Sundance 2012- Day One
I’ve never been to Cannes (too cosmopolitan), Tribeca (too East Coast-y), or Toronto (too socialist), but I have been to Sundance. A lot. Growing up a film-obsessed art dork in Park City, Sundance’s arrival every January felt almost too good to be true. Every year for ten days, my hometown suddenly became the place to be, filled with the kind of sophisticated cultural professionals—filmmakers, artists, journalists—I aspired to one day become. People I considered my peers even then, spiritually, if not practically. It was a reliably surreal experience.
For example, it’s weird to turn on the TV and see Rose McGowan leaning against your high school locker, talking to MTV about Jawbreaker. It’s weird to have the ice cream parlor where you work part-time rented out by the producers of The Eyes of Tammy Faye so you can spent the afternoon eating ice cream with RuPaul and Tammy Faye Baker. And it’s weird, in high school in Utah, to be overserved at the open bar during Opening Night festivities and go stagger down Main Street, climbing up on icy drainpipes and ripping the signage off the sides of local shops. It was weird. Fun weird, but weird.
But random acts of drunken penny-ante vandalism aside, Sundance really is all about the movies. For almost twenty years, the Festival has been the source of every one of my most cherished filmgoing experiences. Seeing The Blair Witch Project at midnight, sans context, thinking that what I was watching was real (until the shitty acting eventually tipped the film’s hand.) Waiting in line for three hours to be in the very first audience to ever see Exit Through the Gift Shop, seated directly behind Jared Leto, and directly in front of Danny Masterson and Wilder Valderama. Seeing films like Super Size Me, Primer, Napoleon Dynamite, Capturing the Friedmans, and countless others months, or even years, before the rest of the world. There’s something incredibly vital and nonpassive about watching films in a festival context, especially at Sundance. You get to be part of a nearly 1:1 dialogue with filmmakers at the very outset of their careers. And this year, my side of the conversation begins here…
Part of the Festival’s Documentary program, Ethel (co-produced by HBO) is an insider’s view of the Kennedy dynasty, as seen through the eyes of Ethel Kennedy, wife of the late RFK. Directed by Ethel and RFK’s youngest (of eleven!) daughter Rory, born six months after her father’s 1968 murder, Ethel is lively, light, and surprisingly funny—especially given how much of the film is necessarily devoted to unpacking the many tragic events to befall the Kennedy clan. The portrait of Ethel Kennedy that emerges is of plucky, upbeat woman able the weather the circus of national politics with her sense of humor (and mischief) fully in tact. Predictably, Ethel plays like a full-on love letter from Rory Kennedy to her beloved “mummy.” There are no gotcha questions or unsavory hidden dimensions on display here, and that’s okay. Fiercely intelligent, conscientious, and completely self-aware, Ethel Kennedy seems like the last person in the world to warrant a muckraking, Mike-Wallace-style ambush. Unfortunately, Ethel herself recedes into the background late in the film as Robert’s political aspirations come to the fore following the assassination of JFK, and the film skips over the 40 years since RFK’s death as if barely anything of consequence has happened in her life over the last almost half-century, but overall Ethel is a touching, insightful look at a woman who sincerely treasured her family, her faith, and her country.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild is a colorful, Cajun-flavored slice of rural folklore. Like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are meets David Gordon Green’s George Washington, Beasts tells the tale of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), an intrepid six-year-old black girl living in “the Bathtub,” an impoverished shantytown located on the wrong side of the levees in the Louisiana Delta. Cared for by her dying father, Wink (Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy’s prospects go from bad to worse when the polar ice caps melt (no, really), flooding the Bathtub and setting free a pack of giant prehistoric dinosaur pigs previously frozen inside the Antarctic glaciers (no seriously, really.) The tight-knit community rallies together in order to fight for the place they call home, threatened from the outside by government interlopers, as well as by man-eating dino hogs suddenly perched at the top of the food chain. Featuring amazing production design and an astounding cast of non-actors—special mention goes to Henry—Beasts is an ambitious, unruly gumbo of a movie that largely succeeds, even if it is a bit shaggy at times. First developed at the Sundance Institute Directors’ Labs, Beasts announces Zeitlin as one to keep an eye on. With a sharp eye for dreamlike rural lyricism, Zeitlin seems positioned to join Terrence Malick and (early) David Gordon Green as one of the premiere chroniclers of surreal, decaying Americana.