[Community of A/V Enthusiasts]
The news out of Sundance this year was that business is once again booming. We could tell that things were hopping well before the festival too because the online ticket system was showing many shows as sold out. We may have compounded the effect by shifting our attendance to the opening week of the festival. For the past couple of Sundance’s we had attended the less populated second half. This year, for the first half anyway, it was just plain hard to get tickets. Using the online system during our allotted time slot, weeks in advance of the festival, there were many movies already sold out. Red State, the new movie from Kevin Smith (Clerks) sold out in all time slots in 1 day, including a showing at 8:30 am on a Monday morning.
It should be noted that ‘sold out’ is not the term that Sundance uses. Rather they say ‘wait list only’ as some tickets are held in reserve for walk-ups. Most festivals do it this way because they also have to accommodate pass holders who pay mega-amounts to support the festival and get priority seating. We were able to use the waitlist procedure to get into three films. If you don’t mind the extra risk of not getting in at all this is a cheaper way to attend the festival. Sundance tickets bought online are in the $30 range. It’s not an exact amount because it depends on which package you buy. These tickets don’t actually guarantee a seat (fine print is on the back) but they pretty much do. But walk up to the same theater and get on the waitlist and you’ll pay only $15 if tickets are available. Or someone might walk up and hand you an extra ticket for free. It happens pretty regularly. I’d say the average waitlist line is about 20 people, it could get into the hundreds though for a popular film. In those cases most of the waitlist line will not be getting in. What usually happens though, for the average movie, it seems like most of waitlist gets in.
Using all of our ticket-acquisition moxie we were able to attend 19 screenings, three of those being shorts collections including the Animation Showcase. This was over the period of eight days, interspersed with skiing and finishing with a five movie marathon in the last 24 hours. What could be better? Actually I may have reached the point of burnout as I seemed to have a more cynical view on certain of the movies than did many in the crowd(s) and even the Sundance Jury. I’ll try to make a note of that in the reviews below.
The other advantage to attending the first half of the festival is the extensive list of parties. There are goings-on on main street:
And each film has its own after-party after the initial screening. Here’s me and director Morgan Spurlock at the party for his new documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold…
That movie was indeed sold along with 41 other films that found buyers and distribution deals during or immediately after the festival. Last year the number was in the single digits. I didn't tell him that I hadn't actually seen the movie. Its focus is product placement in films, hence the NASCAR style apron that Morgan is wearing. Someone needs to tell him to hold that bottle so that the label is facing the camera though.
Did you notice the Southwest Airlines sign attached to the marquee for the Egyptian theater in the picture at the top of this post? Another small piece of Park City was sold off, at least temporarily, as this fictitious insurance office was created to promote the film Cedar Rapids.
Unofficial Festival Theme
Film festivals always seem to have some sort of unexpected theme that shows up in the movies. Sundance always has an environmental bent but this year included a focus on Oregon (and a little bit Washington) in documentaries and in dramas. Here’s what I think is the complete list of films connected to the NW:
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: centered around Eugene, OR (review below)
Hot Coffee: documentary about how the right to sue is slowly being eroded, Director Susan Saladoff is from Ashland, OR
We Were Here: documentary about the AIDS crisis by Portland director David Weissman
How to Die in Oregon: documentary about the Death With Dignity Act in Oregon
Letters From the Big Man: drama set in SW Oregon, the ‘Big Man’ is Big Foot.
Meek’s Cutoff: drama set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail
The Woods: part of the New Frontiers (meaning avant garde), a comedy filmed in Oregon.
The Oregonian: a suspense thriller set in Oregon
Off Hours: drama about people living in a small town (who also happen to work the late shift), shot and set in eastern Washington (review below)
Catechism Cataclysm: Comedy set and filmed in Washington.
The Future: drama about a young couple anxious about their future together (reviewed below). Filmmaker Miranda July got her start as a performance artist in Portland.
As I mentioned above we attended three sets of short film collections this go-round. I still greatly enjoy seeing short films at festivals but one of the reasons to do so was taken off the table at Sundance this year. Most if not all of the shorts were viewable online during the festival. Big budgets are another trend in shorts that I first noticed last year but is on the increase. People with connections and money and possibly an existing deal with a cable channel continue to get short films into festivals. The Beastie Boy’s Adam Yauch had a 30 minute ‘short’ ‘film’ Fight for Your Right Revisited. ‘Long’ ‘Video’ might be more apt terms. Even this partial list of stars that appeared in this project seems about as long as the list of stars in all the other Sundance movies combined: Elijah Wood, Danny McBride, Seth Rogan (those three played the Beastie Boys, re-enacting parts from Beastie’s videos especially ‘Fight for your Right (to Party)’, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Roshida Jones, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Ted Danson, Shannyn Sossamon, Steve Buscemi, Amy Poehler, Laura Dern, Alicia Silverstone, Orland Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Mya Rudolph, Chloe Sevigny, Jason Schwartzman, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Jack Black (those last three playing an older version of the Beastie Boys who travel back in time to have a pissing contest (literal) with the present day Beastie Boys). The contest goes on way too long.
Further constricting the pool of new talent that we might hope to see at a festival is Sundance’s continued selection of films and filmmakers that come out of the ‘Sundance Labs’. I’m rather torn about this. They are surely doing a great thing by nurturing young filmmakers, sometimes with great results. Miranda July whose film The Future was my favorite this year, is a shining example. But the continued selection of filmmakers that they (Sundance) have worked with or continue to work makes the festival more like the showcase for the ‘Sundance Film Studio’. As far as I could tell only two of the films that we saw this year did not come out of the Sundance system.
This was my fourth festival and second nasty cold/flu experience. This one didn’t reach its peak until the week after the festival when I lost my speaking voice. The irony is the way that I caught this one. As part of the New Frontiers exhibit the festival had an interactive exhibit called Pandemic. People were invited to use the electronic displays and associated iphone apps to search for clues as to where an imaginary plague, spreading through Park City at that very moment, had come from. While I’m a little suspicious of the touch screen map that was part of that exhibit I’m fully ready to indict the exhibit that was upstairs from there. On the top floor of an already stuffy, three story house was an exhibit that included two humidifiers attempting to produce enough steam that you could see images projected into it. It wasn’t working for the images but I think this steamy room was the real source of the real pandemic that had about ten percent of each film audience coughing heartily.
Ok finally on to the films! I’ve grouped my favorites and some that I most hope people will see at the top of the list here but after that they’re mostly just in the order that we saw them.
This is Miranda July’s second feature film (her first was Me, You and Everyone You Know). I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve had the fortune of living in Portland, OR where Ms. July worked as a performance artist long before she got into film. Those performances included abstract elements and often the voice of the artist in different characters. It was apparent then that refining and perfecting the vocal element was something that she valued. In this film Ms. July plays both one half of a young couple in the process of adopting a cat from a shelter and the voice of the cat itself. It’s this vocal performance as the cat (Paw Paw) that is still melting my heart just to think about it. It is tenderness itself. Adopting the cat implies a level of commitment and implications for the future that the couple has to deal with.
In the Q&A following the film Miranda was extremely generous in her discussion of her writing process and the development of the movie. One thing that sticks in my mind was her mentioning of how her father coached her in dealing with feelings as a young girl: ‘I know you’re feeling sad and that hurts but, isn’t sadness interesting?’ Perhaps it is this level of emotional adeptness that allows for the creation of a movie like this. The film contains abstract elements as befitting a performance-artist director and reaches places that few films can match.
Science fiction usually implies a large amount of technical-procedural but it can also mean ‘kick-ass premise for a very human story’. Another Earth fits in that second category. The human story in this case is about atonement. A teenage girl who had been drinking at a party is driving home when she hears the big news; a duplicate of the planet earth has suddenly appeared in the sky. Scientists theorize that it had been hidden behind the sun, exactly opposite our orbit. As she gazes up at that beautiful blue marble, while driving, she crashes her car into that of a young family, killing the mother, child and an unborn child. Only the father survives.
In the Q and A after the film the director revealed that this was yet another film at this year’s festival that was developed in a Mike Leigh style – the script was developed along with the actors over a long rehearsal period. In this case though there are a couple of important divergences from Mr. Leigh’s actual practice. Mike Leigh does actually arrive at a full blown script by the time filming commences and all of the actors are involved. In the case of Another Earth the process was not taken quite as far, there was no final script, and not all of the actors were involved in the process, only the principal parts enjoyed this level of development. Watching the main actors you wouldn’t know about this one way or another because their performances are fine but there are some smaller parts, this young girl’s family for instance, where it’s clear that something is way off. Nonetheless the premise is so good it's likely you will forget and forgive these shortcomings and recommend this movie to everyone you know which is what I’m doing.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
The Earth Liberation Front is the group that claimed responsibility for many of the well publicized pro-environment, anti-corporate ‘actions’ in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The largest and most well known were
probably the burning of an under-construction ski lodge at the Vail ski area and the burning of several SUV’s in a new car lot in Eugene, OR. In no case was a person killed or injured, no threats were made against persons though some certainly might have felt that way. The directors started the project when the co-worker of one of their wives was arrested at a New York office building by the FBI. ‘Honey, do you remember Daniel from the office? He was arrested today’. That’s all a documentary film maker needs to hear. Throughout the time when the ELF was active the authorities were thoroughly stymied in their
efforts to capture anyone in this group that they had labeled as terrorist. This in spite of the fact that the group had an official spokesman in the media.
This film as an excellent documentation of the origins and history of the ELF and how the FBI eventually was able to arrest many of them. Someone I had met at the festival expressed disappointment saying that the film tried to ‘humanize the terrorists’. Well, they are human. What is in question is whether they are terrorists. The film spends a lot of time on that key question. I didn’t see The Woods which was also at the festival and filmed in Oregon but its web page has this slogan “The Time for Hope has come and gone, now is the time for action”. That’s an echo from the ELF. A lot of ground is covered in this movie and I really hope it gains a wide audience. It should be noted that these NY filmmakers benefited from the invaluable film archive of Eugene, OR filmmakerTim Lewis who perhaps should be given producer credit in this film. He is interviewed extensively in the film and was present in the audience at the
screening we attended.
Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology
If you are a fan of the author Leonard Shlain (Art and Physics, Sex Time and Power, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess) you should see this movie, good luck to anyone who tries to keep you away in fact. If you don’t know Shlain from Cain, you should see this movie. Leonard Shlain was a brain surgeon who came up with some fascinating ideas on multiple occasions. An attempt to explain abstract art to one of his children got him to thinking and eventually writing Art and Physics where he convincingly joins advances in science with corresponding (and generally preceding) major art movements. In The Alphabet vs. the Goddess Shlain postulates that the very act of learning reading and writing altered the human brain
in such a way as to predispose us to patriarchal societies, banishing matriarchal societies (Goddess societies) to unwritten history. Intrigued yet? Unfortunately Mr. Shlain left us in May of 2009 although he was working on a final book which I’m sure we’ll see at some point.
This documentary, directed and narrated by his daughter Tiffany, is both a tribute to her father and a plea to humanity to apply the elder Shlain’s way of thinking to solve our problems, collectively. I’m not
sure how this movie will play in theaters but it did win a distribution deal. The part of the film that hooks you is the personal story about Tiffany Shlain losing this very special father. The overview of his ideas and our current problems with pollution and overpopulation is too fast moving, not particularly deep. That is probably necessary given the scope of what is covered but perhaps some things could have been trimmed. For example, in what seems like a fit of self-referentialism we are told how two people on the film crew are undergoing hormone therapy. One to aid in conceiving a child, the other as the beginning of a sex change procedure. I think this then led to another hormone discussion and the best part of the movie. I tell you, remember this: There’s a magic number for the duration of hugs. Hugs that last 6 seconds or more cause a release of oxytocin (a magic hormone if there ever was one) in both participants. Highly recommended.
In the Q&A following the film Ms Shlain said that they had a cut without the personal content but the film was flat without it. I could see how that would be the case. So, a personally moving documentary about one’s famous father should be enough for a great film. I'd say it's a very moving good film, some technical gaffs and the apparent tailoring for a showing on PBS detract from final product a bit. A point of evidence, there are ‘curriculum materials’ available already on the films web site. Still, if you know Shlain, you’ll find a way to see this and be glad you did. If you don’t know this author, the film is a great introduction.
The Off Hours
The Off Hours is a true indie production created by the writer-director Megan Griffiths after working on the script for 10 years. The script got it's start from Griffith’s observations about working the night shift during her own short stint in a film processing lab. Off Hours takes full advantage of the rainy NW to emphasize the loneliness that comes with that territory. We don’t see much in the way of dramatic turns save for those that come from inside, perhaps after many years of making easier choices.
Ms. Griffiths has worked on many other NW film productions including Hump Day which was at last year’s festival and Catechism Cataclysm which is at this year’s festival. Off Hours is the kind of movie you’d expect from an indie production. It doesn’t soar in any particular way but it does benefit from a strong ensemble cast. There is some excellent low light photography throughout.
You're half way through - check out more great films in part 2...