitvale Station—but it’s a confusing one as well. Now, between the myriad temp-clubs and gifting suites, the latter bombarded by C-listers and Real Housewives rejects wearing what look like entire chinchillas, it’s like Art Basel Midwest.
That being said, I decided to burn the candle at both ends this year, attending as many of these star-studded parties as humanly possible. Why? I'm a sucker for free booze and finger food, plain and simple. My journey into the nightlife underworld of Sundance began the night of Jan. 17, the first full day of the festival, at the SLS pop-up nightclub at the base of Main Street. After descending a dark set of stairs, you enter a caliginous club straight out of West Hollywood. There are attractive blond girls dancing on banquettes, bottle service tables, etc. There, I spotted a pregnant-looking Kendra Wilkinson, the diminutive rapper Lil Jon, and a gorgeous-looking Christina Hendricks, sporting a big, furry white hat that accentuated her striking red hair. The gang was all gathered to take in a live performance by Capital Cities, a Los Angeles-based synth-pop outfit best known for their single “Safe and Sound” (you’ve heard it in numerous car commercials). I threw back a few pineapple-vodka-whatever drinks and, after a handful of songs, headed for the exits.
The following evening, I stopped by the Camp X-Ray party at the Snowlodge—a venue on lower Main Street that melded Montauk’s Surf Lodge with the West Hollywood eatery Eveleigh (one of my personal favorites). As expected, the Eveleigh-curated finger food—miniature globs of bruschetta, crackers topped with a succulent smidgen of beef—was excellent. Kristen Stewart, who anchors the film as a rookie guard at Guantanamo Bay, seemed in good spirits, huddled together and chatting with her Into the Wild co-star Emile Hirsch. After popping into Snowlodge, I headed over to Bungalow 8, a Grey Goose-sponsored pop-up club, where I spotted One Direction’s Harry Styles chatting up a bevy of beauties. Not sure what he was doing at Sundance. For a quick nightcap, I popped into TAO, yet another pop-up nightclub at the base of Main Street, and spotted rapper Rick Ross (?) puffing on a cigar—he’s even more massive in person—while palling around with Outkast’s Big Boi (?), as well as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and the aforementioned Twilight star, Stewart, who busted some dance moves.
On the night of Jan. 19—or Sunday, dios mio—after a day of films and writing, I swung by the YouTube lodge on Main Street to catch an intimate acoustic performance by Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz fame) who performed a selection of new tunes off his upcoming self-title solo album, backed by a four-piece orchestra. They were beautiful tracks, pitched somewhere between his side project The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, and Thom Yorke’s melancholy solo LP The Eraser. Alex Ebert, lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros—and a recent Golden Globe winner for composing the score to All is Lost—also took in the show, flanked by a flamboyantly dressed pal donning white fur and a Fu Manchu mustache. Following the lovely performance, and a few whiskies, I made my way back to TAO. It was less star-studded on this night, although there was a tight-shirted Joe Manganiello onstage behind the DJ, as well as another towering celeb, Game of Thrones’ Khal Drogo—rather, Jason Momoa—who was getting hounded for photos by some sauced-up ski bunnies. On my way out, I spotted Aaron Paul entering the party through a side entrance. In true Jesse fashion, he yelled, “SWEET, SIDE ENTRANCE!” before making his way into the Asian-themed venue.
After a much-needed night off to write, I took in Sundance’s secret screening of Nymphomaniac and, after seeing the kid from Even Stevens' penis, desperately needed a drink (or ten). A friend and I headed to the party for The One I Love, which was held at the aforementioned Snowlodge. After Lars von Trier made me double-fist red wine and Peroni, we spotted Rooney Mara dressed down and mingling with some friends, as well as the film’s star, Mark Duplass, holding court. At one point, Anne Hathaway glided in, maneuvered her way through the packed party to the bar, grabbed four drinks for her friends, including husband Adam Shulman, and brought all the beverages back to them. I’ve never seen an A-lister do that before at a packed Hollywood party. Cool chick.
Since the majority of the parties go down the first weekend, the second half of the festival is considerably more asshole-free. Those rowdy sorority chicks and their V-necked d-bag boyfriends have shipped off back to La La Land, as have all the middle-aged plastic surgery nightmares in giant furs strutting down Main Street with six swag bags of crap they’ll never use. But hey, more sleep for me. After two more nights dedicated to pizza and writing, I went out one last night, dropping in on the party for They Came Together, a David Wain comedy starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. It was held at the YouTube lounge on Main Street, and attracted several stars. The Office’s Ellie Kemper ran up and hugged Wain; Rudd and Poehler swigged cups of wine and laughed, looking like old friends; Christopher Meloni (Stabler!) cradled a beer; and New Girl’s Max Greenfield and The League’s Jason Mantzoukas, who plays the hilarious Rafi, were locked in conversation. It was a casual end to a chaotic week-plus in the mountains, and this exhausted writer is ready to head home.
Back to the Big Apple—and Polar Vortex 2.0—I go. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be curled up on the couch in my onesie watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and eating ice cream. Do not disturb.