Post-Sundance Wrap-Up

I’m home and have already done my headlong dive back into my daily life, but a part of my mind is still chewing over the last week. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

We saw quite a few of the award winners – The Square, which won Audience Award: World Cinema: Documentary, American Promise, which won U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking, Upstream Color, which won U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Sound Design, Computer Chess, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, and The Date, which won the Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction.

The last time the Pirate and I went to Sundance in 2007, the impression I came away with was that we had seen a lot of movies about touching sweetness in the face of adversity. The Pool, about a pair of Indian boys who want to better themselves, Eagle vs. Shark, about Jemaine Clement being hideously awkward and Loren Horsley liking him anyway, Once, about a pair of singer-songwriters in Ireland. Every one of those movies was tender and sweet and, despite the problems the characters faced, nobody turned bitter or remained angry.

In contrast, it seems that this was the Sundance of “why is this still going on?” I personally saw a lot of emphasis on race and racial inequality, and I can only think it’s an outcome of the fact that, since the election of an African-American president, there has been an upsurge of overt racism in this country and filmmakers are trying hard to bring that fact to light so that it can be addressed. There were themes of poverty, political disenfranchisement, powerlessness and fear that seem to be products of the climate we’ve lived in since the 2008 collapse of the housing market and the subsequent financial crisis.

The last thing I’m thinking is that the visual theme of this Sundance was arrows. Before every movie, where you would normally see commercials or previews in another venue, there was a sort of screen-saver-y thing of arrows. They came in from different directions, they contained stills from this year’s films, they had a cute video of arrows representing fish and water and rain and trees and mountains blah blah. But it was jangly and loud and rough-looking and I wasn’t impressed. I contrast it with the 2007 visual theme of flames. The screen-saver-y thing then was a complex animation of little people with flames for heads in a little village, creating things and interacting. It was complex and engaging and I looked forward to seeing it again at every film. Step it up, Sundance. You can do better next time.

 

Film #10: Fruitvale

The Pirate and I had tickets to the Grand Jury Prize winner for the Dramatic competition, and the winner this year was the film Fruitvale, about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was shot by BART officers at the Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2008.

If we had actually gone to the film, it would just be starting now, and we’d be sitting in the dark of the balcony at the Eccles Theatre holding hands and staring ahead into the darkness. Except that, the last time I went to a film in the Eccles Theater, day before yesterday, I stared into the darkness, and the darkness entered my eyes and my heart and hurt me.

I live in the United States. I’m a graduate-school educated, above-average-earning woman born of a mixed-race family. I’ve experienced a whole lot of ugliness in my lifetime, and I’ve heard firsthand accounts of a whole lot more. I don’t need to be told again and again that people of color are wonderful, human, flawed, vital, important people at the centers of their own social circles. Nobody should need to be told that, because all human beings are those things.

I also don’t need to be told that people of color are routinely discriminated against, brutalized, stripped of their rights and their dignity, systematically excluded and otherwise made to feel less in our society. I’ve lived with that too, and understand how profoundly that affects people in every facet of their lives.

I know a few people who use social media primarily as a conduit for forwarding platitudes. Endless pictures of cute animals with endearing sayings, proverbs, and quotes from people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t discount anything that those men might have said, but I don’t have patience for people who are willing to quote their words to others, but ignore them in their own lives. They’re the same to me as all those folks who go to church on Sunday and act like assholes the rest of the time.

In the same way I don’t need to keep having Gandhi quoted at me, I don’t need to be reminded of the plight of people of color. It’s not that I stop caring – just the opposite.  Because I can’t stop caring, it rubs me emotionally raw and hurts me more than it does some other people.

The upshot is that I hope whoever got our tickets (we walked over to Eccles about an hour and a half before the film was to start and sold our tickets to one of the many guys hanging around outside the theater asking for them) enjoys and appreciates the film. I hope it makes them think about how they are in life and what they could be doing to foster more peaceful discussion and less fear and mistrust. I hope that they start looking at every person they pass in the street as a human being as worthy of love and respect as themselves.

Film #9: Blackfish

Blackfish begins and ends with the killing of the trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum at Sea World Orlando in 2010. The rest of the film traces Tilikum’s history with Sea World, highlighting the corporate practices at the park and the experiences of former orca trainers to call attention to the injustice of keeping creatures whom some scientists claim have more emotional intelligence than humans as performing prisoners.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

I have to preface by saying that, while I’m completely sympathetic to animal rights causes, they’re not the thing that moves me.

The film was chock full of former Sea World trainers, talking about their own experiences of the park’s policies and procedures. I was surprised that none of the trainers was selected on the basis of their knowledge of marine biology or animal psychology. The prerequisites for the job seemed to include physical energy and stamina, and how the applicants looked in a wetsuit.

The trainers were encouraged to form emotional attachments to their designated animals, and incidents where orcas injured or killed trainers were hushed up such that trainers in other Sea World parks heard nothing about it. Those incidents where trainers did hear about the deaths, they were told that the deaths were due to trainer error, even when videos clearly showed otherwise.

Orca experts also weighed in, talking about the differences between orca sociality and behavior in the wild and sociality and behavior in captivity. They talked about the problems of holding 15′ long animals who, in the wild, would be roaming a hundred miles of day in tanks that were perhaps only a few hundred feet long.

It was hard to see the problems and consequences of orcas in captivity without thinking about the problems and consequences of the very large population that the United States holds in prison. The U.S. holds a larger percentage of its population in prison than any other country in the world, and sees nothing wrong with keeping other human beings in tiny cells with very little stimulation for years at a time. Why should we see anything wrong with doing the same to other intelligent creatures?

Blackfish was an intriguing and thought-provoking film, but at the end of the day, I still see my own duty in helping my fellow human beings. I feel that only by helping other humans fully realize their humanity can they begin to look around and exercise that humanity by showing compassion to other kinds of life.

Film #8: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete follows two boys who, after the older boy’s mother is taken by the police, are left to fend for themselves in the projects for an entire summer.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

When the Pirate and I first looked at the catalog copy for this film, it looked a lot like Tekkonkinkreet, a manga we both loved about two orphan boys who fend for themselves in a weird futuristic fictional city Treasure Town. We were very, very wrong.

First of all, I’ve heard this story before. In December of 2007, This American Life aired a segment called Boy Interrupted about a boy who, at the age of 15, was left alone for five months while his mother was in the hospital. “Defeat” took his story, and amped it up considerably, first making the mother a heroin addicted prostitute, then adding a 9-year-old Korean boy with a mother who was not only a junkie prostitute, but an abuser as well.

There are certain things I can’t watch: torture, abuse, privation, humiliation. I especially can’t watch innocents undergo sustained abuse. By halfway through this film, I was crying and mouthing the words “I want to go home now” over and over.

To spend two full hours watching two boys undergo disappointment, humiliation, neglect, assault, starvation and abandonment is more than I can take, but I’m shocked at the review given it by Salt Lake Magazine’s Dan Nailen, who ended his review with “By the time The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete started answering those questions, I had stopped caring.” I guess that’s the problem that makes me weep. Yes, this is a movie. But as the TAL episode shows, it’s also real. And there are millions of other people in similarly harsh, desperate circumstances that don’t just have to sweat them out for a few months, but have to live them for YEARS. I’m willing to bet that Dan Nailen never even started caring about any of them.

I’m fortunate in that I have enough money to do pretty much whatever I want, including coming out to spend a week at Sundance. The problem is that I don’t have quite enough money to solve anyone’s large-scale problems, and the people that do have that kind of cash don’t feel any pressing need to help anyone else. But just because I’m no longer poor (and I say “no longer” because I grew up government-cheese-and-horsemeat poor) doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what desperation, shame and hopelessness feel like.

I’m happy for Dan Nailen that he never experienced that kind of life, but I’m sad for him and anyone like him who look at “Defeat” and see nothing more than a movie they didn’t like.

Film #7: Computer Chess

Computer Chess covered a computer chess tournament in 1980. Several teams with their own software programs must first compete against each other, then the winner will play a human chess master.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

The first thing I loved was the fact that 98% of this film was shot to look like early, black-and-white videotape: jumpy and low-contrast. Although some of the time characters from the film are addressing the camera directly, speaking to the man holding the gigantic, clunky video camera, at other times we see the cameraman in the room, holding the camera itself.

I thought at first this would just be a dry, straight look at the world of nerd culture back when I was a teenager, but that impression was overturned about ten minutes into the film when the camera alights on a man who says that he’s come just to watch because he thinks that “this whole thing” is going to be like World War III. The next man on camera mocks him, but when the chess master, who serves as master of ceremonies for the tournament between the computer programs, also mentions World War III, we see the original commenter light up with recognition.

The film keeps going back and forth between the dry, ultra-nerdiness of the computer chess competition and the wackiness going on elsewhere in the hotel – giant herds of those ugly, squash-faced cats wandering around, one competitor who didn’t get a room and is trying to sleep in the rooms of the competition, a marriage encounter group doing embarrassing 70s encounter group things – so that it’s hard to tell what’s more unlikely: the hermetically sealed, dusty atmosphere of the tournament, or the weird, surreal messiness of the rest of life in the hotel.

I would agree with the program director who introduced the film: this one does have the feeling of a cult classic.

Film #6: C.O.G.

C.O.G. is based on a David Sedaris essay of the same name. The film follows David, who’s run away from his family in New York to Oregon where he plans to pick apples. First he works on a farm picking apples from trees. In just a couple of weeks, he’s offered a job at the apple processing plant. He has a run-in with a man from work who tries to rape him, so he can’t go back to the factory, and he can’t go back to the apple farm, so he ends up with a bitter, born-again vet who tries to teach him both how to cut slabs of jade into novelty clocks and how to accept Jesus.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

There was a lot of meat in David Sedaris’ original essay, and the writer/director made excellent use of it, leaving all of Sedaris’ salient points intact and expanding the religion theme to movie proportions.

My one question was whether the viewer would need to know David Sedaris and/or his work to understand everything going on, since the director chose to downplay David’s homosexuality until the end, and the actor playing David may have been a little snarky (like Sedaris himself), but he didn’t have either Sedaris’ soft, high-pitched voice or his slight stature. There was very little to suggest that the character David was gay, aside from one scene where a farmhand asks him if he has a woman and David denies it vehemently.

Otherwise, the film captured Sedaris’ own brand of unsparing, self-mocking humor. There were some really great lines: “What have you got against the Bible?” “It’s poorly written.” And there are many scenes that made me laugh in sympathy for a kid who was clearly trying to find himself and stumbling painfully in the process.  If this movie were picked up for theatrical release, I’d go see it again.

Film #5: Shorts Program III

This evening’s offering was a series of seven shorts, which I’ll talk about in the order  I saw them.

Karaoke!

A young man goes to a bar with a woman and some friends. His phone goes off constantly, but he avoids answering it, although his avoidance bothers the woman he’s with. Finally, he goes to his parents’ home where his father is dying. We end back at the bar the night before, where he sings his heart out with the support of the young woman.

Sweet, but needlessly oblique.

Overall score: 2 out of 4

The Date

An awkward young man is left home alone with a warning from his mother that he must “take care of the date.” He makes tea and prepares for his visitors who turn out to be a woman and her daughter bringing their female cat to be impregnated by his male cat. The girl is traumatized by what can be plainly heard going on, but the boy assures her it’s all fine.

Got big laughs from the audience.

Overall score: 3 out of 4

Record/Play

A man listens to a tape on which his girlfriend speaks to him for the last time, telling him she wished he could be there (in Bosnia). The tape ends with her saying “Oh, my God-” and then a loud noise. The man cries as he looks at the Walkman in his hand. He goes to his basement and modifies the tape player so that it transports him through time and space to where she is at what appears to be a school in Bosnia, looking out the window as she records her message to him. She gets to the “Oh, my God-” and turns to see him, then drops the recorder and he is transported back, the broken tape embedded in his back. He goes back several times, each time trying to avoid the thing that killed her, the thing that sent him back, each time coming back with the tape a little bit more damaged. Finally, he sends her back, and takes her place.

I totally cried.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

#PostModem

In the future, you will be able to upload your personality to your computer. Only it will suck, because either you’ll be an unconvincing avatar or you’ll have part of a circuit board sticking out of your forehead. Unless you take the circuit board out of your forehead, and then you can have a personal jet pack in the ocean. And then you’re in the vortex and someone throws a Tomagochi at you until you swing in the room lit up with clouds.

Yeah, I didn’t get it either. But the jet pack thing was cool.

Overall score: 1 out of 4

The Companion (El Acompañante)

A good-looking young man lives with an older man who makes little dioramas that he tries to sell at local markets, but they’re not selling. The boy takes care of the old man’s needs, and sells his sexual favors to men to make money for them to live on. At one point, he catches a cat so that the older man can have new bristles for his paintbrushes. One evening the young man is looking at his phone and the old man snatches it away from him. The young man demands it back, they struggle, the young man pushes the old man’s wheelchair over, spilling the old man on the floor.

This was a Sundance featured film, but for the life of me, I have no idea why. As my father would say “It was a slice of life, but a very thin slice.”

Overall score: 2 out of 4

The Roper

A young black from the deep south talks about his pursuit of calf-roping glory. He is the only black calf roper in the south, although he claims there are many in Texas. We see him practice his art as he talks about his dreams of going to the national championships in Las Vegas.

I have a huge weakness for rodeo, and watching this kid whose whole life is calf roping was sweet and wonderful.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

Magnesium

A teenage girl wants to terminate her pregnancy, but finds out that she must wait five days. Unfortunately, she is part of a high-level gymnastics team competing in an important event in seven days. The stresses of early pregnancy throw off her performance, but she is determined. She collapses after undergoing an abortion, and although neither her parents nor her coaches want her to, she tries to compete anyway.

The point that people are willing to sacrifice an unacceptable amount to achieve success was clear, but I never really felt any connection with the girl. Part of it was that the camera never seemed to be more than four inches from her face.

Overall score: 2 out of 4