Monday, January 28, 2008

My 2008 Sundance Film Festival

I had never been to Sundance before, but a pair of my friends had shorts in the festival this year so this last weekend I went, for what could only be considered a teaser spoonful to the larger festival's double-decker cone.

Apparently all the important people, plus also Jeff Wells, had already left town making for a ski resort that was still crowded but not horrendously so, or so I was told. I was expecting a cozy, cool town like Telluride but I should have known better - Park City is closer to Aspen or Vail in Colorado, very upscale and trendy.

The first film that I saw was Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore, based on a true story about an unhealthy family of plastics heirs over the course of a few decades from the '40s to the '70s. It's not very good, featuring a half-baked script, a lack of restraint from Moore, and bland, stagy direction. The point of the film was obviously to represent a claustrophobic, overly familiar relationship between Moore and her young, cultured gay son, played by Eddie Redmayne, but the film never gets a handle on the world of its characters and never explains what point the filmmakers are going after beyond a simplistic freakshow. It wants to be Tennessee Williams, but it can't even manage to get up to the level of Jerry Springer.

After that my friend Dave Park and I were thwarted in our plan to get into a shorts program (we didn't get the ticketing procedure) and a Spanish time-travel movie (one seat shy after being on the waitlist). After we went to the closing night party, which felt like a prom, we made it to one more shorts program.

The first big surprise was that there wasn't a single film that was embarrasingly bad, as there has been in every other shorts program I've ever been to. The next, smaller surprise was that the one film in the group to receive an 'honorable mention' from the festival was the most obnoxiously quirky, Sundancey film of the bunch, called "Aquarium". Dysfunctional teens, quirky subcultures, vague stabs at deeper psychology, cute Wes Anderson stylistics, it had it all. My friend John Magary's film "The Second Line" benefitted from being shown on the big screen, which magnified its production design and settings (post-Katrina New Orleans) and deepened the tragedy of the story.

Finally the next morning, we miraculously woke up in time for a 10am screening of Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero's latest. This is yet another of the many video/reality/verite movies that are coming out now, alongside Cloverfield, Redacted, Children of Men, and their like, a 'first-person' zombie movie captured by a film student shooting at the same time that a zombie outbreak occurs. While Romero keeps hitting some of the same notes he's been hitting for the last forty years (the devaluation of human life, the collapse of the social order) his obsessions are just as relevant in the Iraq era as they were in the Vietnam era, and more importantly, he hasn't lost his sense of fun. Plenty of filmmakers critique their own practices through self-reflexive techniques and turning the camera back on the audience, but only Romero would also feature a zombie with exploding eyeballs and a half-mute Amish character. It's a smart, fun movie.

And that was it, after getting out of town just as another snowstorm was set to hit. I hope to go back again for a longer period of time, hopefully with a film of my own as the whims of the programming gods dictate.


John M said...

Mr. McMahon, it was an honor to have you there. I'm now nursing awful cold/flu-like symptoms...hope your health fared better. I respect your decision not to note that several filmmakers from the shorts program were (to quote D. Park) "half in the bag" for the Q&A.

Hopefully it's even clearer now to you that Sleep in Heavenly Peace should've been at Sundance...

And just so your readers know, JEFF IS LYING, SAVAGE GRACE IS VERY, VERY GOOD.

cjKennedy said...

Glad to get a Sundance perspective from someone other than Jeff Wells.

Wells and the jaded types like him make Sundance and all festivals sound horrid. I aim to find out for myself next year.

Jeff McMahon said...

John, I'm perfectly healthy, and I would never criticize anyone for being 'half in the bag' when I was probably a third there myself.

I'd love it if you could write a defense of Savage Grace, especially since it seemed to me to be so obviously - I mean, no question about it - not very good. Come on, be the Roeper to my Ebert.

CJK, it and all festivals are what you make them. Go in excited and looking for some cool new films and you'll have fun. Approach it like a job and a burden and it'll get old fast. No surprise that the most relentlessly negative, cranky personality online would have problems.

glimmer said...

a couple more of the reality/cam movies get mentioned..

i was really hoping saving grace would be good. guess i'll give it chance. uh if i ever get the chance...