Matt’s Sundance Diary: Part Three, by Matt Warren
After four frantic days at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, I somehow managed to flee the polar blast zone of Park City—a swashbuckling escape of epic proportions.
With a single buffalo head nickel in my pocket, I hitched a ride down to Primm and conned a family band out of their VW microbus at the Whiskey Pete blackjack tables. Five hours later I was safe at home in Long Beach, bus scrubbed of fingerprints and set ablaze in a Carrow’s parking lot outside Rachco Cucamonga.
It was a busy Festival. 2016 was by far the most successful Sundance I’ve ever had in terms of sheer workload and extracurricular socializing. But it wasn’t necessarily my best movie year. In fact, other than Green Room (which I talked about in Part Two of these diaries nothing I saw this year knocked my socks off).
But I wouldn’t call 2016 a down year for Sundance. Fact is there are always a ton of movies at the Festival in equal numbers good and bad. I just happened to get a little unlucky with my ticket selection this year. It happens.
I still had a ton of fun, and I hope you enjoyed reading these dispatches in-between sips of virgin’s blood quaffed from pewter goblets or whatever it is that you guys do while you’re reading these. Now—let’s read about some movies!
First Girl I Loved
In a weird way it’s easy to chart the evolution of societal attitudes toward outsider groups simply by taking the temperature of queer films at Sundance, and the big story this year seemed to be the elevation of trans-themed films into the issue-driven programming slots once held by more mainstream gay-themed movies.
What I mean is: there were a lot of trans-themed films at SFF this year that seemed to exist solely to educate straight, cisgendered squares about what transgender is and establish a baseline degree of empathy for the trans experience.
So if the “T” in LGBT has taken over this particular programming niche, then what’s happening with quote-unquote “regular” gay-themed films? Happily, the answer is that they seem to have graduated to general interest status. Meaning that a movie with gay characters can now be about more than the simple fact of their gayness, even when sex and romance are the focus of the film’s plot.
Writer and director Kerem Sanga’s excellent debut feature First Girl I Loved is about way more than its protagonist’s sexual orientation or the gender of her love interest. Wonderfully written, shot, and acted, First Girl was easily my second-favorite film of the festival. And I’m not alone in my enthusiasm—Girl won NEXT’s Audience Award.
First Girl follows one semester in the life of Chatsworth high school student Anne (Dylan Gelula), who finds herself becoming infatuated with popular softball star Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), much to the chagrin of her male BFF, Clifford (Mateo Arias.) The love triangle spins off in odd directions, pushed in every conceivable self-defeating direction by the unsophisticated impulses of the teenaged brain.
Every high schooler in America should see this movie—gay or straight. It’s sensitive, smart, and authentic. And hopefully it can be equally instructive as a document of what not to do when faced with these situations.
In Sundance’s film program Sara Jordenö’s KIKI is described as a de facto “spiritual sequel” to Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 nonfiction classic Paris is Burning, which captured the underground “voguing” scene of 1980s New York so vividly, it remains a key reference point for anyone making a “House of ________” joke on Twitter.
I love Paris is Burning, so I was skeptical that KIKI would live up to its billing. But the movie did exactly what it said on the tin, which sparked an interesting question: is it possible to remake a documentary?
That’s pretty much what KIKI is—a circa-2015 update on how the voguing scene, now apparently called “KIKI” (though I had a hard time following the taxonomy of it all) and how it’s evolved in the 25 years since Livingston first took her cameras into the dingy Shriner’s halls of gay Harlem to document its drag balls and dance-offs.
The most interesting part of KIKI, co-directed by Twiggy Pucci Garcon—one of the film’s subjects—is both how little and how much has changed since 1990. The drag balls themselves look remarkably similar: here we are back in the same dingy VFW halls lined with cheap folding tables, surrounded by sweaty faces cheering wildly.
The dance moves and costumes are similar too: a colorful, caffeinated mix of martial seriousness crossed with exaggerated fem camp. Even the music—a nonstop treble-heavy blast of disco drum machines and cascading piano glitter—appears to have been directly transposed from the first (the very first) Bush administration.
What has evolved, however, are the KIKI participants’ own sense self-identity and confidence. Whereas Paris is Burning’s cadre of old school queens were resigned to their place on the margins of society, KIKI’s subjects assert their identity while simultaneously flexing their right to be integrated into the urban mainstream. It’s interesting stuff, and very fun to watch. I look forward to watching Part Three of this franchise in the spring of 2040.
We Are X
Have you ever heard of the Chiba-based prog band X Japan? Me neither, but there are thousands of people out there who apparently have, as the copious footage of Beatlemania-esque levels of pandemonium featured in in director Stephen Kijak’s biographical rock doc We Are X makes abundantly clear.
We Are X is little more than a supersized Behind the Music episode, but as a slick primer on one of the world’s biggest bands (who knew?), Kijak’s film functions adequately and effectively.
Formed by drummer/keyboardist/auteur “Yoshiki” and lead vocalist “Toshi” in the early 1980s, X (later rechristened “X Japan” to avoid confusion with the LA-based punk band) is according to Wikipedia “widely credited as one of the pioneers of visual kei”—essentially, the Japanese equivalent of glam.
Like I said, I’d literally never heard of this band before, so all this was news to me. And frankly, I could have used a lot more performance footage and musical clips to help contextualize what makes this particular band so special. As such, we only see X in action fleetingly, playing a wide range of rock styles ranging from Metallica thrash to Dream Theater prog to baroque, “Bat Out of Hell” piano pop.
Naturally, we get the standard procession of talking-head testimonials waxing on appreciatively about the band’s legacy influences, including interviews with Wes Borland, Richard Fortus, and Gene Simmons, among others.
I can’t stress how weird it is that I’ve never heard of this band before. I’m a hard rock/heavy metal fan, and I feel like I do a pretty good job of keeping up with the international scene. But here I sit in my round-eyed Western ignorance, totally befuddled by this enormous blind spot.
The documentary itself follows the typical VH1-approved “rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption” arc full of feuding band members, drugs, suicide, and friendship lost and found. But there’s a reason why this narrative is so satisfying, and We Are X wisely doesn’t go out of its way to break with convention.
There’s nothing unique about the movie, but for fans of X Japan or rock ‘n roll in general, We Are X is totally worth banging your head to.
That’s a wrap! All told I saw ten films at this year’s Sundance, which doesn’t match last year’s total, but comes pretty close. That’s okay. Any more would have killed me. Luckily, I have an entire year to rest and recuperate before doing it all over again.
Thanks as always for joining me for these. I love Sundance for a lot of reasons, and I’m always happy to share my Park City experiences. There’s a reason why this film festival has endured for a generation, and I’m happy to continue to be a small part of its history year after year. Now, please excuse me while I collapse from exhaustion.