The Great American Crack-up: Conspiracies and Crazies at Sundance 2011

Take Shelter

By Robert Koehler

Well before Sundance 2011, it’s been a rough time for America. The Tea Party/Palin acolytes were increasingly scared of the black man in the White House, and with a compliant GOP gave him a “shellacking.” Gun nuts drifted away from the firing range and started shooting at elected officials in Tucson, eliciting not even a protesting whimper of reform from scared Democrats. Then Sundance happened, and the crazies really came out of the closet.

In a span of 48 hours, I witnessed the following during the course of a week of nearly non-stop mediocre and worse films, which may have turned out to be the least problematic thing at the small ski resort:

– Four consecutive questions directed at filmmaker Jeff Nichols following the screening of his Take Shelter, by far the best narrative film I saw, ranging from what he thought of various 9/11 conspiracy notions to his thoughts about the end of the world according to the Maya calendar in 2012.

– Two audience members speaking to each other on one of the festival’s ubiquitous transit buses that this was their last Sundance, not because they were fed up with all of the lousy films, but because there would be no more Sundances, no more ski resort, and no more world, because it was all going to end in an eco-disaster sometime this year. (So much for the Maya calendar.)

– A parking attendant speaking loudly on his mobile, urging a friend to read about something called “The Obama Conspiracy,” in which the Prez is planning on taking over everything.

– A man’s public meltdown at the end of the first screening of Lucky McKee’s latest horror movie, The Woman.

– Finally, and most emphatically, the jury awards, which insanely ignored the likes of Take Shelter (not even some kind of prizes for the brilliance of co-stars Michael Shannon, in his greatest role to date, and Jessica Chastain, upcoming in Malick’s The Tree of Life), or a few other films that reliable sources had strongly praised, such as Azazel Jacobs’ Terri and Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, for half-baked romances such as the perfectly titled Like Crazy.

America is officially awash in deep recession-era conspiracies trying to explain the inexplicable, and if Sundance has any use at all (which certainly doesn’t involve being a platform for advancing cinema), it serves as an annual concentration of the national psyche, at least as reflected by visitors pouring into the small ski resort from Los Angeles, New York and, to a lesser extent, the San Francisco Bay area—those American centres overwhelmingly representing the base of outsiders, the liberal media/communications/entertainment industry elite.

This results in two polar effects: a rise in sheer stupidity (in the selection of movies, the audience reaction to them, the insane questions aimed at filmmakers) and rare if memorable examples of films reflecting the Great American Crack-Up. Nichols’ film stands as the supreme example, a sublime dramatization of a rural Ohio working stiff slowly going bonkers while his family nervously watches, achieved with an intensive control and rising pressure reminiscent of David Cronenberg. The key to Nichols’ filmmaking is how he immediately immerses the viewer in the imaginings of Shannon’s Curtis, who sees approaching Turner-esque lightning storms, oily rain and strange bird flight patterns near the rural Ohio home he shares with wife Samantha (Chastain) and their small daughter.

Take Shelter

Nichols describes the film’s, and Curtis’, state of mind as reflective of a national anxiety, and, in the presence of his audience, steadfastly and wisely refused to pin down this anxiety as either psychological or triggered by something supernatural. It was hardly surprising, given the nutty condition all too evident at this most anxious of festivals, that some folks after the screening were certain that Curtis’ worries of a coming superstorm (the term frequently used by now-retired talk radio superstar Art Bell, a national communicator of conspiracy theories) were well-based and that the film’s intentionally ambiguous ending was confirmation of the end of the world as we know it. When I countered that the meteorological horrors were entirely in Curtis’ head, and that the film carried far more evidence of a psychological breakdown, they would have none of it.

Some would also have none of Kevin Smith, who delivered one of the festival’s few truly transgressive films, the delirious and deliciously messy Larry Cohen-esque romp Red State. Smith jettisons much of his chatty comedy and attachment to witless slackers with this angry satire of the militarist wing of American Christian fundamentalism, personified in what’s certain to go down as one of the year’s most ferociously dedicated performances by the great Michael Parks as a loquacious church-cult leader. In fact, Smith methodically kills off the kinds of youngish characters (including one played by a leading young Hollywood face-of-the-moment, Michael Angarano) that would have taken centre stage in his past films, via the cult’s methods of torturing suspected enemies (e.g., gays) by stringing them up on crucifixes on Parks’ sermon platform, where they moan bloody murder as Parks lectures on divine justice in an epic 20-minute rant that must be heard to be believed. True to the Cohenesque template, Red State only gets more unhinged as it goes along, especially when John Goodman shows up at midpoint as the ATF’s local field agent, who has the misfortune of having to face off with Parks’ band of well-armed loons.

Michael Parks in Red State

Cults and religious factions infested the Sundance lineup this year, either as a reflection of the forever odd programming team’s collective taste, a lazy habit driven by marketing for picking a bunch of titles with something in common, or some combination of both. Many liked (though I didn’t see) Vera Farmiga’s debut, Higher Ground, about a Christian cultish woman who loses her faith, while an escapee from a cult in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, an intelligent attempt to balance poetic and narrative cinema, becomes an object of fascination via an elliptical use of barely suppressed memories of the horrors experienced in a totalitarian (and male-dominated) group setting.

A far cruder depiction of religious madness American-style is only one of the manifest problems of The Ledge, a trite slice of dramatics that features Patrick Wilson as a brittle and unswerving fundamentalist unleashing his version of a terrible swift sword against straying spouse Liv Tyler. So awful that it was awful even by debased Sundance standards, The Ledge was promptly purchased by IFC Films the day after I saw it—which turns out to have been the fate of many bad films in the ski resort, where the theatrical buyers returned to their old form before the financial crisis and spent money like drunken sailors on movies that won’t make a dime.

The Ledge

The art of the deal is now where Sundance is at; FIAPF, the international film festival organization, pointedly (and correctly) reclassified TIFF from a “festival” to a “market” a couple of years ago, and should do the same thing with Sundance, which is unquestionably the world’s most capitalist film event, Cannes included. One sarcastic observation I heard to explain the rampant, almost hourly buying spree was that companies were really doing these deals to publicize their existence, though that still doesn’t explain the most inexplicable deal of all, Magnolia’s purchase (for “mid-high six-figures” the trades breathlessly reported) of  Mark Pellington’s woozy mess I Melt With You, in which a circle of friends played by Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, Christian McKay and a disturbingly aging Rob Lowe slowly, endlessly indulge for over two hours in blow, booze, pills and Sasha Grey (in that order). Then again, that’s what many of the Sundance partygoers were likely doing during the nighttime bacchanals, so perhaps there’s a method to this festival’s madness after all.

We Melt With You, Sasha

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