Everywhere you go at the Sundance Film Festival in its 26th year, you’re smacked in the face with the admonition to “rebel.”
Running before every screening are arty little animated trailers encouraging the idea of rebellious ideas percolating up from underground. The program booklet is graced with a cover announcing, “This Is Your Guide to Cinematic Rebellion.” In his catalogue welcoming note, new festival director John Cooper calls out, “Let’s rebel,” in the same enthusiastic tone that, at a different time, he might have said, “Let’s party.” The festival literature discusses the conceptual nature of “rebel branding,” and that this year’s edition represents “the renewed rebellion. This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected.”
OK, fine. Every event needs an identity, a reboot, a tagline, something to stick in people’s minds. But if you’re confronted with a pithy phrase often enough, it’s bound to begin to meaninglessly wash over you or force you to think about what it really means. For example, I sympathize with the impulse toward accomplishment embodied in the famous Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” Just the same, I’ve always been bothered by the fact that the phrase could as readily be adopted by a Lee Harvey Oswald or a Mark David Chapman as by a striving athlete or a bashful suitor.
By the same token, the elegantly simple “Hope” and “Change” promises that proved so effective for candidate Obama are coming back to haunt him now, when hope is proving ephemeral and change is turning out to be not what the doctor ordered as far as many people are concerned. Change was needed, to be sure, but one must be mindful what kind of change you hope for.
At Sundance, what one is being encouraged to rebel against is mostly a matter of how big a context you’re prepared to consider. In a film industry context, Robert Redford’s abiding idea has always been to create and nurture an alternative to Hollywood, as well as build an equal platform for documentaries. In the latter ambition, he and the festival have unquestionably succeeded — over the past couple of decades, documentaries emerged from the ghettos of the classroom and PBS dependency to achieve significant, if now more precarious, viability in the marketplace.
Within Sundance guidelines, documentaries have always provided the perfect means with which to “rebel.” Documentary filmmakers are always embraced here for being political, radical, confrontational, for finding ways to express a personal voice in a form long straightjacketed by “objective” obligations. From Michael Moore on down, many documentarians are muckrakers, instigators and bomb-throwers by nature and inclination, so no matter who’s in charge or what’s going on in the world, these increasing mobile, resourceful, just-do-it-yourself filmmakers will find ways to express variations on Groucho Marx’s great anarchic theme song, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.”
Still, I must hasten to point out that, given the dogmatic leftism/tree-hugging/granola-chewing/global warming alarmism, et al., the festival has always embraced, the only real act of rebellion within a Sundance context would be to present a smart film that questioned any of these positions. I honestly cannot remember ever seeing what could remotely be described as a conservative documentary at Sundance. Granted, not many are made, and I would frankly be amazed if any would be accepted if submitted. But I, for one, would love to see a genuinely critical examination of the many blunders and chicken-hearted actions of the United Nations; a documentary holding up for scrutiny the many wild prophecies of the esteemed Paul Ehrlich, whose doom-ridden predictions about population growth were the first words I heard out of any professor’s mouth as a university freshman, or a film that looked with unbiased clear eyes into the extent of Soviet communist infiltration and financing of American unions, academia, social organizations and other institutions from the 1930s onward. There are many potent unmade films.
In this light, I was greatly heartened this year by the excellent documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which vividly and heart-rendingly takes on the dismaying state of public education in the United States. As the director is Davis Guggenheim, who made “An Inconvenient Truth,” there was no question where this film was coming from. But the film is bracingly non-partisan, as it sweepingly presents how every president since LBJ has tried and failed to improve the system, critically points out how Republicans but, even more so, Democrats are in the pocket of the American Federation of Teachers and is unafraid to demonize the change-obstructing leader of the latter organization. With overriding compassion for the millions of kids tragically cheated by persistent inadequacies, the film praises charter and magnet schools that were long derided and blocked by liberals and insists that change is possible, but only by throwing the bums out. And there’s no question who the bums are.
In the dramatic competition, there are films involving subjects very much within the Sundance comfort zone – -a returning Iraq veteran (“The Dry Land”), wayward teens (“Hesher”), exploration of gay life (“Howl”), rural Americana (“Winter’s Bone”), black societal struggle (“Night Catches Us”), the handicapped (“Sympathy for Delicious”) and family disintegration (“Blue Valentine”). A couple were very good indeed, some okay, a few bad enough to walk out of. Only one, it seemed to me, is so far off the grid of what is expected from a modern independent movie that it can truly be said to “rebel.”
That would be “Obselidia,” directed and written by a Scottish-born Santa Monica resident named Diane Bell. The film caught my eye from the catalogue due to the description of the female lead as “a beautiful cinema projectionist who works at a silent movie theater.” (Well, if it worked for “Inglourious Basterds,” why not?) I’m not saying that this utterly eccentric, movie-loving quasi-romance between two intellectual misfits living vastly out of their proper eras is necessarily the best film in its category; indeed, quite a few Sundancers didn’t like it much at all.
But this one was my guilty pleasure, a film out of step with current fashion, a gorgeous work in which every frame has the appearance of having been hand-crafted in an art studio. It centers on a man whose mindset is much older than his years, a fellow who, convinced the world is going to end sooner rather than later, devotes himself to collecting obsolete things and writing a compendium about them. Although he’ll use a computer in the library where he works, he won’t own one; he prefers a manual typewriter, uses a rotary phone, doesn’t drive (although he lives in Los Angeles, albeit a wonderfully unrecognizable and car-deprived version of it) and fills his home with all manner of faded or useless objects. While more of this world than he, the lady projectionist approves of his sympathies and takes him on an eventful road trip to Death Valley, a place that potentially resembles what the rest of the world will look like in future.
It’s yet another film about the coming environmental apocalypse, but without a single special effect, collapsed building or zombie-like cretin roaming the landscape. It’s all in a man’s mind, in a film temperamentally indebted to the French New Wave, Woody Allen and Robert Bresson, among others. It’s a total oddity and indisputably a rebel in its utter defiance of and, perhaps, obliviousness to, “independent cinema” as a concept and unified front.
Read previous columns at Variety.com/McCarthy