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By Blake Williams
Two heavily pulled quotes from Sundance 2016’s opening press conference, both spilled from the mouth of the festival’s founder and director Robert Redford—“I’m not into the Oscars,” and later, when asked what he was most looking forward to at this year’s edition, “The wrap party”—were endearingly and unexpectedly clear-eyed enough (considering the source) that, as I trekked over to Park City for the second consecutive January, I felt my guard lowering, strangely moved by these perhaps inadvertently cynical gestures. Considering some of the other arch responses Redford gave to the roomful of journalists, it appeared as though the Sundance Kid himself was running out of fucks to give. And who can blame him? The man turns 80 this year—he couldn’t have more than five of these left in him—and the weather was colder than hell, each morning and night’s venture from ski lodge to theatre, theatre to ski lodge a life-threatening operation, what with many of the city’s hazardously slanted sidewalks lying directly beneath some of the longest, pointiest icicles I have ever seen.
Was the risk worth it? Probably not, but for the second year in a row, and despite my visit being limited to a mere four days, Sundance surprised me. The festival’s programmers may be reluctant to put the most promising and inevitably best films at their disposal into the festival’s main slate, the US Dramatic Competition—a section that, from what I can tell, is exclusively reserved for under-40s and those with fewer than ten years of filmmaking experience, which is fair so long as we agree that a Competition without competition is useless, or at the very least boring—but good, even great films were indeed at Sundance, and they were mostly, once again, in the Premieres and NEXT sections.
Call it a product of the zeitgeist, an expression of my current tastes, or simply a coincidence, but the movies I caught in Park City were predominantly engaged with the experience and representational politics of grieving. In their surplus, these movies, which bask in the plangent aftermath of some great or forgotten loss, inevitably recalled and reinforced for me cinema’s original ties to mourning, arriving as the medium did amidst late-19th-century clashes between science and faith, allaying crippling fears of death and oblivion with its so-called Frankensteinian ability to resurrect the lost and embalm the to-be-lost. Perhaps these are, indeed, sorrowful times we live in. If these films compelled me to spend some time imagining this early spiritualist status of cinema—its uncanny ability to re-present its subjects and allow spectators to, once again, see them moving, visibly alive in spite of whether or not they’ve passed on—I was provoked to spend just as much time, if not more, contemplating the present status and function of a cinema of grief, of mourning, of poetic cine-dirges and dramatized mortality, and the moral stakes of manufacturing an image of a death when no authentic documentation is known to exist.
Such are the primary concerns of Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine and, to a lesser extent, Antonio Campos’ Christine, which together made for the kind of serendipitous dual premiere that one would think could only be either purposely coordinated or mathematically impossible were it not for the evidence suggesting their corresponding productions were, in fact, a matter of chance. For both projects, the filmmakers tasked themselves with representing the life and death of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news reporter who killed herself on live television in 1974. With this incident taking place well before the advent of DVR, the only known tape to have been printed of Chubbuck’s suicide either no longer exists or is in the hands of someone who will apparently only part with it over his or her dead body, making the document something of a holy grail for snuff aficionados. It was only a matter of time, then, until someone decided to re-enact her death for the silver screen, which would, regardless of artistic intent or approach, result in some abstract appeasement of our collective desire for an image we’ve so far been left to conjure with our imaginations. So the decision to finally go through with it clearly carried an immense degree of moral responsibility and risk, and the miracle here is not so much that we got two Chubbuck films at once, but rather that both films wound up implicitly arguing against the other.
Per happenstance, I ended up seeing Campos’ first. His is the more straightforward dramatic work—not unlike, in some sense, Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), a film alleged to have been inspired by Chubbuck’s death—and was thus crafted with artful camerawork and lighting, and is reliant on the world-class thespian talents of, among others, Rebecca Hall (as Christine) and J. Smith-Cameron (her mother) to deliver credible performances while they inhabit, with utmost verisimilitude, the fractured psychologies of their characters. Having seen and liked Greene’s Actress (2014), I watched Christine with his potential counterarguments in mind, and to my surprise found very little there to be objectionable or egregious. The Borderline team—Campos in particular—have in their 13 years of operation established their brand as America’s realist purveyors of the psychologically disturbed, yet Christine manages to do something very tricky: it utilizes Chubbuck’s milieu and our awareness of her fate to develop a thesis about the artifice and the performance of happiness in late-Vietnam America, and it does so in a way that never undermines the singularity of Chubbuck’s psychological experience. This is in many ways the same cluster of themes Campos built into Afterschool (2008), albeit for a different moment in history; but however irksome it is that he would use Chubbuck’s story as a backdrop for forwarding his own auteurist project, I was ultimately impressed, if a bit conflicted, by the subdued force provided in his film’s restraint and its final grace notes.
Conversely, Greene’s take in Kate Plays Christine is all about the denial of grace notes; or rather, about the “problematics” of following through on the promise of its premise. Just as he did in Actress, Greene here aims to demolish the arbitrary delineations separating fiction and documentary, and does so by once again following an actress—this time, the great New York-based Kate Lyn Sheil—who begins to question the degree to which she and her moral standards can be removed from the obligations of her craft. We see footage of Sheil researching the role of Chubbuck—interviewing those she knew, who worked with her at the station, or who now work at places she used to visit—and taking on her likeness via tanning sessions (ultraviolet and spray-on), wig and costume fittings, and viewing broadcast tapings to study her behaviour. The extent to which Sheil’s visits and encounters were staged is always at least somewhat ambiguous, no doubt per Greene’s wont; this imbues the project’s making-of facade with an effective degree of mystery, introducing a palpable tension that is as unnerving as it may be ultimately pointless. But that potential pointlessness, that moral uncertainty, is part of what keeps the viewing experience active, so it was with great disappointment that Greene and/or Sheil opted to blanket the project’s complexities with a contrived, off-puttingly sententious climax that may or may not be a direct attack on the existence of Campos’ project.
Kate Plays Christine’s final moments, while not really working within its own context, do open up when placed next to Christine, and the two together end up mapping out something towards a politics of commemoration. As an interviewee in Greene’s film suggests, the re-utterance of history, and therefore loss, is a means for precluding death—“You die two times; you die when you pass away and you die again the last time somebody mentions your name”—and when it comes to representation, and this is especially true with cinema, there are right and wrong ways of re-uttering, of resurrecting what we’ve lost: good mourning and bad mourning; good grief, bad grief. Over in NEXT, Tim Sutton’s well-intentioned but ill-conceived Dark Night, a tone elegy about the 2012 Aurora shooting at a The Dark Knight Rises screening, is an example of bad grief. Dramatizing—or is it documenting? “evoking? —the Colorado tragedy in languid vignettes set to Maica Armata’s treacly indie rock, Dark Night often feels tasteless. For much of the film’s running time, Sutton snatches at our sympathies with plaintive images of the America that lax gun laws hath wrought, and a soundscape that always threatens to unleash a boo scare, including occasions such as when a group of offscreen teens start screaming bloody murder, drawing our adrenaline until we realize that, false alarm, they were just kidding around.
Like Greene, Sutton opts for a coy approach to his dramatizations. Dark Night’s tone and method of observation leads us to believe that it is a re-enactment of the lead-up to the fateful shooting, until Sutton inserts a scene showing some of the characters watching news coverage of the shooting in their living room, disorienting our understanding of the film’s timeline and prompting us to reconsider its broader intentions. More flagrantly, Sutton opts for a fractured representational strategy to depict shooter James Holmes, hazily evoking him in multiple characters—first in a kid who dyes his hair the same Joker orange that Holmes’ was that night, then later in another guy who creeps around this neighbourhood pointing his assault rifle into people’s windows when he isn’t counting the number of paces it takes him to get from a parking space to a nearby shopping mall. If the point is to make us question our casual prejudices and distrust for others in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, it’s a poor attempt that doesn’t work. But if Sutton means to lull us in the reverie of a dire national tragedy, submerging us in this sense of defeatism getting laced into the DNA of America’s present ethos, then I wonder if his picture attempts anything to productively address the problem. Perhaps Sutton’s formalism was meant to invigorate me into calling my congressman, but all it really made me feel was tired, and like I never wanted to watch another movie in a theatre.
Kenneth Lonergan has spent his entire film career luxuriating in the aftermaths of tragedies, and Manchester by the Sea—arriving a cool 11 years after his high masterpiece, Margaret (2011), wrapped its shoot—is no different. In fact, put Margaret and his Sundance-winning debut, You Can Count On Me (2000), together in one of The Fly’s (1986) teleportation pods and you’d get something awfully close to Manchester walking out of it. Which is to say, the movie is as operatic as it is quaint, sprawling and scattershot in scope, and very, very good (not to mention unbearably sad). It also unfolds and reveals itself in such a deliberate fashion that I probably shouldn’t say too much about it. So instead a few words about Nicolas Pesce’s much-talked-about The Eyes of My Mother, which also arrived from the womb of Borderline Films and is also something of a hybrid, grabbing from the playbooks of Pascal Laugier (of Martyrs  infamy) and Philippe Grandrieux alike. Here, a Portuguese girl named Francesca (played at different ages by Olivia Bond and Kika Magalhaes) spends her life coping with the brutal murder of her mother by keeping the killer captive in her family barn as a kind of monstrous, blinded plaything. Thankfully explicitly visual in his approach, Nesce prefers to revel in the sensory flavours of, e.g., elderly bodies in murky bath water, the excreted mucus from emptied eye sockets, and scarred figures emerging from opaque clouds of darkness. It’s probably too ridiculous to truly “work,” but it’s haptic and assertive in a way I found welcoming rather than alienating, which is something (if nothing more).
And a final word for Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, the best film I saw in Park City and sure to wind up on my shortlist of the year’s truly beautiful things. Reichardt has tended to train her attention on subjects trying, and inevitably failing, to navigate the world outside of the established order, and her adaptation here of three short stories from Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It—simple portraits of women trying to live their lives, fulfill their desires, and maintain or manufacture some idea of happiness—may be nothing more or less than an object of pure dignity, a film about the joys and virtues of being a woman and making films about the experiences of being a woman. Christopher Blauvelt’s gauzy 16mm photography, conjuring Whistlers and Vermeers, distresses Reichardt’s overcast Americana in a slumbrous grace, producing effortlessly wistful images from the sheer banality of freight trains, smeared mirrors, and barnyards, while elsewhere Lily Gladstone delivers one of the great screen performances I’ve seen in any movie, and does so without saying more than a few words. There may be a dense underlying sorrow running through every frame of this picture—coasting on the essence of silence and silencings—but its impact arouses something closer to the satisfaction of a victory, the auspicious approach of some tipping point or other that, were it to ever arrive, would likely have the means to split our ears.