Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Notes from Sundance 2007

Has Sundance sold its soul? Is it now the property of the big studios – or big corporations – as they continue their conquest and development of the small turf that once belonged to independent film? I can’t really say, since this year marked my first trip to the Sundance Film Festival – meaning I had no personal basis for lamenting the erosion of its indie cred. I didn’t see “Hounddog” or “Grace is Gone” or any of the higher-profile films that got snapped up for hefty sums, and it was only after roughly the tenth “sponsored by” preface to a screening that I began to recall that AOL and Volkswagon, as well as Entertainment Weekly, were festival sponsors. (I still can’t tell you who the others were, although their logos were certainly plastered over just about all things Sundance-related.)

What I can say is that I saw a broad range of very good, very different films that were by all appearances genuine labors of love – “indie” to the core. None of them featured much in the way of star power: the closest was STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING, a lovely little gem of a movie starring Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, and Adrian Lester – all actors of note, though hardly marquee names. “Starting,” directed by Andrew Wagner, traces the unusual dynamic that develops between Leonard Schiller (Langella), an aging, once-famous writer who’s slipped into obscurity, and a bright, intensely worshipful young grad student (Ambrose) determined to restore his renown. But it’s just as much about Schiller’s daughter Ariel (Taylor), a dancer-turned-pilates instructor who’s pushing 40 and feeling her biological clock ticking.

“Starting” is likely to be regarded in some quarters as too self-consciously literate – which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, given how few movies today can claim that as a fault. Wagner’s treatment of the relation between authorial voice and authorial biography as a matter of pressing importance is rather charming, and makes the film a natural draw for literary scholars and anyone who’s ever been obsessed with a particular writer. But beyond its intellectual pretensions, “Starting” is also remarkable for the depth of its characters and their relationships – not just between Leonard and his fangirl or Leonard and Ariel, but between Ariel and her on-again, off-again lover (Lester). I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a relationship, in all its joys and flaws, drawn with such emotional honesty and perceptiveness. Ultimately, though, it’s Leonard who owns the movie, due in no small part to Langella’s beautifully pitched performance, which shifts almost imperceptibly from prickly to prim to vulnerable, and back again. Within the narrow range of feeling that Schiller permits himself to show, Langella (who also did very fine work in “Good Night, and Good Luck”) works marvels of nuance that I genuinely believe may earn him a shot at Oscar next year. He’s that good, and I feel privileged to have been one of the first members of the public to see him in this role.

At the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum, another memorable performance I had the privilege of witnessing was that of Jess Weixler in TEETH, a wickedly funny, decidedly squirm-inducing little horror flick about a young girl’s unusual, er, defense mechanism to unwanted sexual predations. (Two words: vagina dentata. Go look it up if you don’t know what it is.) The movie, written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of Roy), teeters a bit uncomfortably between comedy, satire, and horror – after an effectively ominous opener, the next 15 minutes or so play like an overly campy parody of teen abstinence movements – but hits its stride once the chomping begins. (Note to the squeamish: this movie is headed straight for an NC-17 rating, and not because it’s too sexy.) Weixler is a hoot; in a weird way her performance reminded me a little of Naomi Watts’ in “Mulholland Drive”: you start out thinking “god, she’s so bad” and by the end she’s frickin’ brilliant. No wonder her acting won a special jury prize.

Speaking of jury prizes, to Sundance novices going for the end of the festival, I highly recommend buying tickets to at least a couple of the screenings of the prize winners. It’s pretty good insurance in case everything you pick yourself is a disappointment (though I personally was fortunate in that regard), and even if a prize winner turns out to be something you’ve already seen, you can easily sell your ticket to the long line of wait-listers – and pat yourself on the back for being so prescient. Of course even the grand jury can get it wrong. But they didn’t this year, at least if PADRE NUESTRO (winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) and MANDA BALA (winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize) were indicative. These choices may reflect a Sundance bias towards films that play to the jury’s social and multicultural sensibilities, but both of these films stand firmly on their own merits.

“Padre Nuestro,” written and directed by Christopher Zalla, tells a two-pronged tale of two Mexican youths who come to New York as illegals. One of them, Pedro, has a father in New York he’s never met, who he thinks will help him; the other, Juan, a thief with sharper wits and no scruples, steals Pedro’s identity and attempts to ingratiate himself with the initially surly, suspicious dad. The movie doesn’t unfold at all as you might expect it to (warning: the ending is guaranteed to leave a lot of viewers deeply frustrated), but that’s its beauty. That and the fact that it’s grippingly, kinetically filmed, and shows New York as the gritty city it really is. “Manda Bala” (Send a Bullet) is even more of a downer, though almost as compelling. Director Jason Kohn sets his sights on Sao Paulo, Brazil, a world warped by an all-pervasive culture of political corruption and everyday violence on a level unimaginable to even the most jaded or paranoid American. Kohn doesn’t tie the corruption on high to the social disintegration at the bottom as tightly as he might, but he still paints a vivid and unsettling picture of a world in which bulletproof cars, bodyguards, kidnapping and the cutting off (and later surgical reattaching) of ears to extract ransoms constitute mundane facts of daily life.

But I think my fav of the festival was PROTAGONIST, a film that defies classification, didn’t win any awards (though it was entered in the documentary competition), and may have trouble finding a commercial distributor. Which, though hardly surprising, is a shame, because it’s really one of the most interesting and watchable films I’ve come across in a while. Written and directed by the brilliant Jessica Yu, who won an Oscar in 1997 for her short “Breathing Lessons,” and whom I have now adopted as my idol, “Protagonist” focuses on four men—a gay ex-evangelist, a martial artist, a former bank robber-turned-journalist, and a German ex-terrorist—and explores the ways in which each of their life-stories follows the classic arc of Greek tragedy. Yu illustrates each point of that arc with chapter headings and excerpts from Euripides, acted out by puppets that manage to look at once like ancient Greek thespians and minimalist depictions of the very modern-day predicaments of each protagonist. Aesthetically, these devices can get a bit schematic, but Yu does a remarkably deft job intertwining the four storylines and showing their convergences without forcing them. More importantly, she’s managed to select four incredibly intelligent, articulate subjects who have attained exactly the right level of self-awareness, and to draw their own best insights out of them. All four men are compelling for different reasons, but I have to give extra brownie points to Mark Pierpont (the former gay converter). Anyone who believes that homosexuality is a sin that can be overcome through religious faith should just watch and listen to his story. It’s absolutely riveting, and deeply poignant.

Other films I saw:

CROSSING THE LINE: Intriguing docu about James Dresnok, an American GI stationed in the Korean DMZ in the 1960s, who one day decided to desert and defect to North Korea…and has lived there ever since. As if that weren’t crazy enough, three other Americans followed his example, though director Daniel Gordon focuses on Dresnok. Film offers some pretty mind-boggling revelations of the ways in which the DPRK incorporated the four Americans into their anti-American propaganda machine (including some propaganda films that would be hilarious if they weren’t also hilariously tragic), but at bottom it’s most fascinating as a portrait of a man who came from a troubled and broken background and claims to have found his place (and peace) in a society that initially could not have been more alien. The most fascinating part is that you actually come to believe him, or at least I did. You also get to see the utterly weird sight of a Caucasian boy (Dresnok’s son) speaking awkward, stilted English with Korean cadences and inflections.

THE POOL: Tranquil little film with hidden currents. Directed by American Chris Smith but set in India and featuring an all-Indian cast, it centers on a low-caste young hotel worker who’s obsessed with the swimming pool in an estate that he passes every day on his way to work. Eventually, he meets the inhabitants of the estate – an older man and his twentysomething daughter – starts working as their gardener, and befriends them both. What I liked about this film is the fact that it’s isn’t afraid to take a slow, unhurried pace and show the day-in, day-out routine of the working class, and apart from one quiet little twist at the end, feels no need to inject action, complication, or romance just for the sake of drama. Plus, its quietness is deceptive. “The Pool” operates very much on the iceberg principle: nine-tenths of what’s going on is beneath the surface, making the pool an apt metaphor for the film as a whole. Won a Special Jury Prize for “singularity of vision.”

DRIVING WITH MY WIFE’S LOVER: The one mild disappointment of my festival experience. This debut feature by Korean director Kim Tai-Sik follows the travails of a mournful cuckold who looks like the proverbial 80-pound weakling and who discovers his wife is cheating on him with a cab driver who never met a girl he couldn’t bed. The cuckold tracks down the robust, lusty-for-life cabbie and hires him for a long ride from Naksan (his home town) to Seoul. Complications follow. Part road-trip movie, part relationship comedy-satire, the movie has its moments but overall doesn’t quite cohere into a memorable whole.

I also saw a bunch of short films that varied in quality. The second batch I saw was markedly stronger than the first, and featured the winner of the Special Jury Prize – “The Tube Without a Hat,” a cute little Romanian short about a cute little Romanian boy who persuades his dad to go into town to get the TV fixed. I believe it and most of the other shorts are downloadable from the Sundance website.

Just as interesting as the films, I found, were the Q&As afterwards with the directors. Their articulateness varied as widely as their directing styles. At one extreme were Chris Zalla (“Padre Nuestro”) and Jessica Yu (“Protagonist”), who each handled the questions that rained down on them with impressive intelligence and fluency; at the other, Mitchell Lichtenstein (“Teeth”), a singularly poor public speaker with apparently little or no insights to share on a movie that really could have stimulated a rousing discussion. In between, Jason Kohn (“Manda Bala”), who identified himself as a “New York Jew” of Brazilian descent, but who came across like a slightly stoned southern Californian with a penchant for the “f-word” but also some entertaining tales to tell about his experiences in Sao Paulo.

When I wasn’t ODing on films, I was braving the briskly, sometimes bitterly cold streets of Park City and Salt Lake City, keeping an eye peeled for celebrities. Ok, not so much the latter. The fact is I went for the last four days of the festival, by which time most of the rich & famous have left town and the crowds have thinned proportionately. In any case, I heard that the celebrity count was low this year. I did see Jared Leto on Main Street. Sort of. That is, he passed us by on the street, followed by what I think was his band 30 Seconds to Mars. I heard some people murmuring his name just as they were passing, and my boyfriend spotted him and pointed to the back of his head. Does that count as a sighting?

Park City is in some ways an odd place to hold a film festival. The natural center and tourist draw is the boutique and restaurant-laden Main Street, but there’s only one small theater on Main Street. All the other screening venues are various performing arts centers, libraries, etc., miles away from downtown and apart from one another, which made it difficult just to chill (except in the literal sense) somewhere between screenings. Still, there was an excitement in the air that was infectious and palpable, and not quite like anything I’ve ever felt – even on opening night in a packed theater for a much-anticipated film. Because here, the anticipation was cheek and jowl with the sense that you really didn’t know what you were getting: it could be great, or it could be awful. Happily for me, the overall balance was much closer to great. All festivalgoers should be so lucky.


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