Sundance 2009: Lost Frontier

By Robert Koehler

As if Sundance doesn’t have enough problems already (and no, they don’t include the unexpected departure of artistic director Geoff Gilmore), its one program theoretically divorced from all commercial considerations—New Frontier, a title conjuring up Kennedyesque vision and idealism—has run aground. (Maybe somewhere near that new Mormon Temple venue outside of town that everyone dreaded to have to trek to.) Even before this point, an experimental film program such as New Frontier was wasted on Sundance, where visitors gorge on a barely cooked smorgasbord of what are touted as independent films of one sort or another, or whatever an event can be called that screens everything (to draw some 2008 examples) from The Great Buck Howard and Phoebe in Wonderland to Ballast. A program meant to be about art slotted amidst a festival that’s all business (and rarely anything else) is guaranteed ghetto status, and this seems to be paradoxically even more the case since New Frontier set up a multimedia gallery space to augment its program on Main Street in 2007. (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m restricting myself to the work screened for the public in a cinema setting, and not the installations.) Though the welcome addition of programmer Mike Plante to step up the radicalism had a palpable effect—the presence of James Benning with casting a glance (2007), as one example—a stubbornly uneven programming, stemming from uncertain philosophical stances and organizational factors that lead us to the heart of the matter, combined with a profound marginality, rendering New Frontier weirdly irrelevant in Sundance’s context. That marginality grows, as does the unevenness.

Let’s first say this for Sundance: At least it tries. (Pathetic-sounding, of course, but there it is.) Only two other North American festivals have dedicated for the long term a section exploring radical cinema that experiments with alternative forms and means, and Toronto’s Wavelengths has set the standard for festivals to follow, a standard that few other festivals on the continent have bothered to even slightly match. (They might want to take note: Wavelengths director Andréa Picard reported that attendance at all 2008 programs at Jackman Hall broke previous records.) The New York Film Festival is the other, and so marginal (so New Frontier) is its avant-garde program that it might be news to many that it’s been a NYFF fixture for years. AFI Fest created a sidebar for films just this side of “experimental” last year, and smaller festivals like Cinevegas—thanks, again, to Plante—provide safe harbor for radical filmmakers of many stripes, from Kevin Jerome Everson to Randy Walker and Jennifer Chainin to Craig Baldwin. A different model, integrating radical cinema inside the larger program, is visible at a few festivals, such as at Vancouver, and it’s this model—films tossed together in a salad rather than separated items in a TV dinner tray—that holds the greatest promise and long-term value. But, that isn’t Sundance’s game, leaving New Frontier having to sit in its corner while the adults cram into swag stores and talk themselves into liking films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Sin Nombre. As proof that hardly anybody in Park City goes to see New Frontier films, I have had only two discussions with fellow critics (industry people, never) during Sundance about an actual New Frontier film, and that was when the section was called “Frontier” and the film was Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), the section’s sole recent premiere that can be said to be “crossover.” (For all of that, during its press screening, about half the room walked out.) And even then, the discussions centred less around the film itself as the fact that Old Joy was the kind of narrative film that would have easily fit in one of Sundance’s mainline sections just a few years earlier, but now appeared radical compared to the growing conservatism of the general Sundance product—that, plus the other gnawing set of facts that an avowedly experimental sidebar had consistently ignored such great American experimentalists as Ken Jacobs, rarely let in films involved in non-figurative images, and pretty much excluded non-narrative filmmaking from other parts of the world. The mere mention of New Frontier titles during the course of a ten-day slog in the snow invariably elicits puzzled reactions, or glazed looks, or no reaction at all—precisely as if the film did not exist. And that is the issue at hand: New Frontier has become a perfect way to program films, films that badly need a life and an audience, out of existence.
Speaking of Old Joy: 2006 was the last really good year for the section, when it showed the Reichardt, Everson’s Cinnamon, Betzy Bromberg’s a Darkness Swallowed, (largely, to the astonishment of anyone who noticed, abstract), Cam Archer’s Wild Tigers I Have Known, Our Second Date, a live performance/presentation (with sculpture and video) by Kevin and Jennifer McCoy and Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat. It was good for a simple reason: A forward-looking perspective on a new kind of cinema guided the program and informed the entire selection. The essence of interesting, vital festival programming is an intelligent argument for a certain kind of cinema—this kind, not that kind. Programming, if it matters, must stake a claim and declare its position. Putting aside the procedural realities that seep into even the “purest” of programming regimens, all programming, like criticism, is ideological, whether or not the programmer is cognizant of it, and many North American programmers, just like North American critics—and they are fairly unique in this regard—are willfully or lazily unaware of this. If Godard has noted that his filmmaking practice is criticism by other means, then programming is perhaps even more so, and the program that matters isn’t one that retains an absolutely coherent and consistent construction from one end to the other, but one that provides a position from which to view cinema. So that, if a program comprised of a Reichardt, Everson, Bromberg, Archer, McCoy, and Lockhart means anything—as the 2006 program did—it is declaring that narrative cinema (yes, even the Bromberg) as we know it is quite capable of a wide range of poetic and visual expressions that extend far beyond story itself, and that nature and colour (to cite just two principles) can be cornerstones for a revived American cinema.
The 2009 edition? No cornerstones, no principles to be found, just a scattered collection of films that range from masterpieces (in one case), to great, to awful (in a few cases). The selection suggests dartboard programming, and perhaps the inadvertent message that the state of American cinema, regardless of whether it’s Fox Searchlight fodder or New Frontier stew, is in one sticky, gooey mess. What meaning can possibly be drawn from a process that selects the following from a supposedly wide field of submissions: The pointless pseudo-Cassavetes stumbling-mumblings of Ry Russo-Young’s instantly vaporous You Won’t Miss Me (instantly subtitled No We Won’t); the fascinatingly symphonic movements of Deborah Stratman’s consideration of violent America, O’er the Land; the densely conceived and ingeniously interwoven narratives of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Where Is Where?; the vapid suburban nonsense that wastes everyone’s time in Laurel Nakadate’s Stay the Same Never Change; various short works of wildly varying quality, from the magnificent ghostliness of Sandra Lee Gibson’s and Luis Recoder’s Untitled and deliberately flat beauty of Charlie White’s American Minor to the ludicrous horror-shock of Tony Stone’s Out of Our Minds; and the one unqualified masterwork in the bunch, Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break and her joined-at-the-hip accompanying longish short, Exit.
Certainly no single programmer could have picked all of these, since they represent opposed aesthetic schools of thought and cinematic attitudes; indeed, this is the work of a committee, involving programmer Shari Frilot accompanied by Plante and Shannon Kelley—with Plante’s fingerprints notably faint on the results. (Plante is an O’er the Land kind of cineaste; there are few films at Stratman’s level here.) Which is all a convenient way of drawing the conclusion that programming-by-committee generally doesn’t work, particularly for a section intended to map the current state of alternative/semi-narrative/radical/poetic/essayist cinema. What provides Toronto’s Wavelengths with its coherency and supreme usefulness as a site for comprehending the current state of things is that Picard (a Cinema Scope colleague), and before her, the similarly incisive Susan Oxtoby, are essentially authors of the section. Providing a signature to a designed presentation of experimental films is especially important, since the work itself is so essentially personal, invariably handmade, so signed. Group efforts are fine in any number of endeavours (Mars landings and baseball, for example), but not in this zone of festival cinema. Even though Frontier and now New Frontier has always, or as long as I can remember, been built by a committee, the strains of that misconceived system are now glaring and destructive to the program’s purposes.
Consider the junk strewn here in the path of the New Frontier filmgoer. Nakadate proposes a post-Alan Ball world of slack-jawed nubile teen girls, a mysterious stalker plucking them one by one to rape them in the woods adjacent to the blank ‘burb they all live in and drive through, moms who seem to care less, and humans in general who talk like robots. Scenes are constructed like framed vignettes, which is nice in theory but nearly always botched in execution. (One bedroom scene between two girls is actually as beautiful as a Balthus, but it lasts oh so briefly.) The film’s zonked-out perspective on everything isn’t a comment on America, but a self-indictment, yet nothing could be more indicting than the fact that New Directors/New Films fooled itself into picking Stay the Same, a certain sign of that series’ decline.
Russo-Young’s work about a somewhat desperate New York actor is at least a tad more grounded in a kind of reality, and under the right guidance and with some different choices, You Won’t Miss Me might have found its magnetic north. As it is, it unconsciously represents everything that’s dislikable about idea-free improvisational American point-and-shoot filmmaking. As Shelly, Stella (daughter-of-Julian) Schnabel is a toxic horror of a character, instantly repellant, self-absorbed and self-destructive, touched by mental illness but with just enough New York Asshole in her veins to somehow capture the imagination of artists with a distinct poverty of imagination. Oh, and, by the way, there’s almost nothing about the film that in any conceivable way can be termed “experimental” or even “alternative,” unless you count Russo-Young’s insistent cutaways from various scenes to Shelly riding on the back of a motorcycle as experiments, or unless you consider that a knockoff of late Cassavetes (the Cassavetes of the theatre) is absolutely the latest thing. This is a Spectrum film pure and simple—or even a competition film, where the really awful films usually go in Sundance—and to palm it off to New Frontier is willfully weird and a poisoning of the section with work that doesn’t belong.
In severe conflict with such pointless spewing is the meticulous Where Is Where?, whose construction and execution becomes more astonishing with each viewing. A true piece of Cubist cinema, Ahtila—who has been amassing an interesting body of short, brilliantly filmed pieces through the decade, mainly centered on female characters—manages to conjoin the bruising and true tragedy of two Algerian Arab boys who killed their French playmate during the Algerian war of independence with a Finnish poet (played with compact energy by Aki Kaurismaki’s favorite, Kati Outinen) ferreting out the essence of the event in poetic terms across the decades and across continents. Ahtila is onto something important, and may have created a true breakthrough for a new kind of narrative cinema by breaking up the screen into four equal and conjoined frames. Unlike the multi-split-screen images of a film like Mike Figgis’ failed experiments, Timecode (2000) and Hotel (2001), in which the viewer’s eye nearly or totally shut down from the sheer information overload of six or ten or twenty actions happening without a cut simultaneously, or the briefer split screens of multiple scenes periodically during episodes of 24, scenes in Where Is Where? naturally unfold one by one, with multiple views of a scene (the poet working at home in her study or taking a dip in an adjacent lake at dawn, or the boys’ murder) expanding the depth and dimensions of the setting and exchanges instead of frantically bifurcating multiple scenes into a single viewing timeframe. For Ahtila, the multiplicity of split-screen cinema is an opportunity to expand within scenes rather than stack them up in a pile; darned if at times she doesn’t actually re-create some of the effect of Cinerama, with two adjacent frames combining for a panoramic shot, echoing Cinerama’s optical joining of multiple lenses for a super widescreen aspect ratio. Dialogue scenes no longer require standard cross-cutting, but instead preserve each actors’ face on screen for the viewer to consider as long or as briefly as you wish; a particularly powerful use of this occurs late, when both boys are separately interrogated by a trio of doctors and supervising adults about the morality and motivations for their confessed crime, so that each frame is taken up with close-ups of the four characters locked in a profound and emotionally taxing exchange. Ahtila elegantly grasps Cubism’s principle of fracturing perspective, and has found a cinematic means for it. It doesn’t stop there: she marries it to montage, so that as one scene and location shifts into another (Finland to Algeria, and back again), the shift happens frame by frame, sometimes so invisibly that the eye is caught short at the magical transference.
This is, importantly, not a visual trick, but the substance of the film’s theme of universal responsibility and guilt. The poet’s sense of a terrible event—introduced to her by none other than Death made up to look like Bergman’s cloaked guy in The Seventh Seal (1957)—gradually unfolds for her as a visual phenomenon (first, as a troop of French soldiers literally stomps through her study en route to their massacre of an Arab village’s male population) and then as a matter of words. For as visually layered and wrapped as the film is, Ahtila’s concern for the value and purpose of words is just as important: Often, the poet and Mr. Death talk about words as things (she tells him at one point, “I will put the words into a room and watch what happens,” which she does by then describing an Algerian scene that she experiences in suspended time). Another scene, which again flirts with, and avoids being absurd by parodying Bergman (this time, Winter Light [1962]), involves the poet and her female priest debating the value of guilt and forgiveness. The difference between Ahtila and Bergman (who is by leagues the lesser filmaker) is that Bergman positions the conversation as theatre; Ahtila expands it into a cosmically funny episode of pure cinema, capped by the priest levitating and following the poet out of her office, as if she were the devil. (Later, the levitating priest re-appears dressed in red.) If the symbolism sounds arch on paper, the ultimate impact of Where Is Where? on screen (as a multi-screen installation, which is the work’s other form presented in gallery spaces, I can’t say) is profound as a demonstration of how grand formal exploration can be woven into the fabric of great historical and moral notions, hinged to something that starts in drama and poetry, and then moves beyond both, into what can be termed new cinema.
Stratman’s ambition in O’er the Land is nearly as large, and similarly links supposedly unlike and separated phenomenon into one whole. On one hand is the unbelievable-but-true account (recited hypnotically in voiceover by Rob Kelly) of US Air Force Col. William Rankin, who was forced to eject from his fighter jet on a test flight over the Carolinas in 1959, only to find himself sucked into a giant storm and whipped about at 48,000 feet for 45 minutes before falling to earth. And surviving to tell the story. On the other is America’s enduring gun culture, but more specifically, a relatively recent obsession among gun fans with automatic weapons that can make things blow up real good. Linking these elements is an increasingly sophisticated montage including a firemen’s crew, the awesome silence of a dense forest, waterfalls and birds trapped in laboratory cages. The inferences are subtle but clear without being polemical, guided by a camera that maintains a rigorous distance and neutral stance. In this 16mm film, the unmistakable influence of Benning can be felt, and there’s even the seeming tribute to RR (2008) with a shot of a train rolling by. But Stratman explores with vibrant energy her own narrative strategy of pondering the ghosts of past events (the failure of machines, the capacity for physical survival) with the present and certain impulses for destruction for its own sake, with nature as a witness. For all that, as her final outtake shot reveals, Stratman enjoys kidding around with the gun nuts.
If Lockhart’s last Sundance appearance with Pine Flat showed her building upon her already well-developed vision of human beings interacting with nature, as well as an unrestrained pleasure in beautiful images, then Lunch Break marks an entirely new and fascinating direction. Direction is the operative word: For the first time, Lockhart unlocks her camera, allowing it to track ever so slowly down a corridor in Maine’s sprawling Bath Iron Works. (The slowing is an effect created in post-production video, with the camera moving during actual shooting at a fairly normal clip.) Ever the minimalist, Lockhart denies a view of the factory itself—a code she sticks to in her lovely accompanying 40-minute ode to the working man, Exit, shot at a fixed spot observing the iron works workers leaving at the end of five shifts over the course of a five-day week. Instead, she literally bores into the guts of the place, but from a different perspective than the conventional documentarian would choose. By selecting precisely the spot where the workers don’t work, but relax, eat, read, and chat, Lockhart is able to consider the physical behaviour of her subjects (who begin to seem like ghosts, as they appear and vanish as the camera creeps by) in the context of the larger workspace: The dialectic between the human need for machinery and the human need for pause, renewal, and contact. This isn’t a dialectic in the Marxist sense, however; one doesn’t sense the aroma of alienation, nor the contradictions of a workplace and the workers who occupy it—certainly not in the way that’s expressed in Wang Bing’s documentaries, for instance. Indeed, this is an almost Kubrickian dance of machinery, with the camera itself a curious tool tip-toeing down the corridor, ever fascinated with the fading colours and lovely decay unique to large, old industrial installations, ever mindful of the odd and wonderful (again, ghostly) sounds that an ancient factory can give off. (In a cleverly subtle trick, Lockhart dials down her single moving image to as slow a pace as possible, while recording the ambient sound in the iron works at normal speed.) In Exit, the workers move across and away from the camera to a vanishing point that is their way back home after a long and seemingly satisfying day at work; in Lunch Break, the workers stay put and the camera moves past them to another vanishing point that never seems to arrive. Part of the genius of Lockhart’s new films, and the reason why it’s important to see them together, is that the Lunch Break workers are different from those in Exit, even though, who knows, a few of them may be in both. They are different because they are seen and perceived differently; perception begets meaning, which isn’t a bad cornerstone theme on which to build a New Frontier program. An entire program. As Gandhi remarked about Western civilization, it would be a nice idea. Koehler Robert