Ah, Sundance, you never change. Reports of your demise this year have been greatly exaggerated, what with the industry complaints of exclusion and an amazing ass-covering piece in the NY Times detailing the extensive programming process for the festival (John Cooper, pleased let me know who handles your PR… genius!) From the moment I landed at SLC on Thursday, the festival has been an ice-cold slush-soaked rendezvous with deja vu. Theaters, staff, volunteers, shuttle busses, Main St… it’s like I never left. There is always something about Park City that induces voracity in me and makes me happy to be running from film to party to film to dinner to shuttle stop to film and on and on. I can’t get enough of it. Of course, sometimes my perspective suffers from its own light-headed sojourn into the thin air of the mountains; things that might otherwise be of moderate interest in a half empty art house in mid-July somehow take on the some otherworldly greatness when seen in an enthusiastically full house of 1200 people at 8:30 in the morning. This is what film festivals are about, industry politics be damned. Sure, door-crashing ski bums, corporations too cheap to sponsor the festival but self-interested enough to glom onto the festival’s cache for their boring ass products, and a lot of star-ogling douche bags parade around Main St. as if the pavement was akin to being on-screen. And yes, over-privileged discourteous assholes push their way through lines and try to bully the awesome volunteer staff, and while it is tempting to look at all this and want to throw up, can I really hold the Sundance Film Festival responsible for the reprehensible behavior of ostentatious blowhards and condescending nuveau-riche prats who represent everything I despise about our culture? No. Park City may be ground zero for the selfish asshole zeitgeist, but the Sundance Film Festival is terrific fun anyway.
The snow is falling softly, and softly falling: The view from the Sarasota Film Festival Condo
My schedule so far has been very light, but that has allowed me some moments of serenity and some much-needed sleep. Let me give some brief reports on the films I have seen, some events I have attended, and what’s been going on.
Thursday January 19, 2006: Travel
A very long day of traveling… picked up the guys from the Sarasota Film Festival at around 5:00am EST and headed to the Tampa airport. Minor delay for de-icing in Denver, and we arrived in Park City at around 3:30 MT. Grabbed credentials and after spending an hour smoothing over a credentials mix-up, checked into our perfect condo and had dinner at my one of my favorite places in Park City, Chimayo, at around 9:15. I passed out under my heated blanket at around 11:30. A long, uneventful day of traveling.
Friday January 20, 2006: Roosters, Writers, and Wild Tigers
Up at 7:30 and to the Library for the 8:30 am showing of Shorts Program VI. After a late start (the projection team was apparently locked out of the projection booth), the tech set up proved to be all wrong. Delays. I really feel bad for filmmakers in this situation; they’re already nervous to share their work in front of an audience (especially the shorts filmmakers) and to have a technical snag in the first screening of the day was discouraging. The festival is famous for stop and start time issues, and to kick things off with a 45 minute delay, um, ouch. As a programmer, presentation is hugely important to me (I want our festival to have flawless presentation; we owe it to our filmmakers and audiences), and I know it is to the Sundance team as well, but shit happens. Unfortunately, I was only able to see half of the program because the delay took so long, but what I did see, one film stood out for me; James Clauer’s The Aluminum Fowl.
Clauer was the Cinematographer for Gummo (Harmony Korine executive produced this short), and The Aluminum Fowl feels like a companion piece to that film. The film, which feels like a documentary (as did certain segments of Gummo), details the lives of four stepbrothers who live in abject poverty in rural Tennessee and who torment their pet animals. This includes some mutilation and killing of chickens, pitting dogs, cats, and chickens in fights with one another, and trying to overcome boredom in increasingly distressing ways. Like Korine’s films, Clauer’s film does not take an uplifting or a judgmental stance on its subjects; it simply shows the world as it is and does so beautifully. That said, I am not sure how much time I would care to spend among these kids. Cruel, heartbreaking stuff.
Off to the Eccles next for a sold out screening of Freida Lee Mock’s Spectrum Documentary Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner. This screening really drove home the festival’s central importance to American film festivals; I walked into a sold-out 1250 seat theater at 11:30am on a Friday morning to watch a wonderful documentary about a gay, socialist, Jewish playwright. We can bitch and moan all we want about Sundance, but I have a hard time envisioning where else in the United States you could find a screening like that. Of course, Mock’s film is full of humor and pathos from Kushner who more than lived up to expectations as a subject. The film talks in depth about Kushner’s work and inspiration, but he also generously gives access to his personal life and his creative process. After seeing the film, I admire his passion, courage, and commitment even more deeply than before. What can I say, I am a fan.
After dinner, I headed off to see another film that did not disappoint, Cam Archer’s stunning exploration of ‘tweenage’ sexual desire Wild Tigers I Have Known. Having seen and programmed Bobbycrush, the motifs and ideas are very similar Archer’s previous films, but instead of feeling like a retread, Wild Tigers feels like pure transcendence. First and foremost, the structural design of the film is absolutely awe-inspiring; from the Hi-Def photography that burns colors into your eyeballs* to the sound design and music by Cam’s brother Nate, which feels like Matthew Barney’s atmospheric sonic attack in the Cremaster series blended with an encyclopedic knowledge of songs of deep, physical longing. The performances, especially the work of Malcom Strumpf in the lead role of Logan, are all full of vulnerability and energy, which perfectly encapsulate the film’s visual (and metaphorical) dissection of the confusion of sexual awakening. I loved the movie, and while there are some scenes that I will never forget (the turn-on of applesauce, the list of ‘how to become cool’, Nina Simone’s face and voice expressing what Logan cannot), the film is a decidedly non-commercial middle finger to the expectations of your basic narrative coming of age and coming out stories. After the screening, the Q&A featured probing, insightful questions from Cam’s parents and relatives; a very funny coda to the screening. Bed followed a quick cab ride from the Holiday Village. Technicolor dreams of long-lost crushes.
Saturday January 21, 2006: Somebodies
Up at 8:00am for the 9:15 screening of Hadjii’s Somebodies at the Eccles. Again, I loved it. Beyond being a terrific, independent comedy, the film is hard to categorize; I was tempted to type ‘Middle-class African American Junebug meets middle-class Fridays’, but that doesn’t do the film justice. Hadjii (who wrote, directed, and stars in the film) has a light touch and a great ear for jokes and language, but he also creates respectful, honest renderings of everyday situations that never seem to find the light of day in smart, independent comedies; religious faith, tutoring and mentoring, dating, and best of all, personal eccentricity. His characters are not do-gooders with an agenda, and they aren’t criminals or stereotypes; they are young people who are living their lives and having fun. At the risk of sounding like an annoying white liberal, this is a film I have been waiting for. There is some minor reliance on the clichés of Hollywood-ized black cinema (those crazy white people!), but Somebodies is as far removed from a film like Soul Plane or Barbershop as films like Chameleon Street, Hollywood Shuffle, or She’s Gotta Have It are. Sombodies fits squarely in the revelatory tradition of African-American independent film, and in an entertainment business dominated by hip-hop thuggery and sexually objectifying posturing, it is refreshing to see a big-hearted take on life among young, black men. Politics and history aside, the film is really nothing more than an honest, funny good time at the movies. What more can you ask from a comedy?
More soon… off to screenings...
* I think Hi-Def could be the new Technicolor—different palette, but man, the colors just ripped in this print. It was like seeing The Wizard of Oz for the first time.