The death of film as we know it...?

PARK CITY – An overwarmed room somewhere in the Sodom of the Wasatch. People are looking at me with dog-eyes. They flit them down to my press-pass, which, to torture them, I have half tucked into my jacket.

They dare to wonder: Am I…somebody?

All primitive cultures have their version of presumptive holy courtesy, and Hollywood is no exception. The Greeks called it xenia. Should you meet a stranger on the road, no matter how lowly, do her honour in your house, for she may turn out to be A GOD IN DISGUISE!!

In my case, there is no need to worry. I’m just here for the parties, the tepid but fake camaraderie, the junk-bond architecture, the Learjet kids, the incessant hustling, the corporate sponsor booze, and last but not least, the poignant cinematic illiteracy. All of which means that Slamdance X completes the transubstantiation of the plucky original band of cine-outlaws into genuine pay-or-players in the industripendent biz.

2004 is also the year of the Biskind (1). Bad, but urgent news flash: It turns out that Harvey and the Kid didn’t have the honourablest intentions toward the Muse. Awww. But, as far as the eye can see, neither does ‘most anybody else. Alas, the book is seen under quite a few arms as a noble badge of irony.

Full disclosure: I have to confess a certain temperamental inability to stomach “independent” film. Flannery O’Connor was asked if Writing Programs stifled young writers, and she tartly replied that the problem was they didn’t stifle enough of them. Even at Slamdance, too many films are made by these horrid MBAs with cameras, with almost nothing to say but “hire me”. To see all this effort and in some cases real talent preemptively compromised for the sake of the market really sucks. I refuse to believe that these are the best films out there. Watching the parade of meta-movies, I had some recurrent reverie of a future where Tarantino was as dead as Sal Mineo, where cinema was made by idiotic people (savages really) who hadn’t seen movies – really seen them – and where movies were returned to their primitive status as totems of life and experience.

I Say, Kino Pravda, Anyone?

It’s the telescope effect. The poor love to watch movies about rich people. And the affluent, they love to watch movies about the economically challenged. The ultimate S&M fantasy. These movies cater to that particular kink.

Take Out (Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker, 2003). A series of doors and 12 hours in the life of Ming Ding (Charles Jang) an illegal who is struggling to pay off his emigration debt by working as a delivery man in a restaurant. A kind of formalist exercise, the film holds close to the routine of the bustling kitchen, intercut with mindnumbingly repetitive scenes of the deliveryman’s heroic attempt to make the payment in a day’s work.

It’s Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1951) made cold and literal, with not a moment squandered on poetry. The film is ultimately redeemed by its humour and some effective acting by Jeng-Hua Yu as a jaded fellow deliveryman and Jang as the lead. Looking suspiciously stricken, somebody sitting next to me drew out the moral: “Be nice to the take-out guy”. All men shall be brothers in gastronomy.

Shelter (Benno Schoberth, 2004). This trio of homeless dreamers (a woman, a junkie hustler and his idiot brother) don’t make it to Florida, but they do make it to the beach, in this summa of indie movie cliches. Think Stranger than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984) meets Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nunez, 1993). An effective chiaroscuro portrait of NYC homeless world gets lost early on amid stock dramatic conflicts and a fatal (and somewhat cynical) miscalculation which puts the characters literally on holiday.

Shelter concludes with a daring no-budget birth sequence, brutally revealing the fact that the creative team has run out of options. What is intended as a dramatic set-piece that illustrates the converging pressures on this “family” becomes laughable as the Pinter-lite brothers do battle over the child. All this left the audience strangely moved. Bless their hearts.

The Other America (Eugene Martin, 2004). Showing a light touch in contrast with the other Slamdance social dramas, Martin’s film has an interesting tension because he is more committed to rendering the world of his child protagonists than pursuing his didactic agenda. Loosely structuring his film around a set of ephemeral secrets that are eventually consumed by contact with daylight, Martin aims for a detached, Bressonian look at teenagers, but is honourably seduced by the tiny dramas unfolding before his eyes. Martin too is interested in spirit; if he does not reach Bresson’s icy stylistic Nirvana, it is only because he is a much warmer, more human filmmaker.

Worth Noticing

Gary Chason in Dear Pillow

Dear Pillow (Brian Poyser, 2003). A healthy bit of weirdness from Austin, TX. A lustful teen spies on his neighbours, who turn out to be his equals in lubricity. The tables turn enough times for this triangle to stay interesting, and really, how many films do you see about pornography as the written word? In Dear Pillow, the sex is strictly mental, but the longing for human contact is real.

Nightingale in a Music Box (Hurt McDermott, 2002). A well-crafted Chinese puzzle, and a sterling example of the class of hermetic, talky mental mysteries of which Mamet’s House of Games (1987) is the archetype. The director, who is also a Chicago-based playwright, keeps the pace brisk and the performances cold and Brechtian. Just the way I like ’em.

Indefensibles

Madness and Genius (Ryan Esslinger, 2003). Winner of the 2004 creative megalomania award, Esslinger wrote, directed, edited, composed music for, sound designed, and produced his debut film. Handsomely shot in B&W HD video by Steve Huber, the film looks on its glossy surface to be a winner. But Madness and Genius wants desperately to be a film of ideas, and while it might pass for one in Hollywood, it’s just Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001) in glasses.

Obviously “inspired” by Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) the film transfers the setting to a university and replaces genetics with physics. Spewing intellectual double-talk like a nervous freshman, Esslinger creates a potentially interesting scenario of resentment, betrayal, and imposture in academia, but fails to deliver the emotions behind the premise. The film suffers most from a tedious waltz-time editing scheme which is relentless. Hiring an editor would have been money well spent.

On the other hand, watching the great Tom Noonan channeling John Carradine as a legendary madman is almost worth the pain of admission. Noonan is one of the most danged elusive actors working in America. Watching him illuminate this character, you truly believe he is 1) a noble misunderstood genius and 2) totally fucking nuts. If Noonan were to give this performance in a 30 million dollar Miramax film, he would win the Oscar. Maybe even a Nobel.

Tackle Box (2003) (short). Hands down, the most sinister thing I’ve seen in a long time. An audience fave, “beautifully photographed” one-joke-souffle calling-card short with an absurdly disproportionate Hollywood-pro score with Rachmaninoffish piano. The director works hard for that lovely freeze-dried nostalgia that sterilises thought and means big money at the box office. The suits will be banging on this kid’s door. Remember this name: Matthew Mebane.

Habana Holiday (Soy Malo) (Chris Maher, 2003) (short). Joe Buck meets Ed Wood, papi. Thin-skinned but clueless “Ugly Gringo” filmmaker travels to La Habana, does Sex Tourist thing, complains that hustlers treat him like “walking ATM machine”. Blames Bush Administration. Cool carioca Froot Loops style titles say important things like STOP THE EMBARGO! The joke: he’s serious. Based on a sad but true 8mm story.

X,Y. (Vladimir Vitkin, 2004). Muy Serioso. Based on a “cult novel” by Michael Blumlein, X comma Y period is a black T-shirt version of Orlando as directed by a humourless Boris Vian. Lead actress wins coveted Anne Carlisle Somnambulance Award. It’s about time people started rendering unto Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman,1982). Its long lipstick trace is smudged through much of indie cinema. Highly recommended if plausibility or characterisation are overrated in your book.

Documentary Nation: Battle Song of the Republic of Earnestness

Elsewhere, Chez Sundance programmers, always innovating, ushered in the new dawn of doc. Supersize Me, cinema’s first HIGH-CONCEPT DOCUMENTARY (2) was big, carbohydrated and dumb. Needless to say, people wanted extra helpings. Socially conscious filmmaker, would you reduce the calories of your synopsis, please?

If it’s true that, as Michael Moore says, that people love nonfiction because we live in fictitious times, why is it most docs hew to the same old three-act structure and use the same simple-to-follow storylines as the most egregious Hollywood film? Could it be that we like a little bullshit mixed with our nonfiction after all? You’d think that documentarians would have wider latitude to experiment with structure and theme, but it’s clear that in fact the opposite is the case. Watch some Raúl Ruiz, kids. He’ll set you punks straight. But for now, there’s no need to trouble the audience with anything as dissonant as ambiguity. Voyeurism is enough to satisfy.

Arakimentari (Travis Klose, 2003). A film about Nobuyoshi Araki, the Japanese pornographer. A strong case can be made for Araki being a great artist. This film is not it. The director makes the rounds with Araki and lets his bug-eyed camera dawdle on housewife nudity. Araki – a Tasmanian devil who works too fast and too smart for Klose to capture – looks like the archetypal pervert, a favourite “dirty uncle”, as one of the models puts it. But surely there’s more to him than this. Klose is just Xeroxing Araki’s own well-documented cartoon version of himself. Despite its too-clever demographics – Japan and Porno – it remains a dead film. Alternating between banal and mawkishly sentimental, this doc doesn’t really dare confront its subject. It also does not spend much time on Araki’s massive output of non-pornographic work. There is one moment of life, however, that gives you a flash of what might have been. Araki is leafing through some archival book, and showing some of his earliest photographs; he talks about one in particular, tenderly but with a critical distance. We are tempted to reverence. Suddenly he tears it with an artful Zen flash of violence, recreating it for himself as something new.

Freestyle (Elena Elmoznino, 2003) (short). A short film in the Errol Morris/Diane Arbus freakshow mode about the surreal world of “Musical Canine Freestyle” which pairs humans with their devoted and no doubt long-suffering canine companions. They do mildly synchronised routines, wear cute matching costumes, and expose some ruthless ambitions. The prime mover and lead buffoon of this spectacle is a woman named Patie Ventre, whose dream of making Canine Freestyle an Olympic sport is held up for some nickelodeon laughs. This is good solid mockumentary territory well covered by the fictional Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000). The more rubes to laugh at the better. So the film spends only the time required to mock, not to understand.

Bruce Haack: The King of Techno (Philip Anagnos, 2003). The visual element in a marketing scheme to sell millions of copies of a “covers” record, by contemporary remix thieves, of music by electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack. The film soft-pedals any confusing stuff like Haack’s queer sensibility and his Aleister Crowley groovy Satanist schtick, and makes inflated claims for Haack’s influence on techno. You get this parade of turntablists who keep reciting stoner variations of “If I’d heard Bruce’s stuff more than two years ago, I definitely would have been influenced by it”. Long on pop culture fluff and mindless graphics, short on context, big on cynicism, and the first film object to be SOLD! to that gentleman from the conglomerate on the left. Look for it at a theatre near you.

Animator Bruce Bickford in Monster Road

Monster Road (Brett Ingram, 2003). Monster Road is a detailed and intelligent portrait of outsider claymation animator Bruce Bickford. Bickford is best known for his Zappa-sponsored work in the ’70s and ’80s: Baby Snakes (1979) and The Amazing Mister Bickford (1989). It is actually miraculous that Bickford, who is an intensely inward and solitary person, opens his world to the extent that he does. From his home studio in Seattle, he does everything himself, working in miniature like a jeweller. Because he does not function inside a system, much of Bickford’s animation is currently unreleased.

The film develops into an oblique parable of Cold War Manicheanism, as it examines the relationship between Bruce and his father, George. George is a brilliant ex-military aerospace engineer who has Alzheimer’s. Apparently a harsh, unforgiving martinet who drove his children (especially Bruce) into protracted rebellion, George is now a thoughtful man who is interested in life’s big questions, even if he can’t always remember the answers. Bruce, who seems equally serene and thoughtful, is in possession of a violent and anarchic child’s imagination. To Bickford, life is a brutal pageant of destruction and rebirth, a surreal monotony that is perpetually interesting to him. As the film proceeds, one cannot help thinking of Bickford as a lost boy of the Cold War, stuck in Never-Never land in a perpetual battle with his father’s world. Even as the old man withers away before his eyes.

The Flag Day Parade (Curtis Gaston, 2003) (short). A notable exception to the rule. Jim Martin lives in a dying town, but this ol’ boy is not going to go quietly. The wily cracker hero of Flag Day Parade is a kind of postmodern genius. He knows that driving four blocks through town with a Confederate Flag is a racist provocation, but surround it with a surreal bouquet of other flags and a few friends, and it turns into a complex moment of civic pride and defiance. It’s Martin’s sneaky way of keeping the town on life-support. That there is almost nobody who cares hardly matters. Four minutes into the film you are in a world of unrelenting pathos.

There is a stubborn Erskine Caldwell vibe to this little film, in its insistence on the small details of pride and place. Director Gaston, himself a white Southerner, clearly likes and respects Jim Martin, but hangs back, a little unsettled by the ideological vertigo Jim can’t help but produce everywhere he goes. Part of a longer uncompleted film on the difficult semiotics of the stars and bars. Send him money to finish it, if you’d like. It should be worth the trip.

Night of the Living Dead Ensembles

I have to blame the Spinal Tap gang (and rivers of cheap video) for this frightening development. You thought only movie stars wrote their own lines? Wrong. Why go through all that hassle of sweating out a script when you can have your theatre collective wax it into improvised life? Welcome to the Pirandellian School of Acting. Six to 12 Characters in Search of an Author decide they don’t need one. Experienced filmmakers like Jon Jost can pull this stuff off, but first-timers really need to solve problems on the page first. Ultimately all they can hope to do is play traffic cop. There are some benefits, like 70 hours of extra footage for the DVD release. (Note to struggling actors: Nobody looks good in this kind of cacophony.)

IPO (2003). “Directed” and story by Daniel Gamburg. Peyton Place in the San Francisco Dotcoms. A Dodge Vegematic of a film without brakes and motor, IPO careens wildly from satire to melodramatic set pieces and back. Fortunately, nobody is hurt. The Barewitness Players enact their stereotypes with a suitably manic intensity. A film only a casting director could love.

Memron (2002). “Directed” by Nancy Hower, story by Nancy Hower and Robert Hickey. A fat-assed “satire” of the Enron debacle and an audience favourite, Memron makes IPO look like Ozu. How people love to laugh at dimwitted cardboard cut-outs. And why not? It certifies their own substance.

Goldfish Game (Jan Lauwers, 2003). Screenplay by Lauwers and Dick Crane. A Euro theatre collective, Needcompany, is trapped at a chateau in the Ardennes. One member has a video camera, another a script. They look at each other, their eyes lighting up like in a Minnelli picture: “Let’s put on a show!” To be fair, Goldfish Game marks an honourable jump in ambition and execution from the other “company” films. A Dogme-style homage to The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) and the films of Buñuel, Goldfish Game has a pair of radiant weapons in its powerful Surrealist visual sensibility and sustained deadpan irony, more than once putting me in mind of the underrated La Ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001).

However, it doesn’t quite work as a drama, and ultimately feels like a slightly overplotted, paradoxically chaste Europorno with an intrusive social message. (I dunno. Something about refugee smuggling. Call Amnesty International for more info.) Needcompany has a number of good actors and they often work well together. But when “emotion” or film-truth is required, the scenes predictably degenerate into screaming matches that no actor can survive with dignity intact. For fans of The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 2001) only.

My Best in Show

Homework (Kevin Asher Green, 2003). A subtle, almost silent film of considerable courage, by a filmmaker who refuses to rely on artificial dramas. Homework is a simple romance story told as directly as possible, in glances and negative spaces, like a Nick Ray with a Taiwanese aesthetic. A young ballerina (Paz de la Huerta) is introduced to the game of love by another dancer, an older man (Isaach de Bankolé).

Paz de la Huerta and Isaach de Bankolé in Homework

The subject is sex. Green shows the awkward reality of teenage sexual experimentation modulating into a real adult experience. Like Eric Rohmer, he has a healthy and wry interest in the spiritual transactions underlying the sexual act. It might seem like a dangerous subject for a male filmmaker, but Green never patronises the character. His sharp instincts as a filmmaker allow him safe passage through the cliches of his archetypal story.

And the film would fall utterly flat without what should be a star-making performance by the striking Paz de la Huerta. Any starlet can play a convincing Lolita, but show me one in a hundred who can convey teenage repression, the supernova energy of virginity. De La Huerta, who is like a perfect cross between Jane Birkin and a young Adjani, projects her considerable emotional fireworks inward, until she starts glowing out with a thorny, unpredictable energy. You don’t ever know what she will do next. And Bankolé is tender and generous, almost bemused, with his ingenue, both in character and as an actor.

The film profits by comparison to All The Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2002), which is way overtaxed by its Terry Malick crypto-dialogue, fishpond pauses, and phony Dawson’s Creek-style dramatic contrivance. Baroque simplicity is just baroque. It’s so much more work to be simple. This Green is the real deal.

Contact the filmmaker here.

Employee Dang (Corey Fortuné, 2003) (short). A stunning debut short by New Orleans filmmakers who have the craft and passion of much more experienced dudes. Employee Dang is a moving character study of an elder Vietnamese drycleaning worker (the great Bert Matias) who endures a long, dark night of the soul while struggling to mind the store. The film was beautifully shot in 35mm, under absurdly difficult conditions, by Geoffrey Douville. Douville is also a talented and sensitive editor, and his work on this film is amazing. This is a short that thanks to brilliant ellipses and suggestive details feels as full and mysterious as a great feature.

Employee Dang is unique in its way, dealing with a subject that is utterly taboo in American film. Work. Watching film after film (“independent” films are even more complicit than Hollywood on this issue) where characters have nothing but free time, one is tempted to shout at the screen: “Get a fuckin’ job, already!!” Not here. Fortuné has Charles Burnett’s burning sociopolitical eye, his searching, ambiguous mise en scène, and much that is his own peculiar lyricism.

In Dang, the story unlocks and exposes the employee’s uncharted ambivalence toward his “duty”. Pulling hard against the grain of the stereotype of the slavishly devoted, Confucian Asian-American, Matias plays him as a proud but desperate, haunted underdog who is thrust into an ethical twilight zone. Matias has a tight steel coil inside him, something like the intensity of Lee Marvin or Indio Fernandez, cloaked in a strange mix of quiet power and acute sensitivity. This actor is able to wear his own life experience as costume, and still astonish us with his technique. As in Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (2002) we see a human being horribly and quickly caught out on the slippery slope of the abyss. One false move means perdition. And like a deadly breeze, there is the tense poetic suggestion of repressed violence, ready to explode from any direction.

Employee Dang - Tuyet Bui, Bert Matias and Mykel Shannon

And Fortuné gives us an inspired metaphoric choice. The dry cleaner has a lucrative side business: “Dead Man” T-Shirts, those artifacts that commemorate both the dead of the ghetto and its associated violence. In Employee Dang, Fortuné takes a moment to show us a crew of gangstas looking over the wall of “dead men”. For a moment they drop their braggarts’ masks; this is both their local obit page, and a foreshadowing of what seems inevitable. Dang is appropriately the gatekeeper for this folk ceremonial. He thinks the T-shirts should commemorate the noble dead, not these gangsters. In the end, he gratefully finds his scruples wanting.

Contact the filmmakers here.

Danceland (Jeff Moneo, 2003) (short). A brilliant triptych psycho-geography of the desolate song of the Canadian Plains, and one of the few films with an unmistakable personal stamp at Slamdance. It’s a folk ballad as a weird collaboration between the irascible mystical Werner Herzog, a Nagra-toting Glenn Gould, and the lyrical, optimistic Pare Lorentz. Danceland takes on the form of a Hegelian drama of spirit: Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. Moneo’s images, beautifully edited by Megan Bodaly, have the quiet power of suggestion; each one evokes other things, neither spoken nor seen.

The thesis movement is mournful and laments the isolation of being born in the middle of nowhere, evoked by the rusting hulks of combines, an abandoned schoolhouse, locusts, empty trains, and lost cowboys. A place of despairing memories and suicide. A poet’s voice intones: “There’s too much to do, and no time for age, He’ll die in this field, this flat prairie cage”. There is beauty here, but it is bitter. We hear the sound of nowhere, a roaring melancholy as bright as a Red Shea countermelody in a Lightfoot song. The world is discovered here but it is sick in its soul.

The second movement is a corrective, as the author reminds himself of the vast spiritual resources of these hard-lived people. The metaphor here is struggle: contesting nature, contesting one’s self. Another narrator tells the story of his life as a professional wrestler, whose body, once strong, is being wasted by cancer. “When I looked out at the crowd while squeezing a cinder block, I could see the look in their eyes. They still understood who I was”. We start to wonder – is healing possible in this place?

The author, having regained his sense of strength, discovers a new need revealed. The third movement is the mystical synthesis of the prior sections. The dominant image is dance. Native pow-wow dancers doing their sacred work intersect with the spirit cut loose in the secular country ballroom named Danceland. The music is a mix of native song and the unearthly choir of the Langley Schools Project. A dance to praise, but also to sustain. This is a rare film, at once reverent, abstract and emotional.

Contact the filmmaker here.

Two Great Docs

Richard Peterson, the star of Big City Dick

Big City Dick: Richard Peterson’s First Movie (Scott Milam, Ken Harder, & Todd Pottinger, 2003). From the 1850s to the 1870s, a black man named Thomas Bethune was an unprecedented star of the theatre circuit. Perhaps he was the first black superstar. Blind Tom, as he was known, had been performing in public for the benefit of his owner, a southern general, since he was nine years old. Bethune was a performing “freak” who could reproduce any musical piece he was presented with. He could play the left hand to another’s right, and he could turn around, face the audience, and reverse his hands to play a piece. When asked how he learned to play these pieces, Tom would reply “God taught Tom…” or that he heard the song on the wind.

People would speak about him as a “wonder” or suggest, with the full condescension of poetry, that an angel had entered the body of a brute. Almost nobody believed him capable of anything but mimicry. On stage, Bethune would refer to himself in the third person, and loved to speak about his music. Tom was kept ignorant of his status as a slave, and after the Civil War his status as a free man. He was exploited throughout his life by his “family”, to whom he was deeply attached. At the end of his life, in a twist of postmodern hypocrisy, he was paraded around as “the last slave set free by order of the Supreme Court of the United States”.

It is only recently that an American pianist, John Davis, has resurrected the compositions of Thomas Bethune, and musicologists and neurologists have begun to understand the basics of what it means to be a creative musical savant. People seem more accepting today of the idea that these people have something to express as well as a mysterious “gift”. Maybe.

Big City Dick is the amazing true story of Richard Peterson, a Seattle street musician who is also a cult recording artist, the world’s number one Johnny Mathis fan, a unique visual artist, and an autistic musical savant. The filmmakers tread delicately with what is potentially a tragic and exploitable subject. Ultimately, they have compiled a vast array of thoughtful perspectives and some extraordinary footage, and have doggedly stuck with the story whichever way it went. Richard himself has a position of unique autonomy as a documentary subject. In a meaningful way, it really is his movie. He is not the sort of person who just goes along.

Richard as a child

Richard is an accomplished original songwriter, trumpet and piano player. He writes songs in a number of styles, but they all have his unique chromatic signature. One song, “The Second Album”, would not be out of place on a Scott Walker record. He also has total recall of an astonishing number of musical pieces. His main musical obsession is the musical cues to the ’60s Lloyd Bridges television show, Sea Hunt. He plays them in order and has written bridging pieces for them – in effect a Sea Hunt Symphony. Sea Hunt is a show about a heroic and ideal father figure, and Richard, who as a child loved the show, has connected this to a feeling of happiness he associates with the music. What happens during the film is a testimony to Richard’s personal magnetism. He slowly builds up a community of people who really care about him. At one point, he meets Jeff Bridges, who is clearly a kindred spirit. Richard immediately recognises him. “Sea Hunt‘s son!” He crushes Bridges in a bear-hug. Bridges becomes a fan and supporter.

Richard has a series of extremely close and intense relationships with what he calls “Personality Buddies”. These are local newscasters, and radio jocks. He visits them, often on a daily basis, to get a hug. He tracks these contacts on graph paper, and creates skyscrapers that visually represent the days he has met with them. Richard also has what is basically an innocent “stalker” relationship with Johnny Mathis, and travels around the country to attend his concerts and watch Mathis play golf. Mathis is now used to Richard, but things weren’t always so good. As the film unfolds, the filmmakers reveal that Richard’s relentless quest for father-love is rooted in a devastating family secret, which is also the key to his musical ability.

It’s hard to do this film justice on the page. It is simply a great and deeply moving story. Along the way, I forgot all the strange elements and realised I was watching simply an auto-portrait of an artist who happens to be a savant.

The Watershed (Mary Trunk, 2003). Trunk makes this film to peel away layers of confusion about a mysterious but disastrous event in her own family life. A man deserts his family almost without explanation, sending his unprepared spouse into a tail-spin. An alcoholic, she inaugurates a long weekend that lasts years, and is utterly unable to handle the basic needs of the children. Because the events are in the Kodachrome early ’70s (there is an extensive amount of poignant home movie footage) the ensuing journey from Cheever country to homelessness is even more striking.

I don’t quite understand how, but as The Watershed unfolds, it avoids being an exercise in maudlin self-therapy. There is the inevitable confrontation between father and filmmaker daughter, which is not as cathartic as either hopes. The father remains an enigma, a baffled, involuted narcissist, who cannot begin to fathom anything outside his closely guarded pleasure zone. Mary Trunk keeps herself scrupulously outside the frame of the film, relying on her siblings, cousins, aunt and uncle to unravel the story of her lost parents. The distance makes the film more effective than say, My Architect: A Son’s Journey (Nathaniel Kahn, 2003) which treads similar ground but ultimately rings sentimental and false. What’s amazing about this film is that there isn’t a trace of self-pity in it. By stepping out of her own frame of reference, Trunk gives the film what it requires – the rigour and purpose of art. The film finally, and movingly, accomplishes what its protagonists so desperately longed for – it stitches this broken family back together.

For Filmmakers by Filmmakers

Dang it. I’d hoped to be able to mock Slamdance’s motto as an empty and cynical ploy for gaining street cred, but those guys actually made a couple of films. Founder Dan Mirvish previewed his new digital feature Open House (2004). People loved it. It was funny. And it’s about time somebody made a Real Estate Musical!

And in the $99 Special Gallery Series was founder Paul Rachman’s Zoe XO (2004) (short) which asks the question: Is mourning an art? A short ride into the haunted and haunting mind of Bob Lund, ex-husband and archivist of the spirit that was Zoë Tamerlis Lund (3). Bob just talks past the camera as they drive around her memory. Absolutely riveting, as long as it lasted. I kept wishing it was a feature, a real-life version of James’ “Altar of the Dead”.

News of the Weird: Factor 8 (Kelly Duda, 2004), one of the documentaries scheduled in competition, did not screen. This film is currently under a no-show court injunction. This film is an exposé of the Clinton era Arkansas prison system’s heinous for-profit blood plasma scheme which wound up infecting unsuspecting people with hepatitis and AIDS. According to Duda, one of the film’s financial backers, who dropped out years before, claims that the film is his and the filmmaker was a “for hire” employee. A lower federal court in Arkansas has agreed with him. According to what Duda has alleged, the backer has said that if awarded control of the negative, he will destroy the film. So for the moment, Duda is in the strange position of having to countersue to get the film he made back.

Winners in Categories

Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Narrative Feature: Homework

Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Documentary Feature: Monster Road

Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Documentary Short: Freestyle

Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Narrative Short: Crabwalk (Jeremy Saulnier, 2003) “A 26-year-old unemployed college grad, still living at home, is given a final $20 allowance by his parents. His first day of trying to be a grown-up is a series of bittersweet and darkly comical mishaps.”

Grand Jury Honor for Best Ensemble Cast: Goldfish Game

Jury Honor for Excellence in Writing: Nightingale in a Music Box

Audience Sparky Award for Best Film: Big City Dick

Audience Sparky Award for Best Short: Tackle Box

Slamdance 2001 Screenplay competition winner “The Woodsman” was produced last year and acquired for distribution by Newmarket at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

And Bruce Haack: King of Techno was purchased by 7th Art Releasing for distribution.

Endnotes

  1. Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004.
  2. An oxymoron, you say? Run to Mother. What an innocent fawn you are!
  3. Who? Zoë Lund. See her dossier published in Issue 22, Sept-Oct 2002 of Senses of Cinema. And also Bob Lund‘s site.

About The Author

Carloss Chamberlin is a Delaware corporation, flying a Liberian flag, with assets in Switzerland and The Cayman Islands.