Sundance 2018: What’s the Story?

By Robert Koehler

In Park City this January, all of those attending the Sundance Film Festival were told in no uncertain terms on a daily, if not hourly, basis that “the story lives in you.” The statement was right there on the cover of the catalogue, so dominant that it replaced the words—“Sundance Film Festival”—that you’d assume would be there. (Those words were left to the catalogue spine.) Other words accompanied this insistent phrase on the cover, including “Obsession,” “Euphoria,” and “Graceful Chaos.” These were part of what could charitably be termed the strangest graphic system ever applied to a major film festival, which involved nothing more than blue colour fields and such odd, disassociated words in orange serif lettering: a banner on Main Street, the bustling thoroughfare at the heart of the Utah ski resort, showed the word “Selfish,” while another at the Prospector Square Theater announced “Irrational Madness.”

Whether or not the graphic design firm hired by the festival was trying to suggest something with these bizarre spurts of Orwellian Newspeak was impossible to tell, but there was no doubt about the core principle about how important “story” is and where it “lives.” The edict capped the festival trailer, and if you didn’t get it already, then Kenneth Cole drilled it home with the most astonishing sponsor ad, like, ever. In a three-minute promo for the brand’s winter coats and designed to honour the exceptionally dedicated and well-organized volunteer staff (these are the hardest-working unpaid people in show business, make no mistake about it), Cole’s daughter Amanda (credited as “performer”) recited a script written by three people, including herself and dad, that extolled how Sundance is the ultimate coming-together of a progressive community of storytellers and dreamers, and that quoted Plato, Margaret Atwood, and Robert Redford, all of them reminding us that “Story” is all. There really is nothing else that matters.

For a festival which most of the world looks upon with a combination of admiration, fascination, and, in some ways, intimidation, and which is depicted as the annual coming-out for the best American independent cinema has to offer up to this minute, an ideological foundation is usually not ascribed to Redford’s snowy confab. But it should be, because the ideology is there, and say what you will about the goofy graphics, it was put there in bold print for the masses like a campaign slogan. Film Festival = Story. If cinema doesn’t concern story, then it isn’t cinema. No question, no debate.

This would be news to generations of actual American independents who’ve been making cinema without any stories at all, and it might be a welcome bromide in a debate that a thoughtful festival could stage, a debate whose title might be, “Is Cinema About Story Alone?” Which would only lead, pace Bazin, to the following question: “What is Story?” It’s fair to assume, given his fantastic if still underexamined totalitarian reach into the hearts and minds of American moviemakers, that by “Story” the Sundance graphic means Robert McKee, he of the rigid three-act story graph.

That’s because, as always, there were McKee movies aplenty at Sundance (as there are, in fact, at most festivals), which made it all the more fascinating to observe that the festival’s greatest movie and possibly its greatest in many, many years—Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ lysergic motorcycle n’ chainsaw n’ Nic Cage Walpurgisnacht wonder titled Mandy—indicated that the two-act structure might be just the way to go. (So, too, did the only good work in the festival’s routinely overlooked World Cinema Narrative competition, Rust, directed by Aly Muritiba and written by Muritiba and Jessica Candal, which subtly dramatizes the aftermath of a high-school sexting scandal.) In fact, the one recognizably three-act movie guided mostly by The God of Story that excelled at its job was, of all things, Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub and written by Oren Moverman, a film about a Connecticut housewife (Kelly McDonald, in a career-best performance) who finds meaning and purpose in her life through solving jigsaw puzzles. The best stories envelop the audience so totally that the artifice of storytelling vanishes; Puzzle is that kind of movie.

Puzzle also won a prize more coveted at Sundance than the two dozen or so awards it hands out, the one that makes Sundance-watching such an obsessive project for the Los Angeles-New York industry complex trudging through the snow: the US distribution deal. In Puzzle’s case, the deal was a perfectly suitable and sound one with Sony Pictures Classics, virtually guaranteeing it a classy, possibly made-for-Oscars rollout. Others, like the $10 million doled out by two evidently deep-pocketed outfits—Neon and upstart AGBO—for writer-director Sam Levinson’s unimpressive high-school girls’ revenge movie, Assassination Nation, was indicative of how the frenzied atmosphere of anticipation over the next It Thing remains Sundance’s albatross. A typical session of TIFF’s Midnight Madness has its supply of Assassination Nations (Levinson’s undercooked fantasy was slotted in Sundance’s Midnight section alongside Mandy and the overhyped haunted-house thriller Hereditary), but there’s no possible way that such dealmaking money would be thrown around so flagrantly after a late-night Ryerson screening. A sure sign that the new It Thing hadn’t been discovered is that within 48 hours of this deal’s announcement, people were talking more about the cash than the movie.

The buyers’ desperation was the other talking point: I overheard one buyer muttering to a colleague on Day Six, “I’m having a terrible time,” while another used the term “ghastly.” The long-term problem is that Sundance long ago saw its success taken over by buyers who drive the talking points that are then amplified by the press. If, on the other hand, one were to take a critic’s approach, being a tad curatorial in viewing, passing on parties, scheduling a few days of seven screenings, and watching a fair share of streaming screeners sent by publicists and producers, one could manage to see up to as many as 20 works (features, shorts, live performances and the new-new It Thing, VR) that were excellent to good. (That’s out of 68 total titles I’ve seen.) Compared to nearly every other Sundance I’ve attended, that’s impressive.

Such viewing reinforced two truths: a) The work most slavishly stuck in a McKee-style paradigm is guaranteed to produce the worst results, such as Rupert Everett’s death-slog bio of Oscar Wilde as an old man The Happy Prince, the awful Hamlet-reset Ophelia, or Gus Van Sant’s hopelessly sappy biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a film that misses the whole point (and humour) of its subject, cartoonist John Callahan; and b) When genuinely interesting cinema breaks out, it insists on its own sense of the world, whether or not that has something to do with anyone’s idea of a story. Besides, if you really want full-blown stories, go watch television, which is speedboating cinema when it comes to presenting novel-sized narratives. (A form, incidentally, that a film festival is particularly poor at presenting, since to watch a multi-episode epic consumes more viewing time than even the most devoted Lav Diaz groupie might allow, although that didn’t stop Sundance from screening two of them: Chapman and McLain Way’s 388-minute bound-for-Netflix Wild Wild Country and Steve James’ latest doc-epic on Chicago, the 300-minute America to Me.)

A James-backed project that grew out of young Rockford, Illinois skateboarder Bing Liu’s pleasure with videotaping his pals, Minding the Gap is fresher and more memorable than anything James has made in years. At first, Liu’s coming-of-age account feels dull, straining for seriousness, and off-key, with solemn soundtrack music under thrilling skateboarding action shots and the filmmaker doing his own narrating. But Liu’s multi-panel portrait of four young boys-to-men, including himself, develops the texture and resonance of a novel without ever trying to do so; the simplicity and modesty of just recounting the ways in which young lives—and those of their parents—can strain and break in modern America is the basis of this movie’s wisdom.

The foregrounding of place as a principle as important as narrative was a constant factor in this Sundance edition’s best work: places we may have never been, like Rockford, or like Great Falls, Montana, in Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan’s unexpectedly rich adaptation of Richard Ford’s Wildlife, or the mid-Southern semi-wilderness and two-bit towns seen in another fine surprise by another actor, Ethan Hawke’s Blaze, which covers key sequences in the rowdy life of country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (played by Benjamin Dickey with the movie’s own ambling, shaggy-dog attitude). The places themselves are in the titles of two of the very best on view: Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 and RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Afternoon, the latter counting Apichatpong Weerasethakul as an artistic advisor, and showing it. Unlike Liu in Rockford, Ross was simply a visitor to Selma, Alabama and its environs when he began shooting everyday moments and slowly finding a pattern to images and a tempo to the montage that approaches the sense of mentally recalling things from one’s recent past. Though set in the historical heart of the American Civil Rights Movement’s tumultuous birth, Ross’ movie insists on a present that turns young African-American men and women into agents of pleasure and work (very often involving college basketball) and subjects of a poetic gaze.

Greene was also a visitor to Bisbee, Arizona, but in this case the purpose is expressly historical and political. In 1917, the International Workers of the World determined that an industrial shutdown of US factories would halt WWI, and targeted Bisbee, centre of American copper mining. In a little-remembered incident known as “The Bisbee Deportation,” the sheriff of Cochise County gathered a posse, arrested the IWW agitators, rounded them up in the local ballpark, dumped them into cattle cars, and railroaded them to a remote New Mexican desert where many of them died. In both Kate Plays Christine (2016) and Actress (2014), Greene has recently been interested in variations on the idea of the artificial line that separates actors and their characters. With Bisbee ’17, he extends that idea to the world of everyday citizens recreating historical events, and wrestling with the hard realities and challenges of taking on their particular role—in this case, radical union fighters or homegrown fascists. While on one hand simply recording the re-creation that the town was planning to do anyway on the episode’s centenary, Greene widens his scope from his earlier work to observe an ensemble of “actors” and an entire community, many of whom, like Fernando Serrano, are the darker-skinned “others” who filled IWW membership rolls and whom the good white people of Bisbee wanted, literally, out on a rail.

Place over story is key to Michael Dweck’s The Last Race, by a long stretch the festival’s great discovery. Whatever narrative seeps into his documentary, if you can call it that, clearly counts for little to Dweck compared to his endless fascination with the sights, smells, speed, and characters that roam the last stock-car racetrack in Long Island. A renowned photographer, Dweck loves the subculture that keeps Riverhead Racetrack alive, even as the Saturday-night crowds dwindle. Rather than making a maudlin swan’s song, Dweck forges a defiant symphony of images (early mystic Christian music set to grease-monkey antics) that celebrates the liberating energy of metal on metal, capped by a stunning, long-held shot inside a car’s compartment of what may be the last victor of the track’s last race. Not since Le Mans (1971) have I seen racing captured with such sensorial variety and pleasure, but unlike the daunting Formula One tracks Riverhead is a mom-and-pop operation (we see the elderly owners, dawdling away in their humble office), with racers who make their livings doing things like exterminating bees in nearby tony Hamptons estates they could never afford. Without ever announcing it, the movie becomes a tone poem about an American landscape where working folks are getting rubbed out by money, developers are waiting in the wings to pounce at the closure of a beloved institution, and expected failure makes a U-turn.

Which brings us to Mandy, featuring the movie star whom everyone always seems to be anticipating to self-destruct in one grand career auto-da-fé. Nicolas Cage has in fact been getting his artistic second wind for a while, just if you count Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) and Joe (2013), and once you’ve seen Mandy, you’ll just throw in the towel and realize that Cage is at his career peak. But that happens in the second hour of a movie so brazenly realized that the first hour seems an impossible act to follow, until it’s not. In the first half, it isn’t even Cage’s movie, but that of Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache. Cage, as in Joe, is a logger, and lives in what an intertitle calls “The Shadow Mountains” with wife Mandy (Riseborough), who paints phantasmagorical canvases never shown onscreen (until, perhaps, the film’s final, Turner-esque shot). The moment Riseborough appears, the reason for the title is obvious: she exerts a magnetic hold, her nearly eyebrow-less face a strange balance of ancient vision and childlike innocence. Riseborough was in no less than four Sundance movies and brilliant in each (also Nancy, an unsettling psychodrama in which she co-produced and starred; Burden, in which she plays a Walmart employee caught up in a town’s KKK controversies; and TIFF import The Death of Stalin, in which she portrays Stalin’s daughter Svetlana). I met people who saw all or most of these and didn’t realize this fact; she may be the ultimate chameleon actor of our era.

Roache’s madman cult leader, a Christian fanatic named Jeremiah, kidnaps Mandy with the help of a squad of monstrous black creatures on tricked-out motorcycles. His singular idea of torture is to get her stoned and mesmerize her with talk, a verbal seduction of a length that would make Paddy Chayefsky blush, but Mandy—in an acting moment that should be one for the ages—responds by laughing in his face. It turns the movie on its head.

Mandy is so attentive to the original impulses of the midnight movie that it remembers how slow many of them were—watch El Topo (1970) if you don’t believe it—and how they held to a genuinely transgressive ethos. The gradual, almost somnambulistic build of the first half snaps, and unlike the more uncertainly held longeurs of Cosmatos’ first movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), this one knows when it’s time to start kicking some ass. Cage’s Red, seeing what happens to Mandy, bottoms out and dissolves (in a bathroom scene that teeters on the edge of what looks like actual insanity), re-emerging as an avenger who transcends his husbandly role to the status of a killer angel soaked in his name’s colour. Face-offs with the black monster guys? You got it. Duels with big and bigger chainsaws? Sure. Mano a mano with Roache in a Jodorowsky-like church? Baby, you got it.

What was most telling about the after-effect of Mandy on the viewer—just pack the bags and split, buddy, because you ain’t seeing anything better—is that the promised sensations of the festival’s upgraded virtual reality rides—er, works—couldn’t hope to top Cosmatos’ spectacle. Out of 11 VR projects I waded through (having to wait for them, like a reservation-holder at a restaurant, for several precious minutes in prescribed time windows), only one, titled Hero, produced by iNK Stories and placing the viewer in the POV of a White Helmet worker in a bombed Syrian city, achieved both substance and an impressive technical advance in VR’s dream of an enveloping audio-visual experience. The force of the bomb’s explosion is one thing; the touch of a child’s arm as you rescue it from a building cave-in is something else again. Hero nearly made one forget about how New Frontier, the section which used to be home to Sundance’s few experimental movies (only truly represented this edition by Johann Lurf’s , a fun, mesmerizing catalogue of film scenes with starry nights, including, it should be noted, one from Beyond the Black Rainbow), has been virtually taken over by VR. The VR trend, now on display at a film festival near you, started in Park City, so total colonization of what it means to be “experimental” is the next inevitable step.

But that’s another story.