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Sundance 1: Rehabilitated

By Amy Taubin

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New Signs of Life at the Sundance Film Festival

At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the second since John Cooper took over as director, the changes in the ambience and the kinds of movies that the festival welcomed were appreciable. Last year everyone was too depressed  about the economy—few companies buying or financing—to notice that Cooper and the man responsible for the whole show, Robert Redford, had begun to bring the balance between Sundance as a market and as a showcase for interesting films— with or without obvious commercial potential—back to where it was in the Nineties. (To be more specific, this year many films were sold, although none for near the eight-figure Little Miss Sunshine price; and while stars still walked the red carpets and publicists organized press days, the stretch limos had vanished from Main Street, the entertainment news crews were vastly reduced, and swag was hardly in evidence.) 

Letters from the Big Man

Letters from the Big Man

Not coincidentally, some of the best films in this year’s festival were by veterans of the Nineties. Gregg Araki was back with his irrepressible but finely calibrated gender-bending new-age horror-satire Kaboom (which has already come and gone from your local indie theater) as was Christopher Munch with Letters from the Big Man, which is about the tender encounter between a gorgeous blonde National Forestry Service consultant (Lily Rabe) and Sasquatch (Isaac C. Singleton Jr., in face makeup by Lee Romaire and a gorilla suit with tailored shoulders that would do Armani proud). 

I can’t imagine a moviemaker other than Munch bringing so much conviction to such a wigged-out premise. Letters isn’t a spoof, a horror movie, or a new-age metaphor. (Well, maybe it’s ever so slightly the last.) It’s closer to a fairy tale that retains its hold on the adult imagination, even though one might feel silly admitting it. For the first hour of the film, Sarah (Rabe, whose compact athletic body and slightly husky, wonderfully expressive voice distinguish her from most movie ingenues) camps out alone in the deep forests of southwestern Oregon. She suspects that someone or something is following her and she’s right on both counts. The someone is an environmental activist and potential romantic interest, a slightly shifty character who’s not sure which side he should be on. The something is a Big Foot, who watches over her from a discreet distance. Later she will return the favor, concealing his whereabouts from various government bad guys. Shot with the RED—a great camera with which to capture the deep green of the forest by  day and by night—Letters reverences the natural world, finding in its beauty and order  a way to fulfill one’s life.

Letters wasn’t the only movie where an enchanted forest provided refuge for an outsider. In Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, a shy, overweight adolescent (Jacob Wysocki) leaves the ramshackle house that he shares with his only caring relative, an uncle in the early stages of dementia, and walks to school through a wooded glen that we see though his eyes as a place where he can lose his self-consciousness and even feel empowered. As he pauses on a ridge to look down on the high school sports field, we know he is trying to marshal the strength he gained from his brief idyll so that he can face yet another day of not being accepted by a pitiless teenage hierarchy. Working with a beautifully observed script by Patrick deWitt, perfectly pitched between comedy and pathos, Jacobs makes the silence around dialogue come alive through the gestures and gazes of his marvelously understated actors and  the way subtle changes in light can illuminate not only the outside world but a shift in the inner life of the person on whom it falls. (Tobias Datum’s 35mm cinematography is outstanding.) Neither sentimental nor exploitative, Terri depicts high school as a place where, as the assistant principal (John C. Reilly) explains, Terri has the opportunity to come to terms with the fact that “life is a mess, dude, but we are all just doing the best we can.” Terri bonds with this unusually honest adult and with two other students who are also receiving counseling: anxiety-ridden Chad, who compulsively pulls out his own hair strand by strand, and gorgeous Heather, whose popularity takes a sudden plunge after she allows her boyfriend to finger-fuck her in plain sight of every student in the cafeteria. In the climactic scene, the three repair to Terri’s house where they down a bottle of Scotch and an array of prescription drugs. The ensuing trip, which at a few moments touches the sublime, recalls a similar shared adolescent rite of passage in Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season. Like that film, Terri is a teen comedy that is not sadistic, salacious, or scatological—i.e., not easy to market.

All Flowers in Time

All Flowers in Time

Jacobs made such brilliant use of concrete autobiographical materials in his previous feature, Momma’s Man, that one wondered if he could let go of the mother-lode. But Terri is every bit as personal to Jacobs’s filmmaking voice. Similarly, Jonathan Caouette’s short, All Flowers in Time suggests that the director of Tarnation is not merely a precocious performer with a troubled mom and a carton of childhood Super 8 and VHS recordings, but a filmmaker with the talent and skill to build entrancing multilayered images and balance them with multi-layered sound. At once fragmented and dense, the 14-minute piece delicately unpacks childhood fears and by exposing them lays them to rest, at least for a moment. All Flowers in Time played in the festival’s New Frontier experimental section on an exceptionally strong program of short works that also included Francis Alys de Smedt’s high-risk structuralist action movie Tornado (made in collaboration with Julien Devaux) and Jem Cohen’s Anne Truitt, Working, an immensely moving portrait of a little-known, dedicated and highly articulate sculptor. 

My usual method of covering Sundance involves first checking out movies by directors I care about and after that looking at the likely prizewinners and hot commercial commodities. A family problem made it necessary for me to leave after four days, so I never saw a single prizewinner and only caught a couple of the movies that excited a lot of interest from distributors. I did however see quite a few bad movies in a variety of categories: I suspect that despite a few funny lines, Jesse Peretz’s slick family comedy My Idiot Brother will prove as unappealing to non-festival audiences as Paul Rudd’s unkempt facial hair was to me. Mark Pellington’s I Melt with You is a ludicrous, hyperbolically CGIed version of John Cassavetes’ Husbands. Four middle- aged former college buddies meet for a weekend in Big Sur, where they ingest copious amounts of drugs and wine while various great feel-bad songs by the Sex Pistols and Joy Division play on the soundtrack. (Pellington began his career as a music video director.) Eventually one of them recalls a decades-old pledge they made to one another to off themselves if life became less intense than it was when they were 20. Magnolia bought this piece of unintentionally hilarious masculine self-flagellation, perhaps in the belief that people will watch anything that’s available on VOD, especially if a glimpse of the utterly wooden Sasha Grey in the trailer promises hardcore sex in an supposedly artistic context. Sorry, no such luck. 

VOD is apparently the primary outlet for Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, which is perfectly suited to the multitasking that I find irresistible when watching movies on my computer. I cleared seven stacks of papers from my desk during its 72 minutes, and I’m sure I missed nothing at all. Compared to the enervation of Uncle Kent, Kevin Smith’s Red State at least had the courage of its own vulgar convictions. Smith promised to auction the film to distributors from the stage immediately after its premiere screening. Before anyone was tempted to raise a hand, he sold it to himself for a dollar. Wise move, since the ensuing silence would have been embarrassing. Careless and heavy-handed, Red State is serious in its targeting of fringe fundamentalists for their homophobia but undermines its own gender politics with compulsive teenage-boy misogynist jokes.

The Future

The Future

No movie, however, irritated me as much Miranda July’s extremely twee (it looks like a pastel Pee-wee’s Playhouse) The Future, which is narrated by a cat who is waiting at the animal shelter for the couple that committed to adopting him to pick him up. If they don’t appear within a month, he’ll be put to death. The extremely self-involved couple, played by July and the usually charming, complicated Hamish Linklater, who should have known better than to get involved, forget about the cat until it’s too late. For me their irresponsibility is despicable, but because July is adored by her audience, and because her performance shtick is a plea for the audience to love her or at least to identify with her failings, what one imagines to be the movie’s moral position is hedged every which way.

At Sundance, the documentaries are a safer bet than are, with a few exceptions, the fiction films. This year, the selection was impressive, and most of them will soon be seen either on public or cable television, or in theaters. Among the strongest were Steve James’s The Interrupters, Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion’s The Redemption of General Butt Naked, and Goran Hugo Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Best known as a co-director of Hoop Dreams, James, with his producer Alex Kotlowitz, followed three “violence interrupters” at work largely in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. Former gang members, the interrupters are devoted to stopping their peers from killing each other. They are extraordinary people, as are some of the young men and young women they are trying to save. The Interrupters is direct cinema at its most engrossing, but it suffers somewhat from the absence of analysis: there’s no one on screen who can challenge the debatable claims about the causes of violence made by the one of the founders of CeaseFire, the community organization for which the interrupters work. I also wanted to know something about the documentary transaction, specifically in the scenes where the presence of the camera must have had an influence on what went down.

A stranger story of a killer who claims to have seen the light, The Redemption of General Butt Naked follows a former tribal Juju priest who became the most feared general in Liberia’s protracted Civil War. After disappearing for several years, he returned as a Christian fundamentalist minister dedicated to saving members of his former army of child soldiers from drug addiction and lives of crime. Although set in vastly different cultures, both The Interrupters and General Butt Naked attempt to illuminate the conditions in which murder becomes a mere reflex in the struggle for status and power. It should go without saying that a much more complicated relationship to power characterized the American civil rights movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Where U.S. mainstream media censored, sensationalized, and distorted the coverage of the Black Panther Party and SNCC, one of Sweden’s two television networks devoted a great deal of airtime to according them the respect they deserved. Culled from this archive, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 will be for many who did not experience this struggle firsthand nothing short of a revelation.