SUNDANCE 2012: PART I

christopher funderburg

  DAY ONE: THE ARRIVAL

The first thing that struck me about the Sundance Film Festival was the flight out to Salt Lake City. It's the first flight I've ever been on without a single child on the plane - I literally didn't see anyone under 18 years old. Everyone flying from Newark Liberty International Airport to SLC seemed pretty obviously to be connected with the film industry and the whole flight people around me kept recognizing one another and whatnot, standing weirdly casual in the aisles and chatting. But here's the even weirder part: no one was talking movies. Every single conversation revolved around skiing and parties. After arriving in Salt Lake City, I took a 45 minute van ride up to Park City where Sundance is held and then took a taxi to the condo where I was staying. I was asked four different times about my plans for catching some skiing. My curt reply of "oh, I can't ski because of an old leg injury" was taken as a signal that I wasn't worth talking to. Even the taxi driver lost interest in me when I told him I didn't have any plans to go to any parties or go skiing. Not a word was said about the slate of films or anything anyone was excited to see or anything that, you know, might have interested me in the slighest. Just a bunch of people ready to brag about their hotels, their dinner reservations and what slopes they would be hitting. Surreal.

My first day experiences with the festival itself boiled down to this: Sundance as an experience is chaotic and unpleasant. Since I transferred my pass at the last second from our director of programming at the Jacob Burns Film Center, I had to get a photo taken for my industry badge. For some reason, this entailed standing in various lines for over two hours total. What made the experience particularly infuriating was its contrast to the seamlessly wonderful experiences I've had with the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, which I've been attending for just about a decade. There was no reason for something as simple as check-in to be a nightmare. But here's the kicker and the recurring Sundance theme: they made a huge fucking show of ushering "V.I.P's" to the head of the line and having them cut in front of us peons. At other festivals, I'm sure bigwigs get preferential treatment, but here they made it into a show. I want to blame the oppressive L.A. vibe of this whole thing, but there are tons of folks from New York here as well, so I can get off that high horse. Anyway, I am sure you will be interested to hear that every conversation I heard or engaged in my two hours of line-waiting concerned skiing and parties. Honestly, who gives a fuck?

That extended check-in process combined with my rookie unfamiliarity of the city to ensure that I didn't see a single movie on the opening day of the festival, despite leaving the east coast at 7 a.m. My goal immediately became: stay positive. The next morning I got up bright and early and dove into the films.

 

  DAY TWO: ....and now for some movies

The process of lining up for the press and industry screenings was a little idiosyncratic: you walk into a white tent across the parking lot from the movie theater where the screenings are being held, some volunteers write down your name and what film you're seeing and then you get corralled into tightly-packed winding lines. They wait very late to seat, normally about 10-15 minutes before the movie is set to begin, and it's never clear if you're going to get a seat or not, even if you show up 45 minutes or even an hour early. I had a couple Richard Stark books (Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon) with me courtesy of lumbering Titan and Pink Smoke co-founder John Cribbs so I actually enjoyed standing around killing time reading, but everything in the little tent is wet and cold and cattle-call-ish. There's no better process for it that I could see, but that doesn't make it an awesome thing to endure. My shoes got soaked through just walking down to the theater and my poor little tootsies were cold all day long. Sincerely, spoiled baby.

West of Memphis

An almost fascinatingly inessential regurgitation of the saga of the West Memphis Three, a tale of wrongful imprisonment and child murder well-documented by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky over the course of their Paradise Lost trilogy. This film's producer (and interview subject) Peter Jackson put up legal defense funds for the three rail-roaded teens after seeing Berlinger and Sinofsky's film and apparently felt that there was a reason to tell the story again under his own supervision working with director Amy Berg. The drive of this film seems to be to tell the most factually accurate and least inflammatory version of a now-resolved tale - it takes a Dateline or 20/20-ish approach to the material and drains out all of the (sometimes regrettable) bombast and lurid speculation of Berlinger and Sinofsky's take on the material. In particular, it seeks to correct the unfortunate second film in the Paradise Lost trilogy, which focused on one of the most eccentric side-characters in the story and engaged in the same kind of "look at this freak" mindset that put the West Memphis Three behind bars in the first place. The word floating around Park City is that Jackson commissioned the film as a way of making some of the money back he spent bankrolling the very expensive DNA testing that led to the WM3 being granted an Alford plea. On the one hand, that's a grotesque suggestion, considering how much the man personally put on the line to help the WM3 go free - on the other hand, it's plausible considering how amazingly pointless the existence of West of Memphis actually is. Berlinger and Sinofsky's three films might not be flawlessly investigated or lacking in sensationalism, but they were down in the shit, trying to solve the crime and bring attention to a massive injustice. Criticism of them exists exclusively in retrospect. Certainly they're much better artworks than West of Memphis, which amounts to little more than a tepid recounting of well-known facts and some victory lap self-congratulation of celebrities like Jackson, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines - the film actually ends with a title card thanking everyone who supported the cause. That's fine - I have nothing but respect and esteem for Jackson, Vedder, Rollins and Maines for their willingness to put their asses on the line for these dudes. (Let me emphasize: they all fucking rule for what they did. Really, I give them every bit of respect I have to give.) There's just no reason to make a movie about it.

The Ambassador

From the director of Red Chapel, another documentary in love with the craziness of its own conceit: this time Mads Brugger goes undercover in the Central African Republic to expose a shadowy underworld where for the right price European and American fixers can set you up with diplomatic credentials and get you involved in the diamond trade. Since the CAR is situated between Chad and Darfur and the diamond mines are located right in the area where those countries' civil wars often spill over, these are bona fide blood diamonds we're talking about and Brugger goes deep undercover to show you just how you, me or anybody can get involved in this ghastly, lucrative field. The most captivating element of the film is also its biggest problem: Brugger thinks he's making a comedy. He dresses up in outlandish get-ups caricaturing European business-class aristocracy and can't resist making cheap jokes about the cruddiness of life in the CAR or the sheer hilarity of the existence of pygmies. There's a racist paternalism to his sense of humor that doesn't seem to differentiate between worthy targets like corrupt parliament members, sleazy Dutch fixers and Hitler-loving lackeys and folks pitifully caught in the crossfire of a horrific situation. Seriously, the "aren't these pygmies fucking hilarious" shit torpedoes the film, even without the shaky presentation of the "facts." There's a big sense that Brugger is somehow pulling one over on his audience with his refusal to explain the source of the money he pays down for bribes and other "business" transactions as well as his uncertain relationship to key characters like his secretary/translator and some fellow foreign councils. The film ends with a truly frustrating "well, we can't show you what happened now" thud that leaves you wondering just what the point of the whole thing was. However, I can't deny that Brugger has done some brilliant investigative journalism and shed light on some of the absolute darkest corners of the world, the place where African misery and corruption intersects with European greed and Imperialism. I'm not even bothered by the fact that he levels his explorations of human awfulness with comedy. I just wish he were funnier, that's all.

Wuthering Heights

Oof - now this was a rough one to sit through. I'd like to cut the film some slack for a couple reasons: first, I'm not the target audience for any adaptation of any one of the Bronte sisters' darkly romanticized melodramas (although I do enjoy Bunuel's version of Heights), especially not this tale of a bad boy with a sensitive soul and unendurable, undying love for a good girl who no one really understands. Oh Heathcliff, Heathcliff, no one should terrorize the neighborhood. Secondly, I'm curious to talk to noted Andrea Arnold defender Marcus Pinn about the film for a variety of reasons. And finally, this is the type of film that really suffers from a festival setting: an aggressively slow-moving tone poem deeply unconcerned with narrative motion. It tops off at about 2 hours and 10 minutes without 30 minutes worth of actual plot - every single scene is adorned with shots of nature, of bugs crawling along the ground or apples rooting on the ground or tree branches rapping against window panes (I guess that's why they call it window pain - amirite, everybody!?) It's a challenging film in any circumstance, in a festival when you're exhausted or antsy or otherwise not in the correct mindset, it's hard to enjoy something like Arnold's take on Wuthering Heights. However, this film has real problems, not the least of which is its lame-brained revisions of the story, including making Heathcliff (the homeless orphan taking in by a Christian family and turned whipping boy) black. It's a major "statement" type change and it throws the mechanics of the film all off-balance. It's not necessarily a disaster, but peppering the film with anachronistic, foul-mouthed language is. Every other line includes the word "fuck." That's not exactly right, because of their thick brogues, every other line becomes something like "fookin' cunt, fook oof, you fookin' nee-garh." It's hugely distracting and more than a bit silly. Also hugely distracting is the miscasting between the 20-something and teenage versions of the star-crossed lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine. The two actors playing Heathcliff don't really resemble each other, but give similar enough performances. The actresses playing Catherine, though, look absolutely nothing alike and give wildly diffeent performances - it's simply impossible to connect them together in your mind and it utterly robs the film of whatever resonance it had been building before the switch. When older Catherine first came on screen, I assumed she was supposed to a different character altogether (Isabella, another woman in love with Heathcliff.) The miscasting deflates the film. Two other little things I'd like to mention: the film jumps ahead several years mid-way: Heathcliff walks out into the mist as a teenager and re-emerges a full grown man. Fine. But moments later, the film starts flashing back to teenaged Heathcliff and Catherine, to scenes that happened 10 minutes ago. It reminded me of when in Dana Carvey's Master of Disguise, as a joke, that movie flashes back to something that happened earlier in the same scene. That's right, I just compared Wuthering Heights unfavorably to the tale of Pistachio Disguisey. My final trenchant, witty and essential observation: adult Catherine at one point takes adult Heathcliff out to the moors and tells him how awful his unexplained disappearance made her feel. She gestures out at the hills around them and says "How could you leave all this?" And it's a dreay, grey windswept marsh. The whole film is a soggy, drizzly, muddy mess.

Where Do We Go Now?

Director/star Nadine Labaki's follow-up to her surprise hit (belatedly distributed in the U.S.) Caramel is another light crowd-pleasing comedy, this time taking on a more serious subject: the tensions between Christians and Muslims in a small town in Lebanon. As tensions between the two factions ratchet up and threaten to spill over into violence, the women of the town band together and come up with a variety of wacky schemes to distract their men: the hijinx include pretending to be visited by the Virgin Mary, bussing in a load of Ukrainian strippers and making pastries laced with high-grade hash. Several musical numbers are peppered throughout the film, including a nice shuffling dance to the graveyard that opens the film. In the interest of critical integrity, I need to tell you that I was happy to see this film for one reason only: Labaki is a dynamite-looking woman. Seriously, she looks like a skinnier Monica Bellucci with sultrier eyes. That's, uh... she's quite something. There's a likable inoffensiveness to the film and its "positivity and joy in face of tragedy" perspective, even if it hinges on the ridiculous old canard that there would be no war if women were in charge. The ending of the film is clever, but ultimately belies Labaki's shallow answers to difficult questions, as though solving the internicine violence of the Middle East could be as simple as putting on a new hat. The film is full of clever ideas and doesn't give short shrift to the seriousness of the issues at hand per se, it just ends up being defined by its easy answers to difficult questions. You'd have to be sorta cold-hearted to hate this movie, but you'd have to be equally foolish to praise it as anything beyond fluff.

Monsieur Lazhar

So, here we have the first film that might qualify as being a breakout hit at Sundance. It played in the Toronto FF back in September (where Marcus Pinn named it one of the best of the festival) and has steadily been building a reputation since, but it has really become one of the few "must-see" films of the festival in 2012. It's about an Algerian immigrant who steps in as a teacher in a public school in Quebec after a teacher commits suicide. It really plays - the story is every bit as emotional as it sounds, but the amount of humor in the film surprised me pleasantly. The guy playing Lazhar is great and the performances are all around good in the film... I'm genuinely sorry to say I didn't like it more than I did. There's an oppressive twinkly piano score over the whole thing that insists on beating the audience over the head with uplift and emotionality and the story never really diverges exactly where you think it's heading. That is to say, we thought we were teaching Radio, but Radio was really teaching us. [chris, I'm not sure anyone remembers the heart-warming tale of Cuba Gooding Junior's Radio, let alone Ed Harris' very special line about a very special assistant football coach -- ed.] Again, I'd love to discuss it some with Pinn because he has convinced me to give many films a second shot or offered a perspective I can respect on films about which I felt lukewarm. While this is a film that doesn't deserve to have a bad word written about it, I think what I'd like to emphasize is that it just didn't work for me. My life-long hatred of teachers and children disqualifies me from being an appropriate judge. (Similarly, my life-long adoration of Monica Bellucci makes me a perfect judge for who does and does not resemble her... just to get off track again... where was I going now?) I would say this about Monsiuer Lazhar: believe the hype, but also know that the film is exactly what it appears to be. It's just a really top-notch version of that sort of thing.

 

  DAY THREE: SNAKEBIT

This day started off shitty from the beginning. For reasons I'm not sure I have permission to elaborate upon (for privacy's sake), I found out earlier than most folks just how bad the situation was with Bingham Ray. For those of you who aren't immediately familiar with the name, he's one of the legends of art film distribution, one of the main subjects of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures where his determination to use his company October Films to further the career of real artists like Mike Leigh, Jim Jarmusch and Lars Von Trier among many others make him the book's default hero. He's brash and foul-mouthed, charming but hard - on the side of good, on the side of art and beauty and films that you have to work to convince an audience they're idiots to miss. Ray went out on a limb for films like Cronos, Cemetery Man and Lost Highway, brought us work from Abel Ferrera, Thomas Vinterburg and Jafar Panahi. Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, The Last Seduction, Breaking the Waves, Autumn Tale, Un Couer en Hiver, even fucking Orgazmo - you can in part thank Ray if you loved any of those films. I knew him in a limited capacity from his work with the Jacob Burns Film Center where he served on our advisory committee - he actually hosted the film club for several years before I took it over. I'm a cynical, self-important asshole, but even I had the good sense to understand what a great guy with great taste Ray was. I'd hate to say something stupid like he was a hero of mine, but any time I had to think about the right way to do things, the right things about which to be professionally passionate, he frequently sprung to mind. I always felt bad that he named his son Nicholas Ray and I didn't like the eye-patch-wearing auteur more. If I can be embarrassingly honest, my Second Chances feature on Nick Ray was in part inspired by Bingham's enthusiasm for the guy - I thought, "If Bingham Ray loves him enough to name his son after him, I must be in the wrong."

When I found out how serious his situation was, I couldn't shake the gloom. I just couldn't. There aren't enough guys like him in the world that you can just shrug it off when we lose one.

The rest of the day stumbled forward from there. The snow poored down in frigid shales, leaving more than a foot on the ground. In addition to the snow (almost certainly because of the snow) the free shuttle bus down to the theater got into an accident with a car, leaving everyone on the bus in a state of disarray. The entire transportation schedule for the day was screwed, the chaos around an already chaotic situation multiplied and it seemed like trying to get anywhere, to make any move, became a non-starting slog. The gloom, the snow, the traffic snarl, it all came together and I missed the 9:00 a.m. screening for The Father' Chair. I settled into the massive line for the new film from the group of folks that made Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene...

Simon Killer

Because of this crew's success in 2011 with Martha Marcy, this was one of the more anticipated films of this year's festival. It ended up dividing audiences and it's easy to understand why: it's as stylistically self-assured as Afterschool and Martha Marcy, but the story concerns professional creep Brady Corbett as a self-pitying, sociopathic loser with no redeeming qualities. I like Corbett a lot in the remake of Funny Games (truthfully, I'd be excited for another remake of it with Arno Frisch and Brady Corbett paired up), but his character in this film is bottomlessly hateable. I was hoping the film would somehow end with him getting set on fire but not dying from it. Just a massive burn victim deformed from his injuries, moaning in agony in a hospital bed. I would've watched, like, 4 minutes of that happening to this character. Anyhoo, it features a lot of slow unbroken takes and an unflinching vibe of creeping dread; a lot of critics wet their pants for that sort of thing, regardless of whatever virtues a film has or lacks, so I'm not surprised it has picked a few passionate advocates. The only reason I was interested in it was that it co-stars the brilliant Mati Diop from Claire Denis' 35 Rhums. Diop is a naturally luminous and compelling screen presence, so I was excited to see her in another significant role. Unfortunately, she's a woman of color in a film made by white dudes, so she plays a prostitute. Furthermore, she's a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who falls for our sociopathic dork-hero, despite the fact that she's gorgeous and intelligent and he's a pathetic little weiner who never does anything charming or interesting or even trustworthy. This is a film very consciously about misogyny, so it's hard to criticize it for the ways in which Diop is constantly reduced to a fuck-hole developed very little beyond her limited (and unconvincing) relationship to Corbett, the woman-beating, would-be extortionist. I'm sure the filmmakers would say "that's exactly our point!" The problem is that it's not a very original or insightful point. On an intellectual level, there's nothing in the film that makes you stop and say to yourself "now, that's interesting" or "hm, I hadn't thought of it that way." The story is thin and would have been a cliche three centuries ago: there's a poor woman of the night who had a hard upbringing who jumps at the opportunity to escape her life with a dude from a higher social class. It's not fun to watch Corbett take a steaming (metaphorical) dump on Diop and, unfortunately, there's nothing else going on in the film. Like Martha Marcy, this film just isn't good enough, it doesn't do anything special with a rote premise... but it's shot and edited with an ostentatious deliberateness that insists, insists, insists something interesting must be happening.

The Invisible War

In his newest film, Kirby Dick (director of This Film is Not Yet Rated) handles a truly harrowing subject matter with blandest possible approach. He looks at the culture of sexual assault and victim-blaming within the U.S. military, focusing almost exclusively on talking heads interviews with victims and experts. As with the majority of social issue documentaries, the subject is worthy, the facts are shocking, the motives to shed light on the problem unassailable. It's, of course, not a good work of art. Disappointingly, it fails to even be an interesting one. Like West of Memphis, the sterile approach would be better suited to a segment on 20/20 than a feature length film, as after about 20 minutes there's almost no new information presented and none of the interview subjects are developed as characters - all but maybe one woman existing solely as a vessel for getting the message across. The men and women (and their families) featured in this film have disgustingly, unbelievably, outrageously been wronged and suffered a hell I can't even imagine. I can't fault this movie for wanting to share their stories and move them towards justice, to play a role in bringing down the military's indifference to rape and violence happening on a regular basis within their ranks and their continuing policy responding to complaints by punishing the accusers. It's a nauseating situation crying out for justice. And sure, media attention is a valid route to justice. But... I'm not sure that you will get much more out of this film than you would by reading a brief newspaper article about the subject. I'm really not sure there's a depth to it beyond what's even in this paragraph. That is not to trivialize the suffering of the women and men featured in the film - rather it is a testament to the shallowness with which Dick has served their interests. It is better that a film like The Invisible War exists than no film whatsoever, but that's an awfully low standard for which a film to aspire.

At this point, I headed up to the Slamdance festival, the screenings for which were being held in a hotel towards the crest of the hill down which Main Street winds. Jonathan Demme very generously put a ticket aside for me since I didn't have a Slamdance pass. I've got say, the vibe of Slamdance was much more my speed, an enthusiastic D.I.Y. ethos that found a film about a music legend directed by a major director being screened in a room full of folding chairs on a low screen, the bottom of which was blotted with the silhouettes of the heads of the folks in those folding chairs. The crowd spoke only about movies, an energetic hum of anticipation coming from folks who really believed in the anti-establishment mission of the counter-festival. Plus, the women were much better-looking: stylish Latinas with nose-rings and Southeast Asian women with neck tattoos, college women with bleach-blonde hair and combat boots over ripped stocking, all of them either wearing next-to-no make-up or outlandishly aggressive streaks of eye-liner and lipstick - a gorgeous contrast to the assembly-line L.A. types that swarmed through Sundance, where the only varieties were Buddy Holly glasses hipster or model/actress. I felt better there, less anxiety about being some dipshit nobody who V.I.P.'s would be ushered past, less seen-it-all industry coldness. No one said a word about skiing. The dark cloud following me around abated, even if it didn't entirely disappear.

Neil Young: Journeys

You know, I know Jonathan Demme through my job, so I feel like I shouldn't write too much about the movie - I just don't know if I'll sound like too much of a phony or if from a professional perspective I just shouldn't say anything at all. I will say this: Demme takes a very raw approach to an intimate one-man concert of Young. Sometimes, he sticks the camera literally inches from Young's mouth, filming an entire number through the kalediscopic striations of Young's spit on the camera lense. Other times, he plays entire songs in uninterrupted close-ups, not moving the camera one inch. In his intro, Demme said he felt like Young's performance in the film constituted an autobiography and that feels very true (even if the reserved, monosyllabic Young only grunted vaguely in agreement) - the film climaxes with a performance of "Hitchhiker" that feels like you're reading someone's diary. In the past decade, Demme has chronicled Young in a trilogy that probably represnts the most closely a single important filmmaker has ever followed an iconic musician - Demme has unassailable credentials as one of the greatest documenters of music in the history of the medium and he's documented no music as thoroughly as Young's. This film steps even farther; Journeys feels like the closest that we as an audience could ever hope to get to Young through a movie, maybe even through his music.

 

After I left the Slamdance venue, I attempted to find something to eat and ended up spending 45 fruitless minutes in line - before I could even catch a slice of pizza in one of the few over-crowded Main Street restaurants, I got a call from the two men with whom I was sharing the condo. For personal reasons (and they asked me to keep things quiet, so I'm still not sure what I can or can't mention), they both were leaving the festival early. Could I go back to the house and pack their bags for them, which they had left behind in the day before, not expecting that they wouldn't be returning to Park City? I manuevered slowly back to the condo, the traffic situation having gotten worse as the day progressed and slow-downs began to pile up on top of each other until there were giant masses of festival-goers spilling out of every bus stop on to the street. I packed their bags and left them in the entryway to be picked up. I attempted to get back down to the theater to catch the buzzed-about Filly Brown, but I was way too late and ending up throwing in the towel for the evening after an exhausting day. It took me an hour to find a place that would brave the snow and traffic to deliver me a pizza. When the pizza finally arrived, it was almost 10:00. I slept in the living room, needing the glow of t.v. to keep me company.

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