By Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
December 6, 2005 - 1:37 PM PST
Nearing the halfway point of the festivities, Jonathan Marlow sent word from the vortex.
Twelve months ago, critics Shannon Gee (occasional correspondent for the Seattle Times) and Andy Spletzer (regular contributor to The Stranger) convinced me to see DiG! at the first screening of Sundance. Admittedly, a wonderful start to a program full of primarily good films. This time around, the first film was Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs. The opening "song" featured the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a band formed from the ashes of the incarnation of the Brian Jonestown Massacre featured in the earlier film. Any similarity between the two films essentially ends there. 9 Songs, in 69 minutes (nudge, nudge), is basically "sex, drugs and rock & roll" and nothing else. For folks that disliked the graphic fornication of Anatomy of Hell or Life of Jesus, these Songs are certain to disappoint. For those, like myself, that do not harbor prudish tendencies, the lack of a story that holds any significance is a far more significant worry. Ideally, John Cameron Mitchell's forthcoming jump on the art-porn bandwagon will fare better.
The short that preceded Winterbottom's mess, the straightforwardly titled Elke's Visit, takes the artistic integrity of One Night in Paris if set on a train. It ranks among the worst films ever presented at a major festival. This pair, along with similar explicit scenes in other films that appeared during the first days of the fest, leads one to wonder if there is an unfortunate trend at work. I'd argue for another recognizable pattern - a force that sends us adrift in the midst of sea. Two fascinating works, Keith Bearden's The Raftman's Razor and the Zellner brothers' Flotsam/Jetsam, center on a lone man floating far from land. What each does with this little detail is considerably inventive, particularly the lovely animated sequences of the former and the unexpected ending of the latter. Merely two of the surprisingly strong selection of shorts this year, the aforementioned Visit and Waiting for the Man excepted.
Thus far the strongest works of the event are, as predicted, the documentaries. Shake Hands With the Devil, a certain must-see for those ignorant of the achievements or, thanks to the inactivity of others, lack of achievements of Roméo Dallaire. The somewhat fictionalized Hotel Rwanda only presents one side of this horrific story, one we seemed doomed to repeat. Other notable docs include Dhakiyarr vs. the King (a made-for-Australian-television piece that revisits a clash between Western law and Yolngu law that left two men dead and many unanswered questions), the visually stunning The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (following the daily lives of young boys at a cadet academy), Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog's latest about controversial outdoorsman Timothy Treadwell), I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth (detailing the making of the legendary Mikhail Kalatozov's film), Twist of Faith (Kirby Dick's document of one man's efforts against Catholic pedophilia) and Unknown White Male (about a 37-year-old gentleman who reached the end of the subway line at Coney Island with no memory of himself, a case of absolute amnesia).
One could even rank among these titles Jenni Olson's beautiful film, The Joy of Life. Influenced by William Jones (who, in turn, was influenced by James Benning), we witness largely static shots of San Francisco overlaid with two contrasting tales. The first, excerpts from Olson's Fuck Diaries; the second, a history of the Golden Gate Bridge. The latter works as an unexpected plea for a suicide barrier on the bridge. A compelling film for those seeking something far outside of the conventional narrative.
Meanwhile, in the Dramatic Competition, one disappointment is followed by another. Expected winners like Steve Buscemi's Lonesome Jim are likable enough but sadly unremarkable. Lukewarm receptions greeted Ellie Parker and Loggerheads as well. Like Olson's Life above, only Police Beat appears to be attempting something out-of-the-ordinary in its structure. We'll see if audiences embrace these diversions or not. There are still many screenings ahead and more words about them to follow.
By this point, Hannah Eaves was finding the shorts to be the real highlight of this year's edition of Sundance.
Sundance appears to be sending a mixed message this year. The festival, made famous for its support of independent American filmmakers, has started every screening with a promotional spot made by animation house JibJab. JibJab's claim to fame consists of a series of political animated shorts. Their frontispieces for the festival reveal a certain cynicism towards independent filmmakers. They begin with the word "Independent" in bold white on a red background, the letters blurring away one by one. The last letters to go spell out the word "inept." In one version, a road line painter talks about how he hates working for "the man" and how sick he is of always having to paint straight lines. In order to break away and be himself, he starts painting colorful patterns on the road, stating that independence means freedom to do whatever he wants to do; in the background a car plunges off the road to certain death. Every variation of the JibJab intro leaves off with the main character's desire for freedom causing death through ineptitude, naiveté and carelessness. It doesn't help that a song preaching freedom and independence then plays over a hefty sponsor list. What is Sundance trying to tell us, here?
In stark contrast, the actual shorts screening at Sundance have been the 2005 edition's real highlight. They can fairly easily be divided into two categories - those that seem to be calling cards for future feature film work, and those that succeed purely on their own merits as self-contained stories. Of the former, Wasp, freshly nominated for an Academy Award, is an impressive entry. Many first-time features suffer heavily from poorly directed performances, often exacerbated by bad dialogue. A successful "calling card" film displays the filmmaker's aptitude for making a scene really work. In this respect, Wasp is a standout effort by UK filmmaker Andrea Arnold. It follows a negligent and desperate mother's day with her four children. The seamless realism of the performances and dialogue recall early Michael Winterbottom or Ken Loach. I expect we'll be seeing a very accomplished feature from Arnold in the future. Another competent entry in this genre is Kara Miller's Elephant Palm Tree, about a West African couple in living in London and suffering from a loveless marriage.
Several standout stand-alone shorts, in addition to the previously mentioned (fantastic) Flotsam/Jetsam and The Raftman's Razor, include Ryan, by far the most talked about short at this year's festival and an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short. Here, filmmaker Chris Landreth converses with his longtime inspiration, former animator Ryan Larkin. Larkin made several groundbreaking shorts in the late 60s and early 70s, most notably Walking, before falling into a creative stupor spurred on by drug addiction and alcoholism. 3D animation is used to recreate the scene of the conversation, but Landreth takes advantage of its flexibility to make each character's appearance reflect their mental state. For instance, neither has a fully fleshed out head. In moments of mental suffocation, brightly colored ribbons sprout out of Landreth's skull and wrap his face tightly. When he warns Larkin about his alcohol problem, a neon halo sprouts from the top of his head. The whole effect is visually stunning. It doesn't quite tell us enough about Ryan Larkin, however, which makes it difficult to fully understand the mental problems that generate such moving effects.
On a much more sinister note, Brian Boyce's America's Biggest Dick, already an online hit, is surprisingly creepy. Boyce takes Cheney's 2004 Republican Convention speech and replaces its audio with scenes from Brian De Palma's Scarface. The result is both funny and disturbing. At three minutes, I think you should all watch it right now - especially considering that Boyce is a proud GreenCine subscriber. He's currently working on a collage film using old Ronald Reagan footage. Now that Reagan has passed away, it's definitely time for some healthy demythologizing.
And then Hannah Eaves sent in the following, featuring not only first impressions of several films but also her own personal impressions of the town, the festival and GreenCine's own party, co-hosted by Res Magazine and DivX. All abetted by photos by GC Managing Partner Dennis Woo.
The American Dramatic Competition is finally heating up at Sundance. News hit several days ago that, after an energetic premiere, Hustle and Flow was picked up by Paramount for $9 million (although, after finagling, the grand total will probablybe closer to $16 million). Its story revolves around a pimp who, after hearing a gospel song, attempts to turn his dream of becoming a rapper into reality. No doubt the buyers were influenced by the success of 8 Mile and are looking to market this to the urban crowd.
The Dying Gaul, however, seems to be the most popular amongst critics here. Featuring Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson, this stage adaptation by writer/director Craig Lucas is about a screenwriter who sells the story of his dead lover with a devil's clause - he must transform the character into a woman. Brick, a high school noir, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, have all garnered generally positive responses. One notable aspect of the festival this year is the lack of agreement; it's very difficult to name a single film that most people found outstanding.
There are some excellent entrants in the World Documentary Competition, however. Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is a fascinating character study of Timothy Treadwell, self-appointed grizzly bear expert. For thirteen summers, the youthful Treadwell camped in the Alaskan wilderness to observe and commune with grizzlies. His final year there ended in tragedy when he and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and completely devoured by an older, aggressive bear. Most of the visuals for the film come from Treadwell's own video footage, shot during his last few excursions. He comes dangerously close to the bears, touching them and swimming with them, all the while convinced that his work as a naturalist and lobbyist is helping to preserve their environment. Unfortunately, we soon come to learn that what Treadwell is filming in the Alaskan wilds is less a nature documentary than a kind of ongoing Crocodile Hunter episode with Treadwell styling himself as a great lone adventurer and the only human capable of understanding the creatures around him. His disturbed mental state becomes clearer through interviews and Herzog's own voiceover.
Treadwell was a failed actor and alcoholic, rescued in a sense by the power and individualistic importance that such a reckless undertaking gave him. The bears saved him from obscurity and addiction, but his staying there, against the wishes of the park service, to play out his own narcissistic fantasies and adamant death wish, was bound to end in tragedy. His childlike love for the animals around him seems genuine, as was his belief that the animal world, though admittedly dangerous, was somehow more benevolent than that of humans. In reality, nature is cruel and animals want to survive. The most powerful scene in the film comes when Herzog listens to a tape of the attack (the camera's lens cap was thankfully on during the recording). He agrees that, at over six minutes, this is something that the audience should not hear. Surprisingly, the film doesn't deal with the ethical issue of using Treadwell's own footage to make a film that he, undeniably, would hate.
On a far happier note, Jenny Abel's, Abel Raises Cain, screening at Slamdance, is a joyful history of media prankster Alan Abel, the director's father. This film has the potential to be truly fantastic. In the 1950s, Abel enlisted his wife and actor Buck Henry in a fake campaign to clothe all naked animals for the sake of decency ("a nude horse is a rude horse"). Many people, unaware of the society's satiric foundations, got on the bandwagon, and through their stupidity inspired Abel to pursue a lifetime of media hoaxes. The film breaks its momentum by cutting back and forth to the present, when what we all really want to know is what stunt Abel's going to pull off next. Within segments the editing is excellent - the opening shots of Abel semi-jogging to canned music are hilarious - but this film is one of few that would benefit from chronological storytelling, up to and including the present.
Hal Hartley's latest, The Girl From Monday, is likely to get a mixed response from critics and audiences alike. Starring Bill Sage and Sabrina Lloyd, it is what Hartley calls "fake sci-fi." Though it takes place vaguely in the future there is an undeniable sense that it could be happening right now; that, in fact, our current world is so surreal it could have slipped into science fiction without our noticing. Stylistically, it follows on from The Book of Life and is full of off angles and slow shutter speeds (what Hartley calls the "Wong Kar-wai button" on the camera). In Hartley's vision of the future (or, rather, exaggerated opinion of the present), sex is nothing but a commodity, used to boost one's credit rating. After all, the more sexually powerful we are, the higher our status. Attachment or rejection in any form is a liability, dealt with in court and by insurance companies. Secret, corrupting clubs exist where people have sex purely for pleasure. Common punishment is a long stretch of teaching high school. The title character is from another planet, one without human bodies that relies on a communal conciousness. She is on Earth to find one of her own and bring him back. There are some effective moments, particularly in the first half and towards the end, and Hartley's continual experimentation with narrative and performance is something to be respected.
A Personal POV
It has become clear from my first visit here that the Sundance Film Festival is just as much about the overall experience as it is about the movies. All sorts of people come to Park City - skiiers after celebrity sightings and post-slope movies, executives looking for a hit, industry folks here for the parties, an excited yet cynical press corp, and, of course, filmmakers full of hope and frivolity. As a first time attendee, I'd like to tell you a little bit about what it's like to actually be at Sundance.
Park City is a straight 30-minute shot up the highway and into the mountains from Salt Lake City, Utah. The mountains here are not sharp and craggy like those in Washington or parts of Colorado, which lends them a deserty roundness, straggly and dusted with snow. It's such a skiing town that a lift actually lets off on Main Street. The street itself looks vaguely like Vegas's idea of an old mining town. It only seems fake because so many of the buildings' exteriors were renovated at about the same time. Strings of colored lights zig-zag above and, during Sundance, barricades extend along the sidewalks. The box office is here, along with a wall-sized version of the schedule; inevitably, every film is marked with a "Sold Out" sticker.
The skiiers that come to Sundance must have an interesting time of it. Shuttle buses take people from one venue to another, often to whatever screenings people can manage to get tickets to. It's not unusual to see a large contingent of blonde bunnies in ugg boots and parkas at, say, a highly experimental gay film. Often they don't last long.
The press corp experiences an entirely different festival. Most press passes allow bearers into special press screenings and, in fact, this year an entire two-screen venue was dedicated to press only. They generally only see public screenings if they have a special pass (like Roger Ebert), know a publicist that can get them in or get their hands on a ticket, usually to a film that isn't being screened for the press, or whose screening clashes with something else. There are also tapes that press take out and watch at their condos. So often, when you read a review, there's a chance that the film's only been seen on VHS. For the press, Sundance offers an exclusive chance to catch up with each other, and the opening question is always the same: "Seen anything good today?"
For the filmmakers, the experience seems to be both fantastic and frightening. I spent a great deal of time with the cast and crew of Police Beat, an entry in the American Dramatic Competition. There was a triple birthday celebration (myself included) that ended with champagne toasts in the wee hours of the morning. The night before their first screening they had about twenty people staying at their condo in makeshift beds. Walking out afterward, I asked one of the producers how he was feeling. He said that he felt great, not just because the screening was over, but because sitting there during it he realized that he had helped to make a beautiful film.
The director of Police Beat, Robinson Devor, was one of the honorees of GreenCine's own party, co-hosted by Res Magazine and DivX, which served to honor ten filmmakers and to announce GreenCine's online film festival. The great thing about Sundance is that all the filmmakers - Keith Bearden (The Raftman's Razor), Bryan Boyce (America's Biggest Dick), Maya Churi (Forest Grove), Brett Simon (The Sailor's Girl), Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), Jenni Olson (The Joy of Life), Talmage Cooley (Dimmer), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and Hal Hartley (The Girl From Monday) - were there, together, in an intimate bar. That makes for interesting conversation.
The best story I've heard so far about the whole Park City experience comes from Mark Lewis, whose film, Ill Fated, was screening at Slamdance. Five minutes before the end of the film, right at the climax, the print flew off the platter and unfurled all over the projection booth. The situation looked hopeless. But, as Lewis comments, what happened next was all cinema:
This was our US premiere and I had a little trepidation going in. We had a Variety review after our Toronto Film Festival Premiere that basically said, Though a hit in Canada, no one's going to like it in the US. And during the screening, I just had this feeling that they hated it. That is until the projection fucked up and everyone in the audience just went ballistic. They were utterly and completely enthralled. Not only that, every single one in the theater waited through the twenty some-odd minutes as they looked for alternatives to show the last five minutes. And just as my producers (Rob Neilson and Paul Armstrong) and I were going to reenact the finale (seriously), Dan Mirvish pulled out his laptop, which was in fact the smallest laptop I had ever seen, with a DVD of the film. And in a truly communal fashion everyone gathered around and watched, with eyes glued to this monitor, the remainder of the film unfold. It was frickin' beautiful.
Ill Fated's Canadian rights were later sold to TH!NKfilm.
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Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
Hannah Eaves is an Australian-born writer and filmmaker currently based in the Bay Area. Her writing can also be found in Intersection magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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