The Hands of Bresson

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Archive for the ‘Sundance 2008’ Category

Wrapping Up, Part 2

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My last day in Park City was both fun and frustrating. I tried to get into a screening of James Marsh’s Man on Wire, a doc about rebel tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who danced on a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974, but apparently every last journalist, festivalgoer, and local cinephile had exactly the same idea. I was shut out, along with about 50 other people. (Marsh’s film won both the grand jury prize and the audience award in the world cinema documentary competition later in the evening.) Instead of sulking, I went to Main Street and paid a long overdue visit to the New Frontier Café, a chill-out spot featuring an array of gallery installations, multimedia presentations, and video work. The space is cavernous but cozy, and I was mighty impressed with one of the curated events running in the microcinema theater: a program of six short films by self-taught animator Brent Green, in collaboration with the band Califone. Green’s hand-made cut-out figures and dioramas are a wonder to behold, evoking a bit of Cy Twombly as well as the early surrealistic stop-motion animation of the Quay brothers. Accompanied by Green’s ranting, pulpit-style narration—a cross between the manic monologues of Jad Fair (of the band Half Japanese) and emo-geek autobiography—these are the cathartic artworks of a postmodern beatnik with a fairy-tale imagination. Brilliant stuff. I also managed to catch the tail end of DJ Spooky a/k/a The Subliminal Kid’s mesmerizing recombinant remix of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation, and it made me want to see the entire feature, not least because Paul D. Miller, the talented New York turntablist behind the clunky alias, crafted an incredibly groovy score for the project. As far as I could tell, Miller intended it both as an act of cinematic homage and as a sly counternarrative to Griffith’s odious depiction of American race relations. Alas, they weren’t planning on screening it again.

After absorbing a few swinging numbers by a sixth-grade jazz band (complete with brass section, conga player, and freeform solos) in the Galleries that house the New Frontier Café, I made my way across the street to the Egyptian Theater, a grand old venue where my friend, Katie Trainor, was operating the projection booth. She sat me down in the balcony, where I watched Mia Trachinger’s Reversion. I liked the concept of the film, a minimal sci-fi drama about a class of humans who, because of a genetic mutation, cannot distinguish the past, present, and future. Particularly good was the undersung TV actress Leslie Silva as a hardened renegade trying to outmaneuver her fate, but the film’s longueurs added up to a less than enthralling experience, even for this diehard fan of genre works that attempt to allegorize contemporary politics. (President Bush, Trachinger was at pains to explain during the Q&A, is the real time-ignorant mutant: What if we lived in a world where, like him, none of us could learn from the past, or see the future consequences of our present actions? she asked.)

Bringing my Sundance experience full circle, Katie and I later went to the Eccles Theater to check out Martin McDonagh’s tragicomic In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, which was the Opening Night selection of this year’s festival. After a mob hit gone awry leads to the death of a child, two London gangsters hole up in the picturesque Flemish town of Bruges, awaiting further instructions from crime boss Harry, played by a foul-mouthed Ralph Fiennes. If you can stomach this film’s gushy sentimentalism, clichéd odd-couple banter, and sophomoric humor (a racist dwarf, anyone? Anyone?) then stay far away from this mushy Belgian waffle. I sure wish I had.

Looking back at my ten days in Park City, I feel honored to have seen so many fine and challenging films, many of which (like Ellen Kuras’s Nerakhoon: The Betrayal) I’m looking forward to seeing again and writing about. Of course, plenty of good ones escaped my net, too. And I never did get that digital camera. (Photos would have been nice.) Earlier this week, after our on-camera interview, I told Jay Duplass (co-director of Baghead) that I was experiencing a bit of image overload six days into the festival. He nodded and said, “The great thing about Sundance is, you can see fifty great movies in the space of a week.” He paused and smiled. “But those will probably be the fifty best movies you’ll see all year.”

I guess we’ll see about that. One thing’s for sure: the sense of discovery I was hoping to experience amid the shock of winter in Utah at 7,000 feet could not have been better satisfied. Of all the festivals I’ve attended over the years, Sundance 2008 has been my favorite, and I’m already wondering how next year’s edition will compare. The thought is exciting to contemplate. I’d like to stick around and write some more about that, but the Park City bug is still in my veins. So ciao for now. I’m off to the movies.

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Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 3:30 pm

The Winners

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Just caught the red eye back from Park City, and now I’m safely ensconced back in New York again, feeling a mix of relief and post-cinematic stress disorder. A few hours before I hopped the midnight plane, the Sundance press office released the names of the top prize winners at last night’s 2008 awards dinner. I was especially happy that Carl Lessin and Tia Deal picked up the grand jury prize for their extraordinary Katrina doc Trouble the Water, the story of two married former drug dealers transformed by the storm, and thriving against all odds. Also thrilling was the news that Lance Hammer had won the directing award in the dramatic competition for Ballast, his mournful, slow-burning drama about family, drugs, grief, and reconciliation, set in the Mississippi Delta. The film’s director of photography, Lol Crawley, also won an excellence in cinematography award for his brilliant capturing of the Delta’s tonal atmosphere in winter. A special jury prize also went to Chusy Haney-Jardine for his fiercely strange but tender Anywhere USA, a film that truly does merit the “spirit of independence” distinction. Finally, Alex Rivera must have gone home happy last evening; his ten-year effort to bring Sleep Dealer, a near-future depiction of technodystopian Mexico, to the big screen was rewarded with The Alfred P. Sloan Prize, given each year to a Sundance film that creatively advances the public understanding of science or technology, and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Prize, which he shared with co-writer David Riker.

Congratulations to them and the rest of the winners!

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Wrapping Up, Part 1

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The press office this morning is as silent as a mortuary. Most professional festivalgoers have left already, or are on their way to the airport. If yesterday was any indication, then standing in the wait line for tickets today will be a cinch. My flight doesn’t depart until midnight, so I still have a full day of movies to immerse myself in, before the house lights come down on my first year at Sundance, which has been in every way the gloriously delirious experience I’d hoped it would be. In the interest of wrapping things up, I thought I’d provide a thumbnail review of some of the films I’ve gotten to see in the past couple of days.

Baghead—You either loved or hated Mark and Jay Duplass’s first feature film, The Puffy Chair, a keystone of the so-called mumblecore movement. (If Cassavetes had spawned a pair of prankster children, the Duplass brothers would be their film-world avatars.) The set-up for Baghead is simple: Four wanna-be actor friends from L.A. hole up in a cabin for the weekend, trying to write a script they intend to cast themselves in. Alcohol consumption triggers some hilarious cross-couple flirtation, and jealousies mount. When one of them dreams about a creepy figure wearing a paper bag over his head, they incorporate the character into their screenplay. Then the real fun begins. Baghead is a spoof of film-festival culture, and a comedy about sex and friendship that brilliantly flirts with the horned-up-youth-vacationing-in-the-woods subgenre of ’80s slasher flicks. I loved it, and am looking forward to seeing the Duplass brothers’ forthcoming studio projects.

An American Soldier (The Recruiter)—Edet Belzberg fashions a heart-piercing, home-front doc on the Iraq War in this portrayal of Sergeant First Class Clay Usie, one of the Army’s most successful recruiters, and the four teens who enter basic training under his tutelage before shipping off to “the sand.” Working the hallways at the local high school in Houma, Louisiana, Usie is a supremely self-confident, highly decorated Army Ranger with a genuine passion for military service. He befriends, coaches, cajoles, and inspires these kids on the cusp of adulthood, each of whom has chosen to enlist to escape a dead-end life, often over the objections of their parents. Belzberg refrains from adopting an adversarial political position, but the consequences of Usie’s sales efforts become agonizingly clear once his wards reach boot camp in South Carolina. Every politician in America should be required to see this film.

Hamlet 2—Steve Coogan lets it all hang out in Andy Fleming’s outrageous, irreverent comedy about an apeshit-crazy failed actor–turned–high school drama instructor trying to mount a production of his own blasphemous musical sequel to Shakespeare’s tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. Need I say more?

Anywhere USA—When it comes to quirk, you’d be hard pressed to best Miranda July, whose too precious Me, You and Everyone We Know thrilled some and nauseated others (including me) a couple of years back. With his debut feature film, North Carolina–based writer-director Chusy Haney-Jardine adds a madman’s touch to the twee autobiographical drama, apparently on track to become a genre of its own. Casting local nonprofessional actors in roles that roughly correspond to various personas and attitudes he’s adopted or encountered in his own life (so he says), Haney-Jardine tells a willfully odd story of America in three parts, concerning a redneck anti-terror squad, a grieving 8-year-old girl who believes the Tooth Fairy is a guy named Jonathan Lucas, and a middle-aged investment banker who longs to meet black people. Audacious in its whisker-obsessed sideways storytelling and quasi-Godardian use of text and music, Anywhere USA is certainly not for everyone. But I found its eccentricities fun and daring, rather than forced and irritating. Certainly, you are free to disagree.

On my way now to check out Man on Wire, a doc I’ve been hearing good things about.

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Day 9: Ways of Seeing

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The esteemed Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman first brought my attention to the work of avant-indie pioneer James Benning in his review of Ten Skies and Thirteen Lakes, so I’d been looking for an opportunity this past week to catch a screening of Benning’s new film, Casting a Glance, premiering in the New Frontier section, which highlights more unconventional films that hew closer to the art world than the indieplex. After a long, grinding week of film watching, writing, and interviewing, I was ready to see something glacial and sedative, preferably nonnarrative, and I had a feeling that Casting a Glance would be that and more. So yesterday afternoon, I packed off to the Holiday Village theater with my pal Carolyn Kaylor, the presentation manager of the Sundance Film Festival, who happens to be a friend (and admirer) of Benning’s. She was overseeing the projection of the film. We sat in the nosebleed seats, which to my mind affords the best view in that venue, and gives one a lordly feel over the rows of seats below.

Shot in 16mm, Casting a Glance is, on the surface, an homage to the artist Robert Smithson and his iconic natural sculpture, Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500-foot-long coiled breakwater on Utah’s Great Salt Lake, fashioned from 7,000 tons of volcanic rock. Benning made sixteen trips to the landing between May 2005 and January 2007, setting up beautifully composed still shots at various points on the quay that capture varying water levels, seasonal change, and the subtle markings of the passage of time. (The film begins with footage taken between 1970 and 1973, though the program notes make no mention of that, or what instigated the filmmaker’s return to the subject.) Sometimes, we see the Spiral Jetty at a distance, from an elevated position. Other times, Benning shoots the horizontal plane where sky and water meet, or frames an algae-stained rock buffeted by little salt waves. These real-time landscape images, in their various permutations of mist, haze, snow, and evening sunlight, evoke the paintings of Mark Rothko and the abstract photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Benning revisits the same shots at different intervals, recording and observing the transformation of Smithson’s monumental sculpture as it is weathers the elements. Nothing much happens; this is film as pure vision, pure duration. Only a handful of times is there any sign of human activity, and these moments provide the film’s grace notes. Once, in a long shot, a dog marches out onto the nautilus-like quay, only to be summoned back by his master. In another sequence, we see tiny figures strolling out along the same thin spine of the jetty. But odder still, apart from these minor interludes where humankind traipses through the majestic scenery, are Benning’s more deliberate intrusions. During one of the 1973 segments, each new shot is accompanied by someone (probably the artist) whinnying off-camera. Then, during a lovely still of the lake at dusk, with the frame bisected by a fire-orange strip of light, we hear the faint strains of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s rendition of the Everly Brothers song “Love Hurts.” Sourced (I’m guessing) from a ravaged old cassette tape, it sounds like a recovered memory transmitted from an alternate universe. What’s the connection?

As I was leaving the theater, a woman next to me said to her friend, “I hate movies that don’t teach you anything.” But madam, I disagree: This is a film that teaches us how to look, how to wait, and how to keep looking even though we think we’ve seen everything there is to see in an image. It is the 37-year-long act of one artist intermittently “casting a glance” at another. I’d say we have a lot to learn from that way of seeing, and much to gain from contemplating our relation to time and the natural world.

Written by eyemaster

January 30, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Pitt Stop

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Poor Michael Pitt. The actor is in town to promote Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot American remake of his own Funny Games, an intelligent but grotesquely disturbing film about two polite, well-dressed young men (Pitt and Brady Corbet) who invade the vacation home of an upper-middle-class couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and their son, and then begin physically and psychologically torturing them for no apparent reason. (Those who know Haneke’s work understand that the real game is to get the audience to identify with the sadists, and through a series of horrific, carefully arranged episodes, confront their complicity in the consumption of violent images.) Dwarfed in a parka, with sunken eyes and a wan look, the baby-faced Pitt puffed on a cigarette (“I really gotta quit”) and looked around glumly as though he were waiting for someone to rescue him from the insult of daylight, and the hell of having to endure one more interviewer’s nosy (or perhaps just boring) questions. He clearly wanted to be anywhere but here, in the atrium of the Marriott, awaiting an afternoon-long fusillade of interrogators. And he didn’t mind saying so: “Do you think we could keep this short? Neil Young is playing right now, somewhere around here, and I really want to go.” Pitt seemed oblivious to the fact that his publicist had no intention of letting him go anywhere anytime soon. The cameras for his next sit-down session were already setting up. Meanwhile, his co-star Brady Corbet was asking if he could do his next interview in the hot tub. It was hard to know if he was joking.

Me: Were you familiar with Haneke’s work before you signed on to do this film?
Pitt: No, I didn’t go to film school.
Me: Was it hard to live with such a twisted character for weeks on end?
Pitt: I just went to the set and worked.

Clearly, I was agonizing the poor fellow, like some ironic meta-character from Funny Games: The Press Junket. I felt like I was participating in the journalistic equivalent of waterboarding. Cristina, our producer, noticed Pitt’s hands were trembling. She wanted to make him soup. I’m quite sure if he’d been able to retract his head into the hood of his parka like a tortoise, he would have. The only time he lit up was when I told him we were through talking. “Thanks!” he said, flashing a big grin, like a schoolboy released from detention or an unpleasant outing with the family. A few minutes later, as we were packing up, I noticed him slumped morosely in a pool chair, pinned like a fragile, exotic bug in the white light of a TV camera, while another tormenter stuck him with painful questions.

Somewhere, Neil Young was singing “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

Written by eyemaster

January 30, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Day 6 and 7

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Posting on a regular basis has been a bit tough—ok, impossible—the past few days, owing to our amped-up schedule. On Tuesday alone, we did 11 back-to-back interviews with a who’s who of both established and first-time filmmakers debuting new work at Sundance, as well as members of their respective casts. Some of those conversations are making their way onto the main site (click on the Sundance Film Festival ’08 tag to see who we’ve been chatting with) thanks to the efforts of our two camera operators, Fernando Frias (a Mexico City native and filmmaker in his own right) and the talented Ari Burgess, whose late-night editing sessions have yielded mighty fine results.

Now that things are quieting down here in Park City, it’s been much easier to get into public screenings, so I’ve been taking advantage of that as often as possible. Last night, after checking out the premiere of Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor at the Eccles Theater (a well-acted but disappointingly facile story about a long-grieving economics professor who befriends an illegal Syrian immigrant with a passion for Afrobeat music), it occurred to me that I’ve seen about 25 films since landing here last week. So I thought this might be a good time to relay a list of those I’ve most enjoyed seeing, and those that intrigued me but were ultimately problematic on some level.

Films I Loved and Would See Again: Ballast, Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), Under the Bombs, Trouble the Water, Baghead, Slingshot Hip Hop, Savage Grace

Films I’d Recommend, With Some Reservations: Timecrimes, The Wave, The Linguists, Mancora, Mermaid, Adventures of Power, Be Like Others, American Teen, Flow, Sleep Dealer, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Films I Had Issues With: The Broken, Just Another Love Story, Secrecy, Recycle, Perro Come Perro, Bottle Shock

Films I have Been Hearing About and Still Want to See: Sugar, Goliath, Anywhere, U.S.A., Transsiberian, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, Eat, for This Is My Body, Alone in Four Walls, Up the Yangtze, Absurdistan

Two days to go. And I still haven’t been to a single party!

Written by eyemaster

January 30, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Days 4 and 5

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The joys of Sundance are obvious (movies movies movies). But of course, there are also rigors and hazards to the festival experience (dry red eyes, five-minute meals, lack of adequate rest). Sleep an extra hour in the morning, and you might miss something great. Wait too long before queueing up for a screening, and you might not get in, even with a fancy press badge and a pleading look in your eye. (Bribes also don’t work.) So scheduling what to see and when, as well as coordinating with almost mathematical precision the shuttling from theater to theater, is of the utmost importance. Needless to say, it’s an artform I am still perfecting, with lots of help from our amazing producer, Cristina Garza. When I haven’t been watching films, I’ve been interviewing directors and actors. And the past two days have yielded a bounty of insightful conversations with Gregg Araki (The Living End, Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face), Nacho Vigalondo (Time Crimes), and Tom Kalin (Swoon, Savage Grace), all of which are now up at the main site. Check them out!

Two films with similar themes have left a particularly deep impression on me so far. The first is Ballast, a minimal drama by writer-director Lance Hammer about Lawrence, a suicidal man (Michael J. Smith) living in poverty in the Mississippi Delta. Through a series of events that unfold slowly during the first half-hour, we begin to understand the source of his pain, and the nature of his strained relationship with a tough single mother (Tarra Riggs) and her twelve-year-old son (JimMyron Ross), who’s quickly edging into a world of drugs and violence. There’s a Charles Burnett–like quality to Hammer’s storyline, which scratches at these characters until they begin to redden and burst, but Hammer’s stripped-down approach and inspired use of nonprofessional actors hews closer to the work of Carlos Reygadas and perhaps a kinder, gentler Bruno Dumont. The film’s greatest asset is its deeply rooted sense of place; the Delta in winter has tonal qualities that Hammer hoped to capture and transmit purely through images. And in some ways, his characters are merely its flesh-and-blood analogues, anchored in a landscape of sorrow. Ballast is, to put it simply, a gorgeous and soulful film.

The other film that wowed me, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water, I saw early yesterday morning, after marching through a swirling snowstorm with a lidless double espresso. (Bad idea.) While a number of documentary films about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have debuted recently, including Spike Lee’s marathon postmortem, When the Levees Broke, and Ed Pincus and Lucia Small’s searching road movie, The Axe in the Attic, this doc locates its themes of dignity and perseverance in the persons of a truly irrepressible couple, wanna-be rap artist and amateur videomaker Kim Roberts (a/k/a Black Kold Madina) and her husband, Scott. Incorporating footage Kim shot of the Category 5 storm from inside her ravaged house, the film follows the Roberts as they attempt to survive amid the absurdity and indifference of a federal emergency-response system that utterly failed the residents of the Ninth Ward—not just during the crisis, but weeks and months later. Rebuffed by the National Guard at a crucial juncture, deprived of funds by an enfeebled FEMA, they opt to seek refuge in Memphis, along with Brian, a recovering addict and devout Christian. Surprisingly, they never once strike a tone of bitterness. The harshest thing Kim has to say is offered as a matter-of-fact observation: “If you don’t have the money, and you don’t have the status, you don’t have the government.” Indeed. Pulling their punches, Lessin and Deal keep the cutaways to President Bush, FEMA director Mike Brown, and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to a minimum, but stitch in enough press-conference footage to give us a sense of just how profoundly grotesque the difference was between what was said and what was done on the ground. And then there’s Kold Madina’s performance of her autobiographical, post-Katrina rap about hustling and self-reliance, “Amazing.” That she is. Without a doubt.

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January 30, 2009 at 10:24 pm