Sundance 2015: Results from the Frontier




By Blake Williams

Sundance regulars were generally in agreement that this was a solid year, but not as good as the last. This was my first venture to Park City, but having caught up with nearly all of 2014’s greatest hits, I have to dutifully disagree. In fact, against all odds, with over a third of the works I saw on my trip meeting the minimum requirements of being “good,” the overall quality of the films in Sundance 2015 was remarkably, even shockingly, tolerable. This retrospective assessment did not seem possible given the dire state of the festival buzz streaming into my Twitter feed as I was cruising from Salt Lake City International Airport over to Park City. Hordes of journalists were getting shut out of press screening after press screening for films I’d never heard of, and there were quotations galore from Sundance founder Robert Redford’s opening presser, primarily relating to comments he made about his love for television and how artists are having an increasingly difficult time finding their way in the film business. Perhaps he was too busy walking through the woods with Nick Nolte to notice, but his festival was breaking its own records this year in terms of the level of activity taking place in their New Frontier and Next <=> initiatives (introduced in 2007 and 2010, respectively).

Geared toward better integrating artists’ work into the festival, the avant-garde-leaning New Frontier section encompasses a vast majority of the festival’s truly edgy and original work, and offers a refreshing counterpoint to their increasingly predictable competition selections. For one, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room—covered more thoroughly elsewhere in this issue’s pages—is probably his crowning masterpiece, and is better than anything that played in Park City last year, in January or otherwise (yes, even Boyhood). Merging the Surrealists’ gonzo exquisite-corpse form with its 21st-century correlate, the database web narrative, Maddin de-compartmentalizes the Seances project that he began in 2012 to form a shadowbox of cinema’s lost, non-existent, and parallel histories—into and out of which Maddin thrusts like a raving lunatic. Like all of Maddin’s work, this oneiric epic should’ve been competing for prestigious awards in major international venues instead of being erased by a practically invisible Sundance sidebar or devoured by the bottomless sea that is the Berlinale’s Forum.  Its placement in the New Frontier program does at least respect the project’s origins as an ongoing new-media experiment; thus, it theoretically sits well in the context of the section’s 17 multimedia installations, though the integrity of such company—including, per the programme guide, build-your-own cardboard virtual-reality headsets, and Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël’s peculiar extension of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (2014), which allows users to become immersed in the afterlife of Cheryl Strayed’s mom (Laura Dern)—is dubious.

Over in the Next <=> section, Sean Baker’s Tangerine made noise and raised eyebrows for seemingly initiating its own new frontier: it is a legitimate Movie that was entirely shot using the iPhone 5s. Baker’s bold production decision has its skeptics (several dismissing the film outright because of its production technology), but the anamorphically expanded film image is often radiant; its saturated, yellow-stained colour palette that gives the film its title was no doubt appropriated from Do the Right Thing (1989), likewise its penchant for flared tempers and drama. Further, the vérité methodology that the iPhones enable is seamlessly integrated into the film’s narrative. Opening on a pineapple-hued table in a West Hollywood Donut Time location that will serve as Tangerine’s fulcrum, the next shot initiates a striking shot-reverse-shot sequence that establishes the relationship between the film’s central duo of trans women escorts, Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). It’s a toasty Christmas Eve afternoon, Sin-Dee is fresh out of a 28-day prison stay, and she intends to tell her companion that she’s engaged to her pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone). Before she can, though, Alexandra makes a loose-lipped blunder that reveals Chester’s recent infidelity, inadvertently swerving their hangout headlong into a melodramatic revenge plot that unfolds on the streets and buses of West Hollywood’s trans-dominated red-light district. That the camera operators likely appeared to onlookers as though they were casually filming real, impromptu drama for imminent social-media exploitation lends the movie a sense of realism uniquely situated between theatricality and vulnerabilty.

Sin-Dee’s hunt for her man’s girl is interlaced with two parallel narratives. One involves Alexandra’s casual hustles and her efforts to rope every acquaintance she can into going to hear her sing at a bar that night, and the other mysteriously follows a cabbie, Razmik (Baker regular Karren Karagulian), who picks up fares in the same vicinity. The film’s temperament shifts away from its Ryan Trecartin-esque millennial hysteria as the trifurcated narrative strands inevitably reveal their involvements with one another, calming considerably as unspoken actions and motives are unveiled or clarified, their ramifications understood—that is, as caricatures transition into human beings. At the heart of Tangerine is a simplistic dialectic on the desire for the monogamous family experience: the character without it claws passionately at the opportunity for heteronormativity that is within reach, and the character living with it becomes compulsively irresponsible and neglectful. But, as he did in his last film, Starlet (2012), Baker transcends the weaknesses of his structure’s dualism by cutting it off with a lateral move that introduces one major character to new knowledge about another. Where such late revelations tend to be cheap stabs at pathos, here it serves to open up the behaviours and interactions that led up to the film’s conclusion, and emphasizes the deeply complex humanism that was at play all along in Baker’s portrait of this wiry community.

Also strong in the Next <=> section was Josh Mond’s personal and almost unbearably sad debut, James White. Mond has served as producer on all of the pictures made by Borderline Films (Afterschool, 2008; Martha Marcy May Marlene, 2011), and I’ll admit to being apprehensive heading into his film. On paper, James White seems to subscribe to the same tendencies that have become the signature brand of his Borderline colleagues, whose intelligent and precocious output has been driven by a depraved depiction of human nature with a grim sensibility that already feels out of fashion in the increasingly spry American indie sphere. It’s been three years since Antonio Campos’ sophomore effort, Simon Killer (2012), left a foul taste in the mouth with its pointless and brutal glimpse of an American sociopath in Paris, and James White’s synopsis describing a study of a “troubled twentysomething” on the brink of implosion hardly sounded like a deviation from the Borderline trajectory.

Turns out that Mond has more of an interest in Pialatian character psychology and emotional coarseness than the thesis-driven thematics that shape his colleagues’ work, infusing his film with moments of levity that feel neither dispiriting nor foredoomed. Humble and unpretentious, James White is a frank portrayal of a young man (Christopher Abbott) who, shortly after his estranged father dies, learns that his mother’s (Cynthia Nixon) cancer has returned with a vengeance. James, just before being dealt the stifling responsibility of being her caretaker, begins dating Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) after meeting her on vacation in Mexico, and is beginning to prep for a job interview with New York magazine—two additional responsibilities that dually serve to relieve and complicate his duty to care for his progressively ill mother. The film, then, becomes a matter of watching a fundamentally lazy individual attempt to distribute his time and energy in such a manner that he can feel he’s satisfied the requirements for maintaining all of his loving relationships. One of the small miracles of Mond’s handling of this scenario is that his movie’s gaze never becomes sentimental or moralistic. Rather, it is a raw and thoroughly honest stare into the decomposition of those essentially ephemeral entities that we feel most accountable for—of memories, bodies, social standings, and the relationships we have with one another. And the film presents itself to us unconcerned with the burden of meaning; it just begins, and it just ends—it simply is, and it feels all the more primal because of it.

The Witch

The Witch

Speaking of primal experiences, Robert Eggers’ debut feature, The Witch—one of the big talking points to emerge from this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition—is a mythopoeic horror film that uses a wealth of unidentified 17th-century journals, records, and myths to construct a slow-burning descent into hysteria. Eggers opts for a cool, autumnal mise en scène (you can’t not think of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village [2004] while watching) to set this New England folktale about a hermetically burrowed family of Irish colonizers who start dying off one after another due to evidently occult forces. Immediately after an early scene shows an infant, in the middle of a game of peekaboo, being whisked away into the forest by an invisible presence, Eggers removes any doubt about the perpetrator of this paranormal kidnapping by showing a scene of the fate of the baby. The shadowy glimpses of unadulterated evil in this scene’s fiery chiaroscuro imagery are the summit of bona fide terror in The Witch; from here, the film becomes marred by (surprise, surprise) a witch-hunt narrative, which we, the clued-in viewer, can only be on one side of. The film’s remaining delights, then, can solely come from Eggers’ staging of the gruesome fates of future victims, which are intense but overtelegraphed, and never as petrifying as the aforementioned baby scene. That the film climaxes with an inexplicable change of heart for a major character (or was it a reveal? It’s impossible to tell for sure) suggests that Eggers may have taken from one too many sources to patch this thing together. And that he chooses to ignore the sociopolitical and mythological baggage that is evoked by his story’s pointed anti-feminist trajectory is a problematic that I find both leaves the film open to breathe and makes it an awfully suffocating space to wander in.

The emotional jolts of James White and The Witch are corrosive and unmissable, virtues that are not shared by Andrew Bujalski’s cerebral and deceptively airy rom-com, Results, also screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Indeed, I only found a way into its rhythms and intricate construction upon a second look. Bujalski’s follow-up to his profoundly unnerving Computer Chess (2013) is a much more subtly unearthly endeavour; there are no retrograde shooting formats or socially awkward programming nerds in his arsenal this time (though he does let Guy Pearce speak with his Australian accent). Here we have an ostensible love triangle unfolding in and around the Power 4 Life gym in Austin, Texas, with said triangle consisting of the gym owner, Trevor (Pearce), one of his trainers, Kat (Cobie Smulders), and a new client, Danny (Kevin Corrigan). But Bujalski’s scenario only plays out halfway, breaking apart at the moment that most films in the genre would start to escalate the stakes. Whereas Computer Chess made a playground of its dense field of binary oppositions (win/lose, black/white, 1/0, analogue/digital, male/female, etc.), Results operates amongst a network of more angular relationships; its sets are comprised of three components, with one acting as a pivot point for the other two. It’s a motif embedded into the film’s open, purely utilitarian, fitness-conscious mise en scène, intrinsically emphasized by the calisthenic joint movements taking place on the periphery (as well as in a great door-slamming gag). But it also has even more abstract manifestations, especially when it comes to mapping out the emotional relationships that play out between various major and minor characters in the film.

Bujalski also has a knack for presenting key character information in such an offhand way that its import only clicks much later in the film. For instance, the film opens with a prologue that shows Danny trying to enter a middle-class New York apartment with a key that doesn’t fit the unit door’s keyhole. It’s implied that he’s been locked out by a woman who is either his girlfriend or wife, for she’s become fed up with him for some reason and is ending their relationship. Danny eventually gives up on trying to get her to open the door, so he goes outside to plead with her at one of the apartment’s open windows. Dissatisfied with her rejection, he jumps up, grabs the window ledge, and tries to pull himself up into the apartment through the window. Unable to lift his body weight even close to the point where he can get in, he drops down, and the film cuts to its opening credits sequence, which plays out over the backdrop of a Power 4 Life workout class. We soon see Danny—who is now, mysteriously, living in a Texas McMansion—sheepishly signing up for a Power 4 Life personal trainer, claiming that his reason for wanting to get into shape is so he’d be able to take a punch to the face or the gut. Of course, this masculinist goal contradicts the far more romantic motivating impulse that was suggested through the film’s editing: were Danny in shape, he would have been able to climb up into his apartment, where he could have attempted to reconcile his differences with his wife. Bujalski being Bujalski, he doesn’t neglect to slip in a cheeky payoff to this joke more than an hour later in the film; Danny’s veiled romanticism, though, inflects the entire film in very dynamic and unconscious ways.

Having been won over by Results after giving it the deeper consideration it deserves, I can say that the primary reason this year’s Sundance exceeded so many of my expectations is that the veteran filmmakers were generally working near the standards they’ve established for themselves. Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is wobbly and straining early on but comes around once its evolves into a delirious screwball comedy; Rodney Ascher, with The Nightmare, made another warmly democratic, non-judgmental documentary portrait of the New Media Age by allowing ordinary, inexpert individuals a platform to publicly practice their wiki-acquired psychoanalysis skills; and Rick Alverson’s pitch-black Entertainment renders its crude, Andy Kaufman-esque protagonist through an Eggleston-ian sensibility, resulting in as haunting and singular a comedy as anything since Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The only film to genuinely disappoint was Bill and Turner Ross’ years-on-the-cutting-table Western, an ethno-documentary filmed on both sides of the Texas/Mexico border that, while still a pleasure by virtue of being recognizably a Ross Bros. picture, is the first of their features where the poetics feel hollowed out, even perfunctory. Their DV lens is still able to pull ravishing compositions out of nowhere, with utility lights and twilight skies glistening from the frame like fiery embers, while their killer sound design is scored to the ambient, digital-sounding song made by the vulturous grackles dotting the desert’s fence posts. Yet there’s a palpable discomfort in the direction this time, and it seems to be coming from an obligation to treat the region’s inherent politics with an ambivalence—sometimes even an indifference—that is upset by the audiovisual lyricism. The brothers shot and released their best film, Tchoupitoulas (2012), entirely between the filming and completion of Western, so I’m chalking this one up to a belaboured post-production marathon rather than a creative regression.

Finally, the one film to come out of nowhere and catch me off guard was a documentary by first-time filmmaker Crystal Moselle called The Wolfpack. The concept, even on paper, is documentary gold. Six brothers and their mostly offscreen sister have been forced by their father to live effectively their entire lives confined to a small apartment in a dilapidated Lower East Side high rise. The only knowledge they have of the world comes from their mother (who homeschools them—the government funding for which provides the household’s sole source of income) and a 5,000-film home-video collection, which they plow through morning until night on a daily basis. The brothers, not content to be merely spectators, also painstakingly transcribe the dialogue from their favourite movies (preferably ones with ensemble casts so all of them can participate, e.g., Reservoir Dogs [1992]), construct costumes out of newspaper scraps and paint, and then videotape their elaborate re-enactments, many of which have been preserved on VHS tapes. A cinematic presentation of such an unbelievable subject would seem to be unavoidably rife with microcosmic implications, and The Wolfpack indeed has much to say about fandom, the reciprocal bonds between consumption and production, the nightmarish consequences of unchecked patriarchy, and, especially, the pathological evils of insularity (it may be one of the greatest films ever made on this theme).

As a film, it’s easy to discern that this is the product of someone with limited filmmaking experience. Moselle, who is a fine interviewer and does a good job of balancing the distribution of her subject’s darker and lighter notes, doesn’t have a sound enough vision of how to shape the overall structure of these ideas. After laying out the emotional and thematic stakes in the film’s first half, she struggles to shift its focus when she begins to address events closer to the present, when certain significant changes have altered the family’s make-up. As if in a panic, Moselle moulds The Wolfpack’s final third into a tear-jerker, which, while constructed from authentic moments, feels like a cop-out considering the larger impact promised by the film’s set-up. Yet, regardless of whatever difficulties Moselle may have had with the material, ingrained in the film’s rich foundation is a hilariously depressing portrait of cinephilia in the age of consensus—perfectly encapsulated when three of the brothers each decide to name off their “Top 30” lists, all of them topped by the same movies: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), JFK (1991), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Lord of the Rings (2001), with the latter selection qualified by the rhetorical remark, “Because who doesn’t like The Lord of the Rings?”—as chilling a line of dialogue as any I heard all festival.