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After the revolution: Sundance in the age of the streaming
Early thoughts on some of the key dramatic competition titles
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (image courtesy of A24 Films).
The high mountain air of Park City, Utah is pretty disorienting after you have been away from the scene.
It dazes you, with its seven thousand foot elevation, and the blindingly beautiful vertiginous rock formations and intricately laced mountains. As the leading showcase for American independent cinema, the Sundance Film festival is both dream maker and idol factory—a place where talent is boldly announced and taken notice of.
I was thrilled to be there after the weird and mostly unsatisfactory simulacrum of experiencing the previous two years of the festival from my living room, watching films on my home theater system, desktop or iPad.
The convenience and costs were considerable. The films were the films, but the whole point of the festival was to put yourself in a very specific time and place. From the moment Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute took over in the late seventies, the festival had perfected an aura of frenzied anticipation.
Whatever the complicated and contradictory consequences of the festival, its programming and its larger impact on movie culture, the festival always felt essential.
The very act of going was the most thrilling part, just because you never knew what you might see. Going to the movies was never a passive experience; just the opposite. It was volatile and colored by a different kind of rupture and sensation.
Festival culture is intensely seductive. Here was the opportunity to see four or five movies in a day and stage arguments with friends and colleagues about their significance and then also have access to directors and actors.
Everything felt heightened, the daily tempo faster and more intense than the normal rhythms. Festivals manifested their own industrial apparatus that yoked together journalists, critics, distributors, publicists, foreign buyers and programmers.
My last time here was February 1, 2020, the day after my birthday. My first year at the festival dated to a whole other time and place, circa 1992, the epochal year of Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, and the rise of the New Queer Cinema.
You can only go forward. Still, I missed the festival for a couple of years, and it was kind of jarring, a sense of dislocation and something lost. You can always catch up with the films, but the act of seeing them first, in packed houses, where you are allowed to make your way through them, and figure out what you think, was something irretrievably lost.
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The chance to go back was too hard to pass up. I was given a hybrid press pass, granting the ability to watch films online and also attend the festival in person.
The result was a bifurcated festival experience—getting a taste of the festival at my home for the first weekend before I made the trek to Park City for about six days.
Back home on the final day of the festival, I watched a couple of the award winners.
What follows is the first of a loose series of festival dispatches, beginning with the twelve films that made up the US Dramatic Competition.
The festival has streamlined the official selection the last few years. Until its 2020 iteration of the festival, the dramatic competition typically featured about 18 or 19 films. The pandemic-marked programs have been tighter, with about eleven or twelve movies.
All festivals are about making personal choices, marked by personal importance, commercial value and aesthetic interest. Historically I have gravitated toward the competition and formally insurgent Next section.
Arranged alphabetically by title, the following is a first response, if you will, to those films. I’m including the format under which I saw each film, because that is an important distinction.
I have a state of the art home theater system with a 55-inch Sony 4K television and two-gig internet speed. The films I saw at home were primarily through the festival’s optimized Roku app.
Here is part one of a look at the competition films. Part two is here Friday.
The Accidental Getaway Driver (projected public screening at the Redstone Cinemas)
A first feature by Sing J. Lee, a British specialist in music videos, the film is adapted from a 2017 GQ article about an elderly Vietnamese emigre who was forcibly recruited in the getaway plot of three escaped prison convicts. Long, the protagonist, operates a black market ride share service for the Vietnamese community.
Reluctantly taking a late night job, he finds himself at the wrong end of a gun pressed to his head
The first half hour is fairly dynamic visually. Lee and his cinematographer, Michael Cambio Fernandez, achieve some sharp and pungent moments with the unstable neon colors and nighthawk imagery. The larger movie is all set up, with not a great deal to fill in, or the ability to develop its ideas, either visually or thematically.
Hiep Tran Nghia, a Vietnamese-French actor, plays the older man with a soulful weariness. He has a great, lived-in face, but the background and character detail is too portentous and unconvincing to really take off. The script undercuts and flattens its best ideas. The most viable section dramatically is the emotional interplay of the older driver, and Dustin Nguyen, who plays the most convincingly drawn of the three convicts. What should have been fast, taut, and dangerous feels weirdly disassociated.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (projected public screening at the Eccles)
Even with her two shorts available on the Criterion Channel, I had never heard of the remarkable and gifted young filmmaker and poet Raven Jackson.
Now I can’t stop thinking about her.
Of all the features I saw projected, this was one that felt the most beneficial, playing off the deep space and size, the breathtaking 35mm images, lyricism and pungent feeling for grace, beauty and wonder. It’s told in a series of stunningly tableaux and breathtaking imagery. In talking with a friend afterwards, I estimated the script had perhaps five pages (or minutes) of dialogue.
I saw it the night before the awards were announced, and I was convinced it was the grand prize winner. It ended up being completely shut out. I know some people felt as beautiful as the formal craft and technique were, the story tracing the inner and outer journey of a young Black woman coming of age in Mississippi was too amorphous and diffuse. I couldn’t care less. Like certain Faulkner novels, at a certain point I stopped trying to figure out the plot and how some of the characters were connected, or even the passage of time.
The framing, color and soundtrack felt alive and open to possibility, bound by memory and mood, like Terence Davies during the period of Distant Voice, Still Lives, or The Long Night Closes. I just simply let the rhythms, sounds and images take hold of me. To cite just one indelible moment, a low overhead shot a series of intertwined hands, worthy of Bresson, or the dialectically arranged portraits of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. I grew up during the same relative period, a thousand miles away. Orbiting on themes of loss, grief and discovery, every moment and detail about the movie felt exacting and rich.
Fair Play (home theater system)
Women directed (or codirected) nearly three-fourths of the competition films. Chloe Domont, who has directed a lot of prestige cable television like Billions, wrote and directed this terrific and sharp social panorama about money, power, damaged masculinity and sexual politics at a Wall Street hedge fund.
The complex and fraught social, economic and sexual complications of a secretly involved New York couple slowly comes apart after Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) receives a coveted promotion at the financial firm. Her altered status and privileged grace contrasts with the sideways or declining professional fortunes of her lover Luke (Alden Ehrenreich). Domont has a great ear for dialogue, combined with an impressive sense of construction and staging. The way she works the camera shows a flair and stylistic fluency.
Fancy Dance (projected press screening at the Holiday Village)
Coming off her heartbreaking, extraordinary work in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Lily Gladstone is finally allowed the kind of complex, driven, emotionally fractious role her talent thrives on. A first feature co-written and directed by Erica Trembley, the tone is slippery and rueful, angry and demonstrative but also glancing and colorful.
Set in the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation in Oklahoma, the movie pirouettes sharply between forms and styles. One block concerns a mystery thriller about the search for a missing woman. The other part suggests a melange of Paper Moon and Sugarland Express, where a savvy and experienced hustler (Gladstone) teaches her young charge (Isabel Deroy-Olson) on the transgressive pleasures and vicarious thrills of the grift, or con.
The transitions are not always intuitive or natural. The easy chemistry and warmth of the two leads proves a deeply pleasurable experience. Even the parts that don’t quite come off have conviction and emotional intensity. The radiant, observant and water color look of the imagery is pretty transfixing. (Carolina Costa did the cinematography.)
Magazine Dreams (projected press screening at the Holiday Village)
This second feature by Elijah Bynum was the hardest film for me to get a true fix on. It’s a major advance in ambition and scope of his first feature, Hot Summer Nights.
I admired it more than I liked it. The lauded central performance by Jonathan Majors as a broken man who seeks transcendence as a bodybuilder is brutally effective without being terribly illuminating emotionally or dramatically compelling.
The movie yokes together large parts of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and King of Comedy. In an echo of the Travis and Betsy date sequence in Taxi Driver, there is a lunch scene involving the Majors’ character and the blonde checkout girl he harbors a crush on that felt exhilarating though also way too much.
It’s a bit long and repetitive; the parts that work soar. I wish the director explored more about this rumination of the body. For both good and bad, it’s a movie with almost no subjective distance. The camera, like the bodies, is seemingly always right in your face. The last half hour is the most problematic. Even if it’s not always terribly original, the movie is made of intensity, feeling and conviction. Like a lot of the films I saw at Sundance, I am eager to watch it again.