Festivals: Sundance | Spaceship Down

By Robert Koehler

Sundance is the only major film festival in at least North America, and quite possibly the world, to create a section dedicated to the experimental/avant-garde and then turn around and destroy that section’s mission. The section is called New Frontiers, which used to be Sundance’s safe harbour for experimentation and, even if on rare occasions, non-narrative work. That was before the invasion of VR, which now has a near-monopoly on the section. Scan through reams of coverage of this heavily reported festival and you won’t land on this fact, which becomes more shocking the more you think about it. Imagine, if you will, TIFF preserving the section name “Wavelengths,” but programming the section with VR projects and relocating the venue to a made-over commercial space somewhere near downtown Toronto. 

VR has been steadily taking over New Frontiers for years, starting as a goofy side project and becoming so high-tech and large that the section’s central venue is now known as—I’m not kidding—The Spaceship. Until recently, VR’s steady advance in Park City didn’t completely subjugate experimental cinema. It was only a couple of years ago that New Frontiers presented a Sky Hopinka film, and a year before that, Johann Lurf’s *, and though New Frontiers never welcomed the kind of non-narrative work that radically realigns the boundaries of cinema in the way that Wavelengths reliably does, this tiny piece of Sundance’s massive holdings at least included a few experiments. 

This is now gone. The only thing that could be termed a “film” in the 2022 New Frontiers was Sam Green’s nice but inconsequential 32 Sounds, a diary-like overview of the role of sound in our lives and in cinema. Like so many nonfiction features in Sundance that tell the audience what to think, Green’s globetrotting project tended to state and repeat the obvious: we tend to overlook sound when watching a movie, sound is vital, etc. Beyond that, there were a pair of live dance performances, and a bunch of VR things to watch while stumbling around in the dark with a big headset on your face. 

But wait: because of the COVID pandemic, and its unlucky January calendar slot, Sundance had to go virtual for a second year in a row. That meant that everything was online, rendering the shiny new Spaceship grounded. It also meant that Sundance had created the most elitist festival experience this side of the $4,000-per-head Telluride and the red-carpet nights at Cannes’ Palais. In order to properly view almost all of the VR, you needed to own expensive gadgetry; if the stuff I actually did view (without a headset) was indicative, it was hardly worth the price, and certainly not worth noting for the record.

This systematic erosion and destruction of the experimental/avant-garde showcase at Sundance should stir at least a little anger, a teeny bit of outrage, but no: I regularly submit a question during the festival’s opening-day press conference for the past three years about this matter, and it’s regularly ignored. Festival director Tabitha Jackson has guided this and last year’s editions, and my guess is that she, a British documentary specialist and cinephile, quietly wonders what the hell happened to New Frontiers. Jackson is in fact a major upgrade from former director John Cooper, who demonstrated an unerring sense for fawning, audience-pleasing programming. 

Nevertheless, under Jackson’s watch terrible programming decisions continue to be made, and it’s likely that there’s only so much she can do to shift course. The US dramatic competition, for one, continues to let in dreadful work, including from once-interesting filmmakers. Bradley Rust Gray’s blood surely ranked as the most notable failure of all, a lugubrious slice-of-life observing a woman visiting a friend in Tokyo where they dawdle away their time over soba noodles, dance classes, and a visit to a volcano. Gray takes his time between features—it’s been ten years since his last (Jack and Diane, 2012)—but the decline from his deeply felt The Exploding Girl (2009) to now is disturbing, and why Sundance would even consider letting this obviously misjudged folly in the door is pure programming malpractice. I wasn’t able to see the dramatic section’s winner, Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, but what else I did see was negligible stuff you’d flip by on a cable search. Erratically structured as both thriller and comedy, Carey Williams’ Emergency has all the earmarks of being both a Jordan Peele wannabe and a calling-card project for Hollywood, and pulls off neither. Riley Stearns’ clone-in-existential-crisis drama Dual suffers from both lazy storytelling and having been beaten to the punch on its high concept by the Mahershala Ali-starring Swan Song, released late last year on Apple+.

Given all this, Jackson has a tough task in front of her, but she may have interesting ideas for shaking up this astoundingly conservative and powerful annual event. Sundance is now and forever a festival designed to position American movies first and the rest of the world second (never forget that its roots are in the old USA Film Festival), despite the protestations from programmers that they really do have a more outwardly world view. But the fact that Jackson is a Black woman from outside the US does mean something, and her more international perspective is intended to at least attempt to bridge in the glaring gaps that have plagued Sundance from its inception. The inclusion last year of Salome Jashi’s Taming the Garden in the World Cinema documentary section had Jackson’s fingerprints all over it, as did the presence of Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes in the same section this year. Sen engages the viewer on subtle levels of perception as he observes two brothers in New Delhi attempting a Quixotic, decades-long project of rescuing black kite birds amidst the ravages of one of the world’s harshest environments. No huge environmentalist message is delivered here, which is itself a small miracle in a festival that often mistakes broadsides for art; rather, Sen takes the chaotic world on its own terms, and quietly uncovers a rich metaphor in the bird’s tenacity: somehow, even in this place, life can thrive. 

Life affirmation, especially in these times, is welcome, but something richer could be detected in the best of this year’s edition. As opposed to dozens of narrative and nonfiction features that treated serious themes and then tacked on the requisite happy ending, the finest work was imbued with the aura, the sensibility, of sadness. This just happens to coincide with our global pandemic, but the confluence of Sierra Pettengill’s excoriating, brilliant Riotsville, USA, Ricky D’Ambrose’s melancholic memoir The Cathedral, and Living, a moving and nuanced Kurosawa adaptation written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, felt like something more than an accident. All these films probe, with acute cinematic intelligence, areas of human and institutional infirmities that obliquely reflect our current mood of loss and confusion. 

Riotsville, USA takes its title from a sinister project created in 1967 by the US Army in response to a wave of violent social unrest in Black communities, despondent over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of failed efforts to reverse a pattern of grinding poverty and segregation in inner cities. On the grounds of the sprawling Fort Belvoir base, the army built a fake set called “Riotsville”—think of Western-town Main Streets built for Hollywood shoots—pathetically designed to resemble a commercial “urban” street. On this set, soldiers would practice drills in “riot control,” deploying military force to subdue and arrest “citizens” played by their peers. 

Pettengill blends a fascinating clinical approach deeply influenced by Harun Farocki (a favourite of Jackson’s) with an assemblage of near-hallucinogenic materials, including ample filmed documentation of “Riotsville” exercises observed from a distance by an audience of the military elite. But her starting point isn’t this fake “city”—rather, it is the blistering report by the Kerner Commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson, which examined the roots of the widespread civil unrest in Black communities and proposed solutions. Riotsville, USA revives this immensely important yet nearly forgotten report, but the commission’s surprisingly progressive proposed remedies (including a guaranteed annual income) are still so far from being realized in the US that the film’s chronicle acts as a severe indictment of the country and what it owes the people it enslaved—in one form or another—since 1619. 

While Pettengill’s study is a fine example of a recent development in American nonfiction, a cinema of artistic social examinations (joining the work of Theo Anthony, whose All Light, Everywhere premiered last year at Sundance, another sign of Jackson’s taste), D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral goes in the opposite direction, toward the personal memento mori. D’Ambrose first became known for his concise portraits of filmmakers (Chantal Akerman, Gina Telaroli, Alex Ross Perry, Matias Piñeiro, Dan Sallitt, Nathan Silver) before his 2018 feature debut, the unsettling, L’Avventura-esque anti-mystery Notes on an Appearance. With The Cathedral, a Venice Biennale College film that premiered last year in Italy, D’Ambrose makes a striking artistic leap forward, tracking the upward trajectory of the birth and development of young Jesse Damrosch (a clear alter ego) alongside the downward spiral of the family around him. 

Andrew Sarris, who at first relegated Stanley Kubrick to the dubious category of “Strained Seriousness” in his classic text The American Cinema, finally came around to the director with Barry Lyndon (1975), admitting that he understood Kubrick’s “brand of sadness.” D’Ambrose, who displayed a considerable Bresson influence in Notes, has here absorbed Barry Lyndon’s style and sadness into his piercing family study. Many scenes are captured in a single shot, often beginning with a detail (a stack of dollar bills, a cake), with a gradual zoom out revealing the larger scene. Under the film’s measured, observant, and cool surface is a narrative marinated in great pain and loss—a difficult aesthetic and emotional mixture for an artist to concoct at any age, but particularly astonishing for a filmmaker with only one previous feature under his belt. The viewer is asked to be as observant to details, to furtive gestures and to shades of meaning, as D’Ambrose is in adapting his own family story, making The Cathedral a genuinely radical act.

Living, Ishiguro’s adaptation of Kurosawa Akira, Hashimoto Shinobu, and Oguni Hideo’s screenplay for Ikiru (1952), is the author’s finest script in English in several years. This isn’t to slight the contribution of director Oliver Hermanus (making his first UK-set feature after a string of respected South African films, including Moffie [2019], Endless River [2015], and Beauty [2011]), whose steady control of the narrative’s complex elements is a marvel in itself—not least his direction of Bill Nighy, who indisputably delivers his greatest and most sublime performance in a career distinguished by mostly comic roles. But Living is above all a work of dramatic writing at the highest level, as well as a master class in how to adapt—and improve!—a fine original screenplay from one cultural setting to another. 

While watching Living, I was reeling back to memories of seeing Ikiru several years ago and sensing that Ishiguro was changing and shifting aspects of the earlier screenplay while remaining rigorously faithful to the general structure and almost all of the specific sequences and scenes, which was confirmed by a subsequent viewing of Ikiru. Ishiguro closely tracks the original but then creates fresh pathways for the existential adventure of a London civil bureaucrat, Williams (Nighy), who learns that he’s dying of cancer and struggles to find some meaning and purpose in his final months. Just one example demonstrates Ishiguro’s storytelling genius. In Kurosawa’s version, the bureaucrat’s funeral becomes a marathon sequence in which the mourners reassess everything they know about him; Ishiguro dispenses with this massive block of material—for practical and cultural purposes, since the processes of British and Japanese funerals are worlds apart—for a more fractured, suspenseful set of scenes that gradually reveal each character’s inner truths.

Such fracturing is a characteristic of Ishiguro’s fiction, which tends to be driven by character revelations, thus making him the ideal adapter of Ikiru, not least due to his precise comprehension of British and Japanese cultural sensibilities. His adaptation manages the difficult balancing act of being respectful to Kurosawa’s story and themes while compressing the action, opening up the drama’s physical space, and, most importantly, removing the many times in Ikiru in which characters state the obvious in blunt terms for the viewer’s benefit. Ishiguro actually manages to make an already subtle, quiet drama even subtler, and more emotional. Sadness, inside a story of how a single man changes the course of his remaining days, has rarely been expressed with such grace and beauty.