Sundance: Looking Beyond the Winners’ Circle

Christine Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

JUSTIN CHANG: Well, I called it. Then again, who didn’t? Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” cemented its standing as the sensation of Sundance 2016 by winning the grand jury prize and audience award on Saturday night — an outcome that was hardly surprising, in light of recent double winners like “Precious,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Whiplash” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” as well as the undeniable cultural weight that a film about slavery, featuring a black hero and told from a black filmmaker’s perspective, now carries. Later this year, when Fox Searchlight launches its not-so-secret weapon to prevent another #OscarsSoWhite, there will be plenty of opining (as there is already) that “The Birth of a Nation” is a cultural landmark but a far-from-great movie, one whose import and relevance overshadow some of its artistic shortcomings.

I’ve written plenty about Parker’s film, which strikes me as a flawed but enormous achievement, clumsy in some ways but startlingly nuanced in others. The understandable passion for it aside, I do wish Lena Dunham’s jury had found room in its awards slate for “Christine,” Antonio Campos’ calmly devastating portrait of the 1970s TV journalist Christine Chubbuck (brilliantly played by Rebecca Hall). Like “Birth,” it’s a film that builds slowly toward a climactic death — the tragic culmination of a slow and steady arc of despair, outrage and unyielding commitment to one’s principles. And like “Equity,” Meera Menon’s absorbing if somewhat overwrought ode to what Guy called “the She-Wolves of Wall Street,” it’s a fascinating portrait of the pressures facing so many women in the workplace — to be agreeable and attractive, and impossibly competent — and how little they seem to have changed from one era to the next.

At the other end of that social spectrum, of course, was Elizabeth Wood’s defiantly trashy “White Girl” — a movie I know you loathed, Peter, and I don’t blame you or the many who share your opinion. Still, beneath its flashily repellent surface, I think the film has a barbed understanding of the corrupt power dynamics and racial/sexual politics of the legal system it’s indicting. It’s never clear if we’re meant to view the film’s debased heroine (played by the fearless Morgan Saylor) as a helpless victim or a ferocious engineer of her own destiny, which seems to be pretty much the point: In Wood’s sharp, harrowing vision, this white girl’s colossal stupidity is both her curse and her privilege.

PETER DEBRUGE: As we discussed earlier in the festival, it can get pretty monotonous watching nothing but the frivols and frustrations of white men. That said, as subject matter goes, the colossal stupidity of white girls doesn’t represent much of an improvement. Whether it’s implying that drug users unfairly have it easier than their dealers or asking her leading lady to sniff coke off Justin Bartha’s boy parts, Wood’s flagrantly debauched sewer-dive doesn’t even so much as scratch the epidermis of what’s wrong with the system — unless you count the big-picture paradox that such a promising director is obliged to go to such extremes in order to stand out.

Attending Sundance via Paris, where a relatively healthy number of female directors find it possible to work without having to stoop to such shock tactics, I’m discouraged to think that’s what it takes to get noticed in the States. Frankly, I was more impressed by the risks that music-video directors the Daniels took in “Swiss Army Man,” a bizarro ode to all that life has to offer starring Daniel Radcliffe as a (mostly) dead body who washes up on a desert island just in time to save a social outcast (Paul Dano) who’s haplessly marooned there. The film employs everything from fantasy sequences to puppet shows to convey why both characters ought to find their way back to the real world — which, I suppose, makes it the opposite of Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” in which Viggo Mortensen and his six kids reluctantly emerge from their isolated wilderness existence and attempt to readjust to the materialist world they left behind.

Speaking of puppet shows, who would have thought that primitive form of entertainment would prove such a poignant way of exploring the Christine Chubbuck enigma? In a bizarre coincidence, two separate Sundance projects deal with the frustrated Sarasota talkshow host’s decision to shoot herself on-air: one a probing character portrait (that would be Campos’ “Christine,” for which I echo — and perhaps even amplify — your admiration, Justin), the other a high-concept, half-rigged “documentary” from Robert Greene called “Kate Plays Christine,” in which indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil kinda-sorta plays herself, grappling with the challenges of portraying Chubbuck in a hypothetical film project. That miscast project left me wondering, why even have Kate play Christine in the first place (except to scold audiences for wanting to see the suicide)? By contrast Campos’ film earns its grisly climax, while Hall admirably reveals the lonely, ambitious and depressed state of mind that might have driven Chubbuck to such a sensational end.

GUY LODGE: I’m pleased we all agree on the measured, considered merits of “Christine,” not least because Campos’ film — the most maturely crafted and disciplined entry in the U.S. dramatic competition, albeit from one of the lineup’s most practiced directors — seemed to draw a muted response from the Park City crowd following its premiere on the festival’s first weekend. Not surprisingly, it left Sundance empty-handed in terms of prizes; I’m more concerned that a distributor has yet to step forward for what I suspect may prove a more enduring American film that some of its more vogueishly rough-hewn competitors.

I do, however, take issue with Peter’s dismissal of “Kate Plays Christine,” which I admire no less than Campos’ more conventionally framed portrait, and which, if I’m being honest, probably occupies my thoughts a little more. I don’t imagine Robert Greene would flinch at the term “half-rigged,” since the open contrivances and manipulations in the film — less a nonfiction study than a performance piece, or even a performance of a performance piece — expressly encourage audiences to consider the persistent presence of artifice in the documentary form. (And, indeed, the dramatized biopic. Greene’s film inadvertently exposes selective narrative liberties taken in “Christine,” particularly regarding Chubbuck’s family life, though not to either film’s advantage or detriment: Both simply offer alternative interpretations of truth.)

At least there’s so much to be said either way on “Kate Plays Christine,” since Sundance 2016 seemed to me short on docs that inspired any kind of debate at all. Greene’s film was one of the new nonfiction films I saw this year that bore scrutiny in terms of form, not just content: That the U.S. documentary audience award went to Brian Oakes’ “Jim,” an intimate, inevitably moving but technically routine remembrance of ISIS-slain journalist James Foley, seemed representative of this year’s slate to me. What was I missing?

CHANG: Guy, I think you’ve put your finger on something that affects not just the documentaries but also the entire Sundance slate to varying degrees, and that’s the rarity of finding a film smart enough, and willing enough, to provoke a complicated, open-ended response. One of the reasons I admire “Kate Plays Christine” — which you described in your review as “vexingly brilliant,” and I don’t mind admitting that at times I was properly vexed — is that Greene very much intends to leave you with even more questions at the end than at the beginning. Seamlessness is not in the nature of the deconstruction he’s after. That kind of ambiguous intentionality can be refreshing at a festival where so many films — and I don’t exempt “The Birth of a Nation,” much as I admire it — seem rigged, or at least half rigged, to elicit tears of identification and virtuous outrage.

Which is why I can’t help but circle back to “White Girl,” a movie that has a certain built-in opacity, which is partly why I find it interesting — mesmerizing, in fact, quite apart from Wood’s hypnotic, neon-drenched visual style. Perhaps this director really is just putting a version of her life story out there simply to get attention, though frankly that conclusion strikes me as more cynical and reductive than anything in the movie itself, which has a real knack for tucking its critique of gentrification and white female privilege into the margins, or even hiding it in plain sight. Peter, I share your admiration for French women directors — one of my undersung festival favorites was “Agnus Dei,” Anne Fontaine’s quietly devastating film set in a Polish convent ravaged by WWII — but one needn’t have ventured outside Park City to find any number of female filmmakers with more than shock tactics on the brain. I’m personally bummed to have missed Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” but the early word leaves no doubt that it’s just as controlled and averse to sensationalism as the rest of her body of work. So Yong Kim’s “Lovesong,” marvelously acted by Riley Keough and Jena Malone, is as beautiful and intimate a film as any I saw in Park City this year.

And as tedious as it is to categorize individual filmmakers by background, I have to say I’m pleased that Kim wasn’t the only Asian-American standout in the U.S. dramatic competition this year. “Spa Night,” Andrew Ahn’s very promising debut feature, is an achingly sad and acutely perceptive portrait of a Korean-American teenager (played by Joe Seo, worthy winner of a breakthrough acting prize) grappling with identity confusion of every stripe — sexual, social, racial, vocational, etc. The film’s title and setting provide a steamy hook, but as you rightly noted in your review, Peter, Ahn has more than just cruising on the brain: He and Seo capture, with often painful emotional accuracy, the alienation of a young man who goes through life rarely knowing what to say, or even what language to say it in. It’s not clear what lies ahead for him at the end of “Spa Night,” but there’s no doubt we’ve spent time with someone worth knowing.

DEBRUGE: That’s a great way of describing a satisfying movie experience, Justin, especially when the film in question falls under the category of quiet, character-driven dramas — like much of what we see at Sundance (as opposed to the bigger-budget variety designed primarily to distract and amuse us). Not that there’s anything wrong with mere escapism, mind you. I often wish Sundance had more of it. The most purely entertaining film I saw was “Operation Avalanche,” which poses as documentary proof that the CIA faked the Apollo 11 moon landing, complete with conspiracy theories, cover-up attempts and car chases. It was directed by Matt Johnson, a Slamdance discovery whose earlier mock doc “The Dirties” depicts two film buffs who orchestrate and film a school shooting.

That blurry line between violent movies and the culture that consumes it was a hot topic at this year’s festival, where the documentaries “Under the Gun” and “Newtown” confronted the issue head-on. The Sundance movie that has actually given me the most to digest is Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night,” a surprisingly understated reaction to the 2012 Aurora movie-theater shooting, where a gunman opened fire on an audience who’d gone to see “The Dark Knight Rises.” The film not only noodles on gun culture in America, but also raises questions about the very act of going to the movies: Why are we attracted to violent stories? Do such movies shape how we handle our own aggression? And can the movies themselves still be considered a safe space? (I went nearly an entire month without going to the cinema in Paris after the Nov. 13 attacks, which targeted a sports arena and the Bataclan nightclub.) Sutton opts not to show the actual crime, which is a subtler way of making one of Greene’s main points in “Kate Plays Christine”: Does the movie really need to revel in the blood and guts, or can it make a deeper point without going there?

Watching “Dark Night” in an actual movie theater is a surreal experience — although it seems that audiences are increasingly comfortable consuming movies from the comfort of their own homes these days. Apart from Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking acquisition of “The Birth of a Nation,” most of the buying activity at this year’s festival stemmed from Netflix and Amazon Studios, which each bought rights to six movies (some in deals made before the festival). Of those pickups, I especially appreciated Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” a subtle, slow-building character study that benefits enormously from the undivided attention afforded by a dark movie theater. That also goes for Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown,” a gorgeously lensed puzzle in which Rachel Weisz plays a human chameleon who reinvents herself every few months (in one life, she’s a magician’s assistant; the next, she’s an emergency-room nurse). Both movies allow us to spend time getting to know worthy characters, though I wonder how they’ll hold up in a non-festival environment.

LODGE: I agree with Peter (as, we already know, does Justin) on the abundant merits of “Manchester by the Sea” — a film you’d hesitate to call formally daring, but that has a more sophisticated command of story structure and character makeup than anything I saw in Sundance’s competitive strands. “Novelistic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot with regard to quiet, human-led ensemble dramas, but Lonergan’s writing truly carries the kind of long-view social perspicacity and close-range detail that could flow from the pen of Richard Ford or E. Annie Proulx; moreover, there are scenes in this small-town mosaic of loss and recovery — notably one shattering sidewalk encounter between characters played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams — that more cynical, less confident filmmakers would shy away from writing, deeming them too directly emotive. Restraint is a virtue of much of the best acting and directing work I saw in the last fortnight, but sometimes artists need to go in for the kill.

It’s such moments of brute impact that prevent even a film as modestly scaled as “Manchester” from feeling, to use a dreaded word on the indie-film scene, “televisual”: There’s something about sitting in the dark with such seismic waves of feeling, gasping and weeping with a sympathetic audience, that hits and hurts a little harder than viewing the same film via Netflix. A film as sitcom-safe and visually beige as John Krasinki’s quirk-by-numbers family dramedy “The Hollars,” on the other hand, would possibly even benefit from a shrunken screen, foregrounding its amiable cast’s quipping over the limitations of its construction.

Sundance has a lot of “Hollars”; it also has a lot of more cinematic curiosities. “It’ll play on VOD” are words I heard bandied around a lot in Park City, with reference to films from both columns, as well as to a wide range of documentaries — the branch of film that has arguably benefited most from the multi-platform release model. It’s gratifying to see Netflix and Amazon taking chances on artistic outliers: Who would ever have thought that a brand as corporate in its connotations as the latter would come to the aid of Todd Solondz? (“Wiener-Dog,” the director’s rewarding new exercise in deadpan misanthropy, may be his warmest and most generous film in some time, but that’s a little like picking the sweetest strain of penicillin.)

But while theatrical distribution remains part of their acquisition plan, swifter home-viewing access is the endgame, and I wonder if festivals like Sundance — the programming of which is already far removed from the viewing range of most cinemagoers — will increasingly come to be seen as founts of on-demand fare, whatever the scale and scope of the films in question. “The Birth of a Nation’s” record $17.5 million purchase by Fox Searchlight may have been the talk of the town, but there are accompanying whispers that Netflix offered even more; in opting for the more old-school prestige distributor, perhaps Nate Parker’s team was, after a fashion, defending the pic’s theatrical qualities. Due to the vagaries of personal festival scheduling, I wound up driving 40 miles to see “Manchester by the Sea” in the snowy, cosseted confines of the Sundance Mountain Resort; while not everyone everyone need to go to such lengths, it was one of many films at the fest that justified a journey beyond the sofa.

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