Beyond

I had spent too much time designing my schedule before requesting press tickets for the first weekend of Sundance, and as a result, none of the films I wanted to see the Saturday of my arrival were available. Panic. Hours to kill, all dressed up in my snow boots and my down coat and nowhere to go. Friendly invitations from press agents took care of that, and I found myself in a space on Main Street, smaller and funkier than the theatres used by Sundance, but nonetheless vibrant, attending a Slamdance screening. Created in 1995, and taking place in alternative venues in Park City, Slamdance is at once le salon des refusés, a fringe festival, a healthy competition and an event that is now in conversation with Sundance programming. For example, Canadian director Matt Johnson who made a killing with his innovative take on violence in high school, The Dirties, when it won the top prize at Slamdance in 2013, was invited to show his second feature, Operation Avalanche, in Sundance’s NEXT section (works considered “bold” and “innovative” but that didn’t quite make the main selection) this year (I missed the film). It’s usually difficult to combine both Sundance and Slamdance screenings: once you are on the merry-go-round of the Sundance shuttle, you tend not to stray from it, because it’s the only viable mode of transportation (although cabs and Uber are also available, but at a price dictated by the cruel law of the market – they want a ride, I got a car, they’ll pay for it.)

“Not just a film festival, Slamdance is a community, an experience and a statement. By Filmmakers For Filmmakers”, announces the website, 1 and the screening of Angela Boatwright’s Los Punks: We Are All We Have fits the bill. Shot in the streets, backyards and other unlikely spaces of Los Angeles neighbourhoods only shown in cinema as the locus of “crimes” or social problems – South Central, Watts, Boyle Heights, Compton, East LA, all a mixture of vintage African American and Mexican populations, now experiencing an influx of people from the Greater Latino Diaspora (from the Caribbean to Central America) and the Pacific Rim – it starts on the mouth-watering premise that “every week-end in Los Angeles, punk shows are thrown in backyards and secret venues.” Switching from colour to black and white, and edited at the rhythm of simultaneously grating and seductive outdoor music, the images first involve the cityscape of downtown Los Angeles at night; then, a non-descript street where black-clad young people jump over a flimsy fence; an open air venue where dozens of them are dancing, drinking and listening to an off-screen band; above their heads, a helicopter is circling, making the kind of noise that, for decades, has signalled to black and immigrant populations of Los Angeles that they are under police surveillance, that the slightest false move could put them in the slammer or get them shot: we are in the presence of a subculture, in the most exact sense of the term, not only because the music industry does not pay attention to what is going on during these week-ends, but because it is produced by people who are looked down upon, dominated, controlled, displaced, marginalised by the dominant social order. So, out of the very rejection, the young residents (mostly Latino) of these ‘hoods have, for several decades, embraced punk culture, to create a community. As a photographer, Angela Boatwright had been documenting metal and punk bands for about 27 years, so, when she arrived in Los Angeles after 20 years in New York City, she naturally gravitated toward the local punk scene and went to her first “backyard concert” in 2013. The footage she has assembled in her first documentary feature would not have been possible without a certain familiarity with her subjects: she knows where to go, where to find the concerts, how to establish a relationship with the musicians, the promoters, the fans, and Los Punks opens a precious window onto a world most of us didn’t even know existed.

Sundance film festival review

Los Punks (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In his introductory notes, Slamdance programmer Michael Mahaffie mentions Penelope Spheeris’s landmark trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization (1981, 1988 and 1998). Focusing on Latino teens and young adults making music in the new millennium, Los Punks is not a simple update. For one, its mode of production is different, as it acknowledges the sponsorship of “Vans Off the Wall”, the cultural division of the sports shoes manufacturer Vans 2, that, among other activities, had produced Stacy Peralta’s documentary about surfing in LA, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), which won Sundance’s Audience and Best Director Awards. Culturally and financially, Los Punks is more of a mixed bag than Spheeris’s work; production credits involve Dogtown and Z-Boys producer Agi Orsi, former Vans’ global marketing leader Doug Palladini; Orsi’s collaborator on several projects, Christine Triano (who co-produced and wrote Los Punks); and, on the other end of the spectrum, ace editor Tyler Hubby, who studied with George Kuchar at the San Francisco Art Institute, has directed fetish videos (as well as a documentary on cult filmmaker Curtis Harrington, while he’s at work on another documentary on a major pillar of the avant-garde tradition, composer/musician/artist Tony Conrad), worked as a photographer for the experimental music record label Table of the Elements and the cultural magazine Artillery 3 and edited more than 30 films, including works by Johan Grimonprez and Curtis Harrington. So Los Punks meanders a bit between a sincere desire of “introducing” a marginalised culture to more mainstream audiences, with a certain sweetness and generous acceptance, to a more edgy, “in your face” tone, which is probably why it is, ultimately, very seductive – a media balancing act.

The bands are called Otherized, Withdrawal Symptoms, Destroyer, Exterminate, Strength in Numbers, Rhythmic Asylum, Corrupted Youth, Psyk Ward, Pleasure Wound, Union 13 and Las Coshinas (an all-girl feminist band), and from the interviews of the participants in the scene, it is clear that these monikers are not a mere pose. “Everyone has a story,” says Stephanie (24), the singer/guitarist of Otherized. “Dad not being around. Never met the Mom. Brother in prison. Because there is so much poverty, so much going on. You’ve got 15 year-old kids you don’t know where the hell their parents are, they’re running down the street with 40 ounces [of dope].” Backyard concerts can be rowdy, extreme, sometimes violent. Fans and musicians alike sport spiked hair, tattoos, body piercing, black leather jackets embossed with metal. Ray (26), the soloist of Pleasure Wound, performs entirely naked, with only a little white G-string that looks homemade. Lovers kiss openly. People get too drunk, or too high, become violent. It is reported that somebody has been knifed. Police, always on the lookout, intervene. This time, they find nothing. “The voice of the streets ain’t always pretty,” says the bandleader of Union 13. Indeed it is not, because the streets aren’t pretty. Boatwright’s camera captures a telling moment: a 15 year-old Mexican girl, April, runs across a large avenue from one side to the other. The roads aren’t maintained, there are not enough traffic lights. April lives in a house in Watts where the landlord rents the room one by one, and she gives her mom the money she makes organising backyard concerts to help with the rent. A ninth grader at the time the film was shot, she may be the youngest music promoter in the world, streetwise beyond her years, fearlessly criss-crossing the East and South-side of LA with boundless enthusiasm.

“I am using this word, ‘la tristeza’, the sadness of living in the ‘hood,” says Gary, 22, the singer of Rhythmic Asylum. He complains about the defunding of the high schools, where “there is no money to buy textbooks, or to hire teachers who care.” He’s a brilliant exception, though. The child of immigrants from war-torn Central America, he graduated in political science from UC Santa Cruz. His participation in the backyard scene is a way of giving back to the community (he also draws album covers for the bands). For some, the music is the salvation. “I would have died if it had not been for punk music,” says one participant. “I escaped being in gangs through the backyard scene,” adds Billy Famine, the singer of Withdrawal Symptoms. Mexican-American Nacho (25) found his calling in life being a singer and promoter of Corrupted Youth. Then there is the oddball, the Jewish Asian kid, Alex (23), who grew up in the affluent community of Manhattan Beach, but ended up in a psychiatric institution for troubled teenagers after attacking his father with a knife. He is now the singer of Psyk Ward in the East LA backyard scene, and works as a chef in another affluent community, Long Beach. Punk may have been his “salvation”, but, for some others, the local music scene is just a few miles removed from homelessness and Skid Row, or from these psych wards for the poor, where they break your spirit…

The women who star in Maya Goded’s Plaza de la Soledad are no musicians, except in the meaning this word had in Ancient Greece, where an auletris (female flute player) was a woman who was coming to banquets for the entertainment of men. Moreover, Goded has the intelligence to turn her documentary into, stricto sensu, a melodrama i.e. a work in which inner feelings are represented and subsumed though emotional music. In the opening sequence, five women, roughly between the ages of 50 to 75, are in a van, and start singing a sorrowful tune, “Amor de Cabaret”:

My life is hopeless, I am lost…
Cabaret love, which is not true.
Cabaret love, paid for with money.
Cabaret love, which is killing me slowly.
But what I want is cabaret love.

At the line “paid with money” one of the women, the charismatic, 68 year-old Carmen, wipes her tears. Toward the end of the film, she officialises the end of her 13-year marriage with Carlos in a gaudy karaoke bar, where he soulfully sings:

When I believe that you are in my power
you break away, you slip away from my hands.
Until the day you decide to come back
and you find me angry and sad
but still in love.
Your love will make me lose my mind,
until I wake up and once for all
from this false dream

Clad in a super-sexy red outfit, Carmen sombrely looks at him singing, the dashing Carlos, always impeccably dressed in neatly-pressed shirts, white suits and assorted ties, the only man she never lied to, the man who said she was the woman of his life, whose benevolent, non-stressful, domestic interaction with her we had witnessed in earlier sequences (they were eating take-out in the street, while Carmen would occasionally leave to pick up a john, then return and continue the meal with her man.) “Sometimes you realise that things have to come to end, even though on the inside you still feel that you need him,” says Carmen with philosophical resignation, adding: “I gave it all. He didn’t give it back…”

Sundance film festival review

Plaza de la Soledad (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The arc of the film is between these two moments, which makes sense since Carmen was Goded’s first subject. An internationally-known photographer, 4 Goded had known Carmen for about 17 years, when she started taking photographs of prostitutes in La Merced, a historical district in downtown Mexico City. The two women became friends, and two of Goded’s books are dedicated to Carmen. “In January of 2012, I met up with her again and I asked her to embark on this documentary project. She agreed, together with her closest friends and companions, and her then-husband, Carlos, who invited himself into the project.” 5 This was Goded’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking, and she credits her collaboration with seasoned film professionals, such as her long-tome friend producer Martha Sosa 6 and editor Valentina Leduc 7

Yet the collaboration that really made the film work was that of the subjects, won by the years of intimate encounters between them and the filmmaker. Plaza de la Soledad interweaves several love stories experienced by the women: Carmen’s bond with the homeless pregnant teenager Lupe; Lety’s timid courtship by the younger Fermín, who admires her smile and her sexiness while polishing her shoes on the square, and her caring for her daughter sick with multiple cancer; the “intense” 14-year lesbian relationship (between playfulness and physical violence, desire and jealousy) between Ángeles and the wiser Esther, who taught her younger lover to be more streetwise and is upset when the latter likes her clients a little too much.

Following them in the street, in the confines of their rooms – stuffed animals, statues of saints, mirrors, deep purple velvet drapes… – and back to the pueblos where they were born and were often exposed, very young, to sexual abuse, Goded pays more attention to the emotional lives of these women, their loves and friendship, than to their jobs – although she does not shy away from it. She shows Lety in a paid relationship with an 84 year-old man who takes her to his house in el campo, or making a date with a client on the phone; Esther and Angeles walking the streets in micro-mini-skirts, and, in the moment mentioned above, Carmen leaving Carlos to turn a trick. 8

Yet, the essential is somewhere else. In the elderly Raquel’s sad admission of how she feels after a session with a client: “Goodbye my love, it was only a moment… I am left alone.” In the tenderness these women have for each other (Carmen is shown cooking for them all), their love for their children and their partners. In Carlos’s admission that his own mother didn’t have a choice, with five children to raise. In a group of whores attending the funeral of one of them, as a young man declares: “I owe everything to my mother.” In the cycle of poverty and abuse that sent them to the street in the first place and the boundless reservoir of energy, generosity and humour that kept them alive. Goded makes us share her passion, her genuine interest for these women; I don’t agree with the pious interpretations, with these teleological illusions of “salvation” produced by some commentators of the film, that the protagonists want to “change their lives”. Let’s be real. Change their lives to what? They have been streetwalking for decades, and maybe will die as streetwalkers. The life of a prostitute who remains a prostitute is not half a life, nor a mistaken life, nor a wasted life – it’s a full life, as rich, precious and multifaceted, as worthy of representation than the life of a politician, an artist or an heiress. These women have had their moments of bliss, and their moments of despair, like you and me. Plaza de la Soledad gives a new dimension to the term “humanism”.

At Sundance, I wear two hats: I am a critic, but I am also on a mission for the film festivals I work for, and, from this point of view, I should limit myself to US pictures. One of the festivals has a Horizontes Latinos section, so I can see films from Latin America. And once in a while, I go beyond my assignment, for example that Monday night screening in Park City’s historic Egyptian, a quaint theatre on top of Main Street, for the first feature of Israeli director Elite Zexer, Sufat Choi (Sand Storm). As in the case of Los Punks and Plaza de la Soledad, familiarity with the subjects came from immersion through still photography. Zexer is Jewish Israeli, and it is through her mother, a photographer who had been taking pictures of Bedouins in the Neguev desert, that she became friends with them, about eight years ago. Not accidentally, Sand Storm is also the story of a mother-daughter relationship. In the opening scene, though, we are introduced to a lovely moment between a father, Suliman (Haitham Omari) 9 and his 18 year-old elder daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar). He teaches her how to drive, kids her for not getting better grades at the university. Suliman is dressed in modern clothes, while Layla, while toying with a cell phone, wears a headscarf. When they return home, they get scolded by Layla’s mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) for spending time that way, “especially today”. Like many teenagers, Layla is obviously sweet on her dad and often clashes with her mother, but Jalila’s irritation is deeply rooted. “Today” is the day Suliman weds his second wife, a plump and good-natured 30-something, and, in the first part of the ceremony, as men are not allowed, Jalila has to organise the event, helped by her four daughters. In the chaos and the rush, Layla leaves her cell phone behind, and Jalila picks a call from the young man her daughter is secretly dating at the university.

Sundance film festival review

Sand Storm (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Suliman has built a new house next door for his second wife, and then takes her shopping. Meanwhile he forgot to buy oil for the generator in the old house, so there is no electricity. Layla tries to help fix the generator, but ends up breaking it instead, which angers Jalila further, as she throws away the food that was rotting in the refrigerator and has to do the washing by hand. When Layla’s beau decides that the right thing to do is to speak, man to man, to Suliman (the scene remains off-screen), things go from bad to worse: the young man is from another tribe, and Layla is accused of having “shamed” the family.

Jalila then reaches a boiling point: the humiliation of having witnessed her husband’s second marriage, of seeing him live next door in a house much nicer than the one she inhabits, the electrical failure… but what really sets her on edge is Suliman’s decision to curb Layla’s rebellion by marrying her off to an older man who seems to be a nincompoop. Unable to face Jalila’s anger, Suliman has her banished by the religious leaders (as he is entitled to), so she returns to her mother’s house in shame. Left alone with her little sisters (one of them, a tomboy, is already showing a healthy rebellious spirit), Layla has to ask her father’s new wife for food. The woman turns out to be kind-hearted, advising her step-daughter not to do anything foolish, “so you don’t become like me” (intimating that her status as a second wife might be the result of some youthful indiscretion).

Surprisingly, when Layla comes to visit her mother, Jalila gives her the opposite advice: “Leave. There is nothing here for you.” And indeed, Layla had been planning to elope with the young man she loves… Yet, in the layers and layers of intimate bonds, filial obedience, tribal customs, familial love, familiar habits, propriety, is it really possible? “If a young woman leaves her family this way,” commented Zexer in the Q&A session, “she will shame her family and they will lose their status within the community. She will never see them again. Her mother will not be there for her when she has children, won’t help her to raise them. She will not be invited to partake in special holidays or celebrations…” A jury of three members including Apichatpong Weerasethakul awarded Sand Storm the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize.

Movies That Matter

At Sundance, it’s good to have a screening buddy. For years, mine has been Jim Fouratt. I met him in New York when he was a star and I an unknown young thing fresh from the boat. He was organising wild and chic parties, and in 1980 opened Danceteria on 37th street, and then on 21st street, which brought the downtown crowd used to haunt the Mudd Club north of 14th street, where they danced, flirted, got high and networked. One of the original Stonewall activists, Jim was, and still is, a figurehead (albeit sometimes controversial) of the queer movement. His archives have recently been bought by Harvard. He publishes a blog “Reel Deal: Movies that Matter”. 10 Since we live on opposite coasts, I see him once a year, at Sundance, and this year we reunited by seeing together the press screening of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, shown off-competition in the Premieres section, and, in delight, agreed that this was the best thing we saw at the Festival (I don’t know about Jim, because I left Park City before him, but I didn’t change my mind afterwards). Adapting the work of Montana-born Maile Meloy, 11 Reichardt artfully merges her two obsessions, the mid-western American landscape (here, Livingston, Montana) and women’s psychology, by reworking and intertwining three short stories, with an uncanny gift for drawing forceful, yet intimate performances from actors (especially actresses). Laura Wells (Laura Dern) is an energetic lawyer, caught in the opening scene at the end of a lunchtime tryst. She caresses the man’s back with her naked foot, and dresses quickly, to rush back to work. For the rest of the sequence, her sweater remains half-tucked back in her skirt, but nobody says anything, and she does not care. She has other worries. One of her clients, Fuller (Jared Harris), has accepted a settlement from the construction company he used to work for, and is responsible for a head injury he received on the job. Now, seriously incapacitated, unable to read or to hold a job, he tried to fight the fact that he won’t be adequately compensated. Frustrated by the literal application of the law, he finally takes matters in his own hands. As a hostage situation develops, Laura is called to help in the middle of the night. Will she help Fuller or betray him?

Sundance film festival review

Certain Women (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In the second story, Reichardt’s signature actress, Michelle Williams, plays Gina Lewis who lives with her husband Ryan (James LeGros) and their teenage daughter in precarious conditions, waiting to be able to build their dream house. As the daughter tends to side with a more jocular, easy-going father than with her hard-working mother, tensions threaten the couple as they try to convince an elderly man (René Auberjonois) to sell them the sandstone – remnants of a destroyed school-house – that sits on his property.

As usual, Reichardt is a master of subtle atmosphere and minute interactions between people who are unsure of the ways to reach out and communicate with each other – small talk, micro-aggressions, semi-confidences, white lies, half-hearted seduction attempts. Yet it is in the third story that her art is developed at her fullest. Jim nailed it in one short comment: “It reminds me of Chantal Akerman.” How true! And specifically, of the last two sections of Je tu il elle (1974) in which a young woman makes a long trip to impose her presence on another woman who does not want her. In Meloy’s original “Travis, B”, the protagonist is Chet Morgan, a lonely male ranch hand with a limp, who develops an unrequited crush on a female night teacher. Reichardt’s reshuffles the cards by turning the ranch hand into a young woman, Jamie (played with aching perfection by newcomer Lily Gladstone), socially awkward but good with horses (and we are treated with exquisite footage of the beautiful animals!) – who, by accident, chances into a school law class taught twice a week by a young lawyer, Beth Davis (Kristen Stewart). From a working-class background, Beth never thought she would find a job after graduation, so she signed up for the first gig, without realising that the class was taking place in a small town 4 hours drive from Livingston. Meanwhile, she landed a position in a prestigious law firm, and she hates the commute – as well as, we can guess, the locals. But after the class she is hungry, and Jamie obligingly takes her to the town’s all-night diner. These after-class meetings become a ritual, and one night Jamie comes and picks up the object of her affection on horseback. One night though, Beth does not show up, and the man who replaces her explains that she found the commute too tiring.

So Jamie drives her pick-up truck all the way to Livingston, falls asleep in front of the first law office she finds, and in the morning makes enquiries until a kind paralegal finds where a young lawyer called Beth Travis might be working. Jamie waits for her at the entrance of the building…

Jim and I also went to see Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog – exquisitely shot by Academy-Award-nominated ace cinematographer Ed Lachman, which prompted him to utter: “He found a way to be as offensive as possible to as many people as possible” (which, for Jim – and for me – is a compliment). Indeed a critic whose work I respect a lot admitted hating the film to the point of wanting to “destroy” it, and since this is somebody I really like, I could only agree to disagree. Few directors still have the guts to divide (intelligent) audiences this way. In the long list of people that could feel offended there are: racist French women married to older American men; parents of kids recovering from cancer; hapless veterinarian’s assistants who fall for the wrong men; unhappy Mexican immigrants working in the mariachi business; married people with Down syndrome; washed-out screenwriting professors with ridiculous Jewish-sounding names; cantankerous old ladies who let themselves be exploited by their grand-daughters; failed starlet grand-daughters of said cantankerous ladies; hyper-macho, hyper-selfish African American conceptual artists who seduce failed starlets for their grand-mothers’ money. Who else? Ah yes, dogs lovers. First, they don’t like to be reminded that their darling pets may sometimes have running diarrhoea. Second (caution: spoiler alert.. please skip to the next paragraph), since Hitchcock allowed Silvia Sidney’s young brother to be blown to pieces in Sabotage (1936), everybody in the industry knows that, for box-office reasons, you can’t kill a kid nor a dog in one of your movies. And Solondz does exactly this. Having passed from hand to hand and survived euthanasia needles and even explosives, the pooch (renamed “Cancer”, another tasteful touch), is unceremoniously run over not by one but by several cars. And (nice added twist) it’s the fault of the African American conceptual artist.

Sundance film festival review

Wiener-Dog (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

To illustrate Wiener-dog’s exploration of the human condition, Solondz put together an array of talented performers, from Greta Gerwig to Julie Delpy, Ellen Burstyn, Kieran Culkin and Danny DeVito. I particularly enjoyed the episode starring the latter, since it mostly takes place in a film school. Perilously hanging on to self-respect by a thread (the poster of the only screenplay he wrote that made it to the screen pinned on the wall of his office), Dave Schmerz is simply fed up with being taken for a dunce by his agent, his students and the school’s administration. One day he goes to a children’s store and buys a little girl’s dress for his dog. (Second spoiler alert. Jump to the next paragraph). As you start thinking “how cute! how schmaltzy!”, the camera glides along the hallways of the university, to reveal that the adorable dress has been used to fasten bars of explosive on the back of the pet as she (it’s really a female dog) is joyfully heading toward the school’s offices. Demining experts are called. Cut. This is Solondz’s most Hitchockian’s allusion. But, unlike what happens in Sabotage, Wiener-dog survives, even if we are not told how, as in the next sequence he has ended on Ellen Burstyn’s lap.

Even when not watching movies together, Jim and I were texting each other about what to see. “Go to see First Girl I Loved (NEXT section)”, he wrote. “Seen this morning”, I replied. The third feature by USC graduate Kerem Sanga (the first two already dealt with young adults) was indeed enough to wake anybody in an early morning screening. In a generic high school in Chatsworth, CA, Anne (a lovely, naturalistic performance by Dylan Gelula), who lives with her single mother (Pamela Adlon), loves horsing around with her best male buddy, Cliff (Mateo Arias). But when photographing a softball game, she finds that her camera focuses on a pretty blonde player, Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand). Anne becomes infatuated with her new friend, slowly discovering that she is gay. She confides in Cliff, discovering then that her buddy’s feelings for her were more than brotherly. Feeling betrayed (“I spent so much time on you!”) Cliff becomes nasty, and things escalate rapidly. Especially since after one night spent sleeping affectionately in each other’s arms, and a stolen kiss in a public place, Sasha turns against Anne, declaring she’s not gay and mocking her with her friends.

Sundance film festival review

First Girl I Loved (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Sanga has his hits and misses, but, even imperfect, the film has a real charm, so the moments when he gets it right are those to remember – as the delicate subject of budding female homosexuality is still too rarely presented without ponderousness in film.

Later Jim sent me another text: “The best film in the US Dramatic Competition is Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s As You Are. He studied at Bard College with Kelly Reichardt.” I couldn’t agree more (as it turned out, we had been, unbeknownst to each other, at the same screening in the 1,270-seat Eccles auditorium.) And he was right. The film won the US Dramatic Competition Special Jury Award. As You Are is another coming of age story with a queer twist, and it’s a sort of reverse image of its love triangle – except that, instead of having a rather inarticulate Cliff in-between the two leads, the “transitional object” is an interesting young black girl, Sarah (Amanda Stenberg), raised by hyper-liberal white parents. Only 23 years-old, first-time director Joris-Peyrafitte plunges into darker waters, and has a surer command of his mise en scène, of the flashback structure (interrogations from an originally caring and mild-mannered, then progressively sinister, officer in a police station). A major difference is that, instead of projecting his own gender insecurities onto a female protagonist (the ultimate other, even if you are well-meaning), he confronts them head-on by exploring the psyche of young males.

Sundance film festival review

As You Are (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In a small suburban town in upstate New York, in the 1990s, introverted Jack (Owen Campbell) and bad-boy Kurt Cobain-worshipper Mark (Charlie Heaton) hit off as soon as they meet, the day Jack’s mother, Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson), and Mark’s father, Tom (Scott Cohen), in the throes of a romance that is getting serious, organise a dinner for the soon-to-be expanded family. Everybody moves in together, the two boys attend the same school, where they form an inseparable trio with Sarah, cutting out classes, smoking weed, and listening to Nirvana together, Yet, things are in perpetual flux. Jack starts feeling for Mark a deeper affection than both had fathomed, while Sarah and Mark are getting tentatively sweet on each other. Meanwhile, Tom, a former Marine, is getting abusive both toward Mark and Karen, and, after a violent domestic quarrel, father and son move out, and even leave town.

Left alone, Sarah and Jack half-heartedly initiate a timid romance that leaves them both unsatisfied. Then a psychologically damaged Mark reappears, upsetting the fragile balance of repressed longing, and tragedy ensues.

Queer Looks

In queer-friendly Sundance, other films imposed themselves. The one in which the age-old dilemma of “coming out” was expressed in the loveliest, most sensitive way, was Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which focuses as much on the plight of an immigrant family in Los Angeles Koreatown as on the sexual explorations of the son. 12 Ahn had used an earlier short, also shown at Sundance, Dol (First Birthday) (2012), to come out to his own parents, so the question was, in a way, already resolved for him. What was left was the complex interaction between the love and comfort he receives from the Korean American communities, and his need to explore the rest of the world, sexually or otherwise. “The more I thought about it, and talked to my friends about it, actually, what made it hard about meeting the expectations [our parents had for us] wasn’t the fear of being punished. It was the fact that our families loved us,” said Ahn in a Public Radio interview. 13. So the issue for him was to represent this love, and the bonds it entails, which led him to felicitous casting decisions. At the Q&A after the world premiere screening, he said that he was somewhat under pressure to cast “any Asian actor” (Japanese, Chinese etc…) available (since, anyhow, Caucasian spectators couldn’t tell the difference). But it was important for him to cast Korean performers, even if in some cases it meant working with non-professionals (his own father has a small part). He struck gold convincing Haerry Kim (a talented actress who shares her professional life between New York and Seoul) to play the role of the mother, Soyoung, and selecting Joe Seo in the main part – which was recognised by a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance.

Sundance film festival review

Spa Night (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

David Cho, in his late teens, works in his first-generation immigrant parents’ restaurant. But business is slow, and, unable to meet his financial obligations, the father, Jin (Youn Ho Cho), has to close the place. Soyoung finds a job as a waitress through a friend, Mrs Baek (Linda Han) and energetically struggles to keep the family afloat – which means dealing with the despondency of a husband who is coming home drunk more and more often, and the floating identity of a son she no longer understands. David is torn between fulfilling the parental dreams that he will attend USC like young Baek (Tae Song), and the sense that he should be helping his family. So, instead of working on his SAT tests, he takes a job in a Korean spa, a place he has visited often with his parents, a safe haven of Korean culture and tradition. There he discovers the furtive rituals of a cruising scene, glances, hands and feet touching, bodies brushing against each other, and this gradually puts him face to face (see the beautiful, yet tentative, scene in front of the mirror) with his own sexuality…

Directed by Swedish visual artist/filmmaker Sara Jordenö (who splits her life between New York City and Goteborg), Kiki, the most exhilarating documentary I saw at Sundance, was created in collaboration with Twiggy Pucci Garçon (credited as co-screenwriter), the founder of the Haus of Pucci, one of the major players of the Kiki Ballroom Scene, through three years of shooting, meetings, interviews and… dancing. Voguing – allowing female impersonators and transgender subjects, mostly African American and Latino – to produce performance events in which different “houses” (often named after couture companies) compete for the most fabulous costume, the most agile dancer, the greatest “realness” of the drag, has been going on for decades in New York, and, in 1990, it became a filmic event via Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning. Yet Kiki is more than an update, as its seven main subjects – Chi Chi, Gia, Chris, Divo, Symba and Zariya, as well as Twiggy – are not only performers, but also community organisers.

Sundance film festival review

Kiki (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Homelessness, AIDS, the lack of social services, the severance of ties with families caused by homophobia (how many young black or Latino boys have had the shit beaten out by a macho father and ended up on the street, with no other option than selling their bodies) has taken a toll on gay and transgender subjects of colour, and most of the people featured in Paris is Burning have been wiped out. In the 1990s, the motto was about having fun, in your face, and fuck you if you don’t like it (and I might die from it, but at least I would have had a good time). Post the “Occupy” and “Black Lives Matter” movements, the participants of the Kiki scene are politically articulate, organise themselves, campaign to end homelessness and provide health services for their members – but ballroom music (specifically composed for the film by Ballroom and Voguing Producer Collective Qween Beat), flamboyant fashion shows and having fun are still at the forefront – for our delight.

Filmmaker Howard Brookner was 35 when he died of AIDS in New York in 1989. He never saw Paris is Burning, nor the final version of the feature he was working on, Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989, starring Matt Dillon and Madonna, among others). Brookner made his first documentary, Burroughs: the Movie (1983) his thesis for a Master in Art and Film History at NYU, and some of his classmates worked on it: Tom DiCillio at the camera, and Jim Jarmusch who recorded the sound (he had worked as a gaffer on Jarmusch’s first feature, Permanent Vacation, 1980). Later he directed a second successful documentary on another (queer) cultural icon, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1986).

Uncle Howard (also shown in Berlin’s Panorama) is Aaron Brookner’s homage to his seductive uncle. Only eight when the latter died, he still had good memories of him, and later salvaged and restored Burroughs: the Movie. During his search, he uncovered Howard Brookner’s archive in Burroughs’s bunker. Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver, who appear in the film – as well as a number of people who knew and interacted with Howard, such as Tom DiCillio, Spike Lee, Patti Smith, Kim Massee – joined as co-producers.

Sundance film festival review

Uncle Howard (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

More than a loving tribute to an exceptional man, Uncle Howard is a time capsule of a New York that is no more. A time when true bohemia existed, but when an AIDS diagnostic was a sentence of death; when the Chelsea Hotel had long-term residents who had created an artistic colony where all sorts of experiments and exchange could take place (the hotel is currently closed and under renovation); when Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, the oldest medical care facility in Manhattan, that, from 1984 on, became the largest AIDS ward on the East Coast and “ground zero in the city’s AIDS crisis” 14, was still standing (the building was demolished in 2013 to make space for luxury condos). As time goes by, indeed. But then we have cinema, to help us remember.

Experimental Looks

Sundance used to keep most experimental films in New Frontier, but, more and more, the section has morphed into spaces devoted to interactive installations, and experimentation finds its way in various venues. One of the most exciting films in that respect was Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine that, deservedly, received a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing. Greene collaborated with Kate Lyn Sheil 15 to document the meticulous efforts of an actress (whose “subtle performances” are systematically praised, to her near-annoyance, as she says jokingly) to recreate the part of a dead woman, who is only known for the public image she projected on television. In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, the host of a news program of a small Sarasota, Fla, television station, committed suicide by shooting herself in the back of the neck on the air. The event troubled the American public, inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Network (shifting the female to a male protagonist and the fake suicide attempt to a real assassination), then was forgotten. The fate of the tape on which the suicide was recorded is not even known, and Chubbuck remains a mystery, a black hole.

Kate Plays Christine

Kate Plays Christine (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Something strange happened in Sundance. The Dramatic Competition featured Antonio Campos’s Christine about “an ambitious 29-year old news reporter in Sarasota”, without mentioning that it was the same Christine as in Greene’s experimental documentary. And the two films couldn’t be further apart. Campos eagerly tries to fill the void, to give “motivations” to Chubbuck, to endow her with the persona of an hysterical, emotionally frustrated woman (even though Rebecca Hall’s performance, given these parameters, is quite credible) – and, as a result, falls flat – while the much more modestly funded Kate Plays Christine emerges as the winner.

As always, but maybe more than ever, Sheil is fascinating to watch, as she struggles to fill the shoes of her character, to understand her – increasingly convinced that this is a futile endeavour – and to come to terms with the ethical issues of “representing” Christine’s suicide. Sheil does not look a bit like Chubbuck, her skin tone, the colour of her eyes and hair, even her body shape are different. We see her undergoing tanning sessions, putting on coloured contact lenses, donning a black wig even when swimming – and the wig, at some point, forlornly floats on the water, a sign of the fleeting quality of the process of representation – but also doing research, trying to meet people who may have met Christine, talking to them. Does anybody ever know why somebody wants to die?

We are so engrossed in Kate’s internal journey, that it takes a while to realise that the film has shifted gears: it has become a documentary on an actress, like some of the best French New Wave films. Christine remains a mystery. Kate may remain a cipher (on-screen, she always seems to be the guardian of some secret we will never be privy to), but we know a little more about how she moves, how she prepares for a role, what does the process of “embodiment” means, what she thinks. And that’s precious.

Another “unknowable” character was the colourful John Romulus Brinkley, “a small-town Kansas doctor who discovers in 1917 that he can cure impotence by transplanting goat testicles into men”. For her second documentary feature, Nuts, Penny Lane (her real name) has designed an ingenious mixture of archival documents and animation that is zany, corky, informative, entertaining, and manages to surprise us till the end. Mocking and imitating the grand Citizen Kane tradition, the film follows the rise and fall of a would-be tycoon (there was a moment in his life when the small country doctor carried several millions, had his own radio station with an emitting power superior to any at the time, a boat and a mansion with tastefully designed gardens.)

Sundance film festival

Nuts (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Nuts touches, in a humorous way, contemporary issues that are still unchanged, such as the encroachment of corporations on issues pertaining to public health and freedom of expression in the US; so we are prepped to be on the side of “the little man with ingenious ideas” who is fighting the establishment. Fact is, Brinkley’s satisfied customers beget children after years of impotence, and worshipped him. What could be wrong in this scheme?

For this, my friends, you have to see the movie. No spoiler alerts on this one. It was just too much fun to experience.     

How to Live in Illinois

One of the few theatrical films of New Frontier, Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables (also shown at the Forum in Berlin) starts with a series of aerial pannings on flat agricultural landscapes: rectangles of a few different shades of brown, a spot of green here and there, empty roads, a few scattered constructions. We are in the “Prairie State”, the land of agribusiness, one of the biggest producers of soy, corn and ethanol. Then the number I starkly marked indicates that we are now entering the first “parable” (there are 11 in all), and the landscape shown becomes more mountainous. Native American singing and drums are heard while a lone figure crosses the screen in the background of a long shot. Cut to a man, clad in black, shot head-to-toe in the dirt path, holding a small percussion instrument made of animal skin, the self described shaman Ravenwolf (played by C. Felton Jennings II), who has come to these mountains “to receive their honour, their gift, their strength and wisdom.” Then, over static shots of paintings in a cave and deserted spots (dirt roads, entrance of caves, cliffs, shrubbery), a French-accented voice (that of José Oubrerie) reads the missionary Father Jacques Marquette’s account of his encounter with “two painted monsters” in 1673. This second parable ends up juxtaposing scientific shots of birds, reconstruction of Native American life in some museum of natural history diorama and period paintings, and more landscape shots, such as on with the sign “Trail of Tears Rd”, as we are introduced to the third episode. Over a view of pristine white snow, while a lone bird is crowing, a text, dated 1830, is juxtaposed: “An Act to provide for an exchange of land with the Indians residing in any of the States or Territories and for their removal West of the river Mississippi” – giving the “Trail of Tears” its full meaning. (A few minutes later, a naïve painting on wood in indeed titled CHEROKEE REMOVAL – TRAIL OF TEARS – OHIO RIVER XING 1838). Over a soundtrack of footsteps seldom interrupted by the cry of a baby, a male voice (Daniel Verdier, reading from a text written by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831) describes the ordeal of this “removal”, underwent by the Indians in stoic silence: “The catastrophe was irremediable, and they knew it.”

The Illinois Parables (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The Illinois Parables (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In the grand tradition of the “political landscape film” – as illustrated by James Benning, Lee Anne Schmitt, William E. Jones’ first period, Jenni Olson, or Stratman herself in her previous work – The Illinois Parables juxtaposes unmarked landscapes (the list of places come at the end), most often devoid of human figures and present as “traces” of a fraught history, with texts, archival footage and other artefacts yielded by a solid research. 16 The seduction comes from the rigorous composition of the shots and from a strategy – not unlike that of Eastern Asian scroll painting – that allows the spectator to project him/herself in the “empty spaces” of the shot. The juxtaposition of image and texts is not authoritarian, but allows for gaps, (mis)readings, (re)interpretations, playfulness even; the spectator is invited to float over the image like a little boat over the crest of the wave.

Stratman eventually leaves the countryside, as the other parables become more urban – following the progressive industrialisation of the state, as we are now moving deep into the 19th century. The “trail” that crosses the state – no longer linked to the displacement of the Indians, but called, in different places, “the California Trail”, or “the Pony Express Trail” – has a”Mormon Trail” section, espousing the persecution of exodus of the Mormons as they fled Ohio and then Missouri under the leadership of the “Prophet Joseph Smith” and created a “safe haven” in Nauvoo, Ill. Smith was eventually arrested on trumped charges of rioting and treason, and shot to death by a mob while in jail in Carthage Ill, in 1844; the perpetrators were found not guilty, and many of the houses of Smith’s followers were burnt to the ground.

Another episode evokes the deadly tornado that razed several small towns around Gorham in 1925, killing hundreds of people and leaving 15,000 homeless. Yet industrialisation continues, and Illinois was to eventually boast, in Chicago, the third largest city of the United States. Parables VII and X take place in Chicago, the first one a black-and-white aerial shot over the city as it has been damaged by yet another tornado, accompanied by sounds made by the survivors of the catastrophe, over the rendering of Sweet Hour of Prayer by the by the African-American gospel group, The Lunenberg Travelers. By that time, the “Great Migrations” from the South to the North (1910-1960) had brought thousands of black people to Chicago, where their number swelled from 40,000 in 1910 to 278,000 in 1940).

After a segue into the well-publicised “Poltergeist” case of 1948 in Macomb – in which a teenage girl, Wanet McNeil (embodied with mysterious grace by Anna Toborg), living with her divorced father, was believed to have started 200 fires with the sole power of her mind – the tenth parable revisits the murder of Fred Hampton in 1969, with Stratman’s minimalist restaging of the FBI’s “reconstitution” of the attack of the Black Panthers’ safe house. The film ends up on an ironically “bucolic” note, with the reclaiming of a poisonous strip-mined bluff into a state park near Ottawa, Ill, in 1985, and the eloquent choral rendition of Alfred Shnittke’s Zwei Kleine Stücke für Orgel (Two Pieces for Organ, 1980), that concludes on a black leader. At the beginning, there was the image, but there was also the music. In-between the two, an imperfect, violent and polluting history perpetrated by human follies…

 

Sundance Film Festival
21-31 January 2016
Festival website: http://www.sundance.org

 

Endnotes

  1. www.slamdance.com
  2. See House of Vans Expansion, Celebration for 50 Years of Off the Wall. http://skateboarding.transworld.net/news/house-of-vans-expansion-celebrations-for-50-years-of-off-the-wall/#tjGCqSSMpxo4DerZ.97, accessed 29 February 2016.
  3. http://artillerymag.com
  4. Goded has published the following books, among others: Tierra Negra: Fotografias de la Costa Rica en Guerrero y Oaxaca Mexico (Mexico: Consejo Nacional para La Cultura y las Artes/Milagro, 1994), Good Girls (New York: Umbrage Editions, 2006) and Plaza de la Soledad (Barcelona: Lunwerg Editores, 2006). She also had numerous museum photo exhibitions and has two installations about the families of the disappeared women of Ciudad Juarez on display.
  5. Plaza de la Soledad, press kit, downloaded 28 February 2016
  6. Martha Sosa, AKA Martha Sosa Elizondo, started her career as associate producer of the short La historia de I y O (Mr and Mrs O, 1999) by director/editor Valentina Leduc – see Note 7 – then as executive producer on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000) and is best known for having produced the following films: Juan Carlos de Llaca’s Por la libre (Dust to Dust, 2000), Hugo Rodríguez’s Nicotina (2003), and the documentaries Un día más (2004) by María Inés Roqué, Los que se quedan (Those Who Remain, 2008) by Carlos Hagerman & Juan Carlos Rulfo, Presunto culpable (Presumed Guilty, 2008) by Roberto Hernández & Geoffrey Smith and Vuelve a la vida by Carlos Hagerman. See also: Anna Marie de La Fuente: “Morelia: Martha Sosa on Inarritu <sic> and Goded”, Variety: http://variety.com/2015/film/festivals/morelia-martha-sosa-inarritu-and-goded-1201629547/, accessed 29 February 2016.
  7. Valentina Leduc AKA Valentina Leduc Navarro is the daughter of Mexican director Paul Leduc (Historias prohibidas de Pulgarcito, 1980; Frida, naturaleza viva/Frida, Still Life, 1983; Barocco, 1989; Latino Bar, 1991, etc…) and producer Bertha Navarro (Nicolás Echevarría’s Cabeza de Vaca, 1991, Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, 1993, El espinazo del Diablo/The Devil’s Backbone, 2001 and El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006, as well as Sebastian Cordero’s Rage, 2011, etc…). Leduc directed six shorts, including Carlos Leduc. Un espacio para la vida (2004) on her grandfather architect Carlos Leduc, and two TV episodes; she is the editor of a number of documentaries, including Cobrador: In God We Trust (2006) by her father Paul Leduc, En el hoyo (In the Pit, 2006), Los que se quedan (Those Who Remain, 2008) and Carrière, 250 metros (2011) by her husband Juan Carlos Rulfo, as well as the multiple award winner Tiempo Suspendido (Time Suspended, 2015) by Natalia Bruchstein.
  8. A small note of dissent: the one thing that is glaringly absent from the film is the mention of HIV or other STD. I am sorry I saw Plaza de la Soledad at a press screening and therefore didn’t meet Goded to pose her the question. Subject for further research.
  9. A former Palestinian cameraman from Kafr ‘Aqab in East Jerusalem, starting acting in the award-winning Bethlehem (2013) by Yuval Adler.
  10. http://westviewnews.org/2016/02/jim-fouratts-reel-deal-movies-that-matter-26/
  11. “Tome” and “Native Sandstone” are from the collection Half in Love (New York: Scribner, 2003) and “Travis, B” from Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It: Stories (New York: Riverheard Books, 2009).
  12. Disclaimer: Andrew Ahn recently graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach, and two of the producers, Giulia Caruso and Ki Jin Kim, are graduates from the same program; Ki Jin Kim is also now an instructor at CalArts.
  13. http://www.npr.org/2015/10/06/440549964/spa-hookups-korean-parents-and-coming-out-on-screen-q-a-with-filmmaker-andrew-ah, accessed 3 March 2016
  14. Andrew Boynton, ”Remembering St. Vincent’s”, The New Yorker, 16 May 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/remembering-st-vincents, accessed 1 March 2016
  15. Sheil is known for her collaboration with a number of mumblecore directors, such as Lawrence Michael Levine, Alex Ross Perry, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Ti West, Adam Wingard
  16. Previous works by Stratman made in this vein include: On the Various Nature of Things (1995), From Hetty to Nancy (1997), In Order Not to Be Here (2002), O’er the Land (2009) – among the 40-odd films, of various lengths and formats, she has completed since 1990. Disclaimer: like William E. Jones and Lee Anne Schmitt, Stratman is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts. James Benning has been teaching there since the late 1980s, and Lee Anne Schmitt since 2004. So this kind of “political landscape film” is sometimes described as a “CalArts” tradition, and Jenni Olson publicly acknowledges the influence of Benning and Jones.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.